Manchester Orchestra’s Grand Metamorphosis
Andy Hull and Robert McDowell on grief, faith, and their experimental new album The Million Masks Of God
Andy Hull is describing his process of sequencing Manchester Orchestra’s The Million Masks Of God as 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 catches himself in a highly on-brand moment and laughs. He’s kidding, but definitely not joking — Manchester Orchestra make albums about Big Things, maybe even the Only Things.
The Million Masks Of God is no exception. Like 2017’s A Black Mile To The Surface, it’s both a filmic, fictional concept record and a meditation about faith, family, and the afterlife forged under monumentally life-changing circumstances. But whereas A Black Mile was sparked by the birth of Hull’s daughter, The Million Masks drew inspiration from his bandmate and brother-in-law Robert McDowell watching his father Chuck fight cancer throughout the writing process; the album was recorded during his last few days before passing in 2019.
The conceptual heft that Manchester Orchestra bring to The Million Masks Of God is nothing new for the band; the process of writing and talking through tragedy has unearthed a lightness and serenity that is very much a new thing. The sound of the album is also new: Scaling back the brawn and angst of their earlier work for Quincy Jones funk guitars, stacked-heavenward harmonies, and tender ballads, The Million Masks Of God is Manchester Orchestra’s most plainly beautiful album. I’d also argue it’s their best — though as a relatively new convert, I’m well aware that diehards might see this as hyperbole, if not blasphemy.
In 2019, Manchester Orchestra did a run of shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of Mean Everything To Nothing, widely considered the apex of the band’s first phase — begun in 2004 as a solo project when Hull was still the teenage son of a Baptist pastor in suburban Atlanta and ending with 2014’s Cope and its acoustic redux Hope. During this decade, Manchester Orchestra were consistent, yet hard to pin down. Frequently compared to Neutral Milk Hotel and Bright Eyes, they were more emotionally raw than most bands of their era but not really “emo,” as the term was understood in the Blingee’d days of MySpace. They signed to a major label and achieved enviable success, though they never got much attention from radio aside from the Garth Brooks-adjacent “I’ve Got Friends,” which Hull describes as a “mild hit.”
Their albums could legitimately be considered “critically acclaimed,” depending on who you read. Punk-leaning mags and websites like Sputnik, Alternative Press, and Absolute Punk revered Manchester Orchestra, who were either ignored or mocked by writers at more self-consciously hip publications (myself included). This discrepancy became impossible to ignore even as far back as 2007, when his band was opening for the similarly unheralded mewithoutYou and had to clear out a venue before an indie darling played the late show. “There were 40 people at the Fiery Furnaces,” he recalled in a 2017 interview. “We were looking at all these cool websites that were talking about the Fiery Furnaces, nobody’s talking about mewithoutYou, yet there were 500 kids going apeshit for mewithoutYou.”
But when bands like Manchester Orchestra stick around long enough, the narrative arc tends to bend in their favor. Their spiritualized brand of alt-rock made an immediate and indelible impression with teenagers struggling with their own faith, many of whom would grow up to be writers and artists. The conversation around them had changed by 2017 — Manchester Orchestra had emerged as elder statesmen for a new wave of exciting, forward-thinking singer-songwriters, artists ranging from Julien Baker to Foxing to Phoebe Bridgers becoming Hull’s loudest cheerleaders. And while Hull describes their previous albums as attempts to recreate the leave-it-all-on-the-floor, cathartic impact of their live show in the studio, A Black Mile was created with a team of producers and guest contributors that rival, like, the Game’s The Documentary. The collective C.V. between Nate Reuss, longtime collaborator Dan Hannon, Catherine Marks, John Congleton, and Jonathan Wilson would basically be a who’s who of 2010s year-end lists.
Hull identifies as a forever Radiohead and Wilco fan, and A Black Mile To The Surface sounded like the kind of album meant for people who listen to OK Computer or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and think, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore” — conceptually and sonically ambitious electronic-rock hybrids that still appeal to one’s inner teenager hitting up Sam Goody with $16 they scrounged together between lawnmowing gigs. “Me and Rob kinda made a conscious decision to not play the radio game at all on Simple Math and Cope even when we were asked,” Hull says. “We were kinda youthful and against the idea of playing free radio shows, the concept didn’t make any sense to us.” Not only did A Black Mile To The Surface become the band’s most critically acclaimed album, after years of frustrating conversations with execs and radio pluggers, they scored an legitimate hit with “The Gold.” “It doesn’t really change anything about our lives. It’s nice to hear it sometimes or your mom will hear it somewhere,” Hull jokes. “There wasn’t a, ‘Oh, hey man we got a big radio song, and we can chill now.'”
