Manchester Orchestra: Stick to the Strange
Five albums in, Atlanta’s finest talk creativity, comfort zones and Kanye.
Five albums in, Atlanta’s finest talk creativity, comfort zones and Kanye.
By Rob Barbour
It’s early June in North London. While an approaching heatwave hasn’t yet consumed the capital, The Lexington (capacity: 200, apparent attendance: 20,000) is nonetheless sweltering. Bursts of fresh air are in supply as short as space on the floor, and all of us here are experiencing that unique discomfort that results from feeling individual beads of sweat form on your neck, before making their way slowly down your back.
But when Andy Hull opens his mouth to sing, the room falls so quiet that you’d swear you can hear those beads hitting the ground.
In fact, he and guitarist Robert McDowell are treated with such reverence that even the crowd’s applause is restrained, lest it ruin the vibe. Two songs in, the frontman addresses the crowd for the first time:
“I’ve got to lighten the mood between songs,” he says with a smile. “Otherwise this shit gets depressing as hell.”
Two days later, Hull and McDowell are sat outside a coffee shop around the corner from The Lexington. Adopting a truly British style for his last day in the country – shorts and sandals that are in no way justified by the inclement weather – Hull is enjoying an al fresco breakfast of coffee and croissants, which he immediately disregards when given the chance to talk about the band’s new album.
The performance persona that Hull presents – fragile but furious; hurting but able to hurt – stands in stark contrast to the disarmingly cheerful man by whom I’m greeted today. In the ten years between the release of Manchester Orchestra’s debut album and their latest, A Black Mile To The Surface, Andy Hull has become a changed man. But then, MO never were a band satisfied with maintaining their status quo.
“There was an element of learning how to write as a happy man who’s extremely overwhelmed with love,” the frontman agrees. “But there’s also a darkness to being a dad, and realising that you’ve brought this kid into the world. This world is tough.”
A tender masterpiece, Black Mile… is unlike anything Manchester Orchestra have produced thus far. Or rather, it’s unlike any individual album they’ve made. Its DNA can be traced back through their previous releases – the late-period emo of Like A Virgin Losing A Child, the heartbroken rock’n’roll of Mean Everything To Nothing, the melodic patchwork of Simple Math, and the huge, drop-d radio rock anthems of their last ‘proper’ album, 2014’s Cope.
“Drop-C Sharp!” Hull quickly corrects me, laughing.
Cope was swiftly followed by Hope, an acoustic reimagining of its almost-namesake, and it’s from this album that the path to Black Mile can be traced. The twin albums distilled the two extremes of the band’s sound. It was, he explains, a swansong of sorts.
“Hope and Cope was the final exercise in Phase Whatever of Manchester Orchestra. It was like, ‘Let’s do everything we know how to do, and try to do it to the best of our abilities.’ But it also felt like, once we’d finished that, it was even more challenging. We’d done all the stuff we knew how to do.”
Creatively drained and fearing stagnation, Hull and McDowell needed a new challenge. One that forced them to look beyond their usual boundaries, and to approach songwriting in an entirely new way.
“That’s where the movie score came in.”
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinart – AKA the syntactically frustrating ‘Daniels’ – are the directors responsible for creating the evocative video which went with Simple Math’s title track. An artistic endeavour which transcended genre – and even, arguably, the profile of Manchester Orchestra themselves – the widely-shared video shows Hull singing in an endless tumble, having spun his car off the road.
So successful was this collaboration that when Daniels came to make their feature-film debut – the bizarre, critically-acclaimed Swiss Army Man, starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe – they turned to Hull and McDowell to provide the soundtrack. With one very important caveat:
“They asked us to make something without any instruments. Just our voice.”
“We did not know what the genre was at the time,” McDowell adds. “They just handcuffed our hands behind our back and said, ‘Go for it!’”
“We’d done the song ‘See It Again’ on Cope that was all acapella,” adds Hull, explaining that the track was the eventual culmination of something the duo had been attempting for years.
“I remember when we were kids – 16 and 14 – we tried to do something without instruments. And it went terribly! Ten, twelve years later, we just started to figure out this new genre that we were creating. We obviously couldn’t make a doo-wop acapella record. We didn’t think that would be very cool. So we got really into weird effects, and trying to find pedals and studio tricks that could make a voice not sound like a voice.”
Indeed, the initial creative process for A Black Mile To The Surface largely involved the band using studio trickery to find ways to warp and mask the sounds of all their instruments, in order to untap a new vein of creative form.
