Back in the early '90s, pre-Nevermind, Christopher Brady and Steven Birch became friends through mutual connections in the burgeoning northwest music scene. Both were in the first Portland, Oregon bands to sign to Seattle rock heavyweight Sub Pop Records (Brady with Pond and Birch with Sprinkler). Playing numerous shows together throughout the NW, they quickly became a two-man mutual admiration society. After Sprinkler broke up in early 1994, they didn't see each other all that often, but Birch remained a huge Pond fan. Fast-forward to fall 1998: After a brilliant third record (Rock Collection) on a very confused label, Brady and the Pond boys decided to call it a day. At the same time, Birch had reached complete burnout from a grueling year of non-stop touring with Everclear. The two had long talked about playing music together, but it was only now that the time seemed right. Initial rehearsals included Pond's David Triebwasser on drums. When Triebwasser decided to move away from Portland, a mutual friend introduced Brady and Birch to drummer, Paul Johnson. Johnson, a music major in college, had played in numerous bands, but was looking for something bigger, better, and more challenging--one rehearsal was all it took to know that his dynamic playing would be a perfect fit.
An early demo found its way to the ears of Rich Egan, the owner of Vagrant, and he quickly signed the outfit, releasing their debut, Friendships Often Fade Away, shortly thereafter. Produced by Adam Kasper (Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, Cat Power), the album was a surprisingly visceral entry into the Vagrant catalogue. Birch’s power chords worked in tandem with Johnson’s staunch rhythms to create a solid foundation for Brady’s aching melodies and introspective lyricism. The result was a record that could please both the Vagrant fan looking for something heartfelt and the rock fan in need of some healthy riffage.
When it came time to record their follow-up, Cope Park, Audio Learning Center decided the best place to work was at home—in their newly minted studio. This, they felt, would give them the sort of breathing space they needed to capture their full potential. “We wanted the record to sound like we do live: huge and thick,” says Brady. Though the goal was clear, the path wasn’t always. “It was a little tough,” remembers Brady. “I had done some experimenting with home recording prior to the sessions, but I’d never tried to take on a whole album. Throughout the process we didn’t know if any of the sounds were usable. We’d spent a lot of the budget on the set-up itself and weren’t sure if we were going to be able to deliver an album. At that point, you kind of panic.”
Audio Learning Center had always planned on getting an outside producer to mix Cope Park, but weren’t sure who that person would be. They needed to find someone with the right sensibility, who could push the disc over that final hump so that the songs could be fully realized. By chance, the trio met producer/mixer extraordinaire Joe Chiccarelli (Frank Zappa, Oingo Boingo, Beck) and gave him a few of the basic tracks. Chiccarelli liked what he heard, but urged the band to head back into the studio one last time. After recording another round of overdubs and adding a bit of veteran frosting to the production, Chiccarelli felt he had the raw material Audio Learning Center needed to reach their sonic destination. Cope Park was finished.
Musically, Cope Park, like Friendships Often Fade Away, peers over the shoulders of giants. Like any band in this new millennium, Audio Learning Center simultaneously showcases their varied influences while building on them, creating something new. “We all listen to different sorts of music,” Brady explained. “The bands we love are extremely diverse, and its not like there’s one genre or tag for the type of music we enjoy.” On any given day, you’d be likely to find any number of discs on the Audio Learning Center stereo, including Queens of the Stone Age, Cat Power, Led Zeppelin, Wilco, The Clash, The Pixies, Spoon, Steve Earle, Pink Floyd, Nada Surf, Cheap Trick, Grandaddy, Radiohead, XTC and The Beatles.
In the end, everything boils down to a sheer love of music. Cope Park is an album by music fans, and as a result, it’s destined to be a favorite among music fans (and probably create a few new ones.) Perhaps Brady sums it up best: “I walk around with a melody stuck in my head, can’t get it out for days, and then try to write a song around it…that’s what I’m into. Beyond that I don’t really think about it. I just try to write good songs. I want them to be able to stand on their own and to last. The fact that no one is able to come up with a name for what we do is just fine with me. Just call it good music, and leave it at that.”