Andy Hull was looking forward to some down time. He had spent more than a decade establishing Manchester Orchestra as a formidably intense indie rock presence that knew how to surprise an audience — like re-imagining the band’s unrelentingly angst-ridden album “Cope” from spring 2014 as a lean, largely acoustic session (“sort of a skeletal, angelic twin brother,” as Hull called it) titled “Hope” that was released that fall. What was to follow was supposed to be a break.
Then Hull was contacted by filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who go by the name Daniels. The team was familiar with Manchester Orchestra, having directed a video for the title tune from the band’s 2011 album, “Simple Math.” This time, the Daniels wanted Hull to be part of its team by scoring the recent offbeat movie “Swiss Army Man.” But there was a catch. The duo didn’t want Hull to use conventional instrumentation. That immediately struck the song stylist as ample reason to take a break from his break.
“I was pretty thrilled at the challenge,” Hull said. “We were going to be on our fifth album, Manchester was. At a certain point, it can be tough to find inspiration and tough to find something new without really looking for it. So I saw this score as a way to totally expand my brain and the way I looked at music. It really felt like that. I mean, it ended up being like a school with the stuff we were learning.
“A really fascinating thing it taught me was how songs don’t have to be traditional in structure in order to be moving or emotional. It was a little scary and overwhelming, but in the middle of all that we found inspiration that allowed us to keep pushing forward.”
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I saw this score as a way to totally expand my brain and the way I looked at music.
Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull on creating the score for ‘Swiss Army Man’
What Hull and longtime Manchester cohort (and brother-in-law) Robert McDowell did was emphasize computerized treatments of Hull’s voice peppered by vocal help from “Swiss Army Man” stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. The result is a wildly ambient quilt that alternately recalls Brian Wilson, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno, along with heavily reimagined stabs at “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and the “Jurassic Park” theme.
“It’s so cool to be able to create in a totally different environment without any real instruments,” Hull said. “It was mostly voices and effects creating a piece of work that, when it’s played by itself, is something I’m proud of and would put up with any record I’ve put out. It’s something I’m proud to have in my discography.
“Robert and I certainly had to re-learn how to talk to each other about our music. There were no longer chords or verses where we could say, ‘Go back to that.’ It was more like, ‘Go back to the ‘ba-ba-ba.’ We would get frustrated learning all that stuff. Ultimately, it really influenced us heading into our next Manchester record. It became like, ‘How far can we experiment with sound?’”
There sits the big question. Hull, McDowell and the rest of Manchester Orchestra will begin recording the band’s next album the day after its Lexington performance this weekend at the MoonTower Music Festival. Have the adventures and innovations of “Swiss Army Man” influenced the way Hull will approach that new music?
We want to make something really, really great, and we’re going to work really, really hard until we have the best possible record we can.
Andy Hull, Manchester Orchestra
“I can think of a big way it has. I don’t know if the next record will be of a certain temperament, but the soundtrack certainly struck an ambitious nerve. We want to make a really live record, something that we’ve never really sounded like before, and sort of dive deeper into the intent without having to be super, super loud.
“The soundtrack was a great advancement. It was like, ‘We can really convey the emotions we want to with just our voices.’ So certainly if we add instruments in the correct way, we can experiment and sort of open songs to put some soul into them.”
Even though the soundtrack is credited to Hull and McDowell, the former said the project has only strengthened the spirit of the entire Manchester Orchestra lineup.
“We feel really excited,” Hull said. “All the guys have been super supportive of all the soundtrack stuff, realizing this is best for everything with the band. But I know everyone is excited to start this album. We’re super confident in this material. We want to make something really, really great, and we’re going to work really, really hard until we have the best possible record we can. That’s the goal for everyone involved.”