Manchester Orchestra's new album 'The Million Masks of God' is available to pre-order on transparent light blue vinyl in the BrooklynVegan store.
Manchester Orchestra are approaching the 15th anniversary of their debut album, and they're still pushing forward. They consider 2017's A Black Mile to the Surface a creative rebirth -- and it was one of their best-received albums (and birthed their highest-charting single yet) too -- and the upcoming The Million Masks of God functions as a sequel to that album. It reunites the band with Black Mile producer Catherine Marks, and also brings in Phoebe Bridgers collaborator Ethan Gruska (who also worked on the last album by Manchester orchestra offshoot Bad Books), and it has a similarly atmospheric vibe to its predecessor. This album and Black Mile definitely feel like two sides of the same coin, and it has moments that recall Manchester's earlier records as well, but what makes The Million Masks of God so impressive is that it really doesn't sound like any other Manchester Orchestra album. Andy Hull's unmistakable voice and distinct songwriting style make this immediately recognizable as a Manchester Orchestra album, but it feels like an entirely new chapter of their career.
The album has been referred to as "movie album," and its sequence does indeed feel cinematic. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end; songs flow right into each other; and the songs feature recurring musical patterns and shared lyrical themes throughout. And like a good film, it's a multi-faceted piece of work that strings together various moods and ideas. It can be soft and pretty, or loud and soaring; some parts are earthy and acoustic, and others rely on electronics and sound manipulation. It incorporates elements of folk songs and big sludgy rock songs and glitch pop and more, and it strings everything together in a seamless, genre-fluid way. The album has its standout moments, but -- aside from the instantly-satisfying lead single "Bed Head" -- most of them gradually sneak up on you, rather than pop out immediately. It's an album that really is best heard start to finish, and if you put the time in, the results are genuinely rewarding.
The Million Masks of God officially comes out Friday (4/30) via Loma Vista, and you can pre-order it on transparent light blue vinyl from the BrooklynVegan store. Ahead of the release, we caught up with Andy to discuss the new album, as well as missing the feeling of live shows, some of Andy's recent collaborations, and more. Read on for our chat...
The announcement for the new album said it "can be seen, in a way, as the band's sophomore album following a rebirth with Black Mile." Can you talk about the ways that Black Mile felt like a rebirth for you, and how that album put you in the path towards this new one?
In a lot of ways Black Mile felt like our first record. It was like, "oh man, we're kind of like, going back," like moving forward but also going back to like, a vulnerable beginning. It wasn't a reactionary record, it was just a pure record. I think our first four albums bounce off each other, move alongside each other, and have reactions to each other and I love how they all looked but there wasn't really anything to do -- in our opinion -- after Cope and Hope. It felt like we had a really clean slate. And then making something like [the score to the 2016 film] Swiss Army Man, which took away all of our instruments and made us really focus on textures and mood in music, something less technical. It felt like a new thing, where we had new tools and sort of a pure idea of [the music]. And then obviously the way it was received was unexpected for us. We have a really awesome fanbase of people that really love our band and we know that they'll always support us, anything on top of that is just like a really lovely bonus. That album felt like it had a lot of extras and was reaching new people for the first time, so I think that's probably also why it felt like it was the second time we were premiering.
Could you ever have imagined back when you were doing the first record that your biggest song would come a decade later?
That's the hope! It's how I mentally looked at it all, like I never wanted to be a band that was associated with a particular decade. I think if you can get out of that decade and still make something meaningful, that you've sort of outgrown that decade. So yeah, I'm super proud that that happened. But I think it's also a testament to like, we weren't trying to do that, and that's what made it even better. I remember when the label said that they really loved the song "The Gold," and we were like, "yeah that song's cool, it's not like my favorite, I don't think it's gonna explode or anything," and then it ended up connecting with people.
You mentioned doing Swiss Army Man, and the new album's been referred to as a "movie album." What did you bring to this from your experience scoring films?
