You think parenting’s hard? That dealing with death and birth is difficult? Nah, that’s a doddle. Make your second consecutive concept album, release it in 2021 and ask for attention? Now you’re talking.
In part two of my conversation with singer/songwriter of Manchester Orchestra, Andrew Hull, we move from motivation to music.
(This photo by Shervin Lainez)
Earlier in our talk , Andrew Hull, of Atlanta, Georgia, and I talked about how people can spend a lot of time as parents trying not to repeat the paths their own parents took.
For some of us – ok, maybe one of us not called Andrew Hull in this dialogue - that can be an almost automatic urge to do the opposite. All the time.
Without even needing to make a forced metaphor like bringing out an album is like giving birth, it was an easy slide from this to another instinctive act for his band, Manchester Orchestra: the way artists will often react to something they’ve just done by taking the opposite tack next time around.
The argument is easy to grasp, the line being I’ve done this already, I hate repeating things, I need something to keep me stimulated. There can be value in that, but sometimes it’s just reaction for the sake of reaction. Sometimes, staying with a line of attack can be rewarding.
The parts of Manchester Orchestra that have intrigued me is the balance between force and beauty, and their faith in the oft-mocked concept album. It’s working for Hull, Robert McDowell and their newish offsiders, drummer Tim Very and bassist Andy Prince, but neither of those things are recommended for beginners or amateurs playing at home.
The band straddles a couple of forms that can sometimes see the other as its flipside, if not natural enemy: harmony pop with an emphasis on attractiveness, and power-dominating vigour; pulsating rhythms with dark cloaks and a voice of surprising delicateness.
Add to this the fact that dynamics is something of a lost art as it’s considered inimical to attracting listeners who supposedly have lost the interest in, or stamina for, album listening.
But as their impending sixth album, The Million Masks Of God, confirms, Manchester Orchestra have stuck to the idea of beauty and force - melodies and enough heaviness to count as pressure on the rhythm - as equal elements of the songs.
“Yeah, there’s the idea that you hit them all the time, But you can also go, ‘yeah, let me tell you something’ and whisper it to somebody instead of screaming in their ear. You can have a far bigger impact than just yelling at somebody,” says Hull, who admits early on in the band’s life, dynamic range for them just meant loud, quiet, loud, quiet. But now he’s looking to catch himself unawares.
“I like listening to an album the 150th time I have listened to it and I’m kind of surprised we made that move. I really like that feeling. That’s what dynamic is to me now, instead of just big power chords and quiet singing. There’s so much to it.”
What does that mean though, to surprise himself?
“I am more attuned to a song - my own song, any song - if it gets down to a place where you are talking to me, in my ear, and tell me something. Almost like a movie. It can be the greatest movie, the biggest special effects, the best cinematography, but the one line with the guy or the woman talking into the camera, that’s the thing that gets ya, that affects you.”
The trick with that is the best music is made by those things in balance. Not necessarily equal, but balanced.
“Totally. Yes, exactly. I think the second half of this record was a big, a learning moment for us, but also something we were proud of because there just isn’t really a rock song on the second half of the record. we just had to be okay with that, because we liked the way the album played.”
And the album plays as one piece: linked by its motifs of death and birth, mistakes and repair, in stories about a man made to review his life after encountering the angel of death. Given we’re constantly told our attention spans have shrunk, making an album which is interconnected musically and thematically asks something bold today: a demand that we listen for more than a couple of songs and we do it in order.
Madness! Any concerns that this habit might have gone in listeners?
“For sure,” Hull laughs. “Of course. But I just think about Neil Young and I remind myself that everything is okay.”
Live by the question, What Would Neil Do?
“Yeah, and what Neil would do is when the CD came out there were 80 minutes and Neil would make 80-minute albums,” he says with another deep chuckle. “They are movies, and I hate to keep comparing it like that but I do believe in people who want to sit with music as a piece of art, and a collection. And I’m always going to believe that.
“We are probably not doing ourselves favours on the streaming game, with this stuff, but we also try to make it a point - not because of streaming, just in general - that you could put on any song from this record, listen to it start to finish, and it wouldn’t feel like it’s out of place and have someone say ’hey, what happened before that?’. But that’s the framework.”
Like the death of rock, the death of the album has been shouted for so long we accept it as fact, when it’s just that – shouting.
“We’ve got so many great apologists for this form right now. People like Kendrick Lamar, there’s plenty but he is a great example, where it’s just ‘man this needs to be your album’,” Hull says with some passion. “Or I think about a band like Outkast, from our hometown, or like Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, which has sold 10 million+ and starts with a classroom talking about things. It’s a concept record, it’s important. It probably goes out of style but I don’t think that people are going to give up on that.”
Nice sentiment, and he’s preaching to the choir right here, but in the end he just has to hope people haven’t given up on that. Big call.
“Exactly,” Hull says with a mix of gallows humour and confidence. “I could be totally wrong.”
Bet you he isn’t though.
Manchester Orchestra’s The Million Masks Of God is out on April 30.