Five years ago, the members of Manchester Orchestra were recent high school graduates looking to expand beyond the parameters of their previous youthful aggregations. A year later, the Atlanta quintet was being touted as one of the next big things and playing showcases at South By Southwest to support its first official EP, You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, But Brilliance Needs a Good Editor.
The band’s Indie Rock/visceral Pop evocation subsequently sparked an industry buzz, leading to their Canvasback debut, 2006’s I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child; a few more EPs; a press kit packed with great reviews; and a relentless touring schedule. The band’s major label signing to Columbia (via their own Favorite Gentlemen label) resulted in 2009’s even more raw and more elemental Mean Everything to Nothing, which — along with high profile opening gigs for Kings of Leon and Biffy Clyro and numerous placements in hot TV shows like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill — has cemented the group’s status as one of the primary bands to watch this year (further reinforced by its appearance on the cover of this month’s Alternative Press).
MO’s incredible growth between Virgin and Mean Everything was organic but relatively fast by almost any yardstick.
“We got better at playing together,” keyboardist Chris Freeman says. “The turmoil of the early years of touring brought us together as people, too. And (frontman) Andy (Hull) got married in that time. I think just growth as human beings made us more open to what we wanted to do on Mean Everything to Nothing.
"The writing process was the most natural thing we’ve ever done as a band. Andy would bring in a song, strumming on it and everybody bleeding in, then we’d take a break for an hour, drink a beer and talk. Then we’d come back, play the song one more time, and be like, ‘OK, that sounds badass. Let’s move on.’ When we actually got in the studio, we had to play the songs 25 times to do the live takes and that’s when those songs grew to the place that they’re at on the record.”
Produced by veteran boardsman Joe Chiccarelli, the lean and sinewy Mean Everything to Nothing sounds immediate but is actually the product of at least a little conscious pre-planning on the band’s part.
“I think Joe had a lot to do with the way that record sounds and how nasty it is,” Freeman says.
“There was definitely some conscious thought that went into that album. We were super into Weezer at the time — we had just rediscovered Pinkerton, which I think got pushed to the wayside by a lot of fans, but you come back to it years later and realize it was probably the best record they ever put out. Every song on that album starts out with that chainsaw guitar sound, and we were like, ‘We want that. We want it to be nasty.’
"It was a conscious thing to make this dirtier that anything we’d done before. It was a good mix between luck and thought.”
While Manchester Orchestra is still in the teeth of the touring cycle for Mean Everything, they’re also well into the process of recording their fourth full-length album. While the band has gotten great notices for its incendiary live performances, MO much prefers the reflection and invention of the studio atmosphere.
“It’s a very exciting time in our band,” Freeman says. “Touring is part of (the) job, but not exactly our favorite part. We just love being in the studio, being able to create something like that. I think the music we’re making now is a little bit different, a little more Southern, maybe a little Neil Young-ish. It’s really, really cool.”
There has been at least one significant change in the band since Mean Everything — the departure of drummer Jeremiah Edmond. Feeling the need to stay closer to home, Edmond relinquished his beat-keeping duties in January (the drum chair is being platooned between Colour Revolt’s Len Clark and Brand New drum tech Ben Homola) but remains involved with the band as administrator for Favorite Gentlemen.
Between the next phase of touring for Mean Everything and recording its follow-up (which, despite Internet chat to the contrary, has not yet been named), Manchester Orchestra’s 2010 dance card is pretty full and, given the overwhelmingly positive response to Mean Everything, the subsequent expectations heaped on the band could become a distraction. But Manchester is a band of brothers, their bond forged on a long road over the past five years.
As Freeman notes, the pressure of the last album was self-inflicted based on the band’s major-label affiliation and the members’ desire to do well for people who had worked hard for them.
“The way Andy put it was, ‘This is the first time we were writing a record that had other people’s jobs on the line,’ ” Freeman says with a laugh. “It came out exactly how we wanted it in the end, so we got through that pressure part. Now it’s like, 'Let’s have fun and make good music.'
"People seemed to like what we did last time, so if we keep progressing and doing well, we’ll be fine. Screw the pressure. If we make a crappy record, we’ll make another one and see if people like that one.”
MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA plays Bogart’s Wednesday with Thrice and O'Brother. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.
Read Reyan Ali's interview with O'Brother here.