The Score: Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra
The Atlanta indie rockers who made the “acoustic” score for Swiss Army Man share their favorite moments in which film and music blend seamlessly to create the perfect scene.
When you’ve been a band for twelve years, it’s usually not the most well received idea to change the formula under which you go about making your music. But sometimes change leads to magical things. Sometimes a break from what’s comfortable opens a door to something bold, refreshing, and maybe, in the most endearing of ways, a little bit…weird.
“Weird” is certainly one of many adjectives that can be used when describing the soundtrack Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra created to accompany Swiss Army Man, a film by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (referred to together as Daniels). Other descriptors could include “incomparable,” “vulnerable,” “evocative,” or “music made from humming.” All are fitting, especially the latter.
Hull and McDowell met Daniels in 2011 when the latter were seeking out a director for Manchester Orchestra’s “Simple Math” music video. Inspiration flowed both ways and each artistic team made an impact on the other, so when Daniels began developing the script about a tale of a castaway and a flatulent dead body, it seemed only natural that Manchester Orchestra were scouted to create the score.
What came next was a thirteen-month trial-and-error affair as Hull and McDowell experimented with various vocal loops, trying to find the perfect tone that suited Daniels’s vision. The directors gave specific instructions: use only “natural” materials to create the score, as if the music were a stream of consciousness from Paul Dano’s castaway character, Hank. The result is an emotive collection of tracks (including haunting renditions of the Jurassic Park theme and “Cotton Eye Joe”) comprised almost entirely of voices in place of musical instruments and sung by the Manchester Orchestra boys, as well as Dano and co-star Daniel Radcliffe (who plays the corpse, Manny).
Swiss Army Man marks a major turning point for Hull and McDowell, both personally and musically. “It’s changed our view on how to create and what is deemed possible or what can be creatively accomplished if you just let go and let the thing run away with itself,” Hull admits. Working within unique restraints forced the bandmates to approach writing music in ways never before put to action for Manchester Orchestra. The break in routine cultivated a hypnotizing score that is every bit as strange as the film it supports.
Here, the men behind it share their favorite (and not so favorite) moments in score history, from David Wingo to Stranger Things.
FAVORITE MUSICAL MOMENTS IN FILM
Andy Hull: I know what my number one isn’t. It’s not when they play “Everlong” [toward] the end of The Wolf of Wall Street. That’s my least favorite. [Laughs.] Like on the yacht… “If everything could ever feel this real forever…”
Robert McDowell: I love that that’s where your brain goes.
Hull: Yeah. The worst. I have a top three. In The Life Aquatic when they finally see that fish they’d been looking for forever and that Sigur Rós bridge starts playing. That’s up there for me. That’s one of my top favorites.
McDowell: I’m gonna go with a “life” moment. I would say the first time I heard Indiana Jones. I’d walk through school just singing that in my head thinking I was cool.
FAVORITE FILM COMPOSERS
Hull: I think our number one favorite—at least the guy that we were listening to and studying his work— [is] David Wingo. He’s done a bunch of really cool things, but in particular the Take Shelter soundtrack is something we really loved a whole lot.
McDowell: He has a unique way of scoring without an orchestral arrangement. Watching those movies and seeing what he did was a big help for us.
FAVORITE RECENT FILM SCORES
McDowell: That Swiss Army Man movie had a decent one!
Hull: [Laughs.] It’s unique, it’s unique. I really loved the Stranger Things score. We loved it. That’s really cool.
McDowell: In that vein, It Follows, the soundtrack that Disasterpeace did. I loved that one as well.
FAVORITE FILM SCENE THAT WE COMPOSED
Hull: For me, it would have to be “River Rocket.” I think that was my favorite piece. Mostly because it was the first time I could sing some lyrics that weren’t exactly what was happening on screen. That song originally started as this epic, huge moment that had hundreds of voices on it. The Daniels at the last moment recalled this demo that we had sent early on and asked if we could recreate that. I was so happy because I felt almost just kind of lost. That was my favorite moment.
McDowell: I really like the first song on the soundtrack when he’s riding the body out to sea. That was the first time that we were working with the Daniels rather just creating music for it. So it kind of dictated what the twelve months became. It was good, eye opening, very substantial.
THE PIECE THAT CAME MOST NATURALLY
Hull: [Laughs.] Which one came “naturally?”
McDowell: “Cave Ballad,” probably.
Hull: Yeah, “Cave Ballad.” Being in a band, we write songs with structures, and for us, the stuff that came naturally was more of the song stuff. We were like, “Alright, we’re gonna do this and then we’re gonna repeat this part.” But the most exciting stuff was the stuff that was hard for us. “Cave Ballad” was probably an easy one.
THE MOST CHALLENGING PIECE
McDowell: There were a couple different challenges. With “Montage,” it was getting something with structure and rhythm to line up with the movie [in addition to getting] it to have the emotional ebb and flow. Some of the simpler stuff was probably the harder stuff.
Hull: A lot of times the Daniels didn’t know what musical vibe they wanted on a song so they would ask us to go try something. They’d give us a reference and say, “Something in this vein…”—so we’d make something that was really scary [like that]. They’d go, “OK, we’ve seen something frightening and we don’t want to do that, so let’s try this other thing.” A lot of that was head-banging against the wall just trying to find something that fit the scenes correctly. In the end, I think it definitely paid off. FL