Manchester Orchestra has a long history with Birmingham. The band formed in Atlanta more than a decade ago, a time when regional touring was imperative to building a fanbase. As fate would have it, the woman that would become lead singer Andy Hull’s wife was then attending Samford University.
“I wrote a lot of early Manchester songs on her balcony in Homewood,” Hull says of the band’s earliest days.
Since then, the band has released five studio albums, including 2017’s A Black Mile to the Surface. Before their visit to Iron City on Friday, August 10, Hull reflected on those days when MySpace was a valuable commodity, on getting older and becoming a family man, and on an unlikely cover version.
You guys are one of the biggest rock bands to come from Atlanta in the past 20 years. How do you find your way out of Atlanta as a rock act when it’s a city that’s become so known for hip-hop?
We did exactly that — we had to leave Atlanta. We had to play places like Columbia and Nashville and Birmingham and Florida. We were also young when we started this — the other bands that were around were in their 20s and we were in our late teens. So we couldn’t get into any clubs; we couldn’t really socialize with anybody. We just kind of had to do it on our own and leave. And since then, it’s definitely one of our top five markets, and they’ve really embraced us, but early on there wasn’t really a scene at all.
How important were some of those auxiliary markets like Birmingham for your growth and success?
Huge. The first couple of times, it was 15 people, then maybe 30 the next couple of times, then maybe 50. You could just see very small but incremental growth as it went on. We were starting to draw 100 people in those cities, and if you were smart with the money, you could make enough to get CDs printed up and sell them at more shows [laughs].
Who are some of the younger bands over there right now? Anybody you’ve kind of taken under your wing?
Yeah, there’s a great band out of Athens called Mighty that I’m really invested in and hoping to help as much as I can. That’s the most important thing to have when you’re at that age — just to have someone that’s done it before you that can show you the way to do it. We try to pass that forward as much as we can.
When you guys began, MySpace was a hugely important tool in connecting with your audience. How has that evolved and how do you connect with that audience now?
It evolved into Spotify. It evolved into Apple Music and streaming services. They found a way to monetize it — it doesn’t necessarily help us, but somebody is making money [laughs]. The reality is that has become a huge thing, because even though it’s small amounts of income, it’s still repetitive. If someone is buying your CD, they’re buying that CD one time for $10. Now, even if it’s pennies, you’re getting thousands of streams and that stuff is still coming in depending on how many times somebody has listened to it. That’s been helpful.
The best way to reach your fans? I don’t really know now. I think we have a particular way that we do it where we try to show them a lot of respect, but we also try to have a mystery surrounding it. We’re not really a “share every detail of your day” kind of band. I think that’s probably just how we grew up with bands we admired. It was sort of cool to not know everything that was going on.
I think for a new band coming out now, there are just so many available options for your music to be heard. It’s a really great thing. MySpace was really the first spot where a band with zero following could put music out there and anybody that wanted to listen to it could listen to it.
You’re the only original member of this band remaining. How do you feel about the current version of the band and how it has evolved to this version?
I feel really grateful and fortunate that as guys have left — due to just getting old and not wanting to be in a band and whatever the individual cases may be — I’ve always had guys come in that have helped me elevate and take my own chops up; when you’re playing with people that have a different set of skills.
I’m glad that I’m friends with everybody in the band. We are able to get around each other and also understand that it’s a business, and everybody takes it seriously. We really want to make sure that we are representing ourselves the best we can musically, when we’re playing. That’s something that you learn as you get older. It’s a little bit less about letting all of the passion drive it. There needs to be some meticulous thought that goes into it as you’re evolving.
Do you write most of the songs by yourself, or is it a group effort at this point?
They start with me. We’ll get a skeleton — melody and lyrics. Then it evolves many, many times over as it continues to get fleshed out. We’ll get together with a group of songs and start painting broad strokes of what the clothing of the song is going to be like. Then we’ll go away and start thinking and working and shifting around ideas, and I’ll kind of know what it’s going to be with a full band.
This last record, though, they just kept evolving up until the final weeks of the record. We were doing things to completely shift how the song was — and that’s always just a “best idea wins” scenario. Nobody cares who comes up with it, we just want it to be the best that it can be.
As you begin getting a little older, is family something you suspect may shift your priorities with the band? Or is there always room in your life for this band?
There’s certainly a shift in priority, but if anything, it makes me want to be better and to create better things. If I’m going to dedicate time to something — being away from them — I shouldn’t take it for granted. I should use it best I can. Working smarter is a really big part of it. Giving ourselves some restrictions — we don’t want to go out and tour for six weeks in a row anymore. We’ll shift that up; even if that means making a little less money, it’s worth having that time to get back home and re-center yourself. You want your kids to know who you are.
What inspired you guys to cover The Avett Brothers’ “No Hard Feelings?”
It was one of the best songs I had heard. Maybe ever [laughs]. It stuck with me. It really, really got its hooks in me. We were labelmates with them on Columbia for a really long time, but I had never really dove into their stuff intensely before, and I heard that song on a TV show, I think, and Shazam’ed it and then downloaded it and listened to it and — I’m not joking — I think I listened to it on repeat 100 times nonstop. Every time I would cry listening to the lyrics. I thought the best way to exorcize that demon and to pay respects to those guys was to try to cover it. Which was really hard to do because we were in no way trying to make anything better than it was; it was just therapeutic.
Have they had a chance to hear it?
Yeah! They have! They were super sweet about it. We let their management know the day before it was coming out or something like that and they were so sweet to share it on their social media accounts and gave it a big thumbs up. That was really great, to get that reaction from them.
You’ve also recently re-recorded your own “The Gold” with Phoebe Bridgers. How did that collaboration happen?
She’s amazing. I don’t really know all of the details of that. I think the label asked a few different artists if they would be interested in covering it and she got back and said that she was, and we were really flattered by that. I really think her debut that came out last year is really special.
Manchester Orchestra comes to Iron City on Friday, August 10. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the show begins at 8 p.m. Sandy (Alex G) and Kevin Devine open. Tickets are $23-$27. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.