From the Black Lips and Deerhunter to The Coathangers and Dead Confederate, Atlanta has had its fair share of bands bubbling up on the national indie-rock scene in recent years. But few have shown more promise to develop into mainstream music icons than Manchester Orchestra, whose 2009 sophomore release made it crystal clear that they weren’t satisfied with merely being the ATL’s best indie band.
Produced by Joe Chiccarelli (My Morning Jacket, The Shins), the bombastic Mean Everything To Nothing was designed to fill arenas, with hook-heavy songs that evoked comparisons to rock legends like Black Sabbath, Jane’s Addiction and Nirvana without losing Manchester Orchestra’s distinctive identity. The album elevated their national profile, earning accolades from tastemakers such as Paste and Alternative Press and hitting the Billboard Alternative charts with singles “I’ve Got Friends” and “Shake It Out.”
But if you ask frontman Andy Hull—who’s currently coming off tour with Bad Books, the band’s side project with singer/songwriter Kevin Devine—Mean Everything To Nothing was just a warm-up for Manchester Orchestra’s forthcoming third LP, Simple Math. Though typically modest and emotionally reserved, Hull seemed downright giddy while talking about the new concept album, often jumping in to answer before even hearing the end of the question. By the end of our conversation, Hull’s enthusiasm for the new material had proven just as infectious as memorable hooks.
I know your father and grandfather were both preachers: How did they feel about you dropping out of Providence Christian Academy to pursue music full time?
I was brought up with really good morals, but my father and grandfather have always been incredibly supportive. There was never any pressure for me to follow in their footsteps, so I was home schooled for a few years while I was making our first record.
You’ve always seemed very mature for your age, especially in terms of the lyrical themes you tend to tackle. Where does that come from?
My mom always said that when I was four I was acting like a six-year old. Now I’m in a position where I can’t really afford to screw up. I never went to college, so I was never raging or partying all the time. We had no time to be foolish because we were so busy touring, trying to get our jobs done.
Mean Everything To Nothing marked a huge progression in your sound. You went from a cool little local indie-rock band to these arena-ready rock stars seemingly overnight. Was that a conscious decision on the band’s part?
Yeah, we really wanted that record to be bigger, and I think that was the hardest part for [producer] Joe Chiccarelli. There was a point in time where he was like, “Guys, you can’t turn everything up all the way and have it sound clear!” He showed us how to arrange our music without having to crank everything to 11 all the time.
It seemed like Mean Everything to Nothing had a major impact on your career momentum. How did you feel about the way things changed in the wake of the album’s success?
I’m in Nashville right now mixing the new album, and [Mean Everything] definitely gave us more of a challenge to do something even better for this one. I think that’s the goal of where we are—to be excited and progressing further than people would expect you to progress. I like surprising people.
How would you say this new one is a step up?
It’s a lot bigger. It’s pretty epic and heartbreaking. It’s a conceptual record about me, my wife, God and the last three years of my life. It kind of touches on everything I’ve been dealing with. Lyrically, I’m just really focused. The melodies I’m singing are really intense and spread out. It’s definitely more musical than anything we’ve done. I’m really excited about it.
How did your experience of working with Joe on the last album affect the way you’re approaching this one?
He taught me how to build a song with channels, thinking about how to record before you actually start recording. We had Dan Hannon—who co-produced the last one with Joe—and Robert and I, and it was just incredibly fun and easy. It was a lot of work, but we all felt like we were a part of something that was better than anything we’ve done before. We have a lot of instruments on the album we’ve never used before, and a full orchestra on half the record. It’s very grand.
Tell me about working with Kevin Devine on Bad Books. When you guys first met, what was it about him that allowed you guys to connect on such a deep level?
The two of us come from very different places as people in terms of where we grew up and how we grew up. We share a lot of the same beliefs, but we also have a lot of things that, when we met, we couldn’t have been farther apart from each other on. But we really loved each other once we met, like, “That’s a best friend!” He was at my wedding. Beyond our music compatibility, I would just say that he’s one of my favorite people of all time. Then, when you add in the fact that he is an incredible songwriter… We’ve probably played 200 shows together over the past few years. [Working together] was just so simple to do and it just felt like it was the right move. Everything came together very naturally.
You said that you share some of the same beliefs: is that ideological, political, religious or what?
