Andy Hull is describing his Manchester Orchestra sequencing process.The million masks of Godas he casually notes, "We realized we wanted to make the record almost copy our interpretation of the human experience." Trying to capture the meaning of life in a 45 minute album, nbd. But Hull is surprised at a very marked moment and laughs. He's kidding, but he's definitely not kidding: The Manchester Orchestra makes albums about important things, maybe even about theOnlyStuff.
The million masks of Godis not an exception. like the one from 2017A black mile to the surface, is a fictionalized filmic conceptual record and meditation on faith, family, and the afterlife forged in monumental, life-changing circumstances. But whilea black milewas brought about by the birth of Hull's daughter,the million maskshe was inspired by bandmate and brother-in-law Robert McDowell watching his father Chuck battle cancer during the writing process; the album was recorded during his final days before he passed away in 2019.
The conceptual weight that the Manchester Orchestra brings toThe million masks of GodIt's nothing new for the band; the writing processmispeaking through tragedy unearthed a lightness and serenity that is something very new. The album's sound is new, too: stripping down the force and angst of their previous work to Quincy Jones funk guitars, heavenly harmonies, and tender ballads.The million masks of Godis Manchester Orchestra's most beautiful album. I'd also say it's the best of them, though as a relatively new convert I'm well aware that fans might see this as hyperbole, if not profanity.
In 2019, the Manchester Orchestra performed a series of concerts to celebrate the tenth anniversary ofmeans all for nothing, widely considered the culmination of the band's early phase, began in 2004 as a solo project when Hull was still the teenage son of a Baptist pastor in suburban Atlanta and ended in 2014 withLIDARand your acoustic reductionHave hope🇧🇷 During this decade, the Manchester Orchestra was consistent but hard to define. Often compared to Neutral Milk Hotel and Bright Eyes, they were more emotionally raw than most bands of their day, but not quite "emo" as the term was understood in the Blingee MySpace days. They were signed to a major label and achieved enviable success, though they never received much radio play aside from the Garth Brooks-adjacent "I've Got Friends," which Hull describes as a "moderate hit."
Their albums can rightfully be considered "critically acclaimed", depending on who you read. Punk magazines and websites like Sputnik,Alternative Press, and Absolute Punk revered the Manchester Orchestra, which has been ignored or ridiculed by writers in more self-consciously modern publications (myself included). That discrepancy became impossible to ignore even in 2007, when his band was opening for the equally unannounced mewithoutYou and had to clear the venue before an indie darling played the last show. “There were 40 people in the Fiery Furnaces”,recalled in a 2017 interview🇧🇷 “We were looking at all these cool websites talking about burning ovens, no one was talking about me without you, but there were 500 kids going crazy over me without you.”
But when bands like the Manchester Orchestra stick around for a long time, the story arc tends to lean in their favor. His spiritualized brand of alternative rock made an immediate and indelible impression on teenagers struggling with their own faith, many of whom would grow up to becomewomen writersand artists The conversation around them changed in 2017: The Manchester Orchestra emerged as senior statesmen in a new wave of exciting and innovative singer-songwriters, artists ranging from Julien Baker to Foxing and Phoebe Bridgers, becoming Hull's loudest cheerleaders. And while Hull describes her previous albums as attempts to recreate the cathartic impact of leaving everything on the floor of her live studio show,a black milewas created with a team of rival producers and guest collaborators such as Gamethe documentary🇧🇷 The collective resume between Nate Reuss, his longtime collaborator Dan Hannon, Catherine Marks, John Congleton and Jonathan Wilson would basically be a who's who of 2010 year-end lists.
Hull identifies as a lifelong fan of Radiohead and Wilco, andA black mile to the surfaceit sounded like the kind of album meant for people who listenok computeroyankee hotel foxtrotand to think, "They don't make them like that anymore": sonically ambitious, conceptual electronic rock hybrids that still appeal to someone's inner teenager, beating up Sam Goody with the $16 they raked in between lawn-mowing gigs. “Rob and I made a conscious decision not to play the radio game at all.simple mathmiLIDAReven when they asked us,” says Hull. "We were a bit young and against the idea of doing free radio shows, the concept didn't make any sense to us." not only didA black mile to the surfacebecame the band's most critically acclaimed album, after years of frustrating conversations with executives and radio hosts, they scored a legitimate hit with "The Gold." “It doesn't change anything in our lives. It's good to hear that sometimes or your mom will hear it somewhere," Hull jokes. "There was no, 'Oh man, we've got a great radio song and we can chill now.'"
