Manchester Orchestra On Learning To “Embrace The Weird”

Manchester Orchestra are no strangers to personnel changes. Following the departure of keyboard player Chris Freeman in 2016, the US fourpiece’s current lineup contains just two original band members. Still, for those who know long-time vocalist and principle songwriter Andy Hull and lead guitarist Robert McDowell, it should come as no surprise that they have continued to embrace change, whether it’s through exploring different sounds or losing and gaining new members of the band.

After four incredible albums, Hull and McDowell decided to get away from the write and release routine of music making and got involved in creating the soundtrack to the 2016 comedy/drama Swiss Army Man starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. The process was one of education for Manchester Orchestra and one that left them with a new outlook on the production of their new album.

A Black Mile To The Surface is out on July 28th, and ahead of its release, we caught up with Andy Hull to chat about the changing dynamics within the band, working on Swiss Army Man and avoiding musical repetition.

Music Feeds: Your new album A Black Mile To The Surface is out this month. Is the build up to the release just as exciting as ever or do you kind of get used to the process?

Andy Hull: I’m really excited about it. I’m not as manically terrified as I probably was when I was a younger kid. I feel like we put so much pressure on ourselves when making the album that when it’s finally finished and the reactions to the first song were really great, then I can finally just breathe. You get so close to it, and it’s a little bit unnerving at times and stressful, being five or six months into a record.

MF: Does the process get easier for each album or harder because you’re looking to do something different each time?

AH: It gets harder and harder, because with the first couple of records that you do there’s a lot of adrenaline and youth in it, and there’s also doing what feels comfortable and new to you at that time. I’ve always just had an issue with repeating myself, and I don’t want to do the same thing. In ways making records is easier because we know what we’re doing – far more than we did 10 years ago, but that also makes it harder because where we’re shooting for and where we’re aiming is unattainable because it’s unseen. We just try to get it as far as it can possibly be.

MF: Where did the inspiration for the sound on this record come from?

AH: I’d certainly say that the album is about family, from every angle. It’s about the cyclical nature of family, and that was inspired by having my first child and understanding about how my self-importance is going away. My job in life changed and that inspired me a tonne, just being able to look at things differently. Usually, with songwriting, you’re baring everything you know and talking about everything you know at the time. You have to live some life and build up that stuff again to find inspiration for it.

As far as bands go, I really tried to not listen to a tonne of other stuff outside of hip hop because hip hop can take you out into another place and you can be really happy there. I think when the Bon Iver record came out I couldn’t listen to the whole thing right away because I was writing at the time and he makes “holy shit” records and obviously “holy shit moments”. But when I finally did listen to it I felt right about my instincts and when I did it felt great, to just embrace the moment and embrace the weird; the thing that is most uncomfortable.

MF: Tell us about how the pretty surreal video for ‘The Gold’ came about?

AH: Well we did this movie last year called Swiss Army Man with a directing team called the Daniels and those guys made the music video for ‘Simple Math’ all those years ago and we’re really good friends with them. We worked with them for over a year on the Swiss Army Man thing and just got even closer. They’re similar to Robert and I, in that they like a challenge, so we asked them to not only do a music video but to be the creative directors for all of the visuals of the album. All of these music videos and all the photos and artwork – they were really pumped about it. They brought in all these other geniuses from their swarm of people that they hang with and create with, in LA. Robert from our band had the idea – he didn’t want the first video to be super-narrative. He wanted it to be something that people watch and be challenged by it, but at the same time for it not to be super distracting. So we asked them to do it and six days later that’s what came out.

MF: Do you think you took a lot from scoring the music for Swiss Army Man, from that process, into creating A Black Mile To The Surface?

AH: It certainly did. It really did feel like school. We knew we had the ability but it was a new sandbox we were playing in, and with the score for the film we weren’t allowed to use the instruments, so that was a massive handicap in terms of what we’re comfortable with. What we did learn is that minimalism is powerful. We knew that, but we learnt to commit to stuff like that. Not that the new record is minimalist, well it is in some parts, but we learnt about the sound of minimalism. I think ultimately that meant, ‘how do we find a way, sonically, to branch into a different place?’

It was intentional to try to create something that felt inspiring for us and different. It made us realise we could create songs that were 25 seconds long and it was about utilising the empty space that was there. So for us, we wanted to do things like, if there was a typical outro to a song, to try to make that arguably the coolest part of the song. It was really just paying attention to every single part. With Swiss Army Man there was a lot of adding and subtracting, making it sound bigger or drunker or sadder or happier. We took that experimentation we did with the movie and applied that to the album. Also the vocal process, we used thousands of my vocals stacked up on top of each other for the film so I felt comfortable making my voice quite present on this record.

MF: Chris Freeman left the band at the back end of last year, not an unfamiliar transition for you guys. What sort of impact did that have on the process leading up to the creation of this album?

AH: It changed in that it freed up Robert and I to dig really deep into keyboard world, and take what we’d learned from making the film to then just spend hours trying new keyboard sounds that we hadn’t heard before. That was something we had done before on previous records, but we tried to have respect for that position, for him. So, once that went away there was a bit of a “holy shit” moment where we realised we could really focus on this, especially because I wasn’t that interested in having a thrashing guitar record this time around.

MF: Can we expect to see you in Australia anytime soon?

AH: Oh yes, we always come back, we always come back. I think we’re planning something in the first few months of next year if all goes to plan. It’s one of our favourite places in the whole world and we wouldn’t dare not come back.

‘A Black Mile To The Surface’ is out July 28th

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