Hull did not chill in the past four years. His long-running Bad Books project with Kevin Devine dropped III in 2019, a record that brought Phoebe Bridgers producer Ethan Gruska into the creative fold. Last April saw the release of Born Of You, a collection of 2008-2010 demos. In February, Manchester Orchestra announced The Million Masks Of God at the end of a lavishly produced and free livestreamed performance of A Black Mile To The Surface. Hull also contributed guest vocals on the most recent Tigers Jaw and Touche Amore albums, and is heavily involved with Foxing’s forthcoming fourth LP, which he believes might be their Black Mile-esque popular breakthrough. “They’re in the hunt for that, and that’s really exciting because pop songs are really fun to work on,” Hull reveals. “I was expecting them to be, ‘No, we want it to be weirder,’ and they were like, ‘More Michael Jackson.’ Hell yeah, let’s keep pushing it.” Related: The late King of Pop’s daughter has a Black Mile To The Surface tattoo on her arm and Hull and McDowell produced her debut album.
Still, The Million Masks Of God came together at a luxurious pace. Splitting time between their Echo Mountain homebase in North Carolina and Gruska’s newly built Los Angeles studio, Hull and McDowell took months of time off to revisit songs with fresh ears and establish motifs both within The Million Masks Of God and its predecessor. Hull designed the opening lullabye “Inaudible” as a flipside of A Black Mile To The Surface‘s “The Maze,” a tribute to Hull’s daughter Mayzie that’s been used for numerous dramatic film trailers since. On the new intro track, a father is forced to have a painful conversation with his father — “Wheel you down to the old folks’ home/ Are you listening to me?” — and I’d be remiss to not mention the Dipset and Ghostface Killah influence in its clever use of repetitive rhyme.
The album reaches an early peak with Hull’s encounter with the Angel of Death and slowly deescalates with a series of gorgeous slow burns before ending with “The Internet,” a song of mourning that likens a loved one to what Hull deems the most powerful force in existence. “I loved this album representing the angst and anger and confusion and adrenaline of earlier life,” Hull explains. “The hope was as the listener you’re coming to terms with things, you’re feeling healthier, maybe you’re feeling in a better spot, there’s still jabs of real life that come and get you. But can we slowly lay the listener down.”
During the past year, I wondered what would become of big rock records like The Million Masks Of God — a lot of bands were releasing music as quickly as possible, either out of monetary necessity or impatience or the impulse to put something out in the world while they were stuck at home. Was there ever a temptation to do something a little more off-the-cuff before the album release?
ANDY HULL: We’re always making something — we’re similar to those Foxing guys, which is why we vibe with them so much. We like working even if nobody hears it, and getting excited about ideas in the studio and working with other artists. Rob and I always say, anytime you’re working on something, even if it’s not making a ton 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. For A Black Mile To The Surface, we did it for the first time where we took the record as far as we possibly could, and after 85-90%, we were 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 been so supportive of us and wanted to work with us, so when he came, he was this awesome, extra brain that sparked me and Rob to finish the record. We did know that we wanted Ethan Gruska to serve that role from the beginning of this record, and I think we were the first artists to work at his place in LA. He made this spot, and it was the coolest experience, it was me and Robert and Ethan and Catherine, all four of us have different skill sets. Half the studio is outside, so you can walk in and out of the studio as you please and it represented what this record was, which is this nice and easy pace without too many freakouts. We knew what we wanted to make was gonna be a pretty expansive thing, but we just took baby steps to get it there instead of trying to bite off too much. Walking away was really good for it.
In the process of relinquishing control to producers and songwriters with the reputations of Catherine Marks and Ethan Gruska and John Congleton, what have you learned about yourself as a collaborator?
