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Manchester Orchestra: the "next big thing" still sleeps on the floor
By Sean Smith
Fort Wayne Reader
Manchester Orchestra released their full-length debut album "I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child" in the fall of 2006. After positive critical notices and great mainstream attention (including high praise from Rolling Stone) they’ve signed a deal with a major label, Sony, to re-release the album on July 24th, allowing more people to hear a record that deals with faith, loss and ultimately, hope. Musically, the band calls to mind early Death Cab for Cutie and The Bends-era Radiohead. Andy Hull (vocals/guitar), Jonathan Corley (bass), Jeremiah Edmond (drums), Chris Freeman (keyboards/vocals), and Robert McDowell (guitar) have been on the road for the majority of this year and will begin their first headlining tour in late July. During a stop in Indianapolis, I talked with Andy Hull about his solo album The Bitter End, the next Manchester album and how being 'the next big thing' isn't all its cracked up to be.
Fort Wayne Reader: Chris had to drop out of the last part of this tour. Is he doing okay?
Andy Hull: He's good. He's fine. He ruptured his ear drum in Atlanta about nine days before the tour ended. It happened right before the show and he was bummed. We have a month off after tonight and we've been gone for four months. Since he needed seven days off and there were only nine days left in the tour, I'd rather he have five weeks off then seven days. I told him to stay home.
FWR: How does that change the arrangements of the songs?
AH: You know, it's tough. It doesn't change any of the arrangements of the songs necessarily. I would say I miss him, musically and personally, equally. With Chris and I, for some reason, we've always been able to hang out, finish the tour, go back home, hang out. So at this point it's like, 'Where is he?' Musically, it's tough because his parts are great and he writes so minimalistic and he's so tasteful with it. The idea of playing without him, at first, made sense. 'OK, it's just keyboards. We'll be fine. No worries, no need to freak out.' Then, the whole night before the show, trying to sleep and thinking about waking up and playing a show it sank in. 'No one's going to be able to do this and this.' There are parts that are really important to the songs.
FWR: He's got a real energy about him.
AH: Oh yeah. He's definitely not a dude that played keyboards before joining the band. He was working in Atlanta and he was the drummer for our very first band ever. Jay was playing bass at that time also and I was the singer. So, we played in bands forever together and listened to music and he always had this awesome voice and never sang in the bands, but when he listened to records he was hitting harmonies on records. He always had a good voice and so he was down working at this Operation: Christmas Child thing, in Atlanta, that makes shoeboxes for orphans and stuff and then he had moved to Ohio. Our guitar player had quit and I was like, 'I don't really want you to go home, 'cause I like hanging out and you've got a good voice and you've got percussion.' So we figured it out and then he left Ohio, moved in and that's been that.
FWR: What led him to Ohio?
AH: His father's in the reserves and got called to Iraq, so he went there and stayed with his mother and little brother for the year that he was gone. Once it was like he was coming back, he's never looked back. He's a dude that definitely knows how to tap into something else. I think a lot of us do. Luckily, we were able to write song subject matters that weren't easy to sing and not think about what you were singing, I guess. So, when we're all playing these songs, it's things that people have talked about for thousands of years, so it's not necessarily something we get sick of. The tune of it? Yeah, you'll get sick of that all day long and the music, but the subject matter we're still really passionate about.
FWR: How did you become interested in music?
AH: My dad was a pastor for the first 14 years of my life and my grandmother was a studio piano musician, but always was in church gospel groups and put out a few 7" and cool stuff like that. It was very much Bible-belt. The South, you know. Music was around, but it was never crazy. It was never discouraged or encouraged. My sister was the musician growing up. She played the violin, but somehow I guess, I just picked up the guitar and figured out what a power chord was and went from there.
FWR: How did the tour earlier this year with Brand New come about?
