Keyboardist Chris Freeman talks about the conceptual progression behind Manchester Orchestra’s third album Simple Math, the different natures of the group’s sound, and staying true to what you like.
Simple Math has a pretty different tone than your other two albums. Was this a conscious decision or just came out naturally while you were writing?
We definitely wanted to change it but we didn’t look at this record with any kind of specific lens, I don’t think, other than wanting it to be the best thing that we could do. The vibe on the record changed with Jeremiah leaving and adding new drummers, which opened up a new avenue for us to explore, being able to be quiet but full-band quiet rather than breaking down to just Andy and a guitar. We were able to bring the whole entire volume down a couple of notches, so that we all could all be playing at the same time, but still keep the dynamic different.
One of the first things that jumps out about this record is that you incorporate a lot of orchestration. At what point in the process did you decide you wanted to do that and what was it like playing around with that element?
We’ve talked about it before, especially with all the comments that come with being in a band that has Orchestra in the name. It’s always been sort of a stickler for people, like, “Where’s the violins?” It was actually late in the game that our producer, Dan, was working with another band called Hard Decade. They’re all Berklee kids, and their singer was like, “I do orchestration. I’ve done it for my own records. I’ve never really done it for anybody else, but I’d be willing to take a stab at it.”
We listened to 20 seconds of a piece he had done at his house and it was beautiful. We were like, “All right, go for it. Just write the whole thing.” A couple weeks later he came to us with this whole orchestration that he played all on his keyboard, so it kind of sounded wonky, but we trusted the fact that certain parts sounded weird because they were played on MIDI.
I think the strings on this record are beautiful. We got a 12-piece orchestra and went to another studio. They tracked everything in three hours, just kind of knocked it out. It sent shivers down our spines. It was beautiful. Songs like “Leave It Alone,” where the strings are predominant – it’s not really a guitar-driven song once you added those strings to it. So it definitely added a dynamic to the record.
As far as keyboards and that kind of stuff, is there less of that on this than your other two albums? What was your role on this album?
I think on Everything to Nothing my goal was to sound like a guitar. I’m not a well-versed keyboard player, to say the least. I don’t really know very much of my instrument and that’s something I’m trying to learn, which I think is evident on this new record. The last record was trying to sound like a guitar, and making some strange noises to compliment the heaviness of those songs.
For this record, we used a lot more natural sounds. Working at Blackbird, we were able to use some amazing old vintage keys. I used an actual T3 organ, vibraphones and all that kind of stuff, so it was more of a keyboard sound on this album than the last one. I challenged myself and my parts, making them a little more complicated than the last time. It’s harder to relearn them when having to play them live, so I’ll kick myself in the ass for it, but I think the keyboards are great on this record.
I understand you had a lot of ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor. What kind of stuff was it, and how did you decide what made it and what didn’t?
I think these 10 songs made sense. We did have a lot of other songs and a lot of other ideas that were really great. It was really difficult to whittle it down to what made it to the record. Every day was another day where you had to cut away at a big piece of wood. It was like, “All right, we’ve whittled it down to this now.” The songs vary a lot, just like the record does.
The record came out to be a yin and a yang, that’s how our big whiteboard was in the rehearsal space, because there’s a whole side that was just heavy and dark and nasty, and then there this whole other grouping of songs that were all very pretty or Neil Young-ish with more grooves and stuff. So we divided them up that way and broke it down to what seemed to fit together in some weird, puzzle kind of way.
It was very conscious, and we cut a lot of songs. Every day in the studio, we cut a song. It was like, “We can’t cut that one. It’s too good.” Then we ended up cutting two at the very end, so it would have been a 12-song record.
Will this other stuff get released in the future or reused?
Absolutely. Our band constantly reuses stuff. We cut up old songs and put them into new ones. We’ve been talking about doing a b-sides album because there really are some great songs that we had to set aside and say, “Not for now.”
On this album, specifically, were there parts of older material that found there way into this one?
I’d say there’s certain guitar parts that have been rehashed. Some of the parts, like the guitar solo at the end – that is the original from the demo. There’s definitely some older tunes that weaseled their way, like little parts here and there.
This album is supposed to be a concept album about a conversation between Andy, his wife and God. How much of that stuff does he communicate to you upfront and does that have any impact on your writing process?
The openness on this album is something that I think is exactly what we do in our day-to-day lives. All the stuff that Andy talks about is definitely things that we all went through with him, and we saw him go through and talked about in the midst of it. When it started coming out lyrically, it made sense. Nobody was really confused or taken aback. We were like, “Oh, he’s talking about that.”
It was a very personal time in his life, a difficult time, so I think it was very cathartic for him to be able to write about it. We all grew closer in that time and grew closer during the writing process. It was a good thing for all of us to get it out of our systems, and for him to get it out of his. I think it helped and aided the writing process, to hear what he was actually talking about.