“We had to fight our comfort zone a lot on this new record,” Hull explains. “We love crunchy, big guitars – that is my favourite thing ever. I just love that thing. But we knew that wasn’t going to scratch the itch we needed.”
This desire to turn their backs on a large part of what they’re known for was made easier by Manchester Orchestra’s refusal to conform to generic expectations. In my experience, someone who likes the band is just as likely to be into pop-punk, emo and hardcore as they are bands who compliment MO’s more indie-centric tendencies: Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse. It might be a predictor for which albums those fans prefer, but Manchester Orchestra aren’t part of any particular scene.
“We never wanted to be defined by any type of genre,” Hull agrees. “Especially because we never considered ourselves anything other than just a band that’s trying to push ourselves. Cope, we wanted to be a rock band. I don’t know what kinda band we wanted to be on this record, but we knew it had to be a next-step.”
Manchester Orchestra have always been an intensely melodic band. Even at their heaviest – the no-frills hard rock climax of ‘Shake It Out’; the emotional tsunami of ‘Where Have You Been’; virtually all of Cope – Hull’s distinctive voice smooths the music’s edges. But A Black Mile… eschews almost all of the trappings of ‘rock music’.
“Making this new record was just a lesson in not repeating ourselves. In finding new, alternative methods of creating the heaviness and darkness that we really love in our songs, without the Drop-C sharp and without the crunchy guitars.”
Hull smiles the broad grin of a man who’s just put a marathon behind him.
“And it was really, really difficult!”
Having already established that this project was going to take the band out of their comfort zone and as far as possible away from their normality, it’s little surprise that the parallels drawn by the two men in discussing the new album come from outside of our world. Way outside.
“This is going to sound so pretentious, but I think it’s like what Kanye did. It’s what he does. He consistently forces himself to do something really different and challenging.”
As we talk, it’s Hull who handles the majority of the questions, eyes lighting up as he’s quizzed on the new album, animated and enthusiastic. The croissant is long-abandoned as Hull waxes passionate on the process leading to the production of the new album.
McDowell – perhaps used to playing second fiddle – seems happy to mostly listen, occasionally chiming in with his take, or to fill in the blanks when Hull forgets the name of a piece of equipment. As one of them speaks, the other will reach over and adjust my voice recorder so it’s pointing at the right person. They continue this polite (and helpful) dance throughout our conversation. Their dynamic is unmistakably that of lifelong collaborators.
But it was learning to work better with people outside of this tightly-wound unit that proved to be the key to unlocking their creative potential. And once again, there’s inspiration drawn from everyone’s favourite interrupter of acceptance speeches.
“Y’know, the worst part of the new Kanye record is Kanye. Because the other thing he does that’s genius is bring in so many amazing people, he’s tapping their resources and going, ‘How do you do this?’”
For the first time in their career, Manchester Orchestra approached the recording of an album not as a the documentation of an already-complete work, but as a starting point. As something to be improved upon by outside influence.
“We over-demoed on Cope. We recorded the songs almost fully, and then we had to record them again. And that was tough, because it was less inspiring. You don’t have that feeling of ‘Oh shit! It’s happening! It sounds great!’ We didn’t wanna do that again.”
The majority of the production on Black Mile was handled by Catherine Marks, a protege of legendary producers Alan Moulder and the mononymous Flood. Hull explains that Marks won the band over with her vision for the album, which chimed strongly with the band’s desire to do something out of the ordinary. Working on Swiss Army Man clearly had a lasting effect on Manchester Orchestra, as leftfield cinematic references seem to be the order of the day.
“I was calling it ‘Fargo: The Album’ and before Catherine had even heard that, she said ‘This sounds like Twin Peaks: The Album’.” His eyes light up again.
“I was like, ‘that’s even better!’”
Marks’ concept for the album has the listener walking around a house, with each song representing a different room. As soon as he heard this idea, Hull was sold. And that concept soon became more literal than the band could have imagined; with recording sessions being split between the grand environs of Echo Mountain studio – “it’s an old church from the 1900s, with these massive ceilings” and at MO’s nearby HQ, the rooms in which the songs were recorded contributed critical elements to their sound.
This is most noticeable on the delicate ‘The Parts’, an ode to Hull’s wife which manages to deploy the lyric “Yellow SUV/Britney Spears on the ceiling” without sounding anything less than beautiful. It’s drenched in the roomy reverb you might hear when singing in the shower – and that’s because, well, that’s exactly what you’re hearing.
