Music

How Manchester Orchestra Grew Up And Re-Invented Themselves On ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’

In 2007, Manchester Orchestra was invited to perform as the opening act on a tour with singer-songwriter Kevin Devine and Brand New, one of the most fiercely adored emo groups of the 21st century. It was a huge coup for the junior band from the Atlanta suburbs, formed in 2004 by the son of a Baptist pastor named Andy Hull when he was just 16. Manchester Orchestra had recently released its debut full-length album, 2006’s I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child, and was full of youthful bravado.

“I was 17 and the singer of Brand New [Jesse Lacey] was 28,” recalls guitarist Robert McDowell, who has been at the core of Manchester Orchestra with Hull for most of the band’s existence. At the time, 28 seemed impossibly ancient to McDowell. “I remember going, ‘Why are you still doing this?'”

“That’s the weirdest part of being in a band when you’re young,” Hull interjects. “It’s all so dramatic. It’s why we could go play 250 shows a year for four years straight and never stop. Because it’s not a big deal. You’re pumped.”

The irony of this story is not lost on the members of Manchester Orchestra, who now all hover around the age of 30. (Hull is 30, McDowell and bassist Andy Prince are 28, and drummer Tim Very is 34.) That’s old enough to make them grizzled veterans in a scene in which most musicians and fans aren’t all that far removed from the melodrama of adolescence. These days, Manchester Orchestra is the band that younger artists look at with a mix of reverence (because they’ve put out several strong albums and toured the world) and naive amazement (because they’re still around after more than a decade).

“I think that the consistency is what strikes me most,” says Cameron Boucher, the 24-year-old frontman of Sorority Noise, who started listening to Manchester Orchestra in his teens. “I’ve never heard a song of [theirs] I didn’t enjoy.”

At the moment, the members of Manchester Orchestra are hanging out at their band headquarters in Alpharetta, a far northern suburb about 25 miles from downtown Atlanta. From the outside, the house looks like just another suburban home tucked inside a quiet neighborhood where most of the residents are either families with young children or senior citizens. (“There’s nobody between 20 and 40 except us,” Hull notes.) Inside, however, it’s a different story: The band has built a home studio and set up their in-house merchandise business.

For the guys, it is a home away from home — everyone except for Prince lives only a few minutes away. (Prince commutes from Nashville.) It’s easy to pop over for impromptu projects, like recording a cover of the Avett Brothers’ “No Hard Feelings” just for the fun of it. Recording unlikely covers has become a kind of hobby for the band — they’ve done everything from Neil Young’s “Walk On” to No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” to a full-length version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller that the band doesn’t play for me but promises is epic.

The mood of these sessions is loose and casual, which is nothing like the making of Manchester Orchestra’s fifth album, A Black Mile To The Surface, due July 28. Hull had two objectives for A Black Mile going into the album first, he wanted to make the opposite of Cope, Manchester Orchestra’s bracingly loud 2013 LP that culminated the amalgam of buzzsaw alt-rock and intimate lyricism that the band honed on its previous three releases. The mantra for the new album was “intensity without volume.”

“I was really obsessed with that Alabama Shakes record, Sound + Color, about the minimalist aspect of that,” Hull says. “We would listen to that in between sessions. I’d play it and go, ‘This is what I’m talking about.’ There’s so little going on, what’s our version of that? How do we strip back?

Second, Hull sought to create his version of a Wilco or Radiohead record, in which Manchester Orchestra would interrogate its established methods and deconstruct them. “My challenge [to the band] was whatever you’re instinctively going to want to play on the record, try and not do that. Try and do the opposite of that thing,” Hull explains.

The hardest thing about making a mature masterwork that reinvigorates your sound and approach to art is that there is no instruction manual on how to do it. A lot of trial and error is required. For Manchester Orchestra, this would involve working in several different recording studios with a small battery of well-known indie-rock producers, including Catherine Marks (The Killers, PJ Harvey), John Congleton (St. Vincent, Sleater Kinney) and Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Dawes), as well as long-time collaborator Dan Hannon. Along the way, the band doubted itself constantly. When the smoke cleared, however, they somehow emerged with their best album, conjuring the grandiosity of albums like 2009’s Mean Everything To Nothing and 2011’s Simple Math, but with half the strain and twice as much as grace.

Now Manchester Orchestra just has to allow themselves to finally let the record go.

“It’s a scary thing obsessing over something for a year where it’s such a big focus on your life and nobody knows about it,” McDowell says, in a tone that’s partly sardonic and partly shell-shocked. “It makes you feel like a true insane person.”

