It’s mid afternoon and Manchester Orchestra have just arrived in the town that inspired their name. But more on that later. As Northern Noise kicks off our interview with bassist Jonathan Corley and frontman Andy Hull, finding something to prop open the back door to The Ruby Lounge is our main concern. The duo are taking a post sound-check cigarette break and don’t want to get locked out.
After fashioning an old Pringles can into a pretty effective door stop (teamwork, ay?) our chat begins. It’s mid April and Manchester Orchestra are in the UK for an all-too-brief tour. Their visit, coming just weeks ahead of the release of their third studio album Simple Math, will see them play a handful of warm-up dates: two in London and one in Manchester. But despite the brief nature of their trip it’s obvious the UK holds a special place in their hearts.
“This is our tenth time over actually” reveals Corley, between cigarette drags; “Leeds is one of my favourite cities”. Even though they formed in Atlanta, Georgia, a world away from our rainy Northern streets, there’s no doubt Manchester’s renowned musical output has had a considerable effect on the band. “Honestly, that’s what the band’s named after,” explains Corley “Andy was fan of The Smiths and Johnny Marr…and are The Stone Roses getting back together?” We ponder this for a second before Hull pipes in to sing praise upon Manchester. “Oh my god, this has been one of the best places to us ever. I know the name’s a nice thing, but I know that people also really did the stuff, and the fact that we named it after them should be a really good shout out”
A fearless Mancunian pigeon edges a little too close for comfort. “Get out of here…we’re from the South man we don’t put up with that bird shit” smiles Hull. In fact, Manchester Orchestra first left the Southern States to play Northern UK back in 2006, performing to crammed Night & Day Café. “That was our first show here, it was packed, we were so nervous,” remembers Hull, quickly backed up by Corley: “yeah, we had no idea what would happen that night.” Northern Noise was actually at this sold-out gig, way back when this website was just a pipe-dream and this writer a poor student. Even then it was obvious Manchester Orchestra were a band worth keeping an eye on.
Four years and two albums later the band returns to Manchester. Has much changed? “Well you just get better don’t you” explains Hull, crafting a pretty handy metaphor to describe their growth: “we have this awesome foosball table our friend gave us and we’ve been playing like crazy and we’re getting better, it’s this perfect analogy”. Practice makes perfect – it’s simple math, which coincidentally, is the title of their new record. An intimate journey taking you through the band’s story so far and a piece of work that offers the listener something new each time it’s played. The differences between Simple Math and its 2008 predecessor Mean Everything To Nothing are quite stark: “it was more immediate,” says Corley of their sophomore release, and Hull agrees, “Mean Everything To Nothing was suppose to be BAM BAM BAM BAM – I think this record (Simple Math) takes away anything you can say about our band.”
Was it clear where they wanted to go after Mean Everything To Nothing? After all, Simple Math is a concept album stemming from a three-hour argument between Hull and his wife – hefty stuff. “No” answers Hull honestly, “I’m always very clear on where we’re going, we just don’t end up going there”. For a band that writes constantly, finding the right songs to include was a tough process, especially with so much material to work with. A hundred songs were whittled down to 27 and then down to ten in order to get Simple Math to its final incarnation. “Those 27 songs we came down to, we could have lived and died for those songs we thought they were that good, but we then had to make an album,” recalls Hull. “There’s a couple of awesome tracks that didn’t make it,” he continues, teasing us with titles of songs that didn’t make the cut “‘God is in The Wicked’, ‘Last Remark’…’Billy Shakes’ which is a shout out to William Shakespeare”. Who doesn’t want to hear that one? We can only hope a Simple Math B-side is in the works.
As for the tracks that did make it, they’re peppered with reoccurring themes: religion, change and some brutal honesty. As the band’s lyricist, is Hull always comfortable baring his soul? “It’s not embarrassing because I’m not embarrassed about what happened, my wife’s not embarrassed about what happened – my wife loves the record and I love the record,” he explains, “I just think it’s honest to the point where people wouldn’t feel comfortable talking about it. When you say things on a record like ‘Goddamn I’m tired of lying, I wish I loved you like I use to’ – That’s not flattering to myself…”
That line appears in Pale Black Eye, an introspective look at the ever-changing role of religion in life. Hull is the son and grandson of Southern ministers so perhaps a certain honesty is to be expected. Hull gives Simple Math a confessional feel, especially in the bare-bones track Leave It Alone. “If you see how many times I write ‘I’ in the lyrics you can read it like a narrative for sure. That song’s pretty distinctly about a three hour argument in a bar and the decision at the end of it,” describes Hull. “If we can’t work this out then ‘a plague on my head and a curse on my home’, like to me and my wife, if we can’t do this it isn’t for lack of trying, and that’s at the source of things with where we were at with this record.” Our chat comes to and end as our makeshift Pringles can doorstop is tossed aside. In a few hours they’ll be playing to a sold out Mancunian crowd. Four years on and Manchester Orchestra once again prove to be a band worth keeping an eye on.
Northern Noise were at Manchester Orchestra’s Ruby Lounge show last month, here’s our live review.
We’ve been listening to Simple Math all month too. Here’s what we think, it hits shelves tomorrow.
Get more Manchester Orchestra news by visiting their website.