At the start of 2007, Manchester Orchestra seemed the least likely candidate to spend most of the year on the road.
The band had just released its second full-length CD, I'm Like a Virgin Losing My Child, on its Favorite Gentlemen label. When it played local venues such as Smith's Olde Bar, it drew nice-sized crowds of 100 or more people. But few predicted it would get an opening slot on a national tour.
Cut to the end of September, and Manchester Orchestra is on its third U.S. trip. After wrapping up dates with alt-rock band Brand New, it hopped on a co-headlining jaunt with Mississippi buzz band Colour Revolt. Along the way, it performed at SXSW and Bonnaroo and appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman." Now the band is playing large theaters with Kings of Leon and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. At the end of October, it'll pair up with another buzz band, Annuals, for a joint headlining tour, and then finally take a break at the end of December.
"What people do when they tour is insane. It's not normal or healthy," says lead singer Andy Hull while wandering through a Wal-Mart store in Baltimore, Md. He describes traveling in a van all day, and then spending a few hours in a concert hall and a hotel, as a dehumanizing experience. "I think the human body is not supposed to do what we've done this year."
The payoff was a unique recording contract with Sony Music. Both I'm Like a Virgin and a follow-up album, scheduled for 2008, will come out via Favorite Gentlemen and be distributed through Canvasback Records, a subsidiary of Columbia/Sony. Before then, fans can anticipate What's Left Behind, a CD/DVD package that includes a live EP and a tour documentary, set to come out by Christmastime.
"We're selling between 600-700 copies of the record a week," Hull says. Despite little national press, I'm Like a Virgin has sold around 17,000 copies to date.
So what's so special about Manchester Orchestra, anyway? Hull knows it's a mainstream rock band. And while he's quick to praise his band mates – bassist Jonathan Corley, drummer Jeremiah Edmond, keyboardist Chris Freeman and guitarist Robert McDowell – he acknowledges that Manchester Orchestra plays straight-up guitar rock, and has no awe-inspiring, revolutionary new sound to offer.
"Probably for the rest of our career, we will be the kind of band that thinks the Black Lips and Deerhunter are cool, and we will be the kind of band that they never think is cool," Hull says. "We're not a hip band."
Manchester Orchestra's strong suit is Hull's lyrics. On "Wolves at Night," he compares a redemptive song to a wolf, and a listener to a broken, ravaged sweetheart. He claims John Darnielle, David Bazan and Mark Everett as influences, and writes verses that mix personal musings with light metaphors.
Last January, Hull assumed a pseudonym, Right Away, Great Captain!, and quietly released The Bitter End. Recorded around the same time as I'm Like a Virgin, it's an acoustic album where his storytelling abilities take flight.
"It's a concept record about a sailor, and he leaves his wife and kids for three years. The songs are all from his mental journals," Hull says. He tried to write "the saddest record possible," he says. "It's a challenging thing for me, because I'm not a particularly sad human being. So I wanted to try and find those emotions." On "Night-Marry You," his sailor imagines his wife at home: "Last night I dreamed about you, too/Grinding my mouth/Losing my teeth/You are exactly what a nightmare's for."
The Bitter End is the first of a planned trilogy, but Hull hasn't told many people about it. A brief solo tour, which lands at the Drunken Unicorn Tues., Oct. 16, will be a rare opportunity for Manchester Orchestra fans to hear songs from the CD. "I don't want to be bragging about a solo record," he says, "while we're still trying to get [Manchester Orchestra] off the ground."
To hear "Wolves at Night" from Manchester Orchestra's CD, click here.