AH: They toured with Colour Revolt last year. We've been touring with Colour Revolt for years and we had just finished a tour with them in the winter of 2005. We know a band through them from Grand Rapids, Michigan called Anathallo and the three of us were always doing tours and are very close. Anathallo got booked by this agency called Ellis Industries and essentially they had told Ellis to check out Colour Revolt. Ellis really liked the music and asked them to go play a one-off show with Brand New at some college. When they played the show, Brand New's singer, Jesse Lacey, told Ellis that he wanted them on the entire summer tour for 2006. We had never listened to Brand New. Ever. They told us that they had a show with Brand New in Maryland and we said, 'That's still a band? Weird. I guess so. That's weird.' We didn't even know they were around, so then we found out and we're blown away that it was a massive tour. The biggest thing that happened up until then was Anathallo touring with a band called The Format and that was a pretty big tour. Anywhere from 400 to 600 people and maybe some nights less, but those rooms are enormous. We'd never seen anything like that before, so we were beyond excited when Colour Revolt were playing a tour that was already sold out. So, everyone was freaking out and talking about how insane it was. They told me I had to come hang out. So, I decided to go and it was right before we did "Virgin" and I decided to take a vacation and go out for two weeks and do nothing but drink beer with my friends. Just do nothing. Watch my friends play in front of these huge amounts of people. Then, I guess somehow in the mix of that, I was the lowest on the totem pole. I was the 'tagger-on' of the first band. I wasn't even selling merch. I was just there. Somehow, I developed this relationship with Jesse through hanging out before and after the shows and all of a sudden it's day five and we're having these deep, theological conversations and I thought it was weird. I make friends fast, but never in the sense of totally hanging out with this dude. Then, I make friends with all the other guys in Brand New and they were all just amazing people. They never knew that I was in a band. I never said it. I had a whole another agenda on my head than planting, 'Oh, I'm also … Take me.' So, it was a cool experience to hang out with these people and kept in touch with them. We'd talk back and forth throughout the rest of that tour and then, fast forward to, we finished our record; Brand New finished their record and we wanted to go to Oxford, where Colour Revolt are, to do a show at a teeny club and we both brought our respective new records. Colour Revolt went to school all week long during the day, so Jesse and I would drive around during the day and go guitar shopping and listen to each other's records. I really thought their record was fascinating and great and he thought similar things and really enjoyed our record as well. We both just really loved each other's stuff. They asked us to play a few off dates and so we started being booked by their agent, as well, and every off date they had on a tour with Dashboard Confessional, we would play on all of those off dates. Then, they asked us to go out for six weeks and it was the most fun I've ever had in my life. It was very much awesome to have this incredible tour with a band that draws so many kids and we didn't get it through political moves or an agent moving things around. They didn't need us to sell tickets to rooms. There was no catch. It was more like, they wanted to hang out and have fun. They continue to do that and take out bands they want to hang out with.
_FWR: Your next tour is a headlining gig with Colour Revolt opening, correct?
AH: Yeah. We have on month off. Which is cool because it's way needed. We're all really looking forward to talking over some demos with our producer, the guy that produced our last record. We're going to go in and listen and figure out some new stuff.
FWR: So, are you recording while you're on the road?
AH: Yeah. We try and record a lot. I try and at least get something done everyday and it's really hard on the road. At the same time, it helps getting thoughts out. Having something that we can all look forward to in to, in a way. I play everything on the demos.
FWR: Is that how it usually works?
AH: Yeah, somewhat. I'll usually have the main, general idea and then from that it takes it's own life. Sometimes, I plan everything out. Sometimes, I just have a song that's acoustic and then they flesh it out, in that sense. It's cool. This is the first time we've ever had a band where everyone's really excited. I'm excited about not having to tell someone 'Tone it down' or 'Not that.' I've got 15 songs now that are ready and probably we'll flesh those out to five or six. Play another 15 before we start to record and that'll go to another five or six and then we'll have eleven or twelve songs.
FWR: Do you work things out during soundcheck?
AH: We don't have a soundcheck on this tour. On the last two tours, Saves the Day and Say Anything tour and before that, the Brand New tour, we had a soundcheck which was great because we were able to flesh out certain things. This one's been more of me working in my head. Anything can change. We could not release something for a long time or we could release something sooner. It all depends on what happens and life, I guess. For now, we're stoked for more shows and some time off and I'll demo out. We'll all try to get together as much as we can when we're home. I think the best growing we can have right now is to just not be around each other for a good solid block of time. We're at that point in our friendship where we don't fight anymore and there are no crazy arguments, because we all know everything about every one of us. We adapt and it's cool. It's very pleasant and very nice to have it, but still there's that feeling of 'You again?' I'm ready to see someone else.
FWR: Do you have any sort of timeline for recording and releasing it?
AH: We're going to record it in either February or March and then we'll release it in the fall. We released "Virgin" last October ourselves and it's being re-released in stores in July. I don't want it to be much more than a year in regular stores.
FWR: Have you guys signed with a different label?
AH: We did a deal with our own label we started, Favorite Gentlemen, which is basically now an incubator label under Sony. Instead of signing a standard record deal, where a band switches, it was more like, 'Give us a lower amount of money.' We asked for a lot less than a regular band would ask from a major and with that we were given freedom to do whatever we wanted. So, they gave us the funding to have our own label.
FWR: Now you'll get better distribution.
AH: Yeah, exactly and if we ever get to a point, God willing or God willing that we won't, whatever the future is, if we're ever in a situation where we needed to use a bigger machine, simply because we're not able to, there's a switch there and we control the switch. If we need certain placements or stuff like that. We don't want to go to radio with this record at all and we don't want to do music videos. So many people haven't heard of us and I'd rather have them hear about us from seeing us live than a music video.
