To listen to the new album, The Million Masks of God, from the Atlanta-based rock group, Manchester Orchestra, is to inhabit a cathedral-like building and let your ears take in each swell, each ring and each echo as the vibrations subsume and the medicine of music takes hold. The forthcoming record (out April 30) is spacious. It’s like wind and chimes but if they occupied a symphony. But these qualities make sense when you consider the earliest memories the band’s frontman and principle songwriter, Andy Hull, has when it comes to music. As a kid, Hull’s mother would play classical music at night to help him fall asleep. He’d drift toward slumber as the compositions of Chopin or Bach unfurled. Now, the music Hull makes is similarly epic-yet-tasteful. It’s a fine line to walk but one he and the band’s co-founder and guitarist, Robert McDowell, traverse expertly.
“Still today,” Hull says, “I have to listen to something when I’m going to bed.”
For a while, Hull listened to music as he drifted to dreamland but as the art form became more and more of a profession, it became impossible to merge the two (now he listens to podcasts). Yet the early exposure to classical music evidently has done the job. Manchester Orchestra’s new 11-song LP is ornate, luxurious, fit for clergy, nobility. In a way, the record is a far cry from the band’s humble teenage beginnings but in another way, it’s representative of the group’s process and ethics from the start. Hull and McDowell met one another in their mid-teens (and have since been featured on late night television shows). At the time, McDowell had a little makeshift studio in his unfinished basement and it was there the duo’s chemistry sparked.
“We’d just make records down there, exploring music together,” Hull says. “To this day, we work on everything hand-in-hand. If we’re in an incredible studio working with people we’d never thought we’d get to work worth, we’re still doing the same thing we were doing back then. We’re just better at it.”
Obviously, it’s hard to write good music. It’s even harder to make it consistently for years —or for a lifetime. But, Hull says, the way he orients himself to songs, to composition, helps to keep him productive and interested. While he’s accomplished and prolific, he’s also kept music (and especially music theory) at something of a distance. He recalls early guitar lessons where his teacher told him he could learn “Stairway to Heaven” the easy way or the hard way, meaning he could learn the song with or without the theory behind it. To this day, Hull appreciates his personal approach to writing, which includes an understanding of the rules of music but not an adherence to them.
“Any songwriter will tell you,” he says, “you can write a great song with one chord if you’re clever about it.”
Another aspect of Hull’s appreciation for the mystery of song is that he’s willing to chase new avenues if they seem fruitful. One thing that keeps the musician to the task of creativity is that it offers new chances for exploration. Though Manchester Orchestra has earned several Billboard hits, there’s more to write.
“Whatever the thing is in the moment,” Hull says, “creating something new that feels like culmination and furthering along an evolution of sound, that’s the thing that inspires us. When we’re inspired and care about it, the record is better and we feel better about it. We don’t set out to have a particular sound, it’s more like, ‘How do we push this further?’”
For the new LP, the two friends took their time. While there are often several years between albums for the band, which formed in 2004, this time it was on purpose, Hull says. They let early drafts of songs breathe, gave them time to live a life outside of their creators. This even led to some productive last minute changes. Like on the song, “Annie,” which was at first written fast-paced, but in the eleventh hour Hull slowed it down, gave it a groove and let it become something to sink into rather than ride. The result is one of the strongest tracks on a deep, rich record. One of the reasons the two gave the album space, though, was that it dealt with heavy subject matter, including the recent passing of McDowell’s father.
“Dealing with something so brutal and real and human,” Hull says, “also gave us this sense of gratitude. What a gift it is that we have this opportunity to make something. Even though the record deals with heavy subject matter, it’s still a celebration of life.”
In the end, as the album will soon meet fans, Hull says he’s hopeful about his and the band’s future. Though looking down the road can seem grim and worrisome, there are always new opportunities to sing. And a song can help bridge a bad day to the next good one.
“Making music and art, in general, is such a lifeline,” Hull says. “That gives me far more purpose than streaming numbers or comparisons to other bands. We’re blessed to be able to do this.”
Photos by Shervin Lainez