American indie rock band Manchester Orchestra are on the cusp of releasing their 5th studio album, A Black Mile To The Surface. OLIVIA SENIOR called guitarist-singer-songwriter Andy Hull as he’s sipping on a beer somewhere in the US for chat about the creation of the new release and his achievements in the music industry.
A Black Mile To The Surface, is your fifth album, congratulations!
Thank you so much.
I can imagine it would feel like a big weight lifted off your shoulders, what does it feel like letting it go into the world?
It feels really good! I mean I feel like once the first song came out I was able to believe that it was finished. We spent such a long time making it that once people heard it and they didn’t just cry, you know outrage, I was like alright, it’s fine, it’s done! Because towards the end of working on something like that for so long your brain just gets all weird and you start to doubt everything. It was great, it was like hearing all the people I trust tell me it was great. I still didn’t believe anybody but I’m starting to be happy about it.
I spent the night listening to Mean Everything To Nothing.
Oh yes, very angsty album, a lot of grit on there.
I have also been listening to Simple Math and I was given the privilege to listen to the latest one. I think they are all so very authentic and your music has this contrast of being so very powerful whilst also being delicate. After all your experience, how do you think you achieve this contrast?
A lot of just banging our heads against a wall. Trying to find something that’s inspiring and making us feel like we aren’t repeating ourselves. For this record in particular especially being a fifth record, I mean we didn’t take that lightly, and we wanted a new idea, a new fresh start. For this record the idea was whatever your first instinct would be to do, don’t do that, find another way and reverse engineer how we can get there. And then it was how do we make something that’s like, really heavy, and hits you in your heart and is soulful, but is it relying on the tools we had used previously, super loud guitars, screaming at times, breaking up vocals, how do we still find that place that’s hitting you as a listener and as the creators of it, in a new way? So that was sort of a mission to take on for this record.
I really loved the whole album and I agree I think you’ve really stripped back and your lovely vocals shine through, I guess you could say it’s not as ‘Manchester’ as your older stuff, is that just from your experience and maturity?
I guess so, I hope so. I think it was about leaving space, that was a big part of it, leaving air in the song and then using the openness to sort of create sonic landscapes or sound design almost; how does it sound? This song takes place in our mind in a place that’s raining, how does that song sound like that? A big thing we talked about with this record was that you were meant to feel like you were in a house and you’re walking from room to room, and each song is a different room in the house but they’re all connected. I think as far as the vocal side, that probably has come with age and security. I think it’s three or four years ago I finally got comfortable with the idea of my voice, of using it you know in a pretty way and being ok with trying to connect with that feeling instead of more of an angsty feeling when it came to louder sections. So yeah, that was a new idea. How do we pair up things we haven’t paired up before? Treat this thing completely different. A big part of it too had to do with Robert, the lead guitar player, keyboard playing in the band and engineer, and I had scored this movie Swiss Army Man in 2016 that took like 13 months to make and we weren’t allowed to use any instruments on it, it was just all my voice, for the whole thing, so it was like hundreds of voices stacked on top of each other and kind of inventing this weird sub-culture of acapella genre that didn’t exist, and that just changed the rule book for us. We sort of tried to apply that idea from everything from lyrics down to what parts were in the song. There was a tonne of investigation as well, we were making the record and we recorded a bunch of stuff, then we would go in and just pick only the important things that were making us feel special about the song. Our rule was we needed to be jumping up and down, we needed to be getting the jumping up and down moment of the song and it took like four-and-a-half months for us to get one of them, and then that was even more daunting because it was; ‘alright it is possible’, now we have to find it for all the other ones. A bit long winded but I think that hopefully makes sense.
Have you learnt something new about yourself in this crazy process?
I learned I was still a crazy person when it came to making records, totally intense. However I live a pretty normal life outside the band and it’d been a minute since we’d been in sort of that high pressure situation of being in a nice studio, and here we go, and you know it’s time, it’s costing this each day, lots of walking around in the lounge downstairs while we were trying to find something wrong with the gear so we’d get a break, saying out loud “well the crazy dude is still there Andy”, he didn’t go anywhere he was just sleeping for like three years. But yeah, it’s an obsessive, probably unhealthy mental place to be but you sort of have to force yourself to be there in order to get results that feel like you’ve experienced and flipped over every stone, and tried to find the best possible solution or mixture of the song.
Lots of people would think being in a band for so long would be the most amazing thing ever, which I’m sure it is, but it would certainly have its strains. Your former drummer Jeremiah Edmond left the band in 2010 for family and other commitments, Jonathan Corley in 2013 and then keyboardist Chris Freeman in 2016. You’re married and you have a family… has the rock n roll lifestyle ever made you want to take a break and has it ever caused you problems that were almost too hard to overcome?
Only in the early days and I think you can hear it, Mean Everything To Nothing, that’s certainly a record that was written by a kid who’s 22/ 21 years old and is getting all this acclaim and interest in what he’s doing and pressure, because along with that comes pressure and expectations. I was very fortunate to have a lot of great people around me and a great family to just kind of go ‘ok it’s time just come back down to earth’. It only lasted six months to a year of just loosing my mind fully, but I’ve never liked that stuff, that’s never ever been a part of why I’ve done this. I’m not a fan of the bullshit, it’s just all bullshit that comes along with it. I really love making really great records as best I can and playing music for people who really love it, that’s the most important part to me, to continue challenging myself and to have a job where I’m paid to push forward and evolve. I mean I’v I started this band in 2003, I just turned 30 in November so pretty soon it’ll be like half of my life, essentially half of my life has been in this band so I don’t really look at it like that, I look at the band like I look at my life. I want to continue to evolve, push and be better, learn and grow, so I think it’ll be different if I was just phony’ing albums and just kind of letting them be for the sake of being.
