Andy Hull discusses the band’s new album, his relationship with the Daniels, and his most grounding moment
Manchester Orchestra has long been a name near the top of the rock world. Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, the band has been able to take emo to a new level with thoughtful lyricism and a massive sound. Much of this is due to wunderkind Andy Hull, who over the years has continued to mature the band’s sound and subject matter. Their new album, A Black Mile to the Surface, sees the band reach even higher precipices.
Last year, Hull and lead guitarist Robert McDowell scored the film Swiss Army Man. Through this new type of effort, the two learned different ways to configure sound and reformulated the way they approach music. They took this knowledge into the studio while recording A Black Mile to the Surface.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Hull to discuss the band’s new album, find out what he gathered from working with director duo the Daniels, and learn about his most grounding moment.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re talking because you just released your new album A Black Mile To The Surface. Now that the dust has had some time to settle, how is the mood in camp?
Andy Hull: We’re really thrilled. It feels like the best reaction we’ve had, really ever across the board. I’ve sort of taken myself out of the social media aspect of it. I gave it the first day, it seemed like everybody was pumped, and then I had to kinda dial out of there. Everybody is just really excited. It took a really long time to get all of this stuff together, so the fact that it’s going well and seems like the reaction has been great, we couldn’t ask for more.
CF: It has received universal critical acclaim, which is certainly a success in some regard. But how do you measure success?
AH: Ultimately you hope it’s just about your happiness and joy level and for me, at least, I feel very fortunate to be able to continue to challenge myself and have the ability to make records that I really care about and also have a functioning happy life, and somewhat healthy lifestyle. I get to do what I love, which is really hard to do, but I love doing it.
For me there is that level of success and then there is the hunger that has yet to go away. I’m just wanting to continue to push myself, continue to push our sound and, sort of, the there are no limits aspect of it. I guess you sort of have to always keep this unattainable goal in your head of what success should be, and then as long as you don’t attain it, you continue to be motivated to be successful.
CF: Speaking on the sound of this album, it certainly has a more cinematic feel to it. Can you tell us about your experience scoring Swiss Army Man and how that influenced the new record?
AH: It was like learning to use different tools. We didn’t use any traditionals instruments other than drums or percussion on the Swiss Army Man score, so it forced us to figure things out – sort of become scientists with creating new sounds for voices. Then we applied that sort of thing to all of the instruments, and you start to realize that there is a more broad playing field of sounds to play with. That and learning how to create a sonic landscape. How does it sound when it’s raining outside and how does it sound when it is a happy moment, and not just because of a melody.
CF: You worked with The Daniels previously, and you released a video for “The Sunshine,” where you worked with them again. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience working with them over the years?
AH: I love them dearly. We are really great friends with them and I think we just remind – Robert & I and Dan & Dan – ourselves of each other. All four of us are super driven and really want to continue to just work and get better and push forward new ideas. There’s nothing like getting in the trenches with people, the score being the biggest one, being a 13-month process with those guys, without forging this bond and creative workflow. I think we just both inspire each other to work. They were the creative directors for all of the images for this record. Getting them involved super early on and playing them stuff that wasn’t finished and getting their take on it and just going, “What’s not hitting you and what is hitting you?” They are not musicians at all, so their ideas would just be kind of the same things they would say during Swiss Army Man, “We need it to be more like clouds.” “Well that’s not an actual thing, but we’ll try it.”
This record, just in general, I just tried to get as many outside opinions that weren’t musicians as I could, just because I thought that was a valuable ear. To close on them, they are awesome dudes and it’s always a really cool challenge and fun time when we are working together.
CF: A Black Mile To The Surface you just said you looked for a lot of outside opinions, but it also finds you writing through fictional characters. How do you begin shaping the narratives of these individuals and what does it allow you to do differently as a songwriter?
AH: It lets your subconscious be more vulnerable, and it allows you to go into a place you wouldn’t want to go in your real life. When you do that, you adapt that, sort of see through that person’s eyes. Perspective is so important. I just loved the ideas that it was bringing out of me. The stuff that I hadn’t been able to find and the excitement of the material and getting more and more inspired. That’s sort of the hope with every aspect of the record, all the way down to the shaker on far left ear during the second pre chorus of some song, you want it to be inspiring. So I found myself really inspired being able to write from these perspectives and then start to merge myself in with those songs.
CF: You also have some more personal songs on the record, like one about your daughter. Combining those things seems to create a more universal feel about the experiences viewed or heard throughout the album. How do you view the voice of the artist in today’s society?
AH: I mean everybody has their own. It’s so interesting. I think the coolest thing about music and movies is that when they are made, then they are there, and someone’s voice can travel over time and have great impacts, and the smallest to largest artists can do that.
