It’s easiest to summarize Manchester Orchestra as an emotionally driven alt-rock group, but the Atlanta-based band always seems to deviate just enough away from that sound to warrant more accurate descriptors. Since starting it in 2004, frontman Andy Hull has guided the group from acoustic confessions to indie rock moodiness to bitter punk-tinged rock. Despite dressing Hull’s lyrics in new outfits with each album, Manchester Orchestra has managed to be dependably moving, building the type of trust with their listeners that keeps them coming back, faithfully, to hear what’s next on the docket.
Last year, that meant following them to A Black Mile to the Surface, their fifth proper studio album. On it, the band tries its hand at looser song progressions and more subtle changes, creating a mellow atmosphere that has a spiritual pulse to it. Lyrically, it centers around the town of Lead, South Dakota, an old gold mining town now home to a neutrino science experiment, and the various research questions that have risen about matter and our universal evolution. Together, the album is a proper package, one that the band only recently unwrapped.
“You have to get out of your own way to actually hear what you’ve made,” says Hull. “I used to focus on things that didn’t matter, like the placement of a random shaker in a song. So I had to walk away from it and let the fans take it. It was the best thing I could have done. We saw their reaction to the record, which made us more secure in what we made. A lot of the record felt like it was a ‘first record’ for us to make because we weren’t comfortable with the things we were trying out.”
To get to know Manchester Orchestra, we interviewed Andy Hull for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. With A Black Mile to the Surface as the prompt, his answers are discreetly touching and colorful—qualities that will hide the band’s music when it headlines the Tsongas Center in Lowell this Tuesday.
1) “The Maze”
DIGBOSTON: When was the last time you got lost?
HULL: Well, it used to be a whole lot harder because you didn’t have phones. I remember back in high school getting lost driving a car because of it. [laughs] It used to be up to the help of a gas station attendant. I have no idea the last time I was lost, though. It was honestly as easy as not knowing where my wife was at the grocery store. All I have to do is hope she sneezes. Then I’d be able to find her because she’s the world’s loudest sneezer. I’ve heard and found her more than once by hearing her sneeze in a store.
2) “The Gold”
DIGBOSTON: What’s the most priceless thing you own because it would be impossible to replace?
HULL: I have a signed original copy of Pinkerton that Matt Sharp—who is now a friend, but before he was my friend I was just an admirer of his—sent me. He sent me the vinyl for Christmas one year. I have a signed Magic Johnson basketball. And also fan letters. I try to keep all of that, letters and things they give me, in a box. I hope to give it to my kids to read some day. I don’t have a PO box, though, so it really depends on the person running into us for me to get a letter. Sometimes if they run into us in person, it happens. I wouldn’t say it’s all the time, but it definitely keeps occuring, enough for me to have a box of them.
3) “The Moth”
DIGBOSTON: What’s a dangerous thing you’re often drawn to, like a moth drawn to a flame?
HULL: Alcohol. [laughs] I think that’s for everybody though. That would probably be the most dangerous thing that I enjoy doing, but I try not to do it dangerously. That’s the key. Other than that, I’m not really a strange sports type of dude or anything. I’m more of a “Netflix and read a nice book” type of guy.
4) “Lead, SD”
DIGBOSTON: Which small city or town in America do you think is underrated?
HULL: Probably that one. I’ve never been, but there’s so many amazing things happening there. Obviously I thought it was so underrated that I wrote a record about it. [laughs] Other than that, I think Birmingham, Alabama, is pretty great. My wife went to college there. My first manager lived there. So I spent a lot of time there in my early 20s. Anytime we go back, I enjoy it. They’re continuing the grow, they have good venues, and the culture is getting cooler and cooler.
5) “The Alien”
DIGBOSTON: Who is someone that you used to be close to but they have since disappeared from your life?
HULL: Certainly friends over the years that you just don’t connect with anymore. A lot of people in my life, really. For my senior year of high school, I didn’t go to school. I started homeschooling myself, finishing a record, and going on tour. So a lot of my friendships that I had were put on hold or disappeared because I was gone for the next five years without ever really coming home. It made forming friendships in the band very important. Same with having friends at home to bounce ideas off of and have communion with.
6) “The Sunshine”
DIGBOSTON: When going about your average day, on tour or off, when do you feel your happiest?
HULL: Hmm. That’s a tricky question to ask as a parent. Part of my favorite part of my day, when I’m in my peak happiness, is when they both go to sleep and I’m alone and it’s quiet. [laughs] But also seeing my kids in the morning when they wake up. That’s also the happiest part of my day. Then it’s a full day and then I’m sick of them, but I’ll be happy to see them again the next morning.
7) “The Grocery”
DIGBOSTON: Which item at the grocery store do you always buy impulsively?
HULL: Hmm, impulsively. I would say some form of cheese. Maybe a nice smoked gouda? I try to be pretty specific when I’m going to the grocery store. I try to eat a somewhat strict diet. So I’m normally pretty focused when going in there.
8) “The Wolf”
DIGBOSTON: Who is the most cunning person you know?
HULL: There’s a kid I went to school with named Zach Strickland who was just a cunning motherfucker. [laughs] Every girl liked him. Every guy wanted to be him. That was when I was 13. That would be my guess. I was trying to think. At first I thought it might be my dad, but then I realized no, it wouldn’t be him. Maybe when he’s preaching, because he’s pretty cunning then, but I wanted to think of someone who radiated that coolness all the time. And that was Zach.
9) “The Mistake”
DIGBOSTON: Looking back at the past five years of your life, what was the worst mistake you made?
HULL: I don’t know. I honestly can’t complain about anything over the past five years. They’ve been awesome [laughs]. I’m trying to think of something stupid I’ve done. You know what, I’ve got one. I left my grill on that is connected to the gas line of my house for seven days. My neighbors found it because they were letting out my dogs. My wife let me know when I got home from the tour. She had gone to the beach or something when they came by. That was a nice $400 gas bill. Love that. It was insane. We had just bought the house too. Just… so bad.
10) “The Parts”
DIGBOSTON: How often do you get your hair cut?
HULL: This is a great question. My mother has been cutting my hair since I was a kid. I only get one haircut and that is the buzz. We just go straight down to half an inch. We let it grow out. Once I start to get into the Chia Pet territory, we share it all off again. It’s a lovely bonding moment between me and my mother. I’m lazy, so I let it go for a long time. So whenever it’s just time, I ask her and she comes over and cuts my hair. My folks live about 3 or 4 miles from us.
11) “The Silence”
DIGBOSTON: Where is the most peaceful place to be, in your opinion?
HULL: I think at home or in the studio creating something. There’s a great feeling of peace about that, when you’re in there writing. But ultimately it would be home. Being able to have that place of refuge. I’ve got a great backyard with some nice lights hanging over the deck. So when the kids go down, I make a cocktail and sit out there and listen to a podcast. That’s my happy place.
MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA, THE FRONT BOTTOMS. TUE 12.18. TSONGAS CENTER, 300 MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. WAY, LOWELL. 6:30PM/ALL AGES/$24.50. TSONGASCENTER.COM