Manchester Orchestra: Reinventing The Wheel On ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’

Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, indie/alternative rock outfit Manchester Orchestra are on to new beginnings, and their fifth album A Black Mile To The Surface is representative of taking creative risks and opening up to new avenues in writing and production. Going through their previous releases, it’s safe to say the four-piece are no longer that angsty band you once knew, reflecting on the past riff-heavy sophomore record Mean Everything to Nothing, which brought compelling tones from the instrumentation to the lyrics.

Over the course of recording and writing A Black Mile To The Surface, the process was intense, but the band came out of the storm – defined in their roots and embracing the innovation needed to grow as musicians. Speaking with lead vocalist Andy Hull, he noted how eye-opening working on the fifth album was and how he was able to adapt and connect with the songs through character work. He also shared how working on the film score for 2016 Sundance Film Swiss Army Man took him to the deep end, giving him the preparedness he never thought he needed.

I think it’s so exciting that you guys are releasing A Black Mile To The Surface soon. It’s an amazing album, how do you feel about getting it out finally?

I feel good. Once the first song was released, that was when I was able to accept that it was finished and there was no turning back. I’ve been really, really proud of it – we worked really hard on it and you know, the rest is for everybody else to decide.

The album itself from start to finish is really captivating. Compared to your previous record Cope, what would you say stood out from the creative process from this record? Was there anything different that you guys were vibing when you were making this one?

Yeah, there were a ton of different things. I mean, the first rule was let’s try and not do anything that we’ve done before and that anything that we’re working on sounds derivative of something we’ve done in the past – finding something else that’s inspiring, which made it harder. It definitely made it more gratifying when we would find what we were looking for.

We’ve always done that on our records, it’s just that as time goes on, it was trying to sort of figure out a whole new way of doing it. I love the dudes in my band and they’re all so talented in what they do, but I challenged everybody, including myself. How can we all take our parts and try and reverse engineer them and come up with something that still sounds like us?  We weren’t trying to sound like a different band, but we developed ourselves as far as we could, you know.

“I think with this one, it allowed me to kind of go into other people’s minds and other perspectives, saying some things about myself and my life and the things that I’m worried about.”

Because you guys were following your first instincts, was that something you’ve done in the past or did it sort of put you outside of your comfort zones since it was new to you?

I mean, I think there’s something awesome about [how] your first instincts change as you’re younger. It was always about working on the songs as much as you could to make them as great as they could be. On our first record, it was following sort of like the primal, youthful feeling of like, “Fuck yeah, let’s go – let’s chase that.” And then our second record was definitely an angsty twenty-one-year-old – I’ll scream and it’ll be all gritty and dirty. Our third record tried to expand and challenge ourselves. I think that was probably the first time we were going against what we’d done in the past and trying not to repeat ourselves.

And then with Cope, that was really following an instinct to make something that was super cohesive and very short, fast and aggressive. I felt that was sort of the last window where I could make that record honestly, at twenty-six, twenty-seven [years old]. If we were ever going to make Manchester’s punk rock record, this is the time to do it [laughs]. We really focused on trying to make the best punk rock record that we could and this one – we had to throw out every single thing we’d learned and try a whole new set of ways to emote and captivate people. Something we talked about a lot was how can we make this heavy and soulful, but without relying on this wall of guitars; building another wall out of sounds that we didn’t even know what they were yet.

It’s an interesting timeline, actually looking back at your the records you created in your 20s to now. Would you say you’ve had a high personal connection with A Black Mile To The Surface? I actually found it interesting that you wrote about your personal experiences, but portrayed it through fictional characters living vicariously through you.

Before I started writing lyrics for this record, that was like the neutral gear of songwriting and a lot of those earlier records were still character stuff for sure, but definitely really personal because things were harder and then life was more turbulent; there were more, wire-ranging deeper, feeling emotions, you know.

I think with this one, it allowed me to kind of go into other people’s minds and other perspectives, saying some things about myself and my life and the things that I’m worried about. It let me get there easier because it’s not really easy when you’re generally a happy dude to be like, “Alright, let’s just write about your deepest fears about Fatherhood…”

You’re putting yourself in a position of vulnerability and I think in a way, that’s beautiful yet scary. Did you sort of reinvent the wheel when you came to writing the lyrics?

I guess I reinvented my wheel in a way [laughs]. But yeah, I definitely broke a lot of self-imposed rules that I had earlier in songs or just the way that I thought they should be done. I really love lyrics and it’s my favourite part of records and that’s what can draw me in – even if I don’t really love the voice or I’m not really into the music right away. A song full of great lyrics can turn me into a massive fan of any band. I just took a lot of time to make sure that what I was saying was smart and interesting ’cause I’m a really harsh judge of myself on that stuff.