Well, I think the connectivity to all of it - like we've always intended to write records that felt connected and the sequence was really important. You can listen back, like on Mean Everything -- that was our first proper attempt at like, "how do we combine all this stuff so it feels like one thing?" And with that record, and really all of them until Black Mile, it was really about side A and side B. There were two pieces at work that really complemented each other. And then Black Mile to me was the first time we sort of went away with the idea of A and B. And that record on vinyl actually had sides A, B, and C, so you got the middle area with "The Alien," "The Sunshine," and "The Grocery" -- that was like kind of a mini record itself. So, we figured out how to start piecing things together a little more intentionally, like songs that are in the same key, or maybe a guitar sort of rings out over the top of a song, and then we started thinking, "oh, so maybe we just write an entire side A that just needs to be listened to as one thing." And that's when the idea of "it's a movie" started. The two sides on this record are different, but in one listen, they all actually work off of each other, in my opinion. So yeah I think just our ability to kind of more intelligently think about how to connect songs and make it this full listening experience was super influenced by Swiss Army Man.
It definitely feels sequenced like a movie. A lot of the songs bleed into the next, like obviously the two singles you have out now have that same drum pattern. When you were assembling all that, did you start with a bunch of different pieces and piece them together later, or was it more like you had a narrative arc in mind and you went for that sequence from the start?
A little bit of both. There were certainly songs that came together where we were like, "oh okay, I get where that song is sort of going to be," and then there were several songs where you would take the chorus from another song that didn't really work and start to combine them. And because the writing was all about the same thing, it helped to be able to borrow phrases from places when it felt like "this is a great place where the narrator might say this thing again." And I think the idea of not really worrying about the rules of songwriting, and how that's exciting to sort of break your own self-imposed or self-learned tools in that process. Allowing these songs to live for a really long time and treating them with the respect of like, "we could be done with you at 75% but there's some other place that we can take you, there's some level we haven't unlocked yet." Just treating them all that way, and figuring out where all the stuff would fit, it did kind of organically start to make more sense.
I'm sure after 10+ years of writing music together, you need to kind of reinvent the process a bit.
Yeah, and there's nothing wrong with a song taking a long time to figure out. For a while, I would just stick with songs that were really easy and came to me really easy. I liked chasing them this time. When in the past we might be like "yeah that was an awesome B-side" for the ones that weren't quite there, this time I was like "no, commit to it."
Did the pandemic have anything to do spending more time on the record?
It didn't have anything to do with the extra time spent recording it. We had finished tracking it [before the pandemic]. But it helped massively with mixing. London and the States pretty much shut down the same day, and we were just about to start mixing with Catherine [Marks]. She likes to take a long time on our records, which I love. She already had a month booked for it, and I was like "I think we'll get it done in three weeks." And then once everything was cancelled, we just took our time and she'd mix for like six hours a day. We spent two-and-a-half, three months, we really took it slow, and it was amazing. I'd never really had the luxury to go, "actually, let's bring up that weird sample of someone whistling in reverse... that no one's ever gonna hear" [laughs]. We got to actually really, really dig in and have a fun time mixing it rather than a stressful "we gotta get this done" mentality.
This is your second record in a row with Catherine, and you have Ethan Gruska on this one too. What attracted you to his work, and what did he bring to the table that was new for Manchester Orchestra?
I think it comes down to what we figured out working with Catherine as well. Black Mile was a little bit of a rough experience for us and Catherine. We were trying to figure out if we trusted each other, if she trusted us to actually know what we're doing, and us wondering if she knows what she's doing. When we realized her strengths and then realized places that we wanted to supplement like, maybe more of a technically musical side of it, we needed just a fellow full-blown nerd [laughs], and it was like Ethan is the guy. First he worked on Bad Books III and added a bunch of cool stuff to that record, and then I spent a day in the studio with him in his studio in LA, like maybe early 2019, and he was just one of those guys -- there aren't a lot of them -- where I would have a very distinct sound in my head, and I could explain what I want that sound to be, and he could make that sound happen in like five minutes. When you find somebody who can do that, and is really excited about doing it, loves the chase of strange and atmospheric and weird... yeah I was like, "hey can you just come to pre-production with us at the cabin for a week, and just go through songs and play with us, just kind of sit in as the fifth member?" And yeah he ended up being a massive part of it. The record was really a four-headed monster between me, Rob, Catherine, and Ethan as far as the production side of it. It was really cool.
