The way Andy Hull sees it, he’s sitting in the fabled catbird’s seat.
His band, the Atlanta-based indie-rock outfit Manchester Orchestra — which headlines The Mill and Mine in Knoxville next Thursday, July 25 — paid its dues early on, forming 15 years ago and building a solid fanbase that’s culminated in five studio records, several extended plays, a number of collaborations and side projects and a modest amount of success.
The band’s last studio record, in fact cracked the Top 40 of the Billboard 200 albums chart, around the same time that his youngest child was born. That success, he told The Daily Times this week, has afforded him the luxury of adroitly balancing rock ’n’ roll and a family life, unorthodox though it may be.
“I’ve been fortunate that my life path and career path have been kind to one another, I think because we started so young,” said Hull, who had to push back an interview with The Daily Times to finish up Monday morning child-care duties for a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. “When I started to have kids, my choices became a little bit more brain. I get to decide when to play, rather than having to play shows, and now we’re very conscious about it.
“I don’t like to be gone more than two weeks, and my max is three weeks, and I don’t even have to do it that often. I’m traveling the equivalent of two or three days a week, and with that comes a really great bonus of when I’m home, I’m truly home. I’m not going into a job other than maybe a couple of hours a day into the studio, so I feel like I can 100% plug in and be there for my family.”
It is a rather idyllic existence, which might come as something of a surprise to casual fans of Manchester Orchestra. The group’s early works, starting with 2007’s “I Feel Like a Virgin Losing a Child,” were tagged as emo in some circles because of the weight and resonance of Hull’s lyrical content. Songs like “Where Have You Been?,” with its pleading inquiry as to the location of the Almighty, and the hushed whisper of “I Can Feel Your Pain,” which sounds like Hull is struggling to sing around a knife wound to the gut, seemed to introduce a band that made music for long nights of the soul.
Hull, however, never struggled with an existential crisis so much as a constant inventory taking of his spiritual condition. While many of those songs were tied to his perspective, they also resonated on a universal level with listeners, who began flocking to Manchester Orchestra as a band that spoke truth to their own emotional turmoil.
“Even then, I was wondering and curious and fearful about the same things — the human condition, life, pain and struggling and peaks and valleys and that kind of stuff,” Hull said. “The difference would be that now, it’s a little less self-centered in that it’s not about me. It wasn’t always about me then, but there were a ton of really personal songs on those early records. Now, not being the center of my own universe, which is where you are before kids, gives me an interesting perspective.”
While personnel began to change after that first record, Hull and longtime Manchester Orchestra guitarist Robert McDowell settled into a creative rhythm that began to branch out beyond the band’s boundaries. The pair teamed up with New York singer-songwriter Kevin Devine for the side project Bad Books, which continues to this day. It would be a harbinger of things to come for Hull, who spends much of Manchester Orchestra’s downtime as a hired gun songwriter, he said.
“I spent some great time in Nashville with Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, who wrote and produced that last Kacey Musgraves album,” he said. “Those guys get together, and they’re so creative on a whim. I’ve really enjoyed that, just putting down ideas and seeing where they evolve and not getting in a room to write specifically for anything.”
“I think it’s going to be an extension of the last album, but maybe in a more grand and specific place of life and the fragility of it and what we gain from it. The last album was really about, how do we live life to pass on to our kids? The choices we make don’t only dictate what happens in our lives, but also in the lives of future generations. That’s kind of the direction we’re going — what happens when those lives end, and how are they beginnings for the ones who come after us.”