Published on BLURT – Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Shakespeare, spirituality, and simple math… any questions? Frontman Andy Hull supplies the answers.
BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA
“You know what I always say? ‘I’m a victim of my own loudness. It’s not my fault. I speak with passion. I don’t mean for my voice to be this loud.'”
That’s Andy Hull, the 24-year-old frontman of the revered Atlanta-based four-piece Manchester Orchestra. It’s meant as a joke, as a way of neutralizing naysayers of his boisterous Southern self. But there is more than a grain of truth in it. He does speak with passion. And while listening to him discuss Simple Math, the outfit’s third full-length (released May 10 on Columbia and Hull’s own label, Favorite Gentleman Recordings), you get the sense that’s the only way he knows how.
It’s not surprising, then, that like other Manchester Orchestra records, Simple Math’sstrength doesn’t lie in his distressed intones or the driving rhythms and powerful build-ups of bassist Jonathan Corley, guitarist Robert McDowell and keyboardist Chris Freeman. It’s in the restless intensity of Hull’s anguished and exposed lyrics-his “artifacts of memory and the story telling of it.” It’s in the way he crafts almost-Shakespearean missives strewn with biblical references that give voice to the discord of being. An example of this, mentions Hull, is a line to his wife, Amy, from the beautifully sorrowful “Leave it Alone” that references the plagues & curses of the Bible:“If we end up alone / a plague on my head and a curse on our home.” “It’s basically saying ‘If we can’t do this, then I hope the rest of our lives are miserable,'” says Hull.
But these spiritual allusions aren’t indicative of a Christian rock band status (they’re not, if you didn’t know). Sure, Hull has faith, be it ever-changing and “very, very small” at times. And yes, he does believe in God. But to call Manchester Orchestra “Christian rock” would be to pigeon-hole their haunting beauty, to heedlessly confine the poignant ubiquity of their work. If anything, says Hull, they’ve proven they’re more than that by now. “I don’t think anybody could be a Christian because I don’t really know what a Christian means. That isn’t said in the Bible,” says Hull.
What these overwhelming citations to religion, spirituality and the Bible signal, then, are intentional and unintentional lyrical ticks. “My spirituality influences me the way ‘Modern Family’ influences my humor,” admits Hull (the Manny character is his favorite, by the way). “It’s a big massive part of [my life] and I can’t not write about that.”
It’s an influential reality that also drives the core of Simple Math. Described by Hull as a conceivable “dueling conversation between my wife, God, and myself,” Simple Mathtraces the fallen protagonist’s steps through a beginning, a struggle, and a fight, missing only the “final battle prize” apex. “That [line] conceptually is the album. That’s what the narrative is,” the frontman says.
He expands on this notion by pointing to a verse in “Pale Black Eye”: “I don’t have yours or mine but I don’t hurt you like I use to / Amy, you must be tired because when you sleep, you sleep alone…Goddamn, I’m tired of lying / I wish I loved you like I use to.” Who those words are directed to in this shattering, raw track, Hull doesn’t know, even though, during its conception, he knew who he wanted and didn’t want it to be. It could be towards God, his wife, or his bandmates. It could be about touring, or how his love for God, and his wife, has faltered. “That’s a really heavy line regardless who it’s about,” says the 24-year-old. “It’s all really uncomfortable.”
If you had to describe Simple Math in one word, it would be “uncomfortable.” The breadth of emotions Hull emanates throughout the record, whether it’s through something as deeply personal as “Pale Black Eye” or the grief-stricken out-of-body narrative of “Apprehension”-a song about a miscarriage through the father’s eyes-is terribly unnerving. But maybe that’s the point. Taken together, Hull says, Simple Math’s vision is one of penance, of starting “afresh late for our band, accept [the past] and then bury it.” It’s a story perspective that, during the writing process, inadvertently elevated the record from a mere collection of interlocking songs to a sui generis concept album built on lyrical and anecdotal symmetry that improve over the record’s sonic course. “It’s not the easiest thing for a new listener from the very beginning to listen to because each song intentionally gets better as the album goes on,” says Hull.
