Interview: Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull on recording at Sound City with “genius” Ethan Guska, film composition and growing up in Toronto

This Friday marks the release of Manchester Orchestra‘s 6th Studio Album, the highly anticipated The Million Masks of God. You may have already heard the single “Bed Head”, watched the concert film (you’ll see the both later down this article), or even watched the video for the beautiful “Telepath”, which was released yesterday.

Ahead of the album’s release, I caught up with Andy over Zoom – our first chat in some 7 years, when he reflected on recording the album, growing up in Toronto, and their tendency to work with the cinematic – both in terms of the music videos, and their music itself.

So great to connect with you again Andy!

Likewise Larry. You’re in Toronto now?

I am! So I guess we’re a similar timezone, either an hour off, or the same timezone as you…

Well you know I grew up in Toronto, from 7 to 14 years old… So, where are you living in Toronto?

I never knew that! I’m towards The Junction

Lovely, I was living around Newmarket and Richmond Hill. My Dad had a big Church. My Dad was a pastor, of I think the longest-standing historic Church in Canada, “People’s Church” on Shepherds Avenue. So yes, I’m very familiar with Toronto

Such formative years, I mean those are the same years I lived in California, 7 to 14. And still to this day, I feel more at home in California than I do probably anywhere else in the world. Do you have a similar affinity to Toronto?

I have a really great respect and admiration for Toronto. It shaped who I am, no doubt, of course, it shaped who I am. It was ultimately a lot of stuff about race, and just understanding that there are other people that aren’t just White and Black around you. It was the best melting pot I could possibly have, that by the time I came back to Georgia, it was just like, ‘What are all these crazy White people doing?’.

Canada in general just kind of explained to me how big the world was. Whereas I think if I had stayed in Southern Georgia, I probably wouldn’t have had all of those obvious things happen. I’d probably just be a ‘lil old good ol’ country boy.

That wouldn’t be so bad either, but there’s something to be said for knowing the world.

[Laughs] Yeah, I agree.

So, obviously in the last year, there hasn’t been much opportunity to see the world. This time last year though, I understand you were with Ethan [Guska] at the Sound City studios. Was that finishing off this record? Was that kind of the end of the process, about this time last year?

It was getting close to the end, we were probably a month or-so out. But Ethan – since you know his name I’m imaging you know how genius he is. Ethan’s the kind of guy where you go to Sound City with Ethan, and just say “play anything you want” over the top of everything, then you just let him have fun. And then you pick the parts that are genius. They’re all genius, but you pick that parts that work in the song and capture them.

He let us into that spot, told us about it, where he works a lot. The funniest thing was that, while we were making that record, the only other artist in the studio was Bob Dylan, and so we had a bunch of Bob Dylan old-school homies in the studio who just didn’t want anything to do with us, just walking through. Which was terrifying, really.

Not so much of the old school variety, but was Blake Mills in those sessions?

Yes, I was hanging with Blake. Had a couple good chats with him, while he was working on the Bob tracks, and we were sharing a couple good chats in-between sessions.

It’s interesting, Ethan, obviously coming from the family that he does, he’s such an interesting character. I read an interview with him recently where he was kind of talking about film composing, and not disparaging it but, I think he said, “scoring is a service role” whereas making albums is a sort of “self-service”.

I would agree with that, that’s true.

Working with him, have you spoken about scoring? Because obviously you’ve now worked with The DANIELS a couple of times, scoring yourself, and you know that world very well.

Yeah, you know it’s funny, Ethan sort of scores everything. I was saying earlier, we’d be at Ethan’s house. We did the Sound City thing for three days, then we went to Ethan’s place and we stayed there for two weeks, me, Catherine (Marks, the album’s other producer), Robert (McDowell of the band) and Ethan. Ethan would hit a rock the wrong way pacing around the driveway and be like, ‘Did you hear that?’. And then we’d have to sample it, and then we’re using it in the song, and it’s fucking genius, he’s really, he is that.

I think it’s funny, like history with his grandfather (Star Wars composer John Williams) and all of that, that was a funny fact to find out early. I don’t ever think about that. He’s so impressive and has just continued to be so impressive. And is such an incredible collaborator and person, just a genuinely lovely guy, that I plan on knowing until I’m out of here. I never think about that.

It was funny the first time we ever connected about it, he was at my house, where I am right now, and we were about to go to Asheville to work on some Manchester songs for about five days in his cabin before we started recording and he mentioned his grandfather, and I was like “Oh dude I forgot, we actually had to get his permission to record “Jurassic Park” for the Swiss Army Man movie. Like, I have a connection with your grandfather…” and before I ever worked with Ethan, his grandfather had actually heard Jurassic Park and gave it the thumbs up. Which I feel is just like a very familial yes. We vibe with that family.

I love that. Imagine though, working on something like that and that being the launch of your career, and then you’re still working on it when you’re what, in your 90s?

You gotta be grateful for that, right? And apparently Ethan says it’s all pen and paper. He’s just sitting there, with some paper and a pen, and he’s just writing out Star Wars shit, it’s amazing.

Can you write music? Can you write on paper?

No! God, no. I hear it all, I can pinpoint what I wanna hear, and apparently things I hear are not just your normal things. But, no.

My grandmother was a classically trained recording artist for a number of records, for Columbia Records, in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and then became a pastor’s wife who played the church circuit. She was a really talented woman and when I started to get piano lessons form her, I hated it. It was just, everything against what, even to this day, what I like about music. I understand why all the things are great and I want to explore all the things, but I don’t have the lingo to be like, “oh play the seventh over that C”. I just go like, “that sounds really good. Do that thing”.