Now at what point do the lyrics get added? Is that something that happens early on or after the songs are almost finished?
It’s sporadic. There’s a lot of songs that already have all the lyrics and they’re pretty much done when Andy’s done writing them. It’s funny to go back and listen to the demo and hear certain lines that got cut.
Pretty much what we had is we had an intern go in on a lot of these songs, listen to the demos, write out all the lyrics, and then Andy would go in and snip at it. That was very early on in the writing process, and then it kind of happened throughout the whole thing. So yeah, it depends on the song.
This album is also stylistically somewhat of a concept album. It starts out with the first song really sparse and quiet, and then adds and expands from there. How much thought did you put into the sequencing for the record?
Andy’s huge into sequencing. That usually happens before we go into the studio to record. That definitely happened on Mean Everything to Nothing, and with this one as well. I think the sequencing is great. It has some good bookends on it. The intro is very cinematic and setting a scene, and I think the end gives you a breath to take. Rather than just leaving you alone with it, it kind of brings you back down.
I think the songs get better as the record goes on. Rather than trying to hit people in the face at the very beginning with a quote-unquote “hit,” I think this record draws you in and then hopefully takes you on some sort of musically journey [laughs]. That sounds so stupid, but you know what I mean. It kind of brings you along, and invites you in and takes you through a whole bunch of weird wormholes.
You just premiered the song “Virgin,” and I know a lot of people have been buzzing about that. I think it’s probably your most haunting and epic song to date. What were the origins for that song musically and sound-wise?
I have no idea. I think that was one of those ones where it just sounded awesome. We were like, “That sounds awesome. Let’s go with it.” A funny part about our band is that we find inspiration in the stuff that we’re doing, which sounds like we like ourselves too much, but we know what is good and what we like.
I think that song was nasty and we wanted it to be nasty. We made it the nastiest that we could, and adding that children’s choir was awesome. That was kind of an afterthought, and we changed the intro for that. We wanted some sort of weird, eerie introduction and a couple of different layering things. I agree. That song is eerie, and dark and badass.
You mentioned earlier working with the different drummers, and I think you had three on this record. Can you talk a little bit more about that and how that impacted the writing process?
The three different guys – Tim Very, Len Clark and Ben Homola – they’re all very different drummers. They all can hit very hard, but some of them are faster. It added to our ability to be able to have a pocket, to have a different kind of vibe. Jeremiah was a great drummer but he played a certain way. He wrote parts a different way and was very mathematical. These guys are able to groove with the rhythm in a really cool way.
Having those dudes in the studio, listening to them play, was like having an all-star team of drummers. We could do pretty much anything that we wanted to, and one of the three could do it and do it the best it’s going to sound. It was awesome. It was very encouraging and fun, bringing in a new guy and being like, “Hey, let’s write some songs together and see what you can do.” It was amazing.
Did you work with them one at a time or were they all in at the same time?
Sometimes. In the studio they were all kind of interchanging, walking around or just hanging out waiting for their song to come up. Tim was there the whole time. Len kind of came in and out. He was living in Mississippi and moving to Nashville, so he was in and out. Ben was there, I think, the whole time. I feel like he was there at least the majority of the time.
They’re all friends, so it wasn’t anything weird. It wasn’t like, “Do you want to be the new drummer for Manchester Orchestra?” It was like, “Hey, do you want to come to Nashville and help make a record?” That kind of thing.
I don’t know if you saw Spin’s review of the album, but they had a weird description where they said it was an “old-fashioned magnum opus of a concept album, detailing a nervous breakdown with epic glam-rock gestures.” I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that description.
No, I don’t. No, it’s fine. I don’t care. It’s cool. That’s a lot of big words. People will either like it, and if they don’t, they don’t.
It’s seems like whenever a new album comes out fans these days are always like, “Oh, I want another [whatever album first got them into the band].” Is that something you’re ever thinking about when you’re writing a new album? Does it ever influence the sound of an album?
No. Our motto is do what we like. We know what we like. We’re not going to put out a record that we’re not proud of. If people don’t like it then it’s like a sorry, we’ll try better next time kind of thing. We try not to think about that.
We definitely read all of our press, and we watch YouTube videos that people take at our shows to see if we’re doing all right. We’re very conscious of what people think, but at the same time we’re very conscious of what we think of our band and we’re more strong in that. We put our trust and our instinct into that a lot.
This is going to be your third album in five years. You guys have numerous side projects in addition to that, and seem to always be on the road touring. How do you juggle all those different things and keep from burning out?
