Manchester Orchestra: How to Make a Secret Album

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Manchester Orchestra  have been sitting on a secret. After releasing COPE, their first-ever all-rock record, the Atlanta-based indie rock band hit the road touring while simultaneously planning to drop HOPE, an intimate, re-imagined version of the album, this September. Over the course of six weeks, Manchester Orchestra was sneaking back into the studio to create stripped-down versions of the strenuous rock songs. Turns out HOPE is the best present they could give their fans. It’s a role-reversing flip that shows the band is so invested in the veins of music that the only way to untangle the mess is by taking two routes out—and in the process giving them height they needed to truly see into the belly of songwriting.

“It was hard to keep a secret,” says frontman Andy Hull. “People were like, ‘What are you up to?’ And we had to bite our lips and be like, ‘Uh, well, we’re in the studio every day?’ I’m glad we kept it quiet because the surprise seemed to catch people.”

Before recording, the band’s communal headspace was peaceful, especially considering they set out to make pretty webs from an otherwise vicious album. They wanted COPE to be loud, guttural and nasty, tearing deep into themselves and their instruments, but they couldn’t help but notice how the songs could bend in the opposite direction.

“We would stay in the studio after COPE sessions and do stripped-down things where we recorded little demos of what we thought would be cool,” Hull says, “but there wasn’t enough time to do two records. So halfway through the COPE tour, we were like, ‘We have to get home. We have to try the opposite.’”

The idea didn’t come out of nowhere. Manchester Orchestra toyed with making a counterpart for Simple Math titled Sinful Math that would be “grungy and weird,” but time was nipping at their toes. This time around, they made it happen. Steering away from their previous soft stylings like “Sleeper 1972” or “I Can Feel a Hot One,” including Hull’s acoustic side project Right Away, Great Captain!, HOPE made for an indulgent creation, but the positive response from fans confirmed it wasn’t just a vanity project. It’s the glue that makes both sturdy.

If COPE is the evil brother, HOPE is its angelic sibling. The two titles are undeniably intertwined. When they were designing the original album’s artwork, their initial plan was to white out a massive wall, write “HOPE” and then put a “C” over the “H.” “COPE was a really big palate cleanser for our band, and adding HOPE exhausted our resources of what we wanted this record to possibly be,” Hull explains. “It’s the best of both worlds and frees us to go to weirder terrain in the future.”

Over the course of six weeks, they slowly added vocals over instrumental lines. Nothing was set in stone. “We didn’t really sit down and write them out. We just started recording them. We didn’t even know what they were going to be,” Hull says. “We recorded in order, and you can hear it.”

He is, of course, referring to the instrumental progression. The first three songs cling to acoustic guitar before electric guitar, piano, organ and horns are introduced one by one. It’s a combination of beauty and darkness, making the type of twisted church songs they started out writing in 2006, only this time the violins make them fit for a feature film. “After the string parts we wrote came back to us recorded, we were like, ‘What are we doing? This sounds beautiful!’” laughs Hull. “It was a wonderful thing where it got weird and dark and so many instruments came onboard. It wasn’t bare bones. It was just a matter of what instruments didn’t block the way.”

The members of the ever self-aware five-piece have a way of cutting themselves open to examine their pain and invite others to poke it curiously. On HOPE, we’re brought back to the band’s beginnings. “Girl Harbor” strums with the heart of 2005’s You Brainstorm, I Brainstorm, but Brilliance Needs a Good Editor and “Top Notch” is burdened with the weight of 2006’s Like a Virgin Losing a Child. The intricate interweaving of abrasive guitars with soft crescendos made COPE a success, but its sibling album rules with dramatic swelling. Even the piano-driven “The Ocean,” played by The Dear Hunter’s Casey Crescenzo, invites lush harmonies to take over. The end result was something much more intense than an acoustic release. It’s a layered album stuffed with aging organs and polished trumpets, and as such it warrants multiple listens. Softer guitars mean there’s an enhanced narrative. As per usual, Hull’s lyrics are heavy with sodden wear.

Part of his lyrical prowess stems from his abandoning of albums as inspiration. “It wasn’t doing me any favors,” he says. “It was setting a standard. You’re giving yourself a feeling of how different and how good it can sound.”

That’s where his newfound vocal confidence kicks in. For a singer who’s released more than a dozen records at this point, it’s surprising to acknowledge Hull’s hesitancy in belting. “This is the first record I’ve been comfortable with my voice being really loud and center. It’s a new experience for me,” he says. Surrounded by a moody organ guitarist Robert McDowell was given by his grandmother, Hull seizes the spotlight on “Trees,” giving one of his best vocal performances to date.

Now with a child in his arms, Andy Hull’s own life is coming full circle in a warm embrace. His 3-month-old daughter is still learning how to look at the world and interact with its intricacies, and she’s quickly becoming his most trusted critic. “She’s heard a lot of ‘em. I think she likes them,” he says happily. “She shit the first time she heard them, though, but I don’t take it personally.” With every mumbled word and sleepy gaze, she’s his own newly revealed gem—the only present he can receive that trumps the very gift Manchester Orchestra gave their fans.

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