Interview: Manchester Orchestra

Friday 14 November 2014

Interview: Manchester Orchestra

Atlanta, Georgia indie rock band Manchester Orchestra are heading to Auckland next week to perform at the Powerstation in support of their recent album Cope. Released in February this year, the band also decided to release a reworked, stripped-down version of it, which resulted in an album called Hope. Eventfinda caught up with lead guitarist Robert McDowell to talk about recording these two albums, what it's like to be in a band that has been going for ten years and what NZ fans can expect from their first ever concert here.

Where are you at the moment?
Currently we’re at home. We’re rehearsing. We’re about to go out, right before we go to Australia and New Zealand and tour on our record ‘Hope’, which is the stripped-down version of ‘Cope’. It was a fun record to make, but we don’t know how to play any of it live, so we’ve been in the studio for the last 30 days, which is never a fun thing to do. But it means that I’m home, so that’s nice.

Cool. Do you spend a lot of time away from home these days? How much of the year are you away?
It slowed down from how much it was in the beginning, I’d say, we’re probably gone six months out of the year. When we were first starting we were doing about 250 shows a year, so we were probably gone 320+ days a year, so, six months, even though it’s half of the year, it feels really nice. Any longer than that I’d start to get a little stir crazy.

I was reading about Hope and sounded like a pretty cool idea: rearranging all of the songs on Cope. How did that idea come about?
We knew when we made Cope that we wanted to make a full-on rock-driven record that never really lets up. We had an idea of doing all of the songs as an acoustic version and have two sides to the record. It was something that we would have liked to do, but we didn’t know if we were going to be able to execute it. In the studio we knew that the cores of the songs (the melodies, the lyrics, the progression) were all very beautiful and we knew we could definitely pack it in a very different way, it was just a matter of finding the right outlet and time. Cope was the first one and it was so far in one direction. We knew that it was the right move - it was just trying to find time. We took two days off between tours. We just barely got it done and now that it’s done, I’m very happy that we did.

Two days is really not a lot of time at all, had you worked out beforehand how you wanted the arrangements to be or did you just get into the studio and strip it back then and there as you were recording?
We just went in and did it. As everybody’s re-learning the guitar and key parts, I’m realising that we’d never played them more than once. We’d write an arrangement or a grouping of chords for the whole thing, record it and then immediately have to move onto the next song. It was kind of fun looking back on what we did in the original sessions for Cope because it was all instinct that we were going off of.

With such a short time span to get it out there I guess there was no time to be perfectionists about it or be anxious about what the final product was going to be, you just had to be happy with that take and get onto the next one.
We were still very tough on ourselves. With our band, the second we release something that isn’t up to our standards then it feels like we’re diluting what we’ve worked for for the past ten years so there was still that level of pressure. There just wasn’t as much time to argue, which was good.

Manchester Orchestra has been going since 2004, which means it’s the 10-year anniversary this year. Are you doing anything to recognise the milestone?
Yeah, we’re coming to New Zealand! Actually I don’t know if we’ve thought about it much. It’s definitely something to celebrate: a group of dudes sticking around for that long. I think we’ll celebrate by making another record. And another ten years together.

I understand that when Andy first asked you to join the band all of those years ago that your mother wouldn’t let you join at first.
No, she didn't. I’m the youngest in the band so I joined in early 2006 when I was 17 so I would have been 15 on tour. My mum let me take off [on tour] when I was 17 but when I was 15 she wouldn’t, and I don’t know if I was quite ready to get in the van and go on tour, I would have been really young.

When Andy [Hull, guitarist and singer-songwriter] first started Manchester Orchestra, were you a part of it at all at that point, even just playing the Atlanta shows?
Andy and I had been making music together since I was 13, just in my parents’ basement, so we were in bands that were friends with each other and collaborating and things like that, but it wasn’t until two years later that I actually became an official part of Manchester Orchestra.

Now that you both have been working together for so long, does that mean your creative and writing process is easier or is it harder?
Oh no, it’s very easy. At this point there’s not a lot that needs to be said. We’re on the same page as far as what could happen and what is happening. It’s a very natural process now. I always read about bands that start to butt heads and grow apart, but I’m very happy that our band has only grown closer and we trust each other more and everybody has grown as a musician and are growing as friends, so it’s been cool.

How did the two new band members affect that dynamic that was already there with the group?
With Jeremiah, our original drummer (love him to death), he wanted to leave the band to focus on his family, so there are no hard feelings. Obviously you feel like you just got dumped a little bit, but it’s not as bad as people think. Tim, our new drummer had been around, he’s lived in Nashville and at this point he had played in bands that had toured with us forever. He had even come out and sold merch. for us on tour, so he was already a pretty good friend and knew the dynamics of the band. He had even filled in for some shows back in 2005, I believe. That was a pretty seamless transition and then with Andy Prince our bass player, he’s from the same town as Tim and is a great dude. He was raised the same way as us so it feels like I’ve known him forever, even though I’ve only known him for (I think) three years.

Which is kind of perfect really, that’s what you want from a band member who you are going to be working on songs together and touring the world together and then spending a lot of time in confined spaces.
Yeah, absolutely, and he’s a hell of a bass player too, so that doesn’t hurt.

What can we expect from your NZ show?
I always forget that people know our band as the songs on the record. Every once in a while I’ll go back and listen to these songs on the records because the way that I hear and see them now is from my perspective on stage and I feel like over the years each song has evolved into a better version. A different version, I’m not knocking the old version. If people like the songs, they’ll see songs that they like, hopefully executed in a greater way than the record.

Will you be doing any of the Hope songs on this tour or are you just going to be focusing on Cope?
Focusing on Cope, but we were just over in Europe and even there some of the Hope version of these songs were coming out. The thing about our band is that we don’t try and put ourselves in a box with the set list, we want it to be something that is reacting off the way people are responding to it in the room, so if certain things steer in a certain direction, I don’t think it would be insane if we were to try and pull out a Hope version of a song.

Manchester Orchestra
Auckland - Monday 17th November, Powerstation


Tickets are available now from Ticketmaster.