Hull has not relaxed in the last four years. His long-running Bad Books project with Kevin Devine fell throughthirdin 2019, a record that brought Phoebe Bridgers' producer Ethan Gruska to the creative side. Last April, theborn of you, a collection of demos from 2008-2010. In February, the Manchester Orchestra announcedThe million masks of Godat the end of a free and lavishly produced live performance byA black mile to the surface🇧🇷 Hull has also contributed as a guest on the most recent Tigers albums, Jaw and Touche Amore, and is heavily involved in Foxing's fourth LP, which he thinks could be their album.black milestrange popular breakthrough. “They're looking for that, and that's really exciting because pop songs are so much fun to work with,” reveals Hull. “I expected them to say, 'No, we want it to be weirder,' and they said, 'More Michael Jackson.' Related: The late King of Pop's daughter has aBlack Mile to the surfacetattoo on the arm andHull and McDowell produced their first album.
Yet,The million masks of Godthey came together in a luxurious rhythm. Splitting time between their home base in Echo Mountain, North Carolina, and Gruska's newly built studio in Los Angeles, Hull and McDowell took months off to review songs with new ears and establish motifs both withinThe million masks of Godand its predecessor. Hull designed the opening lullaby "Inaudible" as another side of theA black mile to the surface's "The Maze", a tribute to Hull's daughter, Mayzie, which has been used by severaldramaticmovie trailers ever since. In the new intro track, a father is forced into a painful conversation witharefather — “I'll take you to the nursing home / Can you hear me?” - and I would be remiss not to mention the influence of Dipset and Ghostface Killah in his clever use of repeating rhyme.
The album reaches an early peak with Hull's encounter with the Angel of Death and slowly fades out with a series of beautiful slow recordings before ending with "The Internet," a mourning song comparing a loved one to what Hull considers the most powerful force there is. . “I loved this album that represents the angst, anger, confusion and adrenaline of early life,” explains Hull. “The hope was that as a listener you accept things, you feel healthier, maybe you feel in a better place, there are still real life punches that come and get you. But we can slowly bring the listener down.
For the last year, I've wondered what would happen to great rock records likeThe million masks of God- many bands were releasing music as quickly as possible, either out of monetary need or impatience or the urge to release something to the world while stuck at home. Was there ever a temptation to do something a little more impromptu before the album came out?
ANDY CASCO:We're always doing something, we're similar to the Foxing guys, and that's why we vibrate so much with them. We like to work even when nobody listens to us, to get excited about ideas in the studio and to work with other artists. Rob and I always say, whenever you're working on something, even if it doesn't make a lot of sense while you're working on it, you're learning and evolving, so I think working in all these different studios is a similar feeling. ByA black mile to the surface, we did the first time where we pushed the record as far as we could, and after 85-90%, we ran out of ideas. And we don't know what else to do, but it doesn't feel finished.
We've been friends with John Congleton for a while, and he's always supported us and wanted to work with us, so when he came along, it was this amazing extra brain that encouraged me and Rob to finish the record. We knew we wanted Ethan Gruska to play that role from the beginning of this album, and I think we were the first artists to work out of his home in Los Angeles. He did this spot, and it was the best experience, it was Robert, Ethan and Catherine, me, all four of us have different skill sets. Half of the studio is outside, so you can come and go from the studio whenever you want and that represented what this album was all about, which is this nice, easy groove without a lot of ripping off. We knew what we wanted to do was going to be quite an expansive thing, but we took baby steps to get there rather than try to bite down too hard. Leaving was too good for that.
In the process of handing over control to producers and songwriters with the reputations of Catherine Marks, Ethan Gruska and John Congleton, what did you learn about yourself as a collaborator?
