“I don’t know if Manchester Orchestra’s going to be the be all and end all for all of us,” Andy Hull ponders. “But as long as we continue to write records that we know are substantially better than the last record we made, then we’re gonna keep making records.”

After two critically acclaimed, yet unfathomably underappreciated albums Manchester Orchestra are still reaching for the mainstream recognition that they deserve, and after a six-month wait to get the record released, it’s clear that the band are keen to get their latest body of work – and with it their message of change and new directions – heard.

With this month’s release of their third album Simple Math Manchester Orchestra aurally demonstrate the process of a band breaking their own rules, obliterating an entire series of recordings in order to make way for their self-described introverted concept album. Midway through a series of sold out UK shows, sitting amid the rooftop railway clatter of Camden’s Hawley Arms and surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke, Heather Steele catches up with Andy Hull and Robert McDowell to discuss the themes and narratives that run throughout the new album, how their hometown of Atlanta has inspired them and the band’s continuing collaboration with Kevin Devine…

How are you enjoying your stay in London so far?

Andy: It’s actually been awesome, we’ve had so much fun.

Robert: This is actually the first time we’ve had fun over here.

A: And this is our tenth time too. I think it’s got a lot to do with the circumstances as to why we were here. Like last time we were here it was an incredible experience for our band as we were starting up for Biffy Clyro, but it was also a super dark period of time of self-reflection and it was the end of a two-year touring cycle and we were really missing home. You know what England’s like in December, and when you’re sleeping til 2.30 you see about 15 minutes of sunlight. All the other times we’ve been over it’s been like nine shows in four days. So this is the first time that when we got on the plane, I said to the whole band let’s go over and make this a fun trip.

You’ve just played a number of sold out shows over here – how has the new material gone down with the crowds?

R: We’re just slowly creeping it in.

A: Hell yeah! You know, those people aren’t necessarily paying to come and see us for new material. So we’re just playing two songs and we’re kind of redefining our own live show. Not by adding extras or playing to tracks – we don’t believe in any of that weird stuff – but with this new record it has really forced us to learn how to play differently than before when we were bashing and then quiet, and bashing and then quiet. This has taught us as a full band how to play loud, and then drop out and how to be crazy loud.

So your new album Simple Math is out next month (the record is out now). Could you explain a little more about it, as it’s a concept album, isn’t it?

A: It’s a concept record in a sense that it’s not Frodo-went-down-the-mountain-to-go-find-something or anything like that. It’s essentially just a decompressing and cathartic exercise of the last two years of my life and the first year of my marriage. At times it was incredibly turbulent and filled with turmoil – I’m very happily married for the record – but it’s basically been turned into a very beautiful, awesome lesson. And so I think that this record sounds a little bit less angry, because I am less angry.

Where did the idea come from? And was there anything or anyone who influenced you in terms of writing the album as a first person narrative?

R: I think that it’s just life influencing us.

A: In terms of it being a first person narrative, I had to do it. This is the type of record where I say my wife’s name on it. It’s autobiographical yet it’s also like this ‘parallel universe Andy’ going through stuff as well that I didn’t actually go through. It’s incredibly descriptive, so that creates a fuller story. Because I’m so descriptive lyrically I think that it can potentially have a greater effect on people because they can end up relating things to themselves.

Besides the content and concept themes what can fans expect from the new material, and would you say it’s a logical progression from your previous releases?

A: To us, yeah, but for everyone else, I don’t know!

R: It is very different! There was a lot of music written in between the two records that hasn’t been released that got us there.

A: All in all we’ve got about 100 songs that we wrote, and about 26 that got to the last cut.

R: Part of being in a band is catching people off guard and trying to blow their fucking minds. So if they don’t get it, but they like it then that’s great, even if they don’t get how we got there.

A: I also think that our intention was to create this album in order for it to get better by the track. So you listen to it and with each song you’re supposed to be like ‘Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit’ building up after each song. Whether that works or not, we don’t know, but the purpose was that for someone who hasn’t heard our band, it will be a tough first listen, whereas someone who’s a fan ours of will get it. But then for someone who hasn’t heard us before, it could end up being their favourite record because you have to give it time.