This vision, however, wasn’t always so clear. Initially, finding it was difficult because, as Hull says, he changed “in literally phrases” – from entitled to broken – throughout the writing process. At first, it was him playing the victim, a position he believes he’s had the tendency to take with previous Manchester Orchestra efforts, such as 2009’s illustrious Mean Everything to Nothing–a record he crafted at 21-years-old and three months into marriage. But it then turned into the opposite, into him seeking and embracing forgiveness for his mistakes. “[Simple Math] is far more like, ‘Oh, OK, I did something wrong’,” says Hull. “I’ve always had to learn stuff super early in life lyrically, and it’s kind of caused a bunch of anxiety and weird stuff along the way…The whole record has to do with learning a lot.”
So what were these mistakes, and what did he learn exactly? Thinking, with a self-centered brashness, that he’d working in a band, touring, marriage, and personal responsibility all figured out. He admits those are parts of his life he’s “neglected for a few years” (“Not in some gnarly way. I didn’t have a black weekend or get crazy,” Hull makes sure to clarify). And then he began to question who he was and how he was affecting those around him. “All those things that I thought were other people’s faults, maybe they are mine,” he says.
“The way I live and grow is kind of a fast-paced version than what we’re writing,” he adds, “so during the album, it was like ‘I don’t need to say anything bad about my wife. I don’t feel anything bad about her.’ It was more of an internal ‘Well, what are you doing right now?'”
It’s heavy load to carry for a 24-year-old. Then again, Hull isn’t your average 24-year-old. After all, this is the same man who, when 17-years-old, was on tour with Manchester Orchestra and home schooling himself. And this is the same man who was told in the pre- and post-marriage counseling that what he and Amy were experiencing doesn’t happen to others until decades well into marriage (he chocks that up to “not wanting to prolong things,” discerning the issues now rather than later). Still, while he acknowledges his old soul trapped in youth, there’s a humbled worry in his confidence. “I believe a 27-year-old knows a little something more than I do no matter what I’ve gone through,” confesses Hull. “And that’s the issue. I’m kind of battling my age. I’m in my early 20s, what the hell am I worried about all this shit for? Man, I can’t really look at it in a certain way until I actually aged, which is a bummer for me.”
“I used to get offended by people who said they have years on me. I’m like, ‘Fuck that’,” Hull adds, a chuckle curbing his loaded words.
But does physical age really matter when you’ve lived a momentous, exhaustive life before even greeting your mid-20s? Not necessarily, says Hull, but, almost expectedly, he has an addendum: there is a difference between knowing and feeling, between personal growth in a 24-year-old and personal growth in a 28-year-old. “I realized I gotta write what I know and if there is something new that I know, I’ll write that,” he says. “I definitely feel there aren’t a lot of 24-year-olds who’ve been married for three years [and] running their own business since they were 17 but it doesn’t necessarily mean I know more than anybody.”
These self-realizations are just a part of his cycle of growth, where he’ll stop writing for a chunk of time and absorb every bit of his environment, emerging renewed and just a bit smarter about life. But as much as Simple Math is a rebirth for Hull, it’s a rebirth for Manchester Orchestra, who is currently on tour with Cage the Elephant and An Horse through June, respectively. There’s a reflective heaviness in every moment of the record – a previously untapped musical energy that’s a “far new direction” for the band. For Hull, they’ve never sounded like this before, and while he hopes every record is a “rebirth of some sort,” he admits he’s never produced anything he likes or is proud of as much as Simple Math.
All these intricate thoughts and emotions that blanket Simple Math, from the frustration to the contentment, are defined most by its title track. Another out-of-body narrative – this time about a hypothetical affair – “Simple Math” interweaves the details and maintenance of infidelity with spiritual doubt. While Hull is faithful to his wife, never having once cheated, he feels that if he ever did, he’d have to reevaluate his beliefs because “it’s all tied together.” “Everyone has those thoughts. Everybody has these gnarly weird impulse feelings,” says Hull, “and with that, [it] parallels the question of ‘Does my fidelity reflect my spirituality because if I do in fact fuck around, doesn’t that mean that my whole kind of construction of my truths, doesn’t that go away?'”
“‘Simple Math‘ is truth. One plus one is two. You can’t argue with what’s right and what’s wrong.”
[Photo Credit: Ryan Russell]