For the past 15 years, Manchester Orchestra has been one of the most popular emo bands on the planet. The one person who has been there every step of the way is founding singer-songwriter Andy Hull, who started the band when he was in his teens and has charted his own growing-up process with each album.
Manchester Orchestra has also matured a lot over the years, evolving from an intense and volatile post-hardcore outfit on albums like 2009’s Mean Everything To Nothing to the expansive and philosophical indie rock of their latest, The Million Masks Of God, which drops next week. Along the way, they’ve managed to somehow grow their audience while retaining committed fans who connected with the early records as teenagers, including famous acolytes like Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker.
“Even though everything did well at that time, it wasn’t really accepted by critics and ‘cool’ people,” Hull recently mused about his back catalogue, “and that totally worked in our favor, because it still holds up. It sounds, to me, pretty timeless.”
That doesn’t mean those albums were easy to make. Ahead of the release of The Million Masks Of God, a song cycle inspired by the death of guitarist Robert McDowell’s father, Hull reflected on every Manchester Orchestra LP, candidly breaking down the myriad fascinating dramas that marked the process of making each record.
I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child (2006)
Obviously the first thing I remember about that record is how young I was. My voice, when I listen back to that record, I can just hear the youth. My voice actually hadn’t fully changed yet. I just sound really youthful, and I remember it being very difficult. I cared a whole lot about it.
Robert didn’t play on that record. He was an intern at the studio, and joined the band. Basically, we had a guitar player quit, and say that he wanted to join another band while we were making that record. And he’s like, “I’ll finish out the thing, then I can’t play any more shows with you guys.” I had been friends with Robert for a couple years, making music with him in his basement. But he was 16, and I was 19, which is pretty wild to look back on. I was still trying to figure out fucking everything, really. It was the first time we’d ever recorded live. That was pretty foreign to me.
But we didn’t have a label, so there wasn’t pressure. The pressure was all self-imposed. The eight full-band songs on that record were the eight full-band songs the four of us knew how to play. There were no other options. It’s these eight rock songs, and then these three delicate pieces — “I Can Feel Your Pain,” “Sleeper 1972,” and “Don’t Let Them See You Cry.” The acoustic songs on that record were recorded in this enormous freezer that the studio had as an iso booth. So, I would go in there and track 10 or 15 of these solo songs that I had floating around, and we picked those and went from there.
I remember being really surprised that people liked it immediately, and it started to spread in a really organic way. I didn’t really see it happening. I still really like those songs. And I like playing those songs — I’m not embarrassed, lyrically, about those songs, which is helpful. I was still searching around the same parking lots I’m searching around now. I think I just have more matured equipment philosophically. But I like what I was writing about.
Mean Everything To Nothing (2009)
I had gotten married, and then I immediately started writing this record and recording it. My wife and I — I was 21, and she was 22 — had zero idea of what we were doing in our lives. We hadn’t lived together before. There was a tension there that was always kind of brewing. I think that mixed with a crisis of faith and just freaking out. It’s pretty obvious when you listen to that record. Immediately, I let you know what I’m going through at that time. I was just obsessed with stuff like Pinkerton, and this idea of, “How do you make records that are super, super raw, but sound really great and big?”
I had no idea what music production was. By the time that first record came out, and then we just beat it into the ground touring, over and over and over, I started to understand what I was capable of doing, and wanted to spread my wings on the production side of it. I definitely felt like I had something to prove with Mean Everything To Nothing, since the first one had been so unexpectedly well-received. There’s always the fear of the sophomore slump. It’s like, “How do we just destroy that altogether?” Create something that just, in my opinion, blew the first one out of the water.
By the time it came for us to pick a producer, we landed on Joe Chiccarelli, who was on an incredible streak at that time. He’d just worked on the third Shins record, Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket, that second Raconteurs record, and Icky Thump by the White Stripes. So, we were like, “Oh, shit, this guy wants to work with us? Let’s do it!” We didn’t know that we were then entering Joe’s world, which was 25 takes of every single song. Zero room in the initial recording for experimentation. It was all about getting the live thing to where he wouldn’t even need to add anything else. The whole time, I’m thinking, “Man, there’s so much more to this record that we’re not getting here.”
I was pretty dumb as well at the time. When we went down to Atlanta to finish it, Joe left, and I just wouldn’t get back to anybody. Wouldn’t talk to the label, just kept working on this record. Joe would leave these voicemails like, “Where are you?” I wouldn’t call him back, which is terrible. But, I just knew that I had to “save it,” in my mind. So, we brought in Dan Hannon from the last record, and he then let me go crazy. Added all the stuff that I want to add.
Joe did end up coming back. Joe and the band would work from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and then I would work from 11:00 p.m. to the next morning. I brought in an engineer, and put in background vocals, new lead vocals, and added instrumentation. The engineers that I was bringing in were not respectful of ProTools at all, and so they’d come in the next morning and it was like a madman had been there for 10 hours, destroying the organization of all these files. They’d have to sift through all the shit that I’d done.
It ended up, though, being one of my favorite things we’ve done, because it feels like that time to me. It took me a long time to listen back to that record, and actually enjoy it. I remember waiting to do a lot of the vocals until I had gotten sick, so that I could have this really raspy scream, and that’s all over that record. I was smoking so many cigs, too, so it sounds like I’m 35 on that record, and I’m 21.
Simple Math (2011)
We were on a version of Columbia for Mean Everything called Canvasback. Two weeks later, the guy who runs Canvasback was let go from Columbia, and moved from Columbia over to Atlantic with Canvasback. Columbia said, “You can take every band with you except Manchester. They stay.”