I think every one of them. Kevin and I can talk for three hours about everything, literally. He’s eight or nine years older than me, and he’s been through a lot of stuff that I haven’t experienced yet. He’s just a really wise guy. We both respect each other’s opinions and, as we’ve gotten to know each other, I think we’ve really helped each other in certain areas. He has definitely helped me with my stress management over the last five years.
You’ve got a very strong songwriting identity on your own. What’s the collaborative process like as far as songwriting goes?
I wrote everything I wrote for the Bad Books album during [the recording process], but Kevin brought a few things down with him. He’d play through it, we’d add and change stuff, and we did the same thing with my songs. I would record a scratch track and then we would just go to work, basically with each of us serving as the producer on the other one’s songs.
How does he make your music better and vice versa?
He makes me think more about lyrics and phrases, because he thinks about them a lot, whereas I tend to just say them as I think them. He really admires my free will of just being confident in an idea because it feels right, and he is someone I definitely admire for being so meticulous, with the careful wording of everything for a purpose.
So would you say you’re more of a big picture type and he’s more about the intricate details?
Yeah. I mean, in general, who the hell knows what I’m writing about? I think [being less specific in my lyrics] allows people to create their own story. But this new Manchester Orchestra record was definitely different, because I was very, very careful about everything I said on it. No words are said just for the sake of saying them. I think there were parts on Everything Means Nothing where it wasn’t about the lyric so much as it was about the riff and the feeling. On this new one, the lyrics and melodies are really important. Definitely thought out, but not overly thought out. All the songs are shorter, compared to the last record, and there’s a lot more really cool guitar stuff, almost like classic Neil Young guitar at times… Chiccarelli was saying, “ I don’t know how the hell you did it, but you made a record that’s better than you, but still sounds like you.” [Laughs]
Do you have a release date for the new album yet?
It will be probably come out in April, but we’re sending it out to the press right before or right after the holidays.
What would you say differentiates the Bad Books sound from Manchester Orchestra?
I think it’s probably easier to digest for someone who has never heard either band before. At face value it’s a really comfortable listen. I think the sequencing is really well thought-out, and I think you’re going to just want to sit back and enjoy it. People tend to overanalyze most of Manchester Orchestra’s work, which I appreciate and I really have a respect for. Our fans start to dig in right when they hear the first note, which I think is awesome. Sometimes we are deliberately tough to analyze at face value, because there is a lot of stuff in the back of our songs and the repetition.
How has the response to Bad Books been so far?
It’s awesome! The songs have been doing well, and the album’s climbing all these charts. We were really amazed at how well it did. The shows have been incredible. It’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s a nice piece of work to hold fans over as Kevin is writing and we’re putting the finishing touches on our record.
You and Kevin are doing an acoustic tour in December.
Yeah, we like playing together and it’s fun to play acoustic shows. I don’t get that opportunity that often. Those shows kind of make you a man, or woman, or grown-up. You just don’t have any distortion or anything to rely on. You just have to go for it.
What was the decision as far as not having the band go out on the road with the two of you?
Basically, we had just done a tour a few months ago, and if Kevin doesn’t have Manchester Orchestra in the background… We’re used to splitting up money in Bad Books among six members, so it helps Kevin a whole lot to have the extra cash. But Robert from Manchester is also playing the shows with us. We just didn’t want to have to suit up for a full band tour again after the crazy schedules we’ve had. Plus, it just felt like something nice to do around the holidays, right after all the turkey and stuffing, ya know?
What are your primary goals for Manchester Orchestra with this next album?
I think that’s all about the music. We’re going to do everything we can with this record to make the music the most important part, and to just let it speak for itself. I’m telling you—I’m not lying—it’s really good, and I’m a pretty insecure guy in general. All the people I’ve played it for, they’ve all said, “I thought it was going to be great, but I didn’t know it was going to be that great,” which is just the coolest thing you can hear. I’m really going off other’s people’s word here: You play it for 10 people whose opinions you really respect and they all love it… I think that’s a good sign. I’m at a place in my life where people would tell me if they didn’t love it. I like that.
You guys have made a lot of progress in the five years since you formed the band. How do you feel about where Manchester Orchestra stands at this stage in your career?
We’ve all known each other for like 10 years now, and we’re all big on accountability: They call me out on my crap and I call them out. We know we’re very lucky to have come this far in such a short time, and we’re very aware of how quickly we can fall. I’ve never had a backup career plan… I just hope it doesn’t go away.