Obviously most of last year was spent writing and recording the album, but you also formed Bad Books with Kevin Devine on I Could Be The Only One. How did the project come about?

A: All of us in Manchester Orchestra all work together and all spend time together as friends. I own a house and Robert owns a house that’s a mile away, and the other guys also live less than a mile away, so there’s like a holy trinity of houses. And when we hang out we hang out every day and we want to write together. Kevin’s a guy that we’ve spent so much time touring with - we’ve probably played 300 shows with him. In San Diego his manager, who’s also a friend of ours, straight up said ‘let’s do it’ So we set up four days last January and then we put the record out last March. That’s a cool thing for us as a band because we write so many songs that people never hear.

And is Bad Books something that you’ll be continuing with?

A: There will be a lot more Bad Books records for sure.

R: It’s given us another platform to tour and perform with.

A: Robert has an awesome band called Gobotron that a bunch of us play in, and that project has a full-length release and another one in the works. Manchester’s like this thing where… It’s weird, when you all write music all the time, then suddenly this thing that you’ve worked on for so long and so hard on, these are suddenly the ten songs that everyone’s gonna talk shit or talk good on for the next two years, that’s kind of an interesting place to be.

So, is collaboration something that’s important to the band? As it’s quite unusual for a band to have several side projects, but with all the same original members in?

A: I think that that’s the beauty of Manchester. That’s my song writing. Robert’s song writing tool is Gobotron. Manchester’s bigger, and we all just work towards building everything that we do. I remember asking Robert one time about a year or so ago, we were on the bus and I was like, “What’s your plan, man? Are you trying to be the biggest rock star in the world or are you trying to make this the biggest band in the world?” And he said, “In no way do I find those two things mutually exclusive.” And I can’t do anything but respect that, and that’s the way we all feel.

How important and inspiring is your home-city of Atlanta for you as musicians?

A: In a way, we are a band because of record stores like Criminal Records in Atlanta. When we started as a band we would have to drive all the way in to the centre of Atlanta with boxes and boxes full of records cos he was selling them for us online. At the time there was no label or record deal or anything like that, so people like him and the people like Carl Junior at Looney Tunes in Long Island, that guy has dedicated his life with his record store to help break bands like us. And we still haven’t popped or anything – but goddammit I want to – but we physically aren’t able to write hits. If we do, then we do, but…

R: …We can’t deliberately go out and do it. We could, but we just wouldn’t feel comfortable with it, we would feel bad about it.

A: We love hardcore bands, we really dig really dirty and raw bands. Such as Black Flag, Minute Men…

R: …West-coast acts like X and shit like that, up to Norma Jean and Underoath. And also The Mountain Goats, everyone should check them out.

A: Blood Brothers and Refused are the perfect examples of what I’m talking about. We were way into that and another of our bands, which is a metal and hardcore thing that I scream on, Robert’s in and also the drummer for Bad Books. And it’s totally cool, it’s completely different. With Simple Math, it’s so personal and it is what it is, it’s a complex thing. And I don’t think that even I would understand it if I heard it for the first time. I’ve heard records that I’ve ignored immediately, but then they’ve gone on to become my favourite albums of all time.

R: The Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats is an incredible album and it’s one of my favourites that I listen to all the time. They’ve had about 20 albums and they’re a huge influence, but not musically. That’s something that’s interesting about Manchester Orchestra, we’re influenced for a couple of things here and there but it’s more what people are doing and the vibe of it – their work ethic, them as human beings, the way they’re approaching the next record – that’s important to us. It’s a tougher path and in a way it spells success much later in the game.

A: I don’t know if Manchester’s going to be the be all and end all for all of us, but as long as we continue to write records that we know are substantially better than the last record we made, then we’re gonna keep making records.

Simple Math is out now.

Header image by Ryan Russell