FWR: It seemed as though in the Spring that the band was everywhere you looked.
AH: It was weird how it all happened in two days. For us, that seems like it was just a good week and we were thinking, 'Oh cool', but nothing changed before or after. There was still momentum, but it happened to be that Rolling Stone was nice enough to put us in the magazine. I don't know what you're watching for, but we'll see.
FWR: Have there been any memorable collaborations on this tour?
AH: This has been interesting. There are three bands on this tour that I enjoy watching them rather than participating in their set. I really enjoy it, but this has been more of an artist's tour and all of the bands are good at their craft, except for us and we're sort of in the middle of this line-up.
FWR: Are you asking yourself how you got here?_AH: Exactly. That's how we feel about pretty much every tour. What are we doing here?
FWR: Waiting for the floor to drop out.
AH: Exactly. I don't know how this happened, but at the same time there hasn't been any other significant change for us. We've just worked hard.
FWR: Do you feel like you are in a bubble and you'll see how it is when you get off of the road?_AH: Yeah, I hope so, but I don't know. Either way, I'm still very happy…not happy…joyful, I guess. Happiness is never around, it seems for human beings, in general, but I'm very joyful and grateful for what we're doing. It's still, very much, everyday, 'Here's what we have to do. Finish that.' Regardless of whether it's something big or whatever. When Rolling Stone happened, I said, 'What's tomorrow? Still sleeping on a floor.' So, obviously, we haven't don't that much yet.
FWR: You've played some festivals. How were those experiences?_AH: We played Bonnaroo a week ago and that was awesome. That was the first show without Chris and we handled it alright. It was cool. We played Lollapalooza last year and that was weird. We've been able to do some really cool things without a label, definitely.
FWR: You mentioned getting to a place with the band where everyone gets along and gives each other space. How long did that take to learn?
AH: We had to realize it pretty early on. We started this whole tour in London on March 1st and then we were there for an entire week, all staying in one room. It was a one bedroom and there were six of us in there. So, that was a period of, 'Alright, this is too close. I'm pretty stressed out and I don't have any money.' We were all miserable and that was the shittiest week of our lives. So, we had to adapt right away. We basically had to go into that frame of mind. We left London, had one day and then we got on the Brand New tour and haven't really been home. I think collectively, over the past few months, we've all had ten to twelve days at home. They've all been separated by tours, so they've all been three or four days at a time. It's crazy.
FWR: All of you guys have girlfriends?
AH: All of us. Yeah. All of us, except Chris. Jeremiah is engaged to be married in October. I've had a girlfriend now for two and a half years. This November will be three years. That is what it is too and you maintain it and they're all friends. Robert is dating my little sister. Everyone's kind of in it and in it together. There's a good team at home behind us. We all have good parents. We all have really good families. Very supportive.
FWR: Regarding your solo work as Right Away, Great Captain! Did you find that the Manchester lyrics are so personal that you needed it as an outlet to write something fictional?
AH: Yeah, to take myself completely out of it. There's definitely that element. We made both of those records in the same three weeks. Once we finished tracking on "Virgin," Jeremiah, Jay and I went up to a cabin, literally, that next weekend and while they were mixing the record, we were up there doing "The Bitter End." We had no cell phone service and no power. There was barely any power and that's how it was for and that's how it had to be. It was an awesome period of discussion. It was interesting getting away from everything and coming back and the record was semi-mixed, not to our real liking. So, it was more like an eight week period of making records. I think it's so amazing how many people have never heard of Manchester, but then the percent of people that have heard Right Away is crazy. It's a record that I care about just as much as "Virgin," but it just happened to not be the one that I'm going out and pushing and touring off of. I don't know what people think about it. I haven't really heard any feedback. I just get a small iTunes check every month, but that's about it and there's not much there.
FWR: I appreciate having two albums to choose from depending on my mood.
AH: With "The Bitter End," I tried to write the saddest love record that I could possibly write. So, that is what I tried to accomplish. To write the hardest record for someone who is heartbroken to listen to. That was my goal and I felt like Manchester's writing came way too easy, in a sense of, I knew what I wanted and had to talk about and say. I knew how to say that I didn't have any words to say about a certain thing. With Right Away, I put myself in this situation of rewriting lyrics to a song that was completely different, 'Sacred Heart.' I wanted to have something I had to research and dig into feelings that I haven't had for years. Being heartbroken. That sick feeling. I want the entire record to be that anxious feeling of, 'Is this person…the person that I'm infatuated and obsessed with…are they turning their back on me?' or am I imagining this. At some point in me doing that, in this age of technology, that's so easy to figure out, 'Is she thinking about me? Does she know that I exist?' Really, the best part of a 1600 sailor is they have no way…that's when their thoughts ruin them. I think the idea of the brain destroying itself is fascinating and the way that the brain and the heart work together. Then it ended up being a record that, I didn't even mean for it…I guess I did…realizing that I was writing all these things and realizing that this is actually about God or this is actually about a deeper love than that and how it informs the relationship between the him and the captain. Realizing that there was something much greater than that worry that we had. At the end of it, it's the bitter end. It's the worst thing that could happen. I remember being in a relationship and thinking, 'Okay, I'm done and I'm moving on and that's that' and you feel great until you wake up the next morning and you hate everything. 'I hate my life. What am I going to do?'
