Guitarist and singer Andy Hull belting out while playing his trustee T-style axe. Photo by Krista De La Rosa.
Everyone Gets a Vote
The monolithic guitars on Manchester’s latest won’t sound foreign to die-hard fans who’ve heard the band’s sound grow increasingly heavy onstage during the past decade. “Right from the start we needed to rock hard at concerts,” Hull says. “We were opening shows for other bands, and quickly learned that if we weren’t loud and in people’s faces, they’d totally ignore us. Cope is what our music sounds like onstage. The amps are roaring up there, and this is the first time we’ve been able to capture that sound in the studio.”
The group once again recruited friend and collaborator Dan Hannon to co-produce. They also built their own studio in the Atlanta house they once shared. McDowell and drummer Tim Very both have construction experience and oversaw the project, which delayed the album’s start, but saved money on the studio time Cope’s meticulous creation required.
“When we were making the album, we’d have breakfast together every day and then go into the studio to create a song,” Hull recounts. “We’d start by jamming on a riff or another idea, and then when it was starting to take shape I’d go off in a corner and write some lyrics about whatever was on my brain that day, and then we’d come back to finish the form. Then we’d play it three or four times and comp together a version, and I’d stay late putting on the vocals.”
The secret to Cope’s pummeling tour de force o lies in the strategy guitarists Robert McDowell and Andy Hull employed when layering their instruments. “At certain points you want to go down different rabbit holes,” McDowell says. “Our goal has been to make our records sound bigger and bigger than a five-piece band typically does, and this time we really nailed it.”
Only two guitars were deployed in the sessions: McDowell’s Fender 1972 Telecaster Deluxe, which he swaps out with an SG Standard onstage, and the parts-built T-style solidbody that Hull uses for everything.
They fired up a variety of amps, including Hull’s Fender Hot Rod DeVille stage rig and McDowell’s Vox AC30, which was also routed to a Marshall 4x12. “I wanted to be louder onstage, so I started powering the Marshall cab with my Vox to get six speakers moving air,” McDowell explains. “Although I did that just to get more volume, I noticed that the Marshall was also making my sound darker. Now I’m totally smitten with it!
“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, where they exchanged and mixed amp, head, and cabinet combinations. They brought in a Fender Super-Sonic cab, as well as a Fulltone OCD pedal for the sessions. That gave every song as many as eight foundational guitar tracks to work with at mixing. Next, additional leads and overdriven sounds were added, sometimes going direct, occasionally with Hull’s Boss BD-2 Blues Driver pedal slamming the recording console’s preamps.
Hull explains that duplicating tracks of the same chord progressions by recording separate performances, rather than simply copying them via Pro Tools 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 says.
A few carefully curated stompboxes were also used. Two Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail Reverb pedals 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 was a Walrus Audio Janus—a tremolo/fuzz 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.”
That process yielded 28 songs before the band felt they had the anatomy of Cope. “Everybody had to be in agreement that every song was a home run,” says Hull. “Doubles and triples are sometimes really good for an album, but our goal was that if everybody didn’t feel a song was totally awesome, it wasn’t going on the record.”
Hull tried to nix the track “Top Notch,” which pits Very’s offbeat drums against cascading waves of burly guitar and a desperate vocal performance. But McDowell, Very, keyboardist/percussionist Chris Freeman, and new bassist Andy Prince argued for its inclusion. The tune ultimately became the first single, released in January.