“They just set up their mics for me in the bathroom, and I was standing there in a bathtub. No amplification at all, no headphones. I just played the tune, and you can really feel that.”
The process taught the duo to work in ways that youthful arrogance might not have previously allowed. Arriving at an understanding that – in Hull’s words – “it’s OK to not be the smartest person in the room.
“There’s a certain preciousness in youth,” he adds. “If I’m not the one that’s making this decision, then it’s not the right thing to do. Just getting old – and wiser, hopefully! – has helped me realise that there are lots of smart people who hear things differently.”
Rather than fight their instincts on the fly – “let’s add, let’s add, let’s add” – the band would record everything they wanted and then remove elements to deconstruct the songs. One of the most effective examples is ‘The Wolf’ whose spacious drums and gently ascending guitars merely imply heaviness.
Hull and McDowell smile when I tell them it’s my favourite song on the album, precisely due to its stripped-back, space-rock feel.
“There were 30 guitars on that song at one point.”
“That was a Cope song.”
“And even now, I listen to it and I’m like, ‘There should be a fuckin’ ripping guitar!’ But I”m glad there isn’t. Because that’s what we wanted to do: something different.”
That huge smile appears again.
“Stick to the strange.”
A Black Mile To The Surface marks not just Manchester Orchestra’s emergence from a creative cul-de-sac, but also Hull’s first record since becoming a father (to three-year-old Mayzie). Subsequently, it also represents his rediscovery of himself as a songwriter.
I wasn’t prepared for was the ease with which Hull will just drop into his own lyrics, matter-of-factly, mid-flow. It only serves to emphasise the apparent ease with which the singer can come up with – and dispose of – songs that a thousand Ed Sheerans would kill for.
“I wrote a lyric that didn’t make it onto the record. I wrote it before Mayzie was born – the line was, ‘Pretty soon you’ll be miserable too/It’s the condition of modern man.’ And that’s the terrible and the beautiful part of life. Here you are, I’m here for you. I cannot fix everything for you, but I do love you.’
One lyric that Mayzie inspired which did make it onto the album was opener ‘The Maze’, a deeply personal song that was never even meant for Manchester Orchestra. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of the album itself: inspired by Hull’s fatherhood, and completed by his willingness to allow others into the band’s creative process.
“It was just a lullaby I wrote for her when she was two months old. I thought it was a cool way to, y’know – Mayzie – Maze – Amazing. I just thought it was a nice little thing. I was sitting there, thinking ‘What is she thinking about me?’ And what she’s thinking is – ‘Trying to decide if I’ll bother with you/Feed me your wisdom, give me your truth.’ Y’know. ‘I’m amazing!’ I never anticipated that song to be on a Manchester record.”
But then co-producer John Congleton put a sequencer part on the song, inspiring a climactic end-section and hook (Hull: “A lightbulb went off above my head, like ‘That’s what we were looking for!’”) and an album opener was born.
The theme of life’s simultaneous terror and beauty, put in such sharp focus by his daughter’s birth, also provided Hull with the inspiration he needed to operate without the band’s usual dynamic contrasts.
“That’s where I was able to find the heaviness and the intriguing lightness/darkness, whatever that thing is that has inspired me before. From her.”
That darkness allowed the songwriter to mine a seam of angst that wouldn’t otherwise have been there; ironically, precisely because of the existence of the tiny person so inspiring to him in other ways.
“When I’m writing from another person’s perspective, that I’ve created, it allows me to say things that I don’t think I would say as a happy, calm Dad. But when I go into this other world, there’s more freedom.”
If Manchester Orchestra’s goal was to create ways of expressing their usual musical dynamic without relying on their usual tools, they’ve managed it with aplomb. A Black Mile To The Surface is a remarkable achievement. Not a track out of place, facilitating a wonderful journey through story and metaphor, it nevertheless feels like the most brutally honest thing Andy Hull has ever put his name to.
Having learned to work without instruments, and then with instruments but without their traditional sonic palette, is this how Manchester Orchestra will continue to work? It seems not.
“It’ll be about finding something even more different,” Hull explains.
“We’ll use the tools that we gained from this, but we’ll take the bar, set it somewhere…and then kill ourselves trying to find it!”
And if that means having to strip back their songs and remove even more drum parts, at least they can always sell their off-cuts to Kanye.
“I mean, look. He was a big part of it.” Hull smiles. “Off the record.”
A Black Mile To The Surface is out now on Loma Vista Recordings.