I’ve been doing this deep searching dive on all of the Wainwright family’s music. I’ve always been a fan, but I’m getting really nerdy into it. Stuff like that when I can hear a song that is 15 years old and be tearing up at the computer listening to it and reading the lyrics and being affected. There’s such a powerful attachment to that that I think you just have to respect that and try to use your voice as best as you can and as honest as you can.
CF: I read you changed the way you thought about writing songs for this new record. Can you walk us through a little of your songwriting process?
AH: This record was a little different, they’ve all been different I guess. That’s the idea. This one was really just based on a lot of simple folk songs I had written, sort of the very beginning structure of them. Just some melodies and lyrics and voice memos and stuff, but songs that stuck with me. I would really like the melody and finally I would play it for Robert, and while we were working on Swiss Army Man, we were starting to go through the songs and figure out which ones would be cool to bring to everybody and which ones should just stay solo, which is always the tough part of a song that sounds really great just by itself. You don’t want to do something to it, just to do something to it.
Then we went up to this cabin for three weeks to write the record, and I played the songs for the guys and just said, “Basically go against all of your instincts on what to do here, and let’s try and fight our instincts and really reprogram ourselves on how to go about this.” A lot of it was stripping it down in order to have a really wide open place to place other sounds and sort of otherworldly or futuristic sounds or whatever, and so a lot of that came from just playing the songs over and over. The album was evolving the entire time. The song “”Lead, SD”, the fourth track on the record, had full drums on it for months, until we decided to take it away because we just didn’t feel like it was hitting the right way. The whole record was like that, really just open to the best idea, open to changing it, stripping things away, putting things back on so many songs, “Why is this here? Does it need to be there?” Taking out anything that didn’t.
CF: Is there a moment you can tell us about from the studio that sort of sums up A Black Mile To The Surface’s recording experience?
AH: There are so many. I have two. One was I recorded the parts of the second to last track in a bathtub, after we had spent all of this time getting all of these sounds on everything, and I just kind of did that thing in one take and it ended up being one of our favorite parts. That sort of demonstrates the don’t overthink it vibe, but we totally did. Then on the far spectrum of that would be working on “The Moth” for three months, still hating how the intro and outro thing is sounding and taking this casio keyboard that is a guitar and placing this line over it, and finally it was the layer we needed, that I needed to feel like it was interesting enough. It was so much trial and error of that stuff through everything.
CF: You are set to head out on tour in September. We know what feels like a good concert from the point of view of an audience. But what makes for an ideal night on stage for you?
AH: One where my brain doesn’t just fly away. That sometimes just happens, like, “Wow. I was just thinking about my taxes for 45 minutes of that set.” It’s so weird, you can be there and so invested in it on the outside, and then your brain is like thinking, thinking, thinking, and that’s the bad times. That’s what you don’t want to do because then you can go down a spiral like, “Why am I doing this? These people don’t care.” That’s as bad as it can go, and that’s pretty rare. The best nights it’s like when things don’t go wrong and feels like the crowd is a part of the show. Our crowd is so awesome. I always enjoy and look forward to playing for our fans because they are just so into it and they become a part of it, for us that energy is super helpful. Also remembering just because we are playing shows every night, it is so valuable to remember that this is an important night for them. They are giving you their time and their money, and you want to give them a great show.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
AH: I know exactly what it is. It was in 2011. We had agreed to help out with this girl who was struggling with cancer, was a senior in high school in Dallas, and they’d ask if we could meet her, and it was a couple of weeks before the tour, and we were like, “Yes, of course. That’s no problem,” and then that day we woke up and there was a note in the bus that said, “That girl is coming tonight. Her favorite song is “I Can Feel Your Pain”, can you play it?” She came that night and I turned the mic to the side at the very end of the show and sang to her. She was in a wheelchair on the side of the stage and I sang the song just to her and met her after and had an awesome time. She had listened to our song, “I Can Feel Your Pain”, like non-stop while she was doing chemo.
A few days later at the end of the tour, I got a text message from her dad that she had passed and asked if we would fly into Dallas to play her memorial service at her grandparents house. I went with an acoustic guitar and played this set after the memorial service. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and a really beautiful and sad moment. I wrote a song about it called “After The Scripture”. Anyways, since then, that whole experience and realizing that we were some sort of comfort for this family in this terrible, unspeakable time, that showed me that what we’re doing is so much bigger that what we can hope to do, and it’s not really about us or accolades, or how many tickets you’re selling. It’s really about putting out something to the world that can hopefully encourage people. That grounded me, and since then we’ve done a festival every year for them in Dallas, and the family has really become a big part of our family and they are a constant reminder of what’s important.