***

One of the sturdiest truisms about pop-music history is that the kids always have final say. Time and again, artists and bands who were disparaged or outright ignored by critics but adored by teenagers tend to eventually benefit from revisionism. This is especially true for pop-punk and alt-rock acts — in recent years, bands like Blink-182 and Third Eye Blind have been rescued from also-ran status by a younger generation that grew up worshipping them.

Manchester Orchestra seems due for that sort of re-evaluation. When the band emerged in the late ’00s, critics didn’t get them. Records like I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child and Mean Everything To Nothing were hyper-emotional and gauche compared with the tasteful and aloof Brooklyn art-rock that was in vogue at the time. “For a kid barely able to legally drink, Hull’s got the exhaustion of middle age,” Pitchfork scoffed.

Hull got over not being accepted by tastemakers early on. “I’ll never forget going on tour with mewithoutYou way back in 2007 at The Grog Shop,” he says, referring to a venerated Cleveland-era concert venue. “Sold-out show, early show. We had to get out of there for The Fiery Furnaces, who was a very hot band at the time. There were 40 people at The Fiery Furnaces. We were looking at all these cool websites that were talking about The Fiery Furnaces, nobody’s talking about mewithoutYou, yet there were 500 kids going apeshit for mewithoutYou.” Hull suddenly realized the relative value of media coverage versus forging a bond with a young, passionate audience.

When Hull started putting out records, he was only a few years older than the bulk of his listeners. He understood that being a teenager actually feels more exhausting than middle age. When Hull dumped his angst into vulnerable songs that didn’t shy away from musical or emotional bombast, kids like Julien Baker immediately understood where he was coming from.

“I listened to Manchester incessantly growing up,” says Baker, 21, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who recently signed to Matador Records. “I had just never heard a band that sounded like that, that was musically so anthemic and powerful but could also be so delicate. Those songs resonated with me emotionally in a way few things had before.”

The first Manchester Orchestra song that Baker ever heard was “Where Have You Been?,” an intense ballad from I’m Like A Virgin accented with mellotron swirls and Hull’s pained vocal stabs. Only Baker didn’t hear the Manchester Orchestra version, but rather a cover by a local band in her hometown of Memphis. In the area’s indie music scene, many bands would often end shows by playing Manchester Orchestra songs because “they felt like everyone’s songs,” Baker says.

If you want to accuse of Manchester Orchestra of emotional self-indulgence, “Where Have You Been?” might as well be exhibit A. The lyrics read like a distraught journal entry written by a precocious kid who’s really into God and horror movies. “I pray to God that you won’t come back here anymore,” Hull sings. “When you look at me / I’ll be digesting your legs.” But Hull’s sensitivity, and way with a guitar hook, pull you in. A song like “Where Have You Been?” will never not be appealing to teenagers — or adults who still have emotional recall from that time.

Hull started writing songs after the ninth grade, not long after his family moved back to Georgia after six years in Toronto, where his father, John, had been a pastor at a successful mega-church. Before Andy entered high school, John decided to temporarily leave his position, because he didn’t want Andy and his younger sister, Mary Alice, to have the stigma of being preacher’s kids. But the Hull family still decided to send the kids to a small Christian private school about 40 minutes away.

It was there that Hull met McDowell, who in spite of being a couple of grades lower than Hull was already a budding guitarist and student of recording techniques. The future bandmates were bonded even tighter when Robert started dating Mary Alice when they were both 14. (They wound up getting married many years later.)

Starting out as a nu-metal fan — “Once I found System of a Down, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, there is a next level'” — Hull eventually moved on to emo bands like Saves The Day and the Get Up Kids, and then bedrock indie-rockers like Elliott Smith and Neutral Milk Hotel. His first performance outlet was the worship team at school, where he would play music for a church full of 500 kids. But it wasn’t always a receptive audience.

“I wasn’t really fitting in a lot,” Hull says. “I was smoking cigs and doing all the things you’re not supposed to do.” Because young, disapproving parishioners weren’t allowed to boo in church, they would express their disdain by refusing to stand whenever Hull sang.

By the time he was a senior, Hull decided to drop out of school and get his GED while pursuing a music career. A series of well-received EPs released on Hull’s own record label, Favorite Gentlemen, paved the way for I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child, which swiftly became a phenomenon in the underground emo scene.

On the road, Hull and McDowell got used to being underestimated by their older contemporaries. But instead of feeling intimidated by being a teenager surrounded by adults, Hull used the chip on his shoulder as fuel to push the band forward.

