“Cope, to me, means getting by. It means letting go, and being OK with being OK,” says Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull. “You can cope in a positive way when bad things happen or a negative way, and that blend was a big lyrical theme for me on this album.” The Atlanta band found itself at a crossroads as they approached making their fourth studio album — in between labels, uncertain of Manchester Orchestra’s future for the first time since Hull started the band almost a decade ago. He was barely finished with high school back then, and now Hull and his bandmates were transitioning into the adult reality that shit happens. They’d learned a bit about letting go themselves.
So Manchester Orchestra regrouped. They built a studio with their own hands, and spent month after month workshopping new tunes, writing and demoing together in a room — a process that was completely new for them. The change did them good. Witness the title track: COPE takes its name from the track that closes its unrelentingly heavy thirty-eight minutes with the strongest blow of them all. The behemoth “Cope” was written during one of the earliest sessions for the album, and it helped chart the course for everything that followed. Manchester Orchestra had undertaken a process of writing and demoing a new song every single day, with Hull composing lyrics as they went. “Sometimes when you’re making up lyrics on the spot, God will drop one on you that you didn’t intend,” says Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull of writing “Cope.” “There’s a lyric, ‘And I hope if there’s one thing I let go, it is the way that we cope. I remember being like, ‘Fuuuck, that’s really cool,’ and getting kind of teary about it. It was like, ‘alright, now we have our starting point.’”
For their previous LP, 2011’s Simple Math, experimentation had been the goal. Hull conceived an epic, memoiristic concept album that featured elaborate arrangements including a string section and children’s choir. Their highest charting album to date, Simple Math also earned widespread critical acclaim, with American Songwriter noting: “They’ve perfected the balance of gorgeous songwriting and rabid musicianship, so we can’t wait to see what they do next.”
But even once they had COPE, it took them a minute to figure out which sonic direction to follow. Working on and off over the course of several months between June 2012 and March 2013, they amassed 28 new songs. “We were writing all different kinds of songs in different genres,” says Hull. Staring down a list of almost thirty demos from the previous year, the singer and his bandmates — lead guitarist Robert McDowell, keyboardist/ percussionist Chris Freeman, bassist Andy Prince and drummer Tim Very — came to a realization. “We wanted to make the kind of album that’s missing at this time in rock: something that’s just brutal and pounding you over the head every track, something unrelenting and unapologetic,” Hull explains. “Whereas Simple Math was a palate with each song a different color, I wanted this to be black and red the whole time. Our mission statement was to make a crazy-loud rock record. We demoed some slower, introspective songs, but we had to set those aside because this album is not that. This album was about being cool with dedicating yourself to something and sticking through with it. Even the album title is bold and straight-to-the-point.”
For each of their first three albums, Manchester Orchestra had worked with producers Dan Hannon and Joe Chicarelli in established studios in Nashville and Atlanta. But they wanted to try something different this time: The band bought a house in Atlanta where some of them had previously lived as roommates, and spent money they’d saved to gut, renovate and soundproof the whole building, turning it into the studio where they would record COPE. “It took us like six months, because we did it all ourselves,” Hull explains. “We had a buddy who had helped Chris Walla build a home studio, so he was there as a kind of foreman. We’d gotten together a sweet amount of recording equipment over the years, because we’d always save some of our advance for gear. So we brought all of it into this awesome new space we’d built, and started going to work on recording. There was no studio clock ticking, so we had the freedom to take our time and do whatever we wanted. It was really cool, but weird, not having someone there saying ‘this is what you should do.’ It was more difficult but more rewarding.” They eventually did hire John Agnello (Dinosaur, Jr., Kurt Vile, The Thermals, Sonic Youth) to mix COPE at FLUXIVITY in Brooklyn.
When it came to committing the final eleven tracks to tape, Hull says the addition of new bassist Prince and the recent addition of Very on drums helped them achieve even greater rhythmic heft. Talking about album-opening track “Top Notch,” he notes: “The song has a groove that’s insane because the drums are really insane and the bass is insane. The trick is to write complicated things that sound simple, and simple things that sound complicated. That was a big mission statement for us on this album, as well.” Regarding first single “Every Stone,” Hull laughs and says, “If Manchester Orchestra wrote that song five years ago, it would have been six and a half minutes long and the ending would have never stopped. The thing I love about ‘Every Stone’ is it has this massive ending, but then it’s over after 45 seconds. It’s a great feeling as a listener, when a song leaves you wanting to immediately hear it again.”
Ten years after a then-seventeen year-old Hull started Manchester Orchestra as an outlet for his tender bedroom recordings, the singer-songwriter says this time he didn’t relent until he’d achieved the exact sound he had in mind . “This was really the most hands-on I’ve ever been,” he says. “I wanted to drive it home completely and so we did, and I’m more proud of it than any record we’ve done before. Of course, as soon as this one is out, I’m gonna start thinking about how we can make the next one better.”