So, we now have no real champion. We had a guy that we loved, Jay Harren. But he was an A&R guy, with not a ton of pull. We were sort of lost on an island out there. The good part of that was, they let us make the record that we wanted to make. There was nobody ever checking in on a single, for better or for worse. I felt I was really starting to come into my production brain, and so was Rob. That was the first record me and Rob really got our hands on together.
You can tell it’s pretty dramatic, and you notice how wide we wanted it to go. It was like, “Man, we can afford to have strings!” After Mean Everything, which felt like a pretty punishing record at times, this was a chance to get beautiful, and it was the first record where we stretched as far as we could possibly stretch to see what kind of genres and sounds we could dip our toes into.
England was really great to us. Australia was really great to us on that record, too. But the label was never behind it. The main two guys at that label, Rob Stringer, who ran the whole thing, and then Steve Barnett, who was the president of Columbia, were both really big supporters of our band. But they also were managing Beyonce records, so it wasn’t like they could put all their attention and focus on Simple Math.
I’ll never forget being in the office at Columbia, and playing them the record, and the radio team just having these blank stares on their faces. They had no idea what to do. I was like, “I have a pretty good idea: I think this song ‘Pensacola’ is really catchy.” And, they were like, “No, no, no, it can’t be that, there’s no real chorus to it. We should do ‘Simple Math’ and then also the next week release ‘April Fool,’ so that nobody knows what the single is.”
Cope and Hope (2013)
Cope and Hope ended up being the great palate-cleansers and, really, I think the end of phase one for the band, because they were made with no label. Nobody was telling us what to do. We built our own studio, and started just hacking away at these songs. It felt like the last opportunity to make a record that we always wanted to make, which was just really smart, straightforward, melodic rock songs, and not deviating from that path.
Cope is our “fuck you” record. We knew we wouldn’t get a lot of radio play because nothing was sounding like that on the radio. But we were hearing Thermals records that were super melodic, and really poppy, and engaging, but also really fuzzy. Cope is like that idea.
We got some backlash on Cope, because it didn’t sound as pretty or as clear as the other records. But it also burst through a little more in an interesting way. The shows started to get a little bigger. Even though it was a polarizing record for some people, it did seem to open another door for us.
First we did Cope, and then we did Hope at the same time. We were recording these two albums knowing Cope will come first, and then we were going to release this angelic sibling. Which was really cool, to be able to go back and re-record songs. We were just basically using every tool that we possibly had on those two records.
A Black Mile To The Surface (2017)
There wasn’t a clear idea of what the next step should be, and then that all changed when we made Swiss Army Man. We worked on that for 13 months, so it also gave us time to step away from Manchester and not really worry about it. That was the turning point. I think that when it came time to work on the next record, we had all these different tools in our toolbox, and just mentally could look at the records in a different way.
When we were making A Black Mile, it really felt like it was our first record again, in a cool way. The idea was like, “We’ve learned a ton from these four records we’ve just made, the biggest thing being that we don’t need to rush. Let’s do it right, and make sure every rock is turned, and we can be proud of the thing at the end of the day.” I do think our maturity level, and the way we were all communicating with each other, felt way healthier, even though it was really hard to make. Tthere weren’t arguments or fights during that record. It was more that we were in the trenches trying to be honest with each other when stuff wasn’t working, but not being an asshole about it.
Wilco is one of my favorite bands. I like every song of theirs, whether it’s a rock song or a folk song. I was like, “Why can’t I have that?” I was not going to worry about whether a song was rocking enough, or if it’s basically a folk song at its very core, because I love that kind of music.
I wasn’t the center of my universe anymore on that record, even thematically. The record’s about me, but that record’s also about my daughter, and my parents, and my grandparents, and my daughter’s daughter, and the impending doom of all of it. The fear of that. You know, you’re a dad, you can kind of go down those wormholes of like, “Oh no, I can’t stop time!”
The Million Masks Of God (2021)
It was the happiest that we’ve ever been making an album by far. It was also the saddest because of Robert’s dad’s passing, and the themes on the record and just how heavy all of it was. There was just a really healthy bond between the four guys in the band, and Catherine Marks, and Ethan Guska, who was a really incredible addition to the whole process.
When we were finishing the record at Sound City, where Ethan works a lot, it was us in the B room, and Bob Dylan in the A room finishing his record. I’ll just say this, the vibe was pretty tense. It was just Bob Dylan people everywhere. We were sharing the same common area, but it was like, “Okay, I’m not supposed to be in here.” Even though we were paying a day rate to be here, we shouldn’t be here.
A big part, sonically, going into it, was I knew that I wanted for us to experiment with drums and percussion a lot more, and bring an element that I love about Clinic records and Radiohead records. How do we do that without just sampling stuff over top of the drums? Because our drummer’s so great that I want him to have the tools to be able to actually organically write something.
We ended up building this crazy Frankenstein drum kit that had a bunch of triggers and sounds that we were picking out. We would then record the MIDI data from the drums when we were tracking them, and then assign the MIDI data to other instruments. There’s parts on this record where there’s a keyboard part, but that keyboard part was actually played by Tim on the toms, and we just assigned notes and sounds to it. We liked this weird science experiment process of it.
We knew we really wanted from the beginning for it to be all connected in a similar way as Black Mile, but more thought out, and allowing the songs to fold in on each other. And having repeated melodies and phrases that, at the end of the second song, is the same melody and lyrical nod to the fifth song. That happens all over the record. Throwing out the rule book that we had made for ourselves about even what a song can be. It’s been a really difficult record to pick a single and pick songs to play for people, because I do feel like it’s best served as a whole thing. The album’s the song.
The Million Masks Of God is out on April 30 via Loma Vista. Get it here.