And there’s plenty of people who can write it for you. I mean, I grew up with my Dad writing music for theatre. And he couldn’t write nor read music, and he would create these layered tracks on his keyboards and then send that off and someone else would do the dictation of it.

Yes! Exactly! Your Dad’s process is very similar to mine.

It’s all about delegation…

Yeah, and I also think, because I’ve talked to so many musicians who have been trained too much. And they just go, “man, it’s hard to find the thing that gets me excited, because I know what the quote-unquote ‘right’ thing is to do”.

But the beauty of it is that there actually aren’t any rules and you can do whatever you want.

Exactly. When it comes to the work you’ve done for film and the people who work for film who have done work for you, I want to talk about the “Bed Head” music video directed by Andrew Donoho.

From a visual point of view, that really felt like a progression from work you did years ago, or rather the work that DANIELS directed for you. Was that a very conscious decision to kind of have a visual similarity there?

Yeah, you know, Andrew said at the very beginning of his first pitch, was “I feel like this could be a nod to all of your great music videos”. Like, how do we take the things that this has been and then put it into a really significant story. And the story broke my heart, and I loved that.

The idea that Andrew came up with was that no matter what happens, you still have the people that matter to you in your life around you. And it’s not going to be a physical thing, like the music video was, there’s no mutation of magic or some sort of poltergeist-level strangeness, but the idea, that when people who matter to us are gone, they are still very much here, and how they live with ya.

So that whole music video she is acting to just baller-ass pop music the whole time.

So that got me, that was very in-tune with what the album was about. The only real thing I had to do for that music video was at the very end, just saying I think he should write ‘hello’ again on the car window glass. That was accepted, and it was like, alright good. Now we have our beginning, start and finish and it was pretty sweet.

And what’s really lovely is that little girl, who’s in the video. I was being sent videos of her all day, and she didn’t want to listen to “Bed Head”, she needed to listen to her own music to turn-up. And it was all very pop. It was super pop. Which I loved. So that whole music video she is acting to just baller-ass pop music the whole time.

That’s so funny, I’ll watch the video again but play Taylor Swift in the background, and see how it syncs up.

Yeah, I think like a Halsey track would do, somewhere. It’d work.

There we go. That track of course has introduced everyone to the record which I’ve been listening to for the last 48 hours.

What do you think?

I love it. It’s interesting because, in the press and a lot of the media stuff I was sent about it, a lot of it talks about the cinematic nature of it and the chronology of the record, but I feel like there was a lot of Mean Everything to Nothing in there.

I got a lot of harks back to that not just musically and thematically, but also structurally as well. It does feel like you’ve been doing “Cinematic” albums for longer than I think you’re given credit for.

Oh, that’s nice.

It was the 10th anniversary of that record (Mean Everything to Nothing) when you were writing this. I mean those were the last shows you did, the 10th anniversary shows. So was that album in your mind when you were making this new record?

It wasn’t at all. I remember, the best part about Catherine (Marks) and Ethan is that they don’t really know about our band very much. Y’know, I don’t think Catherine had ever heard us…s he’d probably done a few single searches of our band before we worked with her, but there wasn’t much of a thing. And Ethan knew who we were and we’d worked together on our Bad Books record, but it was just two people who, nothing that we were making mattered, in terms of what we had done in our career already. Which is great. That’s what you want.

I remember one night getting back to the house and we were all standing together, and we were like “We’re going to go out, three weeks from now and play this opening song, and play “The Only One” really loud on the speaker”. I was like “Can you all imagine how that’s gonna feel”. I think it was the most opposite feeling we could’ve had. I guess, for as far as a rocking out record.

But, that’s one of the most personal records I’ve made, and a record that sort of created itself after a long period of time. So I can understand the connections to it. That record, I’m grateful for that record. I listen back to that record and go like, “man, look at you, you are so angry. But you could craft a pretty good song”.

There’s a change in context too now, when you listen to that record (Mean Everything to Nothing) – there’s songs where you’re dreaming of having a daughter and now you have a daughter. So it must be strange almost to travel back in time in that respect.

I will say, it’s funny you say that too, because, my son’s name is River and the last track on that record is “The River” and there’s just so much connection to my children now, to my music, in such a big way. And finishing that record, I remember being 30% done, but leaving and going on that tour and talking to Foxing, the band that was on that tour, and Jeremy from Touché Amoré, they were playing the same venue one night, and they said “What do you think about the record” and I said, “I don’t want to jinx it, but it really feels like the most exciting, for me, music we’ve ever made, in a really long time”. I can’t tell ya how much it feels connected to all of it, it’s like, I don’t know, the Season 2 flashback maybe to the Season 1 record, but it’s all connected.

Indeed, well, Million Masks of God is out on April 30th and you can go online now and watch a beautiful hour-long concert film which brought me to tears. Not just because of the music, but because of the fact that I hate that we can’t see you live at the moment, and that’s all we’re gettin’!

Yep, that’s right. You are right. Even watching that together, we thought, ‘man’. And then we all started jumping up and down. And then we started really giving a little bit of grace to people who talk during shows. It was like “how do you not?”.

The Million Masks of God is out on Friday through Loma Vista Recordings.

For more on the album and Manchester Orchestra, head to their official website

Transcription by Kate Rafferty

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.