“I was determined to be taken seriously,” Hull says. “I was younger than everybody and everyone around me didn’t feel like I was on the same level, simply based on age and experience. So, I worked extra hard to catch up.”

Kevin Devine, who met Hull on that fateful tour with Brand New in 2007, remembers him being “really self-possessed, and intelligent, and curious” at the time.

“He asked me a million questions that first night we met,” says Devine, 37, who has recorded two albums with Hull and McDowell in the side project Bad Books. “I was immediately like, this guy is really sharp.”

Looking back on the band’s early days, Hull quotes a lyric from the title track of Mean Everything To Nothing: “Definitely not the things that I’m seeing did I think I’d see so instantly.” Hull wrote that record about the anxiety stemming from his newfound notoriety. By the time he was 20, Hull was in crisis, he says, because he had already achieved his goals for the band — Manchester Orchestra had played Conan and Letterman, they had packed Radio City Music Hall, and they had visited Abbey Road. Plus, Hull decided to get married around this time, and immediately realized he was in way over his head.

“Our first six months [as a married couple] had the typical like, ‘Uh oh, we’re two kids and we don’t know what we’re doing.’ Like, ‘Oh, shit, what have we done?'” Hull says. “Luckily, we are awesome now but that was a huge impact on that time.”

Never one to wait for experiences that most people put off until well into adulthood, Hull now felt that life was moving too fast even for him.

“All of a sudden the Foo Fighters were offering us shows that we had to turn down,” Hull says. “It seemed very strange. Very strange.”

***

Like all new fathers, Hull knew that his world had changed forever from the moment he held his daughter, Mayzie, for the first time.

“I knew I was going to love her like uncontrollably. I already did,” says Hull, whose daughter was born in 2014. “[After] the first laugh, the first anything, you’re just like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m dead. I’m just dead.'”

But once the euphoria of birth wears off, fear settles in. How do you protect your child not just from the world, but their own genes — all the deficiencies, dysfunction, and self-destructive impulses that parents unwittingly pass down to their children?

Hull is reflecting on all of this back at band headquarters. McDowell and Prince have gone off to the studio control room to go over a bass part for the Avett Brothers cover, leaving us to talk about the birth of Mayzie as Hull takes thoughtful pulls from his vape pen. A former two-pack a day smoker, Hull tries to live a healthier lifestyle these days, as does the rest of Manchester Orchestra.

During the recording of Cope, the whole band was chain-smoking, which created an omnipresent cloud that hung in the studio. A Black Mile To The Surface, meanwhile, was berthed in daylight, launched in late summer 2016 amid the pastoral environs of Asheville, North Carolina before the band picked work back up at home in Alpharetta.

The point of leaving town was to get away from the pull of each member’s home life. “It’s important in the studio to sometimes be selfish” was how McDowell — whose laid-back, analytical manner compliments Hull’s effusive, instinctual nature — put it earlier. And yet family proved to be a pervasive presence on the album.

Of all the influences on A Black Mile To The Surface, fatherhood looms as the most vital. Sometimes this was conscious, like with the gorgeous lead-off track “The Maze,” which started as a lullaby that Hull wrote for Mayzie. But more often it was a subliminal factor in Hull’s songwriting, which began when Hull and McDowell were in Los Angeles composing the score for 2016’s bonkers necrophilia buddy-comedy, Swiss Army Man.

In their original form, the songs were as simple as folk tunes, which compelled Hull to give them Manchester Orchestra’s most sophisticated arrangements to date. Working on the abstract, vocal-driven Swiss Army Man score also emboldened Hull to bring his sweet, honeyed voice to the fore like never before on a Manchester Orchestra record, giving the album a contemplative, soulful quality.

Initially, Hull pondered structuring the songs into an elaborate concept album about two Cain-and-Abel-like brothers locked in a tragic sibling rivalry in the real-life town of Lead, South Dakota. But he quickly opted for a less rigid song cycle in which the tracks would coexist like rooms in a house. The result is an album composed of parallel narratives — some of them are directly inspired by Hull’s life, while others feel like allegories with a pronounced supernatural bent. Whereas “The Parts” reads as straight autobiography about Hull’s marriage, lead single “The Gold” is set nearly 100 years ago, and could be about the the great-grandparents of characters in other songs. The standardized song titles — all of the songs except “Lead, SD” start with “The” — adds to the cinematic feel of the album.

While discussing the inspiration behind the songs, I told Hull that A Black Mile To The Surface reminded me of Stephen King’s The Shining — I refer specifically to the book, rather than Stanley Kubrick’s film, in which the character of Jack Torrance is presented from the start as a loon as opposed to King’s most humanistic portrayal. The album, like King’s book, resembles a stress dream about the common paternal fear of being a bad father.