“I think so much of that comes from like giving up control for the greater good and letting go of your ego and your pride.”

I feel like this album is a lot more collaborative. What would you say were the main contributors to this?

I think so much of that comes from like giving up control for the greater good and letting go of your ego and your pride. When I was younger, it wasn’t that I knew what I was doing [laughs] or knew that I was being a certain way – it was just all I knew. As the years go on, you start to realise how un-smart you are and how much you need to surround yourself with the best people. Once I started to realise Cope was a big part of that, being in a room, working on these songs and realising other ideas were super valuable.

I mean, I have to give credit to Robert [McDowell, lead guitar/keyboards/vocals] massively because he’s been coming up with great ideas with me; being open to production and [working with] producers with cool ideas. If we thought it was the right thing at first, we wanted to listen and get as much stuff as we could down on tape. Robert and I went through and edited, figuring out the best parts that we loved. I definitely think it was the most that we’ve had on our shoulders making a record, but we shared the load as much we ever have.

How would you describe the production process for this album? I mean, you worked with Catherine, John and Dan – that’s a huge team. How did they support you through the making of this record?

It was all in different phases, so we spent the first eight weeks with Catherine [J Marks] and then Catherine left. Robert and I spent two months working on it ourselves and our long time collaborator Dan [Hannon] would come into the studio and just kind of steer us in the right direction. This is the first record we didn’t make with him as the primary producer because we knew it was time to do something different. We had him come in and have great ideas but he was also there to reassure us. We were so doubtful on ourselves – we had eighty-five percent of the record done then we took it to LA and worked with John Congleton who’s done just amazing work with everybody from like Explosions In The Sky. 

We just sat in his room for a week and he plugged weird shit in and played crazy stuff. [He] basically said, keep whatever you want with this. We were just able to make really cool additions to the songs. Overall, it was a six to seven-month recording process, which is really strenuous but it was amazing to have these different people – sort of these mile-markers to help us finish it up. It was so luxurious to have that much time to be able to make it right

Having a production team, did this happen naturally when it came to this record?

It was sort of like our economy version of making a hip-hop record [laughs], working with different people with great ideas. This was totally new to us, but that’s what was so exciting about it; to have three really great and accomplished producers and engineers that were just willing to even work on our record and not be the head one in charge and still leaving the final decisions in our hands. I mean, that was just flattering, and we were just grateful for the opportunity. I think I’ll do it again and continue exploring that idea.

Speaking of different things, I think it’s super cool that you and Robert managed to write the soundtrack for Sundance Film Swiss Army Man (2016). How did this project challenge you as musicians?

I mean, that was crazy. That was a thirteen-month process so it opened up the door in our minds that the next Manchester record could take a very long time and we’re okay and prepared for that. On top of that, we weren’t allowed to use any musical instruments for the entire score so we basically had to invent our own weird genre by using new vocals and some weird sub culture of acapella music [laughs]. We wanted to sound somewhere between like Sigur Rós and The Three Stooges.

We basically had to create the atmosphere and a lot of like the sound design, which was not something we had ever dabbled in [before]. We were able to take the stuff we learned and tried to apply it to the heart and soul of the songs on this record, giving it this kind of moving feeling – the little things that are on your third listen and you’re like, “Oh wow”.

Did you guys enjoy the movie? I’ve never seen it, but it sounds interesting.

You should see it. I’m in it [laughs]. I love it – it was also because we had to write a bunch of the songs before the movie was filmed because the actors sing a lot of it on-screen. We had this feeling like we were helping write a part of the movie – not just adding music on top of something. When you’re watching Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in the forest singing the songs that you wrote, it’s just a “holy shit, we shouldn’t be here. We made a mistake” moment [laughs].

It premiered to a sold out Sundance crowd the next Friday and we all flew there and that was totally surreal watching that movie premiere. During the premiere, I forgot I was in it and I looked at my wife and I was like, “Holy shit, I’m freaking out.”

[laughs] Oh wow, what a wild journey, dude. I am keen to just buy a copy and just watch it.

Oh dude, it’s the weirdest movie you’ll ever see. I’ll tell you this, I’ve never met someone who thought it was okay. I’ve only met people who thought it was the coolest thing they’d ever seen or the worst thing they’ve ever seen [laughs].

A Black Mile To The Surface is out July 28 via Loma Vista / Caroline Australia 

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