Manchester Orchestra descend into a valley of vision

‘I’ve got to take what I’m making and turn it into something…’ Andy Hull once hollered on ‘Where Have You Been?’, the centrefold track off Manchester Orchestra ’s seminal debut, I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child. It’s the kind of line that sticks with you for years and years – case and point: that was released all the way back in 2006. Nearly twenty years later, it’s safe to say the prolific songwriter and his band have amassed a discography worthy of being deemed far more than just “something”.

Manchester Orchestra

I caught up with Andy via Zoom, from our respective basements here in the states, a few weeks after the release of the band’s latest, The Valley of Vision. A six-song EP with an accompanying film (!), it’s a lush, ethereal output with tastes of everything the band – and Andy on his own, for that matter – has touched upon through their career to date.

“Since Black Mile [to the Surface], I’ve decided whatever the most interesting clothing that our songs can be wrapped in is the thing that we should chase, regardless if they fit into what we, or even our fan base, would consider a Manchester song,” Andy admits. “Because we aren’t really one particular thing, sonically. I think before Black Mile…, something that I wrote that would be more folky, I wouldn’t consider putting into the Manchester lane. But that shouldn’t matter. The best song should be the best song, and the best format of that song is what we should be searching for.”

This mindset has yielded a much different dynamic in the writing room than the band has grown accustomed to, but one that’s strengthened the creative process overall. It’s allowed the four collaborators to turn over every creative stone up front, while exploring everyone’s ideas and inspirations.

“I heard a great quote the other day on collaboration,” Andy tells me. “You should never say ‘no’ to an idea that is thrown out, because the act of physically hearing that idea fleshed out in a room is going to be completely different than you imagining what that idea is and turning it down. So that’s something I’ve really leaned into as well. It’s far more efficient just to try it, instead of arguing about an idea with people in a room. All of the songs on this record, we’ve tried in every version possible. And they ended up being the weirdest versions they could be.”

With these newfound mantras to follow, the quartet found themselves more hyper focused than ever on individual parts and elements within their songs. It’s something Andy harkens back to working with 2023 Academy Award winners “The Daniels” on their 2016 film Swiss Army Man

“Watching the Daniels work on every single second of something – we thought we were doing that before. But watching the almost-manic detail chasing was so inspiring; these guys cared just as much about a seven second prompt as they did a three-and-a-half minute long montage scene.”

Solicited for scoring the entire film, the band was given guidelines to utilise Andy’s voice almost exclusively. So with that in mind, they worked extra hard to find ways to cheat the system, by manipulating his vocals with processors and effects and treating it as more of an instrument than solely a provider of lyrics. This perspective was an especially useful tool when approaching the director who created the Valley of Vision film component.

“I had a relationship with [Isaac Deitz] from working with him on a music video for ‘Telepath’ from Million Masks of God. I was really impressed with how much he cared and put time into that. [For Valley of Vision], my only direction was I didn’t want a hyper narrative. I wanted something that could enhance the music, but not take away from it. I also thought it would be cool to be in VR. So we could have people listen to this thing, watch the film and have a moment where they could just not be where they are. And he thought we were sponsored by Oculus or something, haha.

“So when he was given that limitation – similar to how we were with Swiss Army Man – because he had no experience in VR, we ended up with this super unique thing because he cares. He wants to try and cheat and manipulate. And we were just so happy that it ended up coinciding and coming together at the same time.”

To support the release of both the EP and the film, the band has been hosting special screening events across the globe, which include Q&As, and intimate, retrospective performances with stripped down arrangements.**

Once this phase is complete, the band is hitting the road for what I’m dubbing the must-see tour of the summer: a co-headline stint with Jimmy Eat World, a band near and dear to this writer’s heart, which you may or may not already know if you’re into finding Easter eggs peppered throughout nearly all of our print magazines.

“Everyone in our band loves Jimmy Eat World,” Andy gushes. “So when this opportunity came up, it was a no brainer for us. Not only do we get to see them play every night, but we also get to play with them at some really cool venues. With our bands combined, we can play some bigger spots, which is always really fun. They’re just the sweetest and most well-adjusted adults, which is awesome.”

