For too long, Manchester Orchestra have been one of the best-kept secrets of the American alternative music world. Fusing darkly heavy guitars with haunting, folky harmonies reminiscent of Fleet Foxes and Half Moon Run, the band has been steadily amassing a loyal following over the course of their increasingly cinematic records. Having just released their newest (and in our opinion, best) LP ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’ recently, we took some time to chat to frontman Andy Hull about fatherhood, writing film scores and what the hell to do when your kid grows up.
Hey Andy, where am I catching you from today?
I’m home for a couple of days which is nice, and then I’m heading to L.A. on Sunday for a few days of press and a show.
Nice. Obviously, you guys are about to get busy with the record about to drop, as well as lots of film work going on. When you have that rare time off, what do you fill it with?
We try and make it a point to be creating something musical any day that we have off. We have our studio which is only a mile or so away from where most of us live, so, for instance, today we were in there working on some covers. A lot of stuff that we do never comes out but it keeps us sharp. Other than that I just try to hang out with my wife and my daughter before things get too crazy.
Picking up on the fact that you guys always try to create things, is it difficult getting into the Manchester Orchestra mindset when there are so many other things going on for you guys?
I think so! In order to get into the mindset, we have to really go away to write and really be selfish about the songs and focus. We just hold each record in such a high level of respect, and we want to try and give it the right amount of attention it deserves. When we are going, all this creating or covering or scoring or whatever, I always try and just try to look at it as sharpening our tools and preparing us for the next Manchester record to try and use all the things we’ve learnt since the last one.
So does that mean that you feel more pressure doing Manchester Orchestra stuff than doing a movie score?
Movie scores are probably the same. I really didn’t wanna screw that one up, and it was a 13-month process working on it so it was all pretty nuts. Certainly, doing cover songs and side-project stuff felt more relaxed than Manchester records because Manchester records feel really intense for a really long period of time. There’s lots of fun in there but it’s intense.
Do you guys struggle to let go of songs? What makes that process so full on?
I always search to make the songs as great as they can be, and we are all incredibly hard on ourselves and very honest. We have no problem letting go of songs- we are always like “fuck it, throw it away.” That’s what takes us so long. We spend five to six months, especially with this record more so than ever, saying “this isn’t good enough yet, this isn’t good enough yet,” always thinking how to get it to be awesome. The rule with this record was that unless we are jumping up and down over every single song and every part of every song, then it won’t be coming out.
It took about four and a half months to happen for the first song, which was The Moth, but once we got there with that song we had added this weird Casio piano guitar, as well as this acoustic so we blended them together and it gave everything this certain feeling that we had been searching for. That was when we started jumping up and down, and that was when I was like “well shit, we know that it’s possible to do that, we just have to do it 10 more times.” We just didn’t want things to sound standard rock. We wanted to sound really huge but we didn’t want it all to sound like anything we had done before as far as the bigness went. We recorded ‘The Moth’ live several different times, and the first version of it could definitely have been on ‘Cope.’ We just went into our comfort zone where everything should land. So, we peeled everything back and said “No we want it to sound like a bank heist or some shit. We want it to be like someone robbing a bank and running through the night”.
So it sounds like there is a very cinematic mindset in terms of approach with this record?
I think we were looking for atmosphere. Scoring ‘Swiss Army Man’ [great film – Ed] the year before taught us to do things for a reason. That taught us to think in terms of ‘how do you make a song sound like it’s raining outside without putting rain in? How do you make it sound like you’re standing in the middle of this huge canyon?’ So, we approached every song like that so it sounds like you walk into a house and every song is a different room with a different atmosphere. I guess, earning that skillset from a movie makes it very cinematic.
Working on ‘Swiss Army Man’, what did that teach you about writing that you didn’t realise beforehand?
It taught me that 15 seconds of time is enough to rip your heart out. That move was all about creating these very tiny moments with the scenes. Once I realised that it gave ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’ this whole secondary side that we had to create. You have the songs but then an outro for instance, if it’s 25 seconds long before I would have thought to just play it as it is, but this time around I thought “How do I make the outro another song or an interesting song?” So, songs like ‘The Alien’, that was a very simple verse, chorus, verse, chorus end, but I had this outro that I just dove into my brain to try and figure out how to make it a whole other experience. We tried to do that with every part of the record, every second we wanted it to be full.
Well, ‘The Alien’ was the one that I definitely connected with the most. What room does that represent in the album’s house? What other tunes do you connect with emotionally?
I don’t have a favourite because to me it’s a full listening experience. ‘The Alien’ though, it’s the beginning of the second act of the album. You have the first four tracks setting a light and dark theme, and then ‘The Alien’ starts more of a narrative side. The record for me is about family and the circle of life, as well as the importance that your parents have on you and your grandparents have and all. Now being a father, I have to think what I can pass onto my daughter and how I’m no longer the most important person in my life. ‘The Alien’ was a story about an abused boy who’s grown into a man and has to deal with a lot of the decisions that have been made, before making a poor decision himself.
With the concept of the record, every single song starts with the term ‘The’. Was there any thought behind that per say?
I first started figuring out the idea of what the record would be when I realised it was going to be like an album version of ‘Fargo’. [Also a great movie/show – Ed]. A sort of winter desolate, dark sound. Then I realised I didn’t wanna dive super deeply into a concept record, but I wanted to have a more personal record and have it be my experiences over the last several years to be a really big part of it. The only song that isn’t listed as a ‘The’ is ‘Lead, South Dakota’, and that was a town that I sort of put a lot of the characters in. That was the landscape that I was writing those songs in. I also really like stuff like that. I remember thinking one night that all the song titles were super short so it wasn’t difficult to transition them into ‘The’ or whatever it was. I just thought ‘Am I the only guy that does this?’ But then fuck it! I like that kind of stuff! I knew I was on the right track when Kendrick Lamar released his record like a month before we released ours and every song on his record was one word.
Something I read in an interview with you was that the challenge with writing this record because you were in a place of happiness. The record still sounds so dark, however. Do you just naturally write dark tunes?
Yeah, I totally naturally write dark stuff. Musicians get beaten over the head for that way more than directors would. No-one would ever call Paul Thomas-Anderson an emo director. Everything he’s done is dark as shit. I just look at myself more as a writer and a story-teller and it was super important to me to do that. The most important thing for me was to get away from family and the comfort of being able to leave the studio and be home in five minutes because I want to be an awesome Dad. I will be so tempted if we’re working on something and my wife needs help to just drop everything and go help. So what we needed was to go some place several hours away on top of a mountain and not be able to do that and just focus on the record and what the music we were making was. I realised that earlier in my career I used so much of what was happening as an outlet, but it’s becoming more observational now. It helps me process things. I started realising heavy depths of what fatherhood meant beyond having a 6-month old and one day having a grown up as my child and thinking what I can do to make sure I don’t screw that up. A lot of the record has ended up being about my family and my daughter, even though I went away to write it. There are these folds of family in everything. The songs ‘The Sunshine’ and ‘The Maze’ might be two of the happiest songs that I’ve ever written. We’re getting into some happier territory.
Manchester Orchestra’s new album, ‘A Black Mile To Surface’, is out now. Grab it here!