Lyrically -- according to the press release -- the album started out as a story about a fictional character, and then the songs eventually became about Robert's father losing his battle with cancer. How did that transformation happen, from a songwriting perspective?
I think that's partially true. It didn't end up becoming strictly about Chuck and that experience, but the whole concept became that. It was a very tragic moment where Robert was losing and we were losing a major part of our group and our family, and at the same time we had this new life that was appearing. Rob's son and my son were born five weeks apart from each other. And just like, grappling with seeing my best friend going through that, and me as well trying to process that -- that's a pretty heady thing for me personally to try to sit down and write one song about. That can be really overwhelming to even think about that as a concept. How could you say it in one song? It's too big to say it in one song -- at least that's how I felt. And so I think I just allowed it to be worked out over the course of the record. And like yeah there's a story of a guy, and it may as well be me. I think hopping into a character, and having some conceptual line of like, okay, so maybe each song is like a picture from this guy's life. And just having that as an idea allows me to move around more freely and explore more emotions as I'm writing, rather than saying this song's about Rob and his dad.
Do you feel like writing the album helped you, and maybe also Rob, with the grieving process?
Yes, absolutely. I mean I can't speak for Rob specifically, but I know that he feels really grateful that we made this album, and that it's an album that has -- for such a dark thing -- a feeling of redemption in it. And there is a feeling to me of kind of like, positivity, being rid of guilt, just some sort of clarity of mental health, or at least the pursuit of it. For me it was very important. That's how I process things, by writing about it and exploring those emotions there. I couldn't really process it in any other way at the time either, because I really needed to be there for my friend, so yeah that's where my thoughts came out.
I think that kind of thing has really come through in Manchester Orchestra's music. A lot of your songs have really been there for people in times like this.
I mean that is the biggest gift and sort of purpose of even doing this. I figured that out about 10 years ago, that actually this all isn't even about us. We're here to help people, it's some form of medicine. And I like that.
So, Manchester Orchestra has such a reputation as a powerful live band. Obviously shows have been on pause for a while, although you did do those socially distant acoustic shows last summer, and the recent livestream. What kind of impact has this year of no touring had on you and the band, and also, could you talk a bit about your experience playing socially distanced shows?
I think anybody who performs -- even if they don't really like performing, there's something that you get out of it -- and I didn't realize that I missed it until several months into [the pandemic]. I realized there was something I had been receiving from shows that I wasn't receiving anymore, and it felt really weird. And even doing Zoom performances at the beginning of all that stuff, I was just a nervous wreck. I was like, "ugh I had forgot how to do this." When we got together and started making songs for Patreon and playing stuff together, and exploring new ways of playing all of our old songs, that was scratching an itch for sure. But then once we went up to Echo Mountain and recorded that Black Mile live thing, even with no audience it was like "oh this is the thing I'm missing," the energy and the communal spirit of five or six people playing something together, free of irony and just enjoying the pure moment of music. I missed that tremendously. The social distanced shows are tough because there isn't really that thing. Fortunately, we did acoustic ones and so those could have a little bit more of a feeling of like, it's quiet and people can be spaced out. Still strange, obviously, but grateful that we got to do it. We've played a show every year since 2004, so it would've been a bummer not to get one out last year. And I'm hopeful, things seem to be moving in the right way.
You're of course always doing tons of work outside of Manchester Orchestra as well, and in the past year or so, you've done some really cool collaborations. You sang on the Touche Amore and the Tigers Jaw records, and you co-produced that new Foxing song. What excites you about those bands and what did you take away from working with them?