How do you keep up this never ending momentum you so powerfully convey?
Not easily you know, with a tone of self-doubt and struggle. I remember us working on this, I looked at Robert at one point, it was like four months in and I said if people don’t like this thing I just don’t know what I’m going to do, if this is canned it will just be heart breaking because we’ve just put as much blood sweat and tears into it as possible. It’s the challenge that’s interesting to me and I feel really proud of every album we have released and I’m not ashamed of anything that we’ve put out and there’s nothing we’ve done were I’m like ‘ehh that’s embarrassing’, and so there’s a sense of pride there. I don’t wanna mess up my discography of albums I wanna keep pushing forward. And if the day comes where that isn’t there and there isn’t that gas in the tank, I would much rather stop doing it and let it be for what it was then to keep doing it.
Well you’ve also created side-projects for yourself which would probably keep the momentum up as well
Yeah, it’s helpful.
Your solo one Right Away, Great Captain?
Yes! Wow, you’re digging deep, that’s impressive!
It was three conceptual records focusing on a 17th Century sailor, what inspired that idea?
Isolation, originally it was isolation. It was being 18/ 19-years-old and being on the road for 250 shows a year, so you’re gone 300 plus days a year for years in a row. I sort of loved this idea of going into somebody else’s mind and doing research of about what that would be like and learning all these things and being inspired, I don’t know I freak myself out I was able to do so much of that stuff so early, creatively I was tapped into another place that was a lot easier to go to because it was so innocent. Now it’s all comparison to past work so it’s like ‘I don’t wanna do that because I’ve done that, what’s the point of doing that again?’ The whole idea should be that we never repeating ourselves in any way. But the side projects I was really fortunate to have shows in a side project that was pretty folk music, because I think it could have gone a different way if I had chosen another genre, who knows, there are a lot of weird side-projects out there.
You’ve also formed another band called Bad Books, how much has your relationship with Kevin Devine influenced you over the years?
Massively, he’s my top three people on earth, and we speak daily and I was very fortunate to meet him. He had been releasing records longer than we had but hadn’t toured like a tonne, and we basically, the two of us, started our whole touring crazy life at the same time right about the time that we met. He’s everything from accountability to inspiration, we talked each other of he ledge, we encourage and love on each other. It’s one of the best friendships and connections that I’ve got, very grateful for him.
You started writing back in high-school and you wrote an entire album whilst studying during your last year of high-school which is crazy, am I right? Back in 2004?
Yes, which is funny like I’m totally not trying to brag but this always happens to me, I end up saying one sentence and then it makes me sound like an asshole! I wish people could read how I’m saying it! But back during high-school I was writing albums all the time but that was sort of the first album where there was a producer and it was like collage, it was going and learning the very basics of how to put together a full band Manchester album, which is what I’d end up doing, you know, forever! So yeah, like I was saying it was sort of such a prolific time, there were nights where I would be like ‘I’m going to write our bass player an album’ and write him an album in one night because I was just full of lyrics and teenage rage or something I don’t know!
If that little dude could see you now, how would he react? Do you think he’d ever believe you’d be this successful?
I don’t know, probably, I guess I would really hope. I have had so many opportunities and experiences in my life that I can for sure say I never thought would happen. I was actually talking about it to my brother the other night, because when we scored that movie, it premiered at Sundance at this full sold-out theatre. Daniel Radcliffe was singing songs that we wrote, you know, in Atlanta, on screen! And just these moments of ‘what the hell is happening, we shouldn’t be here’, that kind of stuff, you know people are like ‘yea people really love your band and you have a solid following and we’re really excited for your fifth album’, I guess yeah, I would be very happy about that, so that’s really good!
Did you enjoy film scoring? Did you that influence the process for this next album?
Oh yeah, massively for sure. I think because we had such restraints on us the score was just voices and having to learn how to create emotion without using words. You know the tools you know we would use, if there was something sad we would then play an E minor on an acoustic guitar with this little cord progression, that would be the way we would get there. This was like throw all of that out and find a new way to do it. It made a big influence for us trying to kind of make two albums with this ‘Black Mile’ record, you know first is the songs, make sure the songs are there and the structure and the lyrics are all right. Then it was like how do we connect this thing to make it seem like you’re in this full experience, it’s all connected, how do we get there?
And I know it might be a bit early, but what’s next on the cards for you for you?
Well it’s funny I think right when I finally started to jump up and down to all of the songs, I had a moment where I realised that we’ve been working on this, the analogy I use; we’ve been working on this lock for like seven months on this door trying to get this thing open, and we finally tweak the key the right way, bam we’re in. And I felt like we opened it and there was just another door with a larger lock’, hahaha. I was like shit I’m going to have to be doing this be for the rest of my life trying to one up myself, find inspiration. I have no idea; I mean I have a tonne of ideas in my brain of things I want to try. The way that we did this album set a bar, it set a bar for us to now go and try and find something cooler.
Great! Will you be coming to Australia anytime soon? I saw that you’re doing an American tour.
Yes, I’m pretty sure we’re coming in the first two months of next year that’s the hopeful plan.