Manchester Orchestra Premieres 'The Gold (Live)' Video, Talks Recording 'A Black Mile to the Surface': Exclusive
When the chorus lands in Manchester Orchestra’s “The Gold" -- the song Billboard is premiering a new live video for, filmed at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, below -- it cuts deep, with the instruments dropping out, leaving lead singer Andy Hull alone on the the lines: “I believed you were crazy/ You believed you loved me.”
It was the lead single from the Atlanta-based band’s July album A Black Mile to the Surface and one of a few new songs the band -- somewhat hesitantly -- decided to open with on their recent tour. To say their decision was well-received would be an understatement.
During a performance at Stubb's in Austin, Texas, Hull went silent and the lights dimmed for the chorus. The crowd overwhelmingly filled in for Hull’s vocals, cementing the song’s place in fans’ minds, only a few weeks after the record’s release.
"The Gold" marked the first Manchester Orchestra song to chart on the Adult Alternative Songs chart, and it remains in the Alternative Songs top 20 six months later. The song set the stage for a record that Hull, along with fellow bandmembers Robert McDowell, Tim Very and Andy Prince, poured themselves into for their most ambitious record to-date.
Black Mile is an album that more than one outlet has called “cinematic.” Hull told Billboard that cinematic quality can partially be attributed to it being his first endeavor after composing the score for the Sundance film Swiss Army Man.
“Working on this soundtrack and the actual score of the movie, we were taking all these tiny scenes and trying to turn them into 40 minutes of listenable music, like it would be a record,” Hull said. “When the time came to start plotting this album out and the songs started coming, we realized we wanted to make an 'album in between the album' and have all the songs as this connected, full listening experience.”
It was a more challenging process than with any of Manchester Orchestra’s previous records, but Hull explained that once they had the three songs in the middle of Black Mile -- "The Alien," "The Sunshine" and "The Grocery" -- there was no turning back.
“It’s like this 13-minute, kinetic thing,” he said of the trio. “Once those were written and connected like that, we started to be like, ‘Oh you know it’d be cool to do that for the whole thing and actually commit to it,’ instead of it being an idea that we probably wouldn't have followed through with earlier in our career.”
Black Mile diverged from some of the typical, more chaotic sounds Manchester Orchestra fans have grown familiar with, but it wasn't the first time the band took a chance.
The pair of albums released in 2014, Cope and Hope, complemented one another in a way not many artists are able to do. On Cope, the band made their most manic record to date, aggressive from the first note through the last. Hope was the complete opposite: an acoustic reworking of the same 11 songs they had only just released five months earlier.
It’s an ambitious move that Hull said they’d probably never try again; those albums worked because of their antithetic qualities, and it would be schticky to go for round two. The interwoven world of Black Mile came to be because of the band’s willingness to step outside their comfort zone once again, this time in a different direction
“Challenging ourselves to try to reinvent [our sound] every single time is really exciting. Any time you change what you’re doing and try new things, it can be met with divisive opinions, but I think the best stuff, the stuff I’m most interested in, is the stuff that people have that takes chances,” said Hull.
The songwriting process for most of Black Mile’s tracks took a fairly traditional route of “verse, chorus, verse, chorus,” said Hull, but when the band began to lay down the sound, they went against their instincts.
For a song like "The Alien," he said, “Tim [Very], instead of writing a traditional folk-rock beat ended up writing this circular drum pattern that turned around on itself. As that then comes in, that starts to affect what Andy [Prince] is playing on bass and how Robert [McDowell] is going to match what I’m doing on piano. It all starts to compound."
Layering on top of the non-traditional sound added more depth to the world Hull had envisioned for Black Mile. The band had the idea to include unrelated audio clips throughout the record. Their initial idea involved recordings of people reading the same letter, with the thought that the listener would be able to pick up on the familiar narrative, even after passed through loops and pedals to distort it. That didn't work.
They gave up on the idea of this letter being a connective thread and instead pulled from the world around them. Sales calls, random conversations in the studio, even recordings from Hull’s daughter’s school play made their way into pockets of each song.
“There’s some of my grandparents talking in there. Our lives are in it,” Hull said.
Because of the bar Hull and the other band members set for themselves this time around -- to make “the best record that we possibly could” -- and the amount of time they spent creating it, it was also the most stressed the band had been when releasing an album. Hull said it was the first time he couldn't listen to an album after recording it "because I was just too close to it."
Once Black Mile was out, and the reception was mostly positive, the singer said it reassured the group that the chances they took were worth it.
“Now when I listen to it I’m just super proud because it sounds like a totally different record to me,” he said.
To follow up the months of touring in support of Black Mile, Manchester Orchestra have announced a number festival dates this summer, including Governor’s Ball, Bonnaroo, Hangout and Boston Calling.
As for any new music, Hull mentioned an upcoming cover that he worked on with Julien Baker, as well as a "70 percent-done" Bad Books (Hull's side project with Kevin Devine) album, but described his greater songwriting process as ongoing.
"To me, songwriting’s a lot like a jar that you like leave outside and wait for it to rain," he said. "And then I kind of take all those experiences and growth that has happened, or recession that has happened in my life, and meditate on those and start to figure out what I want and need to write about."