Really three different experiences. First of all, I love all of those people, deeply. With Touche, that was a really cool collaboration. I was sort of asked to do one thing, and then I asked if I could do another [laughs], and they were gracious enough to be cool with that, and then they really enjoyed what it was. That was so cool. I've loved that band for a while and I really think that they're renegades in a lot of ways, with how they approach their craft and blending genres. Tigers Jaw was really just a sweet little connection with me and Ben [Walsh]. We send each other demos, and he happened to send me that demo I think the day he wrote it, and when they were in the studio he wanted some nice little harmonies on the back, and I was more than happy to be a part of that band's awesome legacy in a small way. And then Foxing was way more -- I'd been working on that record with them since February or March of last year. We were in the last four months of finishing our record, while they were starting up the first four months of their experience. So it was awesome to be a part of that record from the very beginning demos that they sent, and just working with them as closely as they would want me to, and going through all the concepts and lyrics for that record. It was a blast. And then they came down here in the middle of the summer -- they all got tested -- and they just camped out at our studio for two weeks. They were supposed to stay for a week, and we were like "man just stay here, this is so great," and we just worked these long hours and kept moving the record along. And they ended up crushing it, I'm really proud of that record.
I don't know if it's just because they're coming so close together, but I feel like there's a nice little relationship between the new Foxing and the new Manchester. They both kinda have these atmospheres and these sounds...
[Laughs] It makes sense! We were all sorta writing about the same things in totally different ways. They do feel connected to me, me and Conor [Murphy] kind of talked about that. Kind of unknowingly, we were making these sibling albums together.
Are there any other newer artists that you've been a fan of recently, and/or would like to collaborate with?
I really like Briston Maroney who just released his new record Sunflower. Me and Rob co-wrote with him the second track on that record called "Bottle Rocket," and I really like the other songs on that record. He's great. That's probably the main one we've been working with, and we've been finishing our friend Brother Bird's new album for the last year or so, which is really great. And me and Rob are gonna work with this really cool band Overcoats. I'm just kinda into stuff that just pokes me right in the heart, and it's cool when I get to make something cool with people.
When the pandemic first started, a lot of artists were emptying out their vaults just to give people some new music, and you released two full albums of demos from the era of the first two albums. When you dug back through those demos, did anything surprise you? Was there a song where you were like "whoa we should have released this," or "we should play this live," etc?
For sure, but there's tons of those. Those are the ones I thought were listenable, but there's so many other ones that are really cringey to me, that will have to be sold either when I'm far more secure... or dead [laughs]. I'll give the kids the rights to release them. But you know what was cool about it? Just listening back and some of the stuff was like "whoaaa," and I'd text Kevin Devine like "what was I doing at 19 years old with this fire lyric?" And then other ones were just like "ughhhh! you idiot! this song was so close to being good until you had to do that" [laughs]. It was a pretty reflective period, but it was also cool. I've always known that I had those songs and enjoyed them, so I just picked the ones that I liked. And yeah it felt like, if there was ever a time to do something like that, that was probably it, you know? It felt far enough away that I could really feel cool about it, 'cause it was so long ago.
Have you ever considered like a box set reissue of the pre-I'm Like A Virgin Losing A Child material? I've always thought something really special about Manchester Orchestra was that when you put out what's usually considered your debut album, you had like 25 other songs. Though most of them aren't available legally, so I've always wondered if those would eventually get a proper release.
Absolutely, for sure. We're starting to kind of get into that territory. We're doing it with Simple Math right now for the tenth anniversary. [We're working on] the crazy, multiple-LP thing that has all these songs that were written during that period that never made it that we really love. And there's a ton of that early stuff as well. Luckily, I've been really good about keeping all of that documenting all of it. It's on lots of iClouds and real hard drives and computers at the studio, so yeah, I think so. I think also the reason we haven't is because we've been busy, which is a really great thing. We haven't had a ton of dead time to reflect just yet.
Like you said earlier, it's just great to be 15+ years into your career and still looking forward.
Yeah, we are very grateful that that's happening, and that we still really care. It's a nice thing to not feel like I have to fake it at all, or phone it in. I still take a lot of pride in it.
Pre-order The Million Masks of God on transparent light blue vinyl here.