The possibility of familial ties being a burden hang heavy throughout. After opening with the delivery room reverie of “The Maze,” A Black Mile concludes with another hymn-like track called “The Silence,” a kind of serenity prayer about the things that fathers can’t keep from their daughters:

“Little girl you are cursed by my ancestry
There is nothing but darkness and agony
I can not only see, but you stopped me from blinking

Let me watch you as close as a memory
Let me hold you above all the misery
Let me open by eyes and be glad that I got here”

“I started to see that I could confront some things that you wouldn’t want to say. because generally you’re living a normal and happy life,” Hull tells me. “I’m not just every day going like, ‘What am I gonna do?’ But when those feelings come, it’s for real.”

***

Hull’s paternal feelings have extended beyond just his daughter. He’s also embraced being a mentor to younger musicians, occasionally opening up the band’s headquarters to touring bands when they’re in the area.

Boucher recalls receiving a text from Hull from out of the blue one day earlier this year, after Hull heard that Sorority Noise had recently covered a Manchester Orchestra song in concert. “I had to type in my notes like 15 questions and then delete them just to get it out of my system,” he says. Since then, Hull has become a valued sounding board for Boucher as Sorority Noise’s audience has grown after this year’s stellar You’re Not As ___ As You Think.

“I seek solace in Andy’s experiences, and will sometimes run into situations where I feel at a loss or confused with the lifestyle I have started to lead,” Boucher says. “And he always is there to help me straighten out and make sense of where my head’s at.”

Baker also texts with Hull on a regular basis. “As far as career advice, some of that has come in the form of having candid discussions about the mechanics of music as a profession, something that admittedly still can seem foreign to me,” she says. “But I think the more valuable wisdom I have received from Andy has less to do with practical shrewdness and more to do with a balanced attitude and perspective that comes with being a more experienced musician.”

Hull hasn’t come by his wisdom easily. He admits that he endured a self-described “dark period” in the early 2010s, back when he had that crisis about experiencing too much too soon. An unhealthy lifestyle caused him to put on 60 pounds, and his gall bladder nearly had to be removed by the time he was 23.

“Drinking a ton. Eating a ton. Not exercising at all. Really, eating I’m sure was the worst of it because what I was eating was like an 8-year-old,” Hull says.

On the tour bus, Hull subsisted primarily on Hot Pockets, exactly what you’d assume a young man with zero adult supervision would eat. Finally, a doctor sat him down and told Hull he’d be dead by 40 if he didn’t dramatically improve his diet.

“Years later, I’m on a treadmill talking to my trainer and I’m like, ‘What is the worst food a human being could eat?” Hull says with a laugh. “He’s like, ‘Something like a Hot Pocket.’ I was like, ‘Makes sense.'”

As Hull’s life outside of the band stabilized, so did life inside of the band. While a lineup of musicians has revolved around Hull and McDowell for much of the band’s history, Very has been an anchor on drums since 2010, and Prince brought new technical dexterity to the bass since joining Manchester Orchestra during the Cope sessions.

This unity was crucial during the sometimes fraught process of recording of A Black Mile To The Surface. Hull and McDowell were obsessive about capturing the precise sounds they needed, no matter the expense or time involved. After sessions with Marks in Asheville and the band’s home studio, Manchester Orchestra went to LA and consulted with Congleton, who suggested some seemingly minor tweaks that the band nonetheless feels completed the record. For instance, Congleton added a sequencer to the end of “The Maze” that prompted Hull to overdub a chain-gang-style vocal to the show’s climax, giving the track a new sense of uplift. They also solicited some changes from Wilson via email, which Hull believes helped to further flesh out the record’s sonic tapestry.

“It was like the indie-rock version of a hip-hop album,” he says. “The mentality was no rules. Throw all the rules out of how this thing is supposed to be done, or who’s in charge, or who gets to decide the final thing.”

In conversation, each band member talks about Manchester Orchestra in terms of legacy. They see A Black Mile To The Surface as a “big boy” record, the kind of album that they’ll be able to regard in 15 or 20 years with pride. The hunger to be great that they had as teenagers, and once assumed they could never have at 30, is stronger than ever.

“We don’t want to be that band where it’s like, ‘yeah dude, your second record was really great,'” says Hull, flashing some of that youthful bravado. “We want to make sure that our new record is better than [anyone’s] new record.”

A Black Mile To The Surface is out 7/28 via Loma Vista Recordings. Pre-order it here.

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