One fascinating thing about a band like Manchester Orchestra is how they effectively sift through such a vast discography in order to narrow down an appropriate set list. Depending on who you ask, there’s definitely a science behind blending the new and the old, the fan favourites and the deeper cuts, the soft and the loud. Unsurprisingly, Andy and the band are quite methodical about it.

“In the last five or six years, we started looking at shows like albums,” he reveals. “How do we curate this live album every night, so it’s almost like a theatrical performance? We are nerds that just really love nailing all of that. And how do we make 90 minutes stay engaging and interesting because man, 90 minutes is tough to sit through. Even my favourite bands, after like 80 minutes I’m like, ‘Alright boys, let’s land the plane…’

“We’re really fortunate, though, that our fan base seems to understand that our songs start in the studio, but they evolve and become different songs live. It’s why we still play stuff from our first record, because they’re just different songs now sonically, with how we perform them and how they’ve evolved over the years.”

It’s safe to say that the band’s fans have evolved right along with their songs. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, hearing a song like the aforementioned fan favourite, ‘Where Have You Been?’ and having it mean something completely different now than it did as a teenager. In some respects, a lot of the material on Valley of Vision comes off like a subconscious rewriting of the past – the band has grown up whilst finding a way to not compromise their message or, dare I say, vision.

“I could sit now and play [I’m Like A Virgin…] acoustically and still love every bit of it. I’m super proud of every song on that record. And they’re about the same shit I talk about today, just from a 19 year old’s mind. So there’s nothing in there that I feel embarrassed or cringy about lyrically. There are plenty of those songs in my collection that I’ve written over the years, but for me on that record, that’s not the case. We were a band that was playing that stuff every night for 20 to 40 people just refining, refining, refining to get better and so by the time we made that thing, we were a pretty good band for the tools we had, which was being a lot of terrible musicians.”

One of the things that’s kept listeners engaged throughout the band’s tenure has been Andy’s lyrics – an aspect that also reaches over into his epic, conceptual trilogy of albums released under the moniker Right Away, Great Captain. Of the many lyrics I’ve loved from Andy’s discography over the years, one from Valley of Vision song ‘The Way’ immediately stuck out at this point in my life: ‘Love is never optional,’ Andy sings with his undeniable, gentle conviction. It got me thinking about family and the importance of being present, and how difficult that can be for a touring musician. And despite my personal experiences being on a much (much) smaller scale than Andy’s, I had to ask how he copes with it all.

“The best thing to say to you right now is just be present. But that’s so hard,” he admits. “I guess if we keep repeating it to ourselves, we might catch waves of being present. But I have a hard time with that. I think the blessing – and the curse – that I’ve got with my job is that I’m taken away for periods of time over a couple of weeks, and I do deeply miss my family after the first five minutes. Then when I’m home, I really do have time. But that can be a lot too, to go from all the time sort of isolated – you’re with your friends, but it’s low pressure. I don’t have to do much on tour other than my job and I do my job really well: be a good friend, get some sleep and drink enough water. There’s a lot more on that checklist when you get home. 

“I have to remind myself – and my wife reminds me too – that when I start feeling guilty about being gone, I do get a lot of time with my kids. There’s not an office that I have to go check in with. I’ve got to answer some emails and on a day like today, I’ve got a couple hours of interviews. I can’t be there for things that some dads or moms can be but I also can be there for things that others can’t. I just try to let them know that I really love them and that I’m really sorry when I don’t do a good job. I think apologising to your kids is huge.”

It’s sound, albeit wistful, advice from a guy who’s made a career out of wearing his heart on his sleeve, and being honest with himself and his art. It truly does not get more authentic than that.

**Just ahead of this article’s publishing, the previously scheduled, sold-out events at Union Chapel on 13th May and 15th May were postponed to 2nd and 3rd October, respectively. A statement from Andy follows:

I am devastated to report that my ear infection, though healing, is still very much an issue and my doctor has advised I not travel to London this week. I can’t begin to describe the exciting plans we had for our shows at Union Chapel, so I will wait to spoil them for when we return. With that in mind, I’m pleased to say we’ve managed to reschedule the dates, and hope you can still join us then. If you can’t, you can get a refund at your original point of purchase. We have never cancelled shows lightly, please know what a difficult decision this was. We love you. We’ll see you soon.”

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