ROBERT MCDOWELL: The greatest thing about the people that you listed is that none of them go in with the mindset of “my way or the highway.” It’s always been an open, back-and-forth thing to where you begin to use them as a fellow bandmate or an extension of your own brain. We always say, the last thing we wanna do is be the smartest person in the room. We wanna surround ourselves with this team, where if we’re in a rut, they can help inspire us and the other way around. You just inevitably soak up and learn ways that they react to music and it just helps you continue to grow. We were able to avoid a lot of the arguments on this record, which is fantastic.
HULL: We can be really precious too, because it’s ours. So it’s nice to have someone come up with wild ideas that you might not have thought of because you’re being precious with a thing. A dude like Ethan or Congleton, or Catherine, she’ll say, “This bridge needs to sound like bumblebees.” And we’re like… alright! Guess we figure out how we’re gonna do that. She wanted the intro to “The Moth” [from A Black Mile To The Surface] to sound like bumblebees in her beautiful Australian, deep British accent… bumblebees. That was one of our initial talks, and it’s why I fell in love with her so hard as a producer and a collaborator, because she’s super conceptual. She’s an absolute genius sonic engineer and mixer, but her production is all conceptual. If she’s not feeling it in her heart, she might not be able to tell you exactly why she’s not feeling it, but she’ll tell you she’s not feeling it. You have to work and figure out the thing that makes her jump up and down, which is really fun.
Without being able to test these songs out live, or only being able to do so several months down the road, a lot of this album’s rollout and fan outreach has necessarily had to occur on Instagram Live or livestreaming. How have you been personally challenged or inspired by these newer forms of fan interaction?
HULL: I think it’s helped a lot of artists realize that it doesn’t take a middleman to get to your fanbase. It can actually be boiled down pretty simply and the Instagram Live stuff that was happening the first couple months of lockdown was a pretty big sign of that. It also gave artists an understanding that if you have a fanbase, they appreciate what you do and truly want to support you. So we always keep that in the back of our minds, we’re aware that people want to support our band, so how do we give them the best content? That’s a big reason why we made the Black Mile live show free to everyone. As we were making it, we’re like, “This just feels weird to ask somebody to pay for this.” Because we want to serve them and have it be a gift we can all be a part of. And doing [it for free] helps spread the word, and allows this piece to exist forever.
For the most part, Andy’s been the focal point when people talk about Manchester Orchestra – he’s the frontman, the primary songwriter and vocalist. Robert, with the impact your father had on this band and Million Masks in particular, was there any hesitation or anxiety in talking about your personal loss and taking on a bigger role in this album’s public narrative?
MCDOWELL: The first time, it was a little jarring. But then we received some follow-up and since, I’ve definitely realized grief is something that everyone deals with at some point. As a society, I feel like we’re afraid to talk about it outside our very, very small circle. So we’ve used this opportunity as a chance to [have that discussion]. If this record can be relatable to someone who’s going through a loss and it can help them heal or have dialogue with people, then it’s certainly worth me talking about it and Andy talking about it and not steering away from it. We feel blessed to have opportunities like this right 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 but I feel like it’s something I must talk about.
As far as writing these songs and singing them, was there consideration of “Is this respectful?” or “Is there a line being crossed?”
HULL: Absolutely, that was my deepest fear even thinking about writing these songs in the first place. We are still a band that shares a hotel room between two people, and during this period of time, Robert and I have been roommates. We joke that we’ve slept in the same room with each other more than we have with our wives. We’ve experienced life together fully, and Robert is my brother-in-law, he’s married to my sister. We are literally family, so it was very hard for me to not write about it as it was happening and I was experiencing a small part of it, being so close to Rob.
Also, Rob’s dad was — is — a massive influence in my life as a songwriter and a huge supporter of our band. He’s a guy who watched me play at Qdoba for a burrito and $25 and then told me that Damien Jurado song I covered was really cool and kept showing me songs throughout my life. I knew that my intention was correct, but my fear was that it would be exploitative, and Rob and I had a lot of talks about that. And finally, there was a beautiful moment one night late in LA, we’re finishing the record and we just finally let it all out, one of many nights we had a good cry together about everything. Rob just said, “No man, I know what you’re doing, my dad would be honored and I’m honored.” Press was a big question, like, do we even bring it up? Because I was totally fine never mentioning it, ever. But it’s inspiring the way Rob showed up during this record as a parent and an artist as this was happening, saying, “You know, this is a good thing for us to talk about.”
