It’s safe to say that, across the past seven or eight years, Manchester Orchestra have really been through the ringer. An original member of the band has left before each of the band’s last three LPs - drummer Jeremiah Edmond departed before 2011’s ‘Simple Math’, with bassist Jonathan Corley leaving before 2014 follow-up ‘COPE’, and enigmatic keyboardist Chris Freeman taking his leave last year - but there’s still a sense of strength that remains between Andy Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell, over in the UK to play two instantly sold-out acoustic shows at London venue The Lexington, introducing their upcoming fifth album ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’.
Sitting down before the second of these gigs, the pair seem more relaxed than ever. Since ‘COPE’, a lightning-fast, back-to-basics thrash through chunky rock songs, they took on their most ambitious project to date. Penning the soundtrack for the Daniel Radcliffe-starring film ‘Swiss Army Man’, Hull and McDowell created 24 tracks using only their voices. It was a task that threw their songwriting wide open, and created a world of space with which to craft their subsequent fifth album as Manchester Orchestra.
“It flipped the reset switch for us,” Robert begins. “It got us thinking. How do we move forward with our own band, when we’ve been in a situation facing two artistic directors, giving us direction and insight, who literally can’t pick up a guitar. And so all of a sudden it allowed us to look at music as a blank canvas. You can do whatever the fuck you want with it.”
“There are no rules,” Andy takes over. “With ‘Swiss Army Man’, we realised you could make an emotional, powerful song that’s twenty-five seconds long. With this record, we thought: let’s make every little second interesting - where there’s space, there’s something to do with it, and something brilliant to fill it with.”
“When this life ends, all you get to do is hopefully affect and influence what happens after you.”
‘A Black Mile To The Surface’ is the band’s most complex record by far, flitting between folk-indebted swayers and string-enhanced big-hitters with perfect cohesion. The record begins with the gorgeous solo track ‘The Maze’, which is also the first song Hull wrote for his three year-old daughter Mayzie. Fatherhood has opened up a whole new world of perspective on the record, and rather than a tried-and-tested formula growing tired on album five, it sees Manchester Orchestra kicking on to a future of more mature topics, but tackled with the same fire, passion and care as ever.
Bringing new life into the world has also lead ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’ to fixate on death for large amounts of its duration. Variations on a repeated lyric - “there’s nothing I’ve got when I die that I keep” - travel through the album as a constant reminder of its message. The phrase was also a previous title for the album, eventually discarded.
“The record’s about family, and the circle of life, the significance and insignificance of yourself,” he begins, pausing to exclaim “oh, Julien Baker’s texting me right now!”. “That line, which I keep repeating throughout the record,” he picks up, “…I guess it means what it means. There’s nothing I’ve got when I die that I keep - you don’t get to hold onto anything. When this life ends, all you get to do is hopefully affect and influence what happens after you. That’s for my daughter and her daughter and so on and so on. That’s my job now. My life is less about me and more about her.”
“I feel so fortunate that the albums that I’ve written have all been written from a very honest place.”
Recording largely with Catherine Marks (Foals, The Killers), welcoming in different advisors makes ‘A Black Mile…’ significantly wider in scope than the self-produced ‘COPE’. From the towering ‘The Moth’ to intricate, winding highlight ‘The Alien’ and the devastating solo cut ‘The Parts’ (a track recorded in the bathtub at the studio due to Hull’s whisky hangover allowing no greater movement), the album sees them drift away from their largely emo roots, and early tours with the likes of Brand New and Balance & Composure, and closer to the indie rock of The Shins and The National. It’s a new suit that fits the band perfectly, and sees them at their most comfortable yet.
It’s been ten years since the band emerged with their brilliant, hyper-emotional debut album ‘I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child’. Hull is, predictably, an extremely different person and songwriter than the person that wrote the crushing, life-defining ‘Where Have You Been?’ and ‘Colly Strings’, but there’s an ever-present honesty that can’t be stripped from anything he or Manchester Orchestra touches. When he and McDowell play those pair of songs at their London comeback, probably for the thousandth time, they’re still fresh, affecting and full of meaning, for those both on and off stage.
“A friend of mine sent me a really nice text a week or so ago, and he told me: ‘I still really love [second album, 2009’s] ‘Mean Everything To Nothing’, it becomes more and more honest every time I hear it’, and I feel so fortunate that the albums that I’ve written have all been written from a very honest place. Of course it also helps that I’m still with the woman who those songs are written about, and they almost become more important to me now she’s the mother of my child. If I continue to be that honest, I can only look back with pride and great memories, and look forward with excitement.”
Manchester Orchestra’s new album ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’ is out now via Loma Vista.