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Interviews

Interview: Manchester Orchestra Talks “The Million Masks of God”, & Celebrating Life

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

“There’s a decision we’re faced with when experiencing loss and the inevitable grief that follows”, frontman Andy Hull observed as he addressed a recurring theme through music and life. “Do we let it sink us? Try to ignore it and pretend it’s not there? Or do we search and dig until we find signs of beauty in life and all of its experiences?”

An exploration of life, death, and the mystery of what happens after we take our final bow, Manchester Orchestra’s new record, The Million Masks of God, is both a touching tribute to guitarist Robert McDowell’s late father, and a moving call to appreciate what we have here and now.

Out now via Loma Vista Recordings, the album witnesses the Atlanta-based quartet tackle the tangible and intangible elements of the human existence with a transcendence that will certainly bring listeners to a point of thoughtful appreciation.

Yet, before you dive into the band’s sixth full-length offering, make sure to check out our interview with frontman Andy Hull to hear all about the making of The Million Masks of God, the best way to listen to the new album, and more!

Congratulations on your new album! This must be super exciting.

I know right? I definitely have the week of jitters, but I’m so happy it’s here!

You’ve had this album in the works for a couple of years now and I heard that this was actually the most time the band had spent developing songs prior to recording. Do you think this gave you a new perspective or impacted how you approached the music in any way?

Yes, definitely! It allowed us to have enough room to sit with everything for a while and it gave the songs a chance to make it past the chopping block or the initial run through.

I believe we started the writing for the album around 2017-18, but we really began putting it together in the beginning of 2019.

Typically, in the past, if we felt that something wasn’t totally hitting in the first couple of weeks that we were working on it, we would usually toss it in the B-sides pile or maybe bring it up later. Although we really believed in the pieces of music we were making, we just couldn’t figure out how to finish them. So, this time around, we just let ourselves do that instead of being too hard on ourselves. We were able to spend time and nourish the songs and eventually get them where we needed them.

It was worth the wait! I’ve listened to the album a few times already and it turned out beautiful. I really enjoy how well everything flows together. 

Thank you so much! That’s awesome to hear.

Of course! I was happy to see that you guys brought back collaborators Catherine Marks and Ethan Gruska for this album. What was it like working with them again and what did they each bring to the mix? 

We love Catherine dearly. She’s become like a sister to us and she has a truly unbelievable internal thermometer when it comes to knowing whether something is going the right way and fulfilling an inner emotional feeling. She helped guide us to find that connection by either telling us it wasn’t quite there yet or by assuring us that it was there when we were worried. She can stop and say “no, you’re overthinking it,” which is especially helpful for us because we tend to do that a good bit.

Ethan is also incredible! We were honestly so fortunate to have both of them there. Ethan is such an amazing mind and an even better person.

Just having the two of them, fully willing to support and spend as much time as was needed on this record, and the team understanding and appreciating each other’s skillsets and boundaries was perfect because there was no ego whatsoever. We were working in unison and that felt really great because even if there were any disagreements, they were for the right reason. We were all trying to make the best thing possible. I’d say it was extremely fluid. Very hard to make, but not because of any tension between people. It was just challenging to figure out all the layers to what we were trying to accomplish! Everything was intentionally connected.

The record should be listened to as one piece, I think. Obviously, people won’t do that all the time, but that was a very inspiring feeling for us. We thought, “how do we make an album that lends itself to a kind of cinematic world where things are connected and constantly folding on itself?” There’s tons of repetition and circular motions throughout. It was cool to kind of throw away any rulebook that we had and just try and make something that was moving for us.

Manchester Orchestra’s new album, The Million Masks of God, is out now via Loma Vista Recordings.

One of my personal favorites on the record was “Angel of Death.” A lot of people picture a Grim Reaper-like figure, but you guys personified death as a limousine riding, tea leaf reading kind of being. I was curious, how did your view of death as a character or spiritual force change as you created the album? 

You know what? I think that character on the record serves almost like a mirror to whoever is riding around with him. It’s definitely less of a terrorizing or terrifying thing. Rather, it’s just someone that you’re reflecting on your life with.

It gave me Great Gatsby-esque vibes, picturing the old fancy cars, brooding chats, and such!

That’s awesome! (laughs) I love that visual of a long conversation with him that just weaves in and out of memories. So, I guess it wasn’t as much of its own character as it was a reflection on the main character.

Another one of my favorites from the record is “Bed Head.” I feel like it encapsulates so many themes from the record from life and death, to hope and family. What was your inspiration behind that particular song? 