I found it interesting that after all of the heavy, spiritual imagery of this album, it ends with a song called “The Internet.”
HULL: I’m giving the internet too much power, but the internet already has too much power. The concept started to come together for me when I was writing that song, it was just a pretty timely moment to say, “You were my internet.” Like, what do you do when you don’t have your internet? You freak the fuck out. Your entire life in five minutes is completely turned upside down. The internet is collecting all this data about our lives and all of these experiences and memories, and then they can sometimes painfully live on. Rob, I think you said, “I’m not going on fucking Timehop anymore, I just end up seeing these memories and it bums me out.” And I think that’s kind of the duality of “The Internet” — this person is everything that connects you to everything, and also, it hurts.
There’s also a surprising playfulness to the language of this record. Especially after collaborating with someone like Logic, I’m wondering who are the lyricists that continue to inspire you.
HULL: My ultimate really is John K. Samson, a guy that can really cripple me in a sentence even if it’s his historically great songs about a cat or just the way the light hits the room in an afternoon. To me, there’s this heaviness. I quoted in an earlier interview that opening line of his last record, “This hashtag wants me dead but I don’t mind, it’s just another way we grieve.” Like… ugh, how did you think of that? I’m a really big hip-hop guy too, I love all of it, but the lyricism has been really fascinating to me, guys like Ghostface who can use one word that means four things and they continue to use that word to mean another four things. I love that bit of language, my mom put that into me early on. So the idea of the “inaudible/an audible” line, it’s very influenced by that, I’m using a piece of a word and then adding to a piece of a word.
Looking back on the earliest Manchester Orchestra albums compared to this one, how has your concept of faith and the afterlife changed?
HULL: I’ve been having panic attacks about what happens when we die since I was 15 in high school. I’ve just been thinking too much by accident from an early age, and so it’s always been on my mind. I think that the last line of the record sums it up: “All this time I thought I was right.” I like the idea of the story ending with… you know, I’ve been very wordy, talked about a lot of things I believe, and at the end, no one knows. Even if you think you really do know, all of us are gonna think that. Even if it’s nothing. The anger of those earlier feelings of religion in particular, I let them go as best I can, the hypocrisy of what the church is or can be, and I’ve been leaning into the parts of it that really helped me. Which is just, trying to be a better person, trying to not worry so much what’s after and be here and present as I can be.
MCDOWELL: I agree with everything that Andy said, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year contemplating that. I think that the only peaceful answer I can find that I will never know until I’m there and letting go of all of that 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 that inevitably will be an unknown answer until we get there and how you get there with your beliefs, that’s your journey that you go on.
Last year, I watched the David Bazan documentary Strange Negotiations and have become far more interested in the way listeners from a religious background interact with spiritually-minded rock bands. Have there been any fans who’ve disowned or criticized you for the way Manchester Orchestra writes about God?
HULL: You know what’s funny? We’ve never had people disown us for that, because we’re being blasphemous. What I love is people who say, “I’ve 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 greatest compliment you can get, like great, so then we’re communicating something that isn’t just based in my own personal experience. Also, I think because [God] has been a part of what we write about, I’ve seen a lot of people over-spiritualize songs we have and say, “This is what it’s about.” And I wasn’t thinking about God at all. But that’s par for the course and it’s the beauty of songwriting. If they can have a connection to someone, it really doesn’t matter what I had to say in the first place, it’s taken on its own life for somebody else.
The key line to me is one from “Annie” – “I’ve been trying to replicate the mask of God.” I’m curious about how that relates to the album title stating there’s a million different masks of God.
HULL: I have no answer to it, because there isn’t one. But I like that lyric because it made it more singular. I’ve been trying to replicate whatever this God represents, and it’s not really working for me. The next line is, “I’m starting to feel it, the guilt’s falling off,” like… once I realized that I can’t replicate this thing I’ve been told, then there’s this ability to let go of it. I really like this album title because it represented all the ways that you could see whatever God is for anyone, and God is in people, God is in the trees, God is everywhere. When I brought the title up to Rob, he thought the opposite — the things that are hiding what your God is. Once we realized the duality of it, it’s like man… we should probably run with this title.
The Million Masks Of God is out 4/30 on Loma Vista. Pre-order it here.