I think the only thing that could possibly potentially burn us out is touring because that’s the most difficult part of being in this band. It’s not that we don’t look forward to it, because we have a great time being able to meet fans and play for people and the shows are always great, but we really do love being in the studio. It’s not really a stretch for us to go into the studio again. If we could do it every day, then we would.
We just juggle it by doing it. We just go for it. If we burn out then we’ll have a little breakdown, or cry on the bus or something, and get back to it the next day. We definitely lean on each other a lot, and I think our closeness helps us get through the harder times.
As you are writing, how do you decide which songs are Manchester songs and which are for these various other projects? Are there songs that start out as one that end up being for the other?
Yeah, it just happens. Sometimes songs don’t sound like Manchester. Andy will be like, “Oh, I think I might use that as a Right Away song.” Or there’s a time where I brought in an Alaska Him Nicely song and was like, “How would you feel about us using this as a Manchester one?” That was brought into the mix for this record.
It just kind of happens. If it works for Manchester, then we use it. Or we put it in the catalogue of the million songs that we have on hard drives, and then we’ll use it for something later.
On the last album, you got some mainstream success with “I’ve Got Friends.” What was that experience like and is that something you want more of in the future?
Everybody wants to be the biggest band in the world, which I guess means you have to have commercial success. I think it was strange and surprising that “Friends” and “Shake It Out” did so well. It was interesting going to these rock radio stations that were playing Creed, which I didn’t even know Creed was still making albums, or 3 Doors Down, and then it was like, “Oh, we have Manchester in.”
It was weird, but it was fine. It pays the bills. I think we’re more concerned with our fans than we are with the world accepting us as a great band. We’re starting to realize that maybe that’s not in our immediate future. Perhaps we’ll have to keep doing this, and grow slowly like we’ve always been and hopefully be able to do this for the rest of our lives. If we don’t get the recognition for it, then we don’t. But if we do then that’d be really nice.
It kind of reminds of someone like My Morning Jacket, who’ve never had a hit single or radio success but have grown steadily over the years and are a huge band now.
Yeah, and that would be nice. That’s a great example of a band who works from the ground up, and they’re still chugging along and doing really well. That would be great if we could do that.
I have a quick question about your live show. For a while now you’ve been incorporating two drums on certain songs, which I remember was something that Brand New started doing on your first tour. Was that something you picked up from them?
We looked at it and were like, “Well, that’s a good idea.” I’m originally a drummer. I learned keyboards simply to play in the band, so it made sense to add a secondary kit. We were writing parts on Everything to Nothing that required two drum kits. We had a hook up with C&C and they were really awesome about building us a custom kit.
It’s funny because there really aren’t any secondary drums on this new record, so most of the time I will not be playing them. We almost scratched them for a second, because there’s no point, but we still got the old stuff to play. We like having little jams now, especially with new drummers who are able to jam on certain songs like “Where Have You Been?” and “Pride.” So it’s fun to have something extra to play with.
Bands are always trying to get tastemakers to pay attention to their albums, but with worries about piracy there is also copy protection, which can lead to a drop in production and sound quality. Do you have any thoughts on what this is like for the modern band and how piracy has personally impacted a band like yours?
It’s a scary thing when you’re checking Twitter everyday and looking at websites trying to find out if your album leaked, hoping that it didn’t and hoping that people aren’t stealing it and hearing a shitty quality. That happens.
The watermarked copies don’t sound as good as the actual album, so you’re like, “Well, if it leaks let’s hope it’s the actual copy and not a watermark because people are going to hear a crappy version of this album that we’ve worked so hard on.” That sucks. We’re lucky enough that, fingers crossed, our album hasn’t leaked yet. But if it does, I think we’re all hoping that at least it’s the good version.
You guys are all fervent NBA fans now and I was wondering what your thoughts are on the playoffs so far.
Great, it’s awesome. This is our first year of really intently watching the playoffs. It was in the background a couple years ago. But with this fantasy league and everything, watching these players and these dudes go down, and these upsets – the Hawks are doing it, killing the Magic. Let’s do it!
It’s funny because Jay bought tickets to go see the last game and we were all like, “No, we don’t want to drive downtown. It’s not going to be worth it. The Magic are going to blow the Hawks out.” Then the Hawks destroyed, and it was awesome. We were all sitting at home, watching the game, being like, “Shit, we should have bought tickets.”
But yeah, I’m so excited. I can’t wait. I’m hoping the Bulls go all the way. Bulls or Celtics from the East.
I’m going for the Bulls and the Thunder.
Yeah, Thunder are sick. It’s great because the league is over, so we can just enjoy the games and not be worried about winning or losing. Now it’s like, I don’t care who goes, let’s just do it. Let’s watch these games. I’m so stoked. I’m bummed that we’re going to be on tour during the majority of the playoffs, so we got to figure out a way to watch games on the bus or something.