It was about reckoning with the person you were, the person that you are, and focusing on the person you’re trying to be and why you’re trying to be that person now. Certainly, for me, the personal part of that song is a wanting to move into a place that’s positive towards mental health, acceptance, and forgiving yourself. I think there are some cool parallels, so it’s nice that you say that it kind of encapsulates what the record is about. I feel that way too! The song touches on the general themes and is all those things, but within a conversation between two people. They’re sort of discussing, one from the afterlife and one who’s still living. One person is trying to tell the other to let them go, move on, and aim towards bettering themselves.

In addition to the song, the accompanying music video was also stunning, heartbreaking, and special to watch. How did you guys come up with that concept for the video?

Thank you! I have to give credit to Andrew Donoho who is an amazing director. He had done some incredible videos and he expressed years ago that if we ever wanted to team up with him on something, that he really liked the band and would love to work with us. We decided to hit him up. He heard the record and submitted that treatment.

We kind of zhuzhed it up a bit by giving it somewhat of a happier ending, but I was pretty sold after his first paragraph explaining what it was going to be. I don’t think it couldn’t have come out better!

Who is the little girl telling the “boy who cried wolf” story at the end of that song?

That’s actually my daughter Mayzie!

Aww how sweet, I love that!

She does too. It took her a minute, but then she heard me talking about her on the radio and she was like, “ah, ok cool!”

She’s famous now! 

So she thinks! (laughs)

Do you suppose that you see music or connect to themes like those in The Million Masks of God in a different or deeper way now that you have kids, as compared to earlier on in your career?  

Oh yeah, absolutely! I think it started on our last record. My perspective on just about everything shifted fully. This record was about that same feeling, but it also examines the feeling of losing somebody who is important to us, like a parent. We were dealing with new life with my and Robert’s sons being born within five weeks of each other and we were dealing with death as well. They were two things passing at one time and they were generational. That’s a powerful feeling.

We didn’t want to make a record that was about how awful it all is. We wanted to make a record that, if anything, is celebrating life and trying to deal with instances like that which happen to everyone every day. We’re trying to put that into some scope to talk about.

I know the band has a livestream Zoom Q&A and your first acoustic show of 2021 coming up soon. What can fans expect from these events? 

It’s so hard to say now what to expect. We don’t even really know! But we try and take any opportunity we have to play for other people as a chance to do it well. For this show in Florida, we have a cool setlist planned. The Q&A events are also always fun. We have our Zoom sound dialed in so it should be pretty good!

Is there a track from the new album that you’re especially looking forward to performing live?   

We actually just started rehearsing a lot of them live last week. They’re all really exciting. I think a part of songwriting that has been the hardest for artists this last year and a half is that songs don’t really finish their lifecycle until they’re brought out into the public. It’s tough to pick a favorite, but for me, it’s probably “Bed Head”. With people reacting to that in such a positive way, it’s like “oh man! Imagine what that’s going to be like live!” That will be nice.

In addition to the album and streams, is there anything else that you or the band are currently excited for or have coming up?  

Everything is so busy! We’re just living in the moment of releasing this thing and we’ve got some cool surprises ahead that we’re working on. We always try to stay busy and give ourselves something to look forward to.

You guys are certainly multitasking masters! 

Or work-a-holics! (laughs) One of the two!

I’ve got to hear your secret for balancing all your different projects! How do you keep the creative juices flowing?

It’s good to not focus on something too solidly for too long. We even did that with this new Manchester record! We’d be really intense about it for a period of a couple months, and then we’d go do something else for a while and kind of take our mind off of it. It’s exciting and you don’t get burned out as easily if you’re working on different things.

I also find that working with other artists where I’m not the center of attention is great. Helping build out other people’s songs and helping others find their vision really grows me every time we do that. So, I enjoy being in both seats.

Very cool! To wrap things up, I have a few fun fill-in-the-blank questions. Would you like to give it a go?

Yeah, let’s do it!

In my spare time I like to…

Watch basketball

My favorite animal is…

That’s a tough one! I think a whale!

If I wasn’t a musician, I’d probably be a…

Oh God! (laughs) Failed standup comedian. Aimless!

The last thing I bought for myself was…

This one’s really cool! I bought a really long fire poker that you can blow through the middle to stoke the fire

Last one! A song that inspires me is…

One that’s been inspiring me lately is “Have a Little Faith in Me” by John Hiatt

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