Manchester Orchestra | Behind The Lyrics

First emerging from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia during the pop-punk and emo heyday of the early 2000s, Manchester Orchestra have long been defined by their sonic evolution. 

Photo: Shervin Lainez

Introducing the world to their unique style of gritty rock music – one unafraid to get slow and heart-wrenching at times – 2006 debut album ‘I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child’ and its 2009 follow-up ‘Mean Everything To Nothing’ showcased frontman Andy Hull’s unmistakable voice and emotionally resonant songwriting style – exploring life’s most nuanced moments in startlingly poignant ways.

Growing with each new release whilst venturing into more experimental territories, dashes of folk, emo, pop, punk, and more can be heard throughout Manchester Orchestra’s six albums, bound by Hull’s intricate storytelling of faith, redemption, grief, and trauma. Intertwining his personal experience with grandiose themes and rich concepts, the band’s latest EP ‘The Valley Of Vision’ presents a ruminative journey through resilience and rebirth, building upon the cinematic notes of 2021 album ‘The Million Masks Of God’ – marking a new chapter in the band’s ever-evolving career.

A songwriter led by emotion and inspired by life’s biggest questions, fresh from a sold-out three-night residency at London’s Union Chapel, Andy Hull guides Rock Sound through the origins and stories of ten of Manchester Orchestra’s most iconic lyrics.

“Cause a disaster’s a disaster no matter what Christian language you drag it through”, ‘Wolves At Night’ – ‘I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child’ (2006)

“When we started writing for what would be our first official record, a bunch of those songs kept evolving because we were playing them live so much. ‘Wolves At Night’ evolved over six months to a year of being played over and over again.

I was influenced by a band we were touring with at the time called Colour Revolt. They were tapping into this cool Southern, Gothic, grunge thing that I wasn’t cool enough to pull off. This was my bad attempt to copy them, but I landed on something cool. 

I think this line is pretty clearly written from the perspective of somebody who grew up in church. At the time, it was my way of saying, ‘Stop trying to act like everything is okay just because you’re surrounding it in the right language’. I was sick of people ignoring issues that were taking place and masking it with religious imagery to make it seem okay.”

“Besides, you can’t believe without bleeding”, ‘Colly Strings’ – I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child’ (2006)

“It’s the idea that you can’t have light without darkness. You can’t be fully grateful for something until you’ve experienced the opposite emotional reaction to it. This was one of the first songs that I ever wrote for my wife in 2005. It’s a back-and-forth story of what the two of us were going through in some dysfunctional relationships before we met each other. We had to go through all of that to get to a place where we were both happy together.”

“So, I prayed for what I thought were angels // Ended up being ambulances // And the Lord showed me dreams of my daughter // She was crying inside your stomach // And I felt love again”, ‘I Can Feel A Hot One’ – ‘Mean Everything To Nothing’ (2009)

“Over the years there have been a lot of times where I’ve written lyrics that I don’t understand at that moment, but then they later reveal themself very clearly. I was writing about having a daughter 10 to 15 years before I had a daughter, and it’s pretty wild. My daughter has played this character in all of my music before she was even born. 

This song is like a weird dream. I was having a panic attack whilst in the back of a van on tour, and I saw this vision of my wife in a car accident. However, there was still this love that was inside of her. It’s almost like an analogy that there can still be positive things that come out of difficult trauma. To this day, it still hurts when I play that line.”

“So, Jimmy I’ve heard the voice of God // And he whispered ‘Fear is logical’”, ‘Jimmy He Whispers’ – ‘Mean Everything To Nothing’ (2009)

“This song actually ties in with ‘Wolves At Night’, because Jimmy is that band’s former guitarist, Jimmy Cajoleas. He’s an author now, and a good friend of mine. 

Back when he was in the band, he called me whilst they were on tour and left me this voicemail. It was early in the morning, and he had just woken up on a hotel floor in Salt Lake City, Utah. He’d had this dream that he and I were on a car ride on the way to a lake where you could hear God whisper. For the whole dream, we were terrified about what he was going to say. 

I listened to the voicemail and immediately went into the little writing closet that we used to have. Almost that entire song came out as a free-flowing exercise as I recorded it, I barely wrote any of the lyrics down.

It sat around for a bit whilst we were working on ‘Mean Everything To Nothing’, but I always really liked it. The problem was that I had no documentation of it other than the recording because there weren’t any lyrics. I didn’t even know what I’d played on the guitar, so I had to take a couple of days to figure out what it was so I could perform it. I used this old, haunted 100-plus-year-old acoustic guitar during the album sessions, and eventually we were able to track it and add some ghostly production. I’m always so fascinated that people like that song. It feels like a little gift that was given to me. Every time we play it live, I learn more from it.”

