Nearly 15 years after the release of their debut album, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, Manchester Orchestra have established themselves as a career indie rock band.
As they prepare to release The Million Masks of God this Friday (April 30), the band has seen every album chart in the top 40 on the Billboard 200 since hitting mainstream rock radio with 2009’s “I’ve Got Friends” and even their 2014 acoustic album (Hope, the followup to that same year’s Cope) landed in the top 100. It’s a level of steady success that’s not common for a group of folksy rockers from Atlanta, but the group’s success is largely attributed to lead singer Andy Hull’s blend of grandiose themes with personal narratives in his songwriting.
Hull also happened to be one-half of the Artist x Artist conversation that SPIN featured last month, when he sat down with his unexpected collaborator, Paris Jackson.
Ahead of the new album, SPIN spoke with Hull on Zoom to chat about albums new and old, what Manchester Orchestra means to him, and much more.
SPIN: Seeing as The Million Masks of God is coming out seemingly on the tail end of this pandemic, what’s it been like to have the chance to sit and reflect on it — and your other music — over the last year without being able to tour or anything?
Andy Hull: Well, I’m sort of always sitting in some state of self-reflection, healthy or unhealthy. But it really made me appreciate playing guitar just to play guitar, without really having a motive for picking up a guitar. I liked that a little bit of pressure went away in that sense. I was able to just connect with the instrument in a really nice way. It was the same with the piano. I wasn’t worrying about having to write a song, I was just playing and letting the endorphins take over — just letting music save me as it does. It made me realize how much I miss playing with my band and that feeling of creating and sharing something together. We were able to spend a lot of time together as safely as we could, with writing and recording and doing live shows for our Patreon every month. Those forced us to go back and re-record every song that we’ve ever written, so it gave us a big project to do — which was a helpful tool for us.
How is creating a Manchester Orchestra album different compared to a decade ago?
The same mentality is there — to just do your very best — but we’ve learned so much along the way. It’s amazing to think about how young we were making some of these records, but it doesn’t really feel that way. I feel a lot different and sort of evolved and grown up both as a person and musically, but all of the albums feel connected. They’re a body of work, so even stuff that we did on our first album would have some sort of impact on what we do on this new album. They’re all a part of the same story that’s being written, and I feel a connection to all of those albums. I feel grateful. That’s my ultimate emotion. I can’t believe I get to do this at a high level of recording, and that I’m given this freedom, and that people respond to it positively. If you were talking to that kid who was making the first record, this is really just as good as it gets as far as what I was hoping I’d be able to do. It’s a dream come true.
Over the years, you’ve also dabbled in some projects outside of Manchester Orchestra, but what is it about the band that makes it such a primary focus for you?
I think it’s that this is the closest to my identity, really. All of these records are time capsules of a three-to-four year period of our lives. When it comes time to add on to it, it takes a lot of commitment and dedication, because I want it to be something I’m proud of. I’m really pleased with everything that we’ve released so far. If there comes a day when I don’t feel like this would be continuing on with my life’s work, then it would be less important to me. But I made a conscious decision after our third record that like this is where I want my songs to go — the songs I care about and the songs that reflect me. I want the best songs of mine to go here. I love having the freedom to go do other things, and I know that that’s always there. But there’s something about making a Manchester record that feels a bit more important to me internally.
Speaking of other projects, it’s the fifth anniversary of your score for Swiss Army Man. Looking back at it now, what was it like to work on that film with your musical brother, [Manchester Orchestra guitarist] Robert McDowell?
I feel that way about Rob and my relationship all the time, and I’m grateful for that. Rob and I made a really deep connection when he was 14 and I was 16. He played in Manchester for the first couple of records, but then with Simple Math, he really started to turn into my partner in it. By the time I had released my third Right Away, Great Captain! solo album, Rob and I really started to speak the same language. At that point, I really consider it a God kind of thing — or a universe thing — that we were given the opportunity to work on Swiss Army Man for so long in a field that we weren’t familiar with. It was all trial and error and failing forward. It was a big turning point for the two of us to adjust our scope of what we thought records could be and how far we could take a crazy idea and see it manifest into something beautiful.