Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra is a self-propelled powerhouse whose hard working indie aesthetic has yielded five albums and more than seven EPs over the past decade. For their recently released album Cope, they built their own studio from scratch, reinventing the house where the band mates once lived together… kind of like a post-industrial-noise-pop Monkees.
All the better to spend the time required to shape Cope into a bleak, buzzing, aggressively layered sonic detonation that found the bands two guitarists, frontman Andy Hull and his Gibson SG toting foil Robert McDowell, stacking as many as 10 six-strings on each song.
This album is a creative evolution for the childhood friends and kindred sonic spirits, although to listeners only familiar with the group through breakthrough tunes like “Wolves At Night,” the first tack from Manchester Orchestra’s 2006 debut I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child, or the heavily air-played “Simple Math” from 2011’s disc of the same name, Cope may seem like a radical departure. Those hits are fueled by the post-Cobain mantra of alternating loud ‘n’ soft dynamics, in support of the melodic pirouettes that soften the sharp edges of Hull’s lyrics. But Cope is all muscle and bone.
“A lot of people who have never seen us live think of us as playing pretty music — which we do, and we enjoy,” notes Hull. “But this album is as relentless as our live shows.”
“At certain points you want to go down different rabbit holes. Our goal has been to make our records sound bigger than a five-piece band typically does, and this time we really nailed it,” McDowell says.
They fired up a variety of amps, including Hull’s Fender Deville stage rig and McDowell’s Vox AC-30 combo powering an additional Marshall 4x12.
“Since Andy and I have very different tones, that was a starting point for layering,” he continues. “We began recording the guitars for each song with both of us in the same room, playing the same part together at the same time, but with each of us using two different amps. In order for the layering to work, we needed to marry the guitars into one great tone as the foundation.”
Then came a second pass exchanging and mixing heads and cabinets. That gave every song as many as eight foundational guitar tracks to work with at mixing — where they could all be used to push the sonic envelope or be edited individually. Next, additional leads and overdriven sounds were added, sometimes by plugging directly into the board, occasionally with Hull’s Blues Driver pedal slamming the board’s pre-amps.
Hull explains that duplicating tracks of the same chord progressions by recording separate performances, rather than simply copying them via ProTools or using a multitude of isolated amps simultaneously, gave the album a more live and detailed sound. “All the slight differences in the picking, attack and tone we used every time we played a track really comes through and makes the guitars sound bigger,” he say.
Beyond that, well-chosen stomp boxes did the rest. Two Holy Grail reverbs were used at once to get the cathedral-like sounds that ramp up to the crescendo of “The Mansion,” and that song’s secret weapon — which also appears at other sonic hotspots on Cope — was the Walrus Audio Janus pedal, a fuzz and tremolo box that McDowell describes as “completely blown-out and insane sounding. It entirely changes your tone. There are two joysticks to control the fuzz and tremolo separately, and I was down on the floor playing with those as I recorded.”