FWR: Or you go back to them and tell them you can work it out.
AH: Exactly. The next day. You say, 'Oh, please. What do you think?' and then there are moments where out of sheer desperation you say, 'I'll do anything to have you. Please, take me. Just take me' and then there's moments of, 'I'll kill you.' Those scary moments like in the song, 'Gasoline Family.' That's crazed. He's talking about burning his wife and children because she's betrayed him. 'You think that you've hurt me? Well, why don't I hurt you with a matchstick and gasoline?' You just think that kind of stuff and you think, 'What am I doing?' At the end of it, it all comes back to sadness. I am so sad. Trying to come up with phrases and not even phrases, necessarily, because I feel like the rhythm of the lyrics are a lot different than Manchester and there are these heartbreaking feelings of, 'Oh, my God!' and I like how miserable it would be if you had no idea and your imagination destroying you. Even when you have text messaging and phones and internet and anyway that you can basically check up on this person anytime you want. Imagine not having any of that and develop these stories. These ideas of what's going on at home. The end of the record, with 'Gasoline Family', basically it's him sitting in his room lighting these matchsticks and they're going out and he's throwing them on the floor. He's going crazy and his room catches on fire and the captain comes in and saves him. When the captain saves him, he dies. So, the rest of the record is him talking about the captain and he realizes that the captain died for him. So, the next song, 'Cause I'm So Scared of Dying,' he mentions, 'With the fire in the hall' and 'When I told you I loved you, Goddamn me, I meant it.' He's telling the captain, 'I'm sorry, but now your legs look like firecrackers' and he's in this state of complete devastation. I wouldn't necessarily call myself Christian, because of the political terms that go along with that, but I'm definitely a follower of Jesus. The idea of someone dying for you and in the worst way. They died because you suck and I thought it was a pretty interesting parallel that I didn't even mean to write and it just ended up coming out as this thing. Then the captain is saying, 'It's alright.' So, then 'Sacred Heart' is the sailor, me or whoever is telling the story, it's his eulogy for the captain. He's just hammered and he's just saying these words. It's very much like, 'Whatever. Sorry that you're gone' and 'You're a sacred heart for a preaching dead man.' So, he's angry that he's dead, even though it was his fault, which I think we also do as believers. Getting angry with someone that loves you is so bizarre. So, then it's 'I'm Not Ready to Forgive You' and he sees the wife and he sees the two kids and he says, 'Standing right behind you stood the sum for my departure' and it's his brother who he saw his wife sleeping with. So, he sees her and he sees him and he asks himself, 'So here I stand a man without a plan or a virtue. I could either spend my life at sea or be a murderer. I have an option.' I think the cool part of that song is in the beginning, he sees her and everything that he's written about in the entire story about how much he hates her, completely goes away and his heart says, 'Forgive her, it's cool' and he's thinking, 'Yeah, it's fine' and he says, 'I saw you and I loved you. It's what it was,' but then his brain has to make a decision over his heart to say, 'No, I'm not ready to forgive you.' And that's that. The last song is basically the end of the third record, because it's part of a trilogy. So, the third one is kind of him as an old man, as a captain and it shows how he gets there. It's part of the story. It's pretty cool so far, what I've written. I'll probably record that one when we do the next Manchester one too.
FWR: The song, 'Right Away, Great Captain,' is one of my favorites. I love the ending.
AH: 'I wish you'd say please don't leave.' Yeah, that song was written on this album I made for Jay, the one I've known forever, called "The Garage". It was this weird, kind of crazy album that I wrote for him. I don't really know why I wrote it necessarily, but he likes Mountain Goats and they're probably my favorite band of all time. So, I wanted to make him a record that sounded like the old, old Mountain Goats. The really crappy tape stuff. So, that was on his record. When I wrote the song it was a small, one song story about just giving up. 'I'll just give it up. I'll leave everything. If he tells you to go, just go.' Then, it kind of evolved into the album. That version doesn't have the ending. The album has one vocal and one guitar overdub. It's mostly live.