Chris Freeman, the keyboardist for Atlanta indie-rockers Manchester Orchestra, doesn’t answer the phone on the first ring for his interview with the City Paper, but he groggily picks up on the second, only to politely excuse himself for a few moments. There’s fumbling in the background, and a small banging sound. Only later in the conversation does he confess the truth.
“I stayed up really late playing basketball on the PlayStation, and when you called, I had to roll out of my bunk on the bus and find something to cover up my bottom half,” Freeman says.
It’s 2 p.m. in the middle of the week. This is the life of a young, but seasoned, rock star.
Freeman is only in his early 20s, as are most of his bandmates, including singer-songwriter Andy Hull, bass player Jonathan Corley, and guitarist Robert Mcdowell. Most of them met just barely out of puberty, playing together in different musical incarnations before forming Manchester Orchestra in 2005.
Together, the group has released two full-length albums, 2006’s I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child and Mean Everything to Nothing in 2009, through their own label, Favourite Gentlemen. They’ve also churned out numerous EPs, which have proven popular as epic, teasing tastes for their rabid fan base, who have racked up more than 12 million plays on the band’s MySpace page.
Freeman still sounds appropriately awed by the band’s success, but he balances his words like any young Southern man who spends a lot of time in a tricked-out tour bus and has a Billboard-charting album: One foot firmly planted in humble maturity, the other kicking up a cloud of lingering teenage rebellion.
“We actually did well at music, which is good, because I failed a lot of classes in high school,” Freeman laughs. “I didn’t really care, because I just wanted to play music. We’re happy it worked out. Every time something good happens to the band, I send it to my mom immediately, and I’m like, ‘Look mom, it’s okay I didn’t go to college. It’s fine. I promise.'”
When asked if he and the other members knew they had something special with their first album, he grows thoughtful.
“No, I don’t think we ever really had a feeling of being special,” he says. “It’s just what we do. It just happened. It was very natural. Of course, we liked it. It’s why we recorded it.”
He adds, “It’s just crazy. I think we’re all living in this notion that one day everyone’s going to figure out that we’re all just faking and we’re not actually very good.”
Freeman may laugh when he says this, but there’s some awareness to what he’s saying. After all, bridging the gap from being a teenage band to surviving your 20s takes a lot of work.
After five years together, Manchester Orchestra is just starting to feel some of the growing pains of getting older. Len Clark came on board, replacing longtime drummer Jeremiah Edmond, who left the group a few months ago to spend more time with his family. Most of the band members have side projects that they work on, including Hull’s Right Away, Great Captain!, and Freeman’s Alaska Him Nicely. But if any band can survive growing up, Manchester Orchestra might be it. The group is ridiculously tight knit. Freeman admits that they all live within a few miles of each other in Atlanta, and even when they come home from touring, they hang out, either at home or in their studio.
“We’re like a bunch of idiot little kids hanging out who drive cars, and we can smoke cigarettes now legally,” Freeman says. “We just sit around and play video games, and make stupid funny voices, and watch movies in HD. We love 17 Again with Zac Efron. We’ve seen it, like, 20 times.”
A film about a 40-year-old clinging, wrongly, to his youth? In a silly way, it makes perfect sense for a rock band teetering toward growing up, but who are never far removed from the memory of being teenagers together. For the band’s next big leap, Freeman sees a long future in store for Manchester Orchestra and anticipates they’ll be recording their third full-length, possibly a live record, in June.
“We’re just kind of stumbling into [adulthood], I think,” Freeman says. “We keep trying to grow together. We’ve played with the same people for so long. We just kind of get really good playing together, and we want to do everything we possibly can to keep going.”