Manchester Orchestra Wants It All

Andy Hull's driven. The Manchester Orchestra frontman isn't satisfied just having a musical career—he wants greatness. Not the chart-topping ubiquity of Jonas Brothers, Black Eyed Peas or Lady Gaga, but the kind of critical and crossover success enjoyed by Nirvana and The Flaming Lips, two admitted touchstones.

It's a high bar, but not insurmountable. Hull begged off his final year of high school at Providence Christian Academy to study writing and recording as part of a self-directed home-schooling that culminated with a self-released album. His self-education only continued over the following years, and by his 22nd birthday he'd written his 1,000th song—most of those will never see the light of day—during one of his many all-night recording jags, which sometimes extend for more than 24 hours.

These days, he's already started writing the third album of a planned trilogy by his side project, Right Away Great Captain, for the label he started, Favorite Gentleman. And he also recently finished a collaborative album with one of his artists, singer-songwriter Kevin Devine.

All this is on top of the almost 300 dates a year he's played the last few years with Manchester Orchestra. Which begs the question: How does anyone have the time to be that obsessive?

"We moved to a bus last September, and really that saved me life," the jovial but intense Hull says with a laugh. "There's so much time during the day to be creative, where before, driving in a van, you can't get anything done."

The son of a minister, Hull admits that, while writing, he's still enamored with ideas of faith and redemption. But he's also turned off by the church and its dogma. The worst, he says, is when churches try to incorporate contemporary music and musicians into their sermons.

"It's a teaching: Everything that you do, make it the best that you can," he says, the rage in his tone building. "I'm merely suggesting that it's displeasing [to God] that they're playing shitty U2 music. [Other churches have] a guy with an acoustic trying to create a moment. God doesn't need you to create a moment! Whether I'm singing [Neil Young's] 'Ambulance Blues' or 'His Eye Is on the Sparrow,' for me, it's just as significant an experience with God and a higher power. It's about the art of it. Is it good? Is it well-done? Because if it is, I credit that to some higher being. You can have an atheist write a great song, and I'll hear God in it."

The reference to a track off Young's On the Beach album ("Ambulance Blues") is no coincidence. Hull is fashioning Manchester's next album with the long-haired Canadian in mind.

"I'm going for [Built to Spill's] Perfect From Now On, Pixies and Neil Young," he says of the newest tunes. "They're scary, and they're jammy, but they're interesting."

For now, though, Manchester's still riding high on the success of its second album, Mean Everything to Nothing, which peaked at No. 37 on the Billboard charts. It's a rousing follow-up to the decidedly more cultish reach of the band's debut LP, I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child. The record offered a commensurately bigger sound than the tuneful, melodic, Lips-like art-psych-pop of the band's first effort.

"Everybody was kind of waiting for a sensitive and softer album," Hull says, cackling excitedly. "I feel we did it. We topped the last one and beat the sophomore slump."

And he's looking forward to the challenge of releasing an even more impressive third album. He and his bandmates have already assembled 34 songs, and, like Hull's Right Away Great Captain trilogy that follows a sailor cuckolded by his brother, he says he's imagining a story-driven concept album about a "spiritual miscarriage," titled Let Go of Your Sorrowful Groaning.

Of course, if things don't go well, you may not hear it at all. Hull has untold numbers of shelved albums and moldering tracks on his hard drive, and a burning desire for perfection and ever grander ambitions.

"What are the worst possibilities? We finish a record and don't like it. What do we do? We can write an album in a week. We wrote Mean Everything to Nothing in a week," Hull says while acknowledging that recording it took decidedly longer. "We'll start over, and if we do it again, and it's not good, we'll break up. It's our oath that we will not release a record we believe isn't as good—or vastly better—than the last one. I constantly want to top what we've done."

Hull's admirable moxie and evolving craftsmanship dare you to bet against him.