Feeling comfortable often hinders progress. Four albums in and Manchester Orchestra found themselves itching to get to the next level. After being tasked with creating the score for 2016 film, Swiss Army Man (in which Paul Dano is marooned on an island with Daniel Radcliffe’s flatulent corpse) using only founding members Andy Hull and Rob McDowell’s voices, stripping away everything that got them there made perfect sense.
Fifth album ‘A Black Mile to The Surface’ was always going to be a challenge. “[It’s] like, what’s the point?” muses Andy. “How do we prove to ourselves that this is worth it, you know? Because we don’t want to make something that sucks.”
“And we’re the first people who will admit if our own stuff sucks if it does!” Rob adds.
The two of them are in London for a pair of intimate shows; just their voices and guitars. This is where the journey of ‘A Black Mile…’ began, skeletons of songs that had crept into Andy’s head but had never quite found their place. “I thought, I should like go back and investigate,” he explains. “When we went up to the cabin to write the record, I played everybody the songs for the first time. Rob had been hearing them for a while because we were travelling and working together, and I just challenged the band to go against your instincts because ultimately these songs, at their core, are very simple folk songs.”
Rob reiterates the importance that this held to the band as a whole: “That was the mission statement for the record… it’s finding that thing in your brain that you don’t know is there.”
Andy continues: “And how do you get out your comfort zone, you know? It’s very comfortable for us to turn on a distortion pedal and then fucking blow this roof off, how do we get the sane feeling of emotion and drive to it without that?”
Having decided to turn everything on its head, what exactly the album would convey, and how, was a different story. “I’ve always tried to look at out records like they’re movies,” says Andy. “In a way, ‘Cope’ was the fast thriller, action packed movie. I wanted this to be as wide open in scope as we could go, and I hate the term cinematic, but you know we really wanted to create a world that you’re in and kind of travelling, and that was a big thing with Catherine [Marks, producer]. When we first started talking to her about doing a record, she said I really want each one of these songs to feel like a different room in a house.”
Of the eleven rooms that make up ‘A Black Mile…’, each one feels like a journey undertaken for both the listener and the band. The album itself takes place in Lead, South Dakota, which is also the title of the album’s third track. After initially writing a song based there, Andy set about looking for further inspiration in the form of photographs and found one which suddenly allowed these voices and stories to come to fruition.
On what this new found style of writing meant for Andy, and his outlet, he offers: “Ultimately it is me. It’s like anybody who writes; there are elements of the author in a fictional book because it’s coming from that person’s brain and it’s coming from their life experiences. I’m a happy guy, and I really love my life and my family, but that’s not very compelling! So what I found was that I needed to create something where I could dive in. You can really go deeper and say certain things that I might not be okay with saying. ‘Lead’ is a great example. That’s a character talking about something, [who] says ‘I don’t think I wanna be a dad’. That’s surely a thought I’d have had before my daughter was born, but I’m not sure I ever would’ve had the guts to sit down and say that… I think it’s important because it’s a real emotion and it’s something that people go through.”
All of this development is thanks to Swiss Army Man and the aforementioned soundtrack. Without the restrictions that Robert and Andy had imposed upon them, they know things would’ve have gone differently, and potentially not for the better. “It would’ve been an entirely different record,” Andy reflects. “That proved to us that there are no rules, basically. After ‘Cope’ and ‘Hope’, we felt like we’d exhausted our resources for what we knew how to do. [They were] the heaviest and the most pretty and delicate, so then what next?”
Rob emphasises the extent to which they were trying to avoid past ideas: “I would say, every single song, we take this blueprint and see the skeleton of it. ‘How is this song not a ‘Mean Everything’ 2.0, or a ‘Simple Math’ 2.0, etc.?'” The band were hyper aware of not falling into their own complacency, an easy trap for established bands.
A name brought up in relation to this is Foo Fighters: a band who are so revered and such a staple that the formula they use is neither new nor old, it’s simply them doing what they do. “We always look at bands like that, and chances are, we’re not going to get to Foo Fighters level in our career, who knows?!” Andy says through laughter. “But we try and look at stuff like that and go, ‘Alright, how do we not do this?'”
That’s not to say they aren’t fans. Quite the opposite, in fact. Foo Fighters’ second album, which has reached its 20th anniversary this year, was a record that inspired Manchester Orchestra’s 2009 release, ‘Mean Everything To Nothing’. “We wanted that record to be ‘The Colour And The Shape’, I even say ‘colour and the shape’ on the first track! That’s like the idea of that record, that’s record two, but how do you do it? Five’s tough, what the hell do you do?”
“There’s a hunger there for sure. It’s like, we not only want to make our best record, we feel like we have to, and that’s very stressful, but ultimately it works. I was reading about guys like Thom Yorke, who say when you make a record you should never have fun, and it should never be easy, because if it’s either of those things, then you’re not doing the right thing. It’s like… true!”, Andy exclaims.
Putting themselves through the mill was a journey that ultimately paid off, even if it meant scrutinising everything they’d built up before this; turning the Manchester Orchestra they’d known for over a decade on its head. “It can’t be healthy to do, I know it wasn’t healthy to do. We were obsessed with this record, and it got to a point where our families were like, ‘Alright, you guys have to stop now, please come home!’ So that was tough, to stay in totally and keep pushing. I mean, guys like Simon from Biffy were also really helpful. Smarter dudes that I could call and say, ‘What do you do when you’re having a nervous breakdown in the studio?’ and ‘How did you push forward?’ And stuff like that, we were lucky to have some strong advisors around us.”
Walking away from their next chapter and letting it play out in all its cinematic glory is the hardest part of all. Eventually, Andy and Rob, along with drummer Tim Very and Andy Price, knew they had to call it a day on ‘A Black Mile…’. “It’s just good for you to step away,” confirms Andy, “but you want to uphold your convictions and make sure you give it everything you have.” Manchester Orchestra have certainly done that, and with it comes a whole new realm of possibility.
Taken from the August issue of Upset – order a copy below. Manchester Orchestra’s album ‘A Black Mile To The Surface’ is out now.