ROBERTO MCDOWELL:The best thing about the people you listed is that none of them follow the "my way or the highway" mentality. It's always been an open, back and forth thing where you can use them as bandmates or an extension of your own brain. We always say that the last thing we want is to be the smartest person in the room. We want to surround ourselves with that team, where if we are in the routine they can help us get inspired and vice versa. You inevitably absorb and learn ways they react to music and that helps you keep growing. We've managed to avoid a lot of arguments on this record, which is fantastic.
CASCO:We too can be very valuable, because it is ours. So it's nice to have someone with crazy ideas that you might not have thought of because you're being valuable with one thing. A guy like Ethan or Congleton, or Catherine, will say, "This bridge must sound like bees." And we were like... good! I think we've figured out how we're going to do this. She wanted the intro to "The Moth" [fromA black mile to the surface] to sound like bees in their beautiful deep British Australian accent... bees. That was one of our initial conversations, and that's why I fell so much in love with her as a producer and a collaborator, because she's super conceptual. She's a great sound engineer and mixer, but her production is totally conceptual. If she doesn't feel it in her heart, she may not be able to tell you exactly why she doesn't feel it, but she will tell you that she doesn't. You have to work and figure out what makes her jump up and down, which is a lot of fun.
Without being able to sample these songs live, or only being able to do so several months later, much of the release of this album and outreach to fans necessarily had to be done on Instagram Live or live. How did these new ways of interacting with fans personally challenge or inspire you?
CASCO:I think it helped a lot of artists realize that you don't need a middleman to reach your fan base. It can actually be summed up quite simply and the Instagram Live stuff that was happening in the first few months of lockdown was a big sign of that. It also gave artists the understanding that if you have a fan base, they will appreciate what you do and genuinely want to support you. So, we always keep that in mind, we are aware that people want to support our band, so how can we provide them with the best content? That's a big reason why we did theblack milefree live show for everyone. As we were doing this, we thought, "It's weird asking someone to pay for this." Because we want to serve you and that it is a gift that we can all be part of. And doing it [for free] helps spread the word and allows this piece to exist forever.
More often than not, Andy has been the focal point when people talk about the Manchester Orchestra - he's the leader, main composer and vocalist. Robert, with the impact your father had on this band andmillion masksIn particular, was there any hesitation or anxiety about speaking out about your personal loss and taking on a bigger role in the public narrative of this album?
MCDOWELL:The first time was a bit of a shock. But then we followed up, and since then, I've definitely realized that grief is something we all deal with at some point. As a society, I feel like we're afraid to talk about this outside of our very, very small circle. So we use this opportunity as an opportunity to [have that discussion]. If this album can relate to someone going through loss and help them heal or have a dialogue with people, then it's certainly worth me talking about it and Andy talking about it and not deviating from it. We feel blessed to have opportunities like this here where we can talk about these things, because it can be isolating. And the longer you go without addressing it, the more isolating it becomes, in my experience. At this point, I'm not excited to talk about it, but I feel like it's something I should talk about.
As far as writing these songs and singing them, it was considered "Is that respectful?" or "Are you crossing a line?"
CASCO:Of course, that was my deepest fear, even thinking about writing these songs in the first place. We're still a band that shares a hotel room between two people, and during that time, Robert and I were roommates. We joke that we sleep more in the same room as our wives. We live life together fully, and Robert is my brother-in-law, married to my sister. We are literally a family, so it was really hard for me not to write about what was happening and I was experiencing a small part of it, being so close to Rob.
Also, Rob's father was, is, a huge influence on my life as a songwriter and a huge supporter of our band. He's a guy who saw me play at Qdoba for a burrito and $25 and then he told me that the Damien Jurado song I covered was really great and has continued to show me music throughout my life. I knew my intention was right, but my fear was that it was going to explode, and Rob and I talked about it a lot. And finally, there was this beautiful moment one night in Los Angeles, we were finishing the album and we finally let it out, one of the many nights where we cried together about everything. Rob just said, "No man, I know what you're doing, my dad would be honored and I'd be honored." The press was a big deal, like, did we even mention this? Because I was totally okay with never mentioning it, ever. But it's inspiring how Rob has gotten through this album as a father and an artist as he continues, saying, "You know, this is good to talk about."
