Andy Hull reflects on ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ and adapting to change
Manchester Orchestra frontman discusses songwriting and next album
Andy Hull knew change was on its way.
On Manchester Orchestra’s third album, “A Black Mile to the Surface,” Hull opted for grandiose orchestration and deeply personal lyrics. The result is a sharp turn from the indie band’s previous releases “Hope” and “Cope.”
But this was all a part of the plan.
Ahead of the group’s Dec. 10 Rochester tour date with the Front Bottoms, Andy Hull spoke with The Spectrum and covered fatherhood, songwriting and Manchester Orchestra’s next album.
Q: “A Black Mile to the Surface” changes a lot for Manchester Orchestra in terms of orchestration and the effort put into production. Was there an inherent push for a different sound or did this happen organically?
A: Yeah, we were pushing for it. We didn’t know what it was or how to find it, but we knew we had to do something different. We really wanted to, and it’s going to be the same way this time. It’s always been that way, even with “Cope.” Doing that record really released us and opened up a lot of areas for us to explore and try different things. We were hard-pressed to not fall back into what we’ve done before.
Q: “The Maze” and “The Parts” are examples of some of the more personal works on “A Black Mile to the Surface.” You’ve talked a lot about how fatherhood has changed a lot of things for you, especially music. Do you have to be in a certain mindset or feel certain emotions to play these songs and connect with them?
A: I love to play stuff that’s super close to me. It means something every time. Almost all of our music, I still really believe a lot of it. I don’t have a lot of bitter breakup songs and stuff like that. It’s all been sort of life contemplating and stuff you can’t figure out really. [With] something like “The Maze,” writing that song was really simple. It took about 10 minutes and it’s just a sweet little folk song. It’s the same thing with “The Parts.” I took my wife to Hawaii for her 30th birthday, and she went to bed and I brought out a guitar. I had the riff to that thing and wrote that song. Our daughter had just been born earlier that year. Those songs really mean something to me. I feel really connected to them and when they’re moving me, I feel like that’s something we should definitely release.
Q: I read a review from Pitchfork saying that “If anything, reaching 30 as a happily married father with an increasingly influential band has made him even more skeptical as to whether he deserves any of it.” Where do you draw the line of success for Manchester Orchestra?
A: With “Black Mile” specifically, it was like shooting a gun toward a target that didn’t exist in the sky and then attempting to get there. There was no clear-cut vision in my head for how things should sound. ... It’s a ton of trial and error. A friend of mine the other day asked me, “How are you going to follow up something like this?” [I said] “failing over and over again.” Having just enough self doubt right up until it’s a fault. That self doubt has got to be there. ... With “A Black Mile,” it was like four or five months working on that record until I was happy with a piece of music I was hearing. Genuinely happy and jumping up and down. It was during “The Moth” and we added this certain thing to a section of the song that I thought was missing. I’m certainly grateful and there’s some truth to that. I feel fortunate that I get to put all of myself into this music and have a career from it. Certainly I question if I deserve it or not for sure. I think it’d be weird if someone was like, “I deserve it.”
Q: “I Know How to Speak” follows a similar path as “A Black Mile to the Surface.” Is acoustic or simplistic orchestration the basis for your songwriting?
A: It depends. They were all over the place on “A Black Mile to The Surface.” Generally, if I like a song enough to play it alone, then generally we’re on the right track. Then it’s about figuring out what kind of clothing we want to put on the song. For “I Know How to Speak,” that song was around for a minute. It took us having to make “A Black Mile to the Surface” in order to figure out the vision for that song. It was also great to just work on one song and obsess over one song instead of the burden of 10 or 12 and figuring out how they work together. I love that challenge. It’s the coolest thing I get to do every two years or so. I’m starting to fall in love with the process and the discovery of it and how far I want to push myself.
Q: How has that process changed for you?
A: I think there’s a lot of different answers for that. One is when I’m away from my daughter and son, I want to make sure I’m spending my time the right way. Age has differed for me. I remember when we were making “Mean Everything to Nothing” and tracking those songs live the same way we’ve done every time. [It’s like] take 22, 23 and 24. I couldn’t believe this producer was making us do this. I was like, “Man, we nailed it on 11. I’m sure of it.” [But he’d say] “The Beatles would spend a week tracking, just working on a song and throw the song away. It’s about exploring what’s happening.” I hated that. I didn’t understand it. Now I totally understand it and it’s worth it to put in that time and explore if you’re not satisfied.
Q: You’ve mentioned Kendrick Lamar, Bon Iver, The War on Drugs and Radiohead as some of your favorite artists. What links this field for you?
A: I think just anybody who’s pushing themselves. When I hear somebody who's made an amazing record and the next record I hear is something different and challenging, I’m always inspired by that. I think they’re chasing the same thing that I’m chasing –– not counting yourself out and continuing to push forward and reinvent. It’s such a cool job because there is no ceiling to it. If you really care enough, there’s no telling what kind of records you could end up making. It’s about not being complacent. ... I don’t know if I’ll ever break up this band, but I might just take 10 years off if I’m not feeling it. It’ll be a shame to mess it up now, though.
Brian Evans is the senior arts editor and can be reached at Brian.Evans@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @BrianEvansSpec.