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Atlanta's Manchester Orchestra talks composing 'Swiss Army Man' soundtrack

(Scroll down for more video and audio from the soundtrack.)

If it weren’t for “The Lobster,” the award for oddest movie of the year could very easily go to “Swiss Army Man.”

Starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe and described as a “gonzo buddy comedy,” the film is fantastically imaginative – and a little nuts.

Ditto the soundtrack, which was composed by Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra.

The band’s relationship with “Swiss Army Man” directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan – known as the Daniels – stretches back to Manchester Orchestra’s video for “Simple Math,” which the pair also directed.

So when the twosome reached out to Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell to compose the soundtrack, they immediately agreed to what Hull called a “bucket list opportunity.”

The guys worked on the music – and, as per the Daniels instructions, couldn’t use traditional instruments – from January 2015 through January 2016. Most of it was composed in their local studio until they jetted to Los Angeles the last three weeks of January to mix the soundtrack on the Dolby soundstage.

Recently, Hull and McDowell visited the Atlanta Journal-Constitution offices to talk about the experience of creating the soundtrack, as well as upcoming plans for Manchester Orchestra.

Q: What was your reaction when first contacted to do the soundtrack?

Andy Hull: We were thrilled. It’s a bucket list thing, to try to compose music for a movie on any level. And we read the script and knew how talented these guys were visually and story-teller wise and thought this is the most out of this world script that we’ve ever read, but it can be done. And knowing we couldn’t use real instruments could only be human voices, that was so exciting to us.

How did it work just being able to use voices?

Robert McDowell: We looked at different kinds of singing as different instruments, and for some of it and for some of the movements, it was like, “Let’s try to make the voice sound like something that doesn’t exist,” so we’d send it through weird effects. It was very much trial and error.

Hull: The whole record is in the same key on purpose so we could re-use melodies. (The Daniels) really wanted themes for each of these characters…we wrote these melodies that ended up all working together on top of each other.

Q: What else did you use besides voices to create musicality of the songs?

Hull: A lot of mallets on wooden stools, paper, zippers.

McDowell: A Starbucks double-shot espresso can.

Both: If you could find it in the woods, you were allowed to use it!

Q: How would you describe the music to an unsuspecting listener?

Hull: It’s dreamy, it’s meditative. We tried to go for the full spectrum of sounding isolated and also moments with really lush kind of gorgeous stuff going on. But it’s tough to explain because it doesn’t sound like anything else. I think it’s really pretty.

Q: How did project work in scope of band?

Hull:  It worked incredibly well with just the timing of it. First of all, the guys in the band were really excited that it was happening. They were definitely a part, played certain percussions. Our drummer Tim has a really low voice and he gave us some great barks that would sound kind of like a kick drum…We played a good bit of shows (while working on the soundtrack_, so it was a lot of Facetime calls with the Daniels. It was fun, so it didn’t always feel like work.

Q: It’s almost like your first experience is the most bizarre thing that you could possibly be doing.

Hull: And that was the best part too, because it didn’t feel like it was time to make another Manchester record. It felt like we needed to explore and do some interesting things and this things fell into our laps – we had to work really hard for it- but it absolutely expanded our musical brains and is going to affect everything we do from now on, which is pretty cool.

Q: How was it working with Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano?

McDowell: They’re used to being vulnerable.

Hull: They’re just both incredibly kind, down-to-earth guys. They diffused any kind of famous thing pretty early. I got to be in the movie as a camera man at the very end of it and they met me and were like, ‘Oh, you’re the dude!’ They were so kind about the music and said, “Oh, we listen to it all the time, I sing it my hotel room,” so I was like, OK they like what we’re doing. We don’t have to be afraid (laughs)!

Q: What’s up next for the band?

Hull: We’re going to make a new album in September ( their first since 2014 ). We wrote it in this cabin in Asheville earlier this year and started putting together the pieces. It’s a really ambitious project. I’d say a bit theatrical. We’re going to record in Asheville. There was a vibe being up there. We wrote the album about a town and we were up on this mountain sort of overlooking a town the whole time we were there so we figured we’d go back to the source.

McDowell: It’s not a capella! When doing this (soundtrack), you start to look at music from the other side of not just the song, but you pick up on these little things you can do and add that make small things big and big things better.

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About the Author

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers the Atlanta Music Scene and entertainment news for print and online.