I found it interesting that after all the heavy and spiritual imagery on this album, it ends with a song called “The Internet”.
CASCO:I give a lot of power to the Internet, but the Internet already has a lot of power. The concept started to form for me when I was writing that song, it was just an opportune moment to say, "You were my Internet." Like, what do you do when you don't have internet? you go crazy. Your whole life in five minutes is completely turned upside down. The internet collects all this data about our lives and all these experiences and memories, and sometimes they can be painfully vivid. Rob, I think you said, "I'm not doing Timehop anymore, I keep seeing these memories and it bothers me." And I think that this is the duality of the “Internet”, that person is everything that connects you with everything and it also hurts.
There is also a surprising playfulness in the language of this record. Especially after collaborating with someone like Logic, I wonder who are the lyricists that continue to inspire you.
CASCO:My best really is John K. Samson, a guy who can really stop me in a sentence, whether it's his historically great songs about a cat or just the way the light hits the room one afternoon. For me, there is this weight. I mentioned in a previous interview thatopening line of his latest album, "This hashtag wants to kill me but I don't care, it's just another way of whining." Like... ugh, how did you come up with that? I'm also a big hip-hop guy, I love all of that stuff, but lyricism has been really fascinating to me, guys like Ghostface, who can use one word to mean four things and continue to use that word to mean four. other things. I love that bit of language, my mom introduced it to me from the beginning. So the idea of the "inaudible/audible" line is heavily influenced by this, I'm using a word fragment and then adding a word fragment.
Looking back on the early Manchester Orchestra albums compared to this one, how has your concept of faith and the afterlife changed?
CASCO:I have been having panic attacks about what happens when we die since I was 15 in high school. I have been thinking about accidents a lot since I was young, so it has always been on my mind. I think the last line of the log sums it up: "All this time I thought I was right." I like the idea that the story ends with… you know, I've been talking a lot, talking about a lot of things that I believe in, and in the end nobody knows. Even if you think you really know, we're all going to think that. Even if it's nothing. The anger of those particular religious feelings I've let go as best I can, the hypocrisy of what the church is or can be, and I've been leaning on the parts that have really helped me. Which is just trying to be a better person, trying not to worry so much about what comes next and just being here and present as much as I can.
MCDOWELL:I agree with everything Andy said, I spent a lot of time last year thinking about this. I think the only peaceful answer I can find that I'll never know until I'm there and letting it all go, in my opinion, is an aspect of faith. I don't need to know I don't need to tell you that I know because certain things are unknown and will inevitably be an unknown answer until we get there and how you get there with your beliefs, that is your journey you take.
last year i sawThe documentary Strange Negotiations by David Bazánand became much more interested in how listeners from a religious background interacted with spiritually minded rock bands. Were there any fans who rejected or criticized you for the way the Manchester Orchestra writes about God?
CASCO:You know what's funny? We've never had people disown us for that, because we're being blasphemers. What I love is people saying, "I never believed in God and I heard your record and I still don't believe in God, but it really helped me." That's the biggest compliment you can get, great, so we're communicating something that's not just based on my personal experience. Also, I think because [God] is part of what we write, I've seen a lot of people over-spiritualize the songs we have and say, "This is what it's about." And I wasn't thinking about God. But that's par for the course and that's the beauty of composition. If you can have a connection with someone, it doesn't really matter what you had to say in the first place, it's taking control of your own life for someone else.
The catchphrase for me is one from "Annie": "I've been trying to replicate the God mask." I'm curious how this relates to the album title, stating that there are a million different masks of God.
CASCO:I don't have an answer for that, because there isn't. But I like that lyric because it made it more unique. I've been trying to replicate everything this God stands for, and it's not working for me. The next line is, "I'm starting to feel this, the guilt is falling," like... once I realized that I can't replicate this that I've been told, then there's this ability to let go of that. I really like the title of this album because it represents all the ways you can see what you want God to be to anyone, and God is in people, God is in trees, God is everywhere. When I mentioned the title to Rob, he thought the opposite: the things that hide what his God is. Once we realize the duality of this, it's like man... we should probably run this title.
The million masks of GodIt comes out on 04/30 in Loma Vista. Make an orderhere.