“What if I’ve been trying to get to where I’ve always been? // What if we’ve been trying to get to where we’ve always been?”, ‘Simple Math’ – ‘Simple Math’ (2011)

“What if this whole way that we’ve been brought up, everything that we have been taught and learned just isn’t true? What if we have to figure out a completely different solution? Equally though, what if it is true? These lines are a lot about my relationship with God. Am I trying to find a way to not make a relationship with higher power work? Am I asking the right questions or the wrong questions? Am I overthinking it or underthinking it? I keep trying to intellectually level myself up, but maybe I started exactly where I am, and I just couldn’t recognise it.”

“But this, it has no price tag // Just a tag around the toe // That’s slowly going back and forth from warm to pretty cold”, ‘See It Again’ – ‘Cope’ (2014)

“This song is about someone passing away, and trying to figure out what the worth of life is. On our acoustic album, ‘Hope’, I finalised that line and resolved it. The cool thing about those two records was being able to take moments on ‘Cope’ and then answer them on ‘Hope’. This is such a sad line though. What worth can you put on a body that’s slowly going back and forth between dead and alive? Eventually, it’s just going to be pretty cold.” 

“There was nothing but quiet retractions // And families pleading, ‘Don’t look in that cabinet // There’s far more bad than there’s good, I don’t know how it got there’”, ‘The Silence’ – ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ (2017)

“It was a very special moment when the outro for this song happened. Originally, it was just a long musical jam because our producer, Catherine [Marks], always encourages us to play longer. You don’t have to figure out an ending and you can always edit things later, so she encourages us to just keep pushing forward. We did that with this part of the song, and it was long, but it was great. It didn’t even feel like it needed another vocal part on it.

Me, Catherine, and Robert [McDowell, guitarist] were working on the record for three months at our studio in Atlanta, and one day I just had a lightning bolt moment of, ‘Oh my god, I think I can fit these things in here’. They were the last lyrics that I wrote for the album, and I knew it was the last song on the record. It was very emotional, and I couldn’t sing them. I tried two or three times, but I was crying too much whilst writing those words. 

It’s a story about generational trauma and family, but also a hopeful love letter to my child. It’s one giant mission statement that I felt fortunate to get out. I truly don’t know how the words came to me, it felt like a real gift that was given to me. I’m not trying to manipulate myself emotionally, so it’s coming from an earnest spot. I wanted to zone into the guttural part of what I wanted to say, and the fact that Catherine and Robert were both weeping in the control room told me that it was something powerful.

I’m grateful for our band and our music in that way, because I’ve always attempted to write lyrics that are real and resonant. I never want to put people down or to judge things, I just want to write down observations whilst trying to learn and grow. When I write lyrics like this, I know I’ll be fine singing them forever, because I’m going to believe in them forever.”

“You don’t open your eyes for a while // You just breathe that moment down”, ‘The Gold’ – ‘A Black Mile to the Surface’ (2017)

“To me, these lyrics always looked like a picture. I think we’ve all been there in those moments where you have two options, you can either freak out, or you can breathe it down. I’m not sure which one is healthier, to be honest with you. Breathing a moment down can be a good meditative process, but it can also be delaying the inevitable explosion. It’s something that comes from years of learning how to control my breathing when the anxiety begins.”

“Love me now // I will not repeat myself // So love me now // ‘Cause I just can’t redeem myself // From all the lies I told myself would help // From all my faults I blame on someone else”, ‘Dinosaur’ – ‘The Million Masks of God’ (2021)

“This is a song about my son, but the characters in that song are dealing with something different than my personal experiences. In the song, it’s a father who is afraid that they are going to turn their son into the same kind of father that they had. That’s not how I feel about my personal life, it’s a storyline, but the idea is the same. I worry about how to keep my son away from the worst parts of me.

I brought my son into this world, and everybody’s family has skeletons, darkness, and pain. I hadn’t really considered how much my daily thought pattern of wanting to be a great example for my kids was going to play into inspiring me. It’s about allowing myself to understand that no matter what I do, life is still coming for them. I think these lyrics are something that we’re all trying to deal with in our own ways.”

“You were born in a bathtub on Deer Lake, and the cradle collapsed // And I promised I’d give you a mansion, I’m afraid this is it”, ‘Rear View’ – ‘The Valley of Vision’ (2023)

“This song was also inspired by my son. I do live in a neighbourhood called Deer Lake, but he was not born in a bathtub! A lot of times, I write from the perspective of different characters. It’s a way that I can unlock deeper emotions in myself, because often when I try to write about a specific thing that I’m feeling I can’t get as deep as I would like to. On a very human level, that lyric is an apology to my child. I promised him that I was going to give him this grand life, and when I wrote that line I suppose I wasn’t feeling like I was the provider I had hoped to be. That’s an insecurity thing, so it’s tapping into a very uncomfortable vulnerability, but a vulnerability that’s true.”

Manchester Orchestra’s ‘The Valley Of Vision’ is out now via Loma Vista Recordings.

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