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.”