A sustained career in a heavy genre is a marathon event. After a certain number of years amplifying the volume and aggression in every album, you come to the realization decibels and BPM are finite resources. As bands like Baroness and Converge have alluded to in interviews, the creative and physical tolls of vying for a more crushing sound on each album gives way to new avenues for finding the heavy.
Russian Circles have come to their own understanding of this phenomenon. It’s been ten years since the release of the Chicago outfit’s first album, Enter, and their talent for infusing discordant aggression into Post-rock, a genre known for more emotional leanings, has only grown with time. After guitarist Mike Sullivan and drummer Dave Turncrantz incorporated hardcore veteran Brian Cook on bass and keys on their second album, Station, the trio have made a calling card out of sparse soundscapes and torrential squalls.
Their sixth studio album, Guidance, comes out later this week and capitalizes on the voiceless roar the band has developed over their career with a new type of “heavy” coming in part from producer Kurt Ballou. We talked with drummer Dave Turncrantz about the writing process, recording with Ballou, and developing a sound over the course of a decade.
How long were you guys on tour in support of Memorial?
Oh man, it’s been about three years since the record was released, so we’ve been on and off touring for the past two and a half years, which is a lot. We played all stuff from Memorial on our last time through Europe, our third or fourth time, so we’re glad to be playing some new stuff now.
How did you start developing new songs?
We took some time off to write, but Mike [Sullivan, guitarist] and I both live in Chicago while Brian [Cook, bassist] lives in Brooklyn. The way it usually goes is Mike and I will collaborate and get all the riffs that Mike has down; he usually has like 200 riffs, and maybe 13 of them will be something we can use. The other ones can be too low or not the right style, but Mike’s super creative with coming up with a ton of different riffs.
We go about it in a way that Mike and I kind of make a skeleton of the song, and then Brian will give it more form. So it’s usually me and Mike at the beginning of the process and Brian comes in to shape it up.
Memorial had a very cohesive theme, it was like an aural experience of death and the grieving process. Did you guys have any thematic points of reference writing the new album?
I feel like the new one’s definitely in the same vein as Memorial, maybe a little heavier. Obviously with Kurt Ballou it’s going to be heavy. I love Electrical Audio [recording studio for Memorial], but when it comes down to grit and distortion, Kurt Ballou’s kind of the king of picking that up, all that good fun stuff.
Last year was definitely a weird time for us because it was the longest period of time we had spent not touring. Writing and the record was actually coming together really fast, but it was just the waiting process from the recording to the record coming out was really long as well. We needed guidance all through last year, so it definitely made sense [to name the album Guidance].
Ah, so it was all of this pent-up energy from not touring concentrated into the recording process.
Yeah, we’re all getting older, too. We’re all in our mid-30s, and it’s one of those things where playing music is something we love to do, but is this something we’re going to be doing for another ten years? Is there going to be another record? It’s stuff that you need a lot of guidance for, future plans and what’s happening and business plans. It was all kind of not coming together, but finally it did [laughs].
How did you guys originally meet Kurt Ballou and decide on God City Studios [Ballou’s studio]?
We’ve all been huge fans of his work in the past. When we were working on the new stuff, we definitely noticed that it was a little more Kurt Ballou style. Like the High on Fire records he had done recently are just amazing, and then all the Converge stuff is obviously killer. It just made sense.
Some of the songs probably wouldn’t have translated as well as we would have wanted them to [at Electrical Audio]. Electrical has such a good sound, and it’s definitely their sound, but sometimes when we’re there, we want to make a heavier song. For example, [with] “Burial,” we wanted to have that Kurt Ballou sound, and we kind of did, but it was the best we could do with that analog style of recording. We just knew we didn’t have Kurt there.
Kurt has signature sounds we were kind of mimicking, but it’s really hard to do. You kind of need that dude to do it. So when we were compiling all the riffs for the new record, it just made perfect sense to go to Kurt. He’s such a nice dude. Brian’s been friends with him for years from the early Botch days. We’ve never played a show or toured with Converge, but we’ve always been really happy with their stuff. We always seem to cross paths.
We’ve done a few shows with Mutoid Man, which Ben [Koller, drummer of Converge] plays in. We’ve known all those guys for quite awhile, so it made the most sense to try something new.
With the release of that lead single “Vorel” from the new album, I noticed the art was a photo of these plainclothes civilians being shepherded by this military, maybe colonial presence. Where was that photo taken from?
That’s a weird story. Brian’s husband Reno acquired them from… actually, I’m not even sure where he acquired them, I just know they were from a war. We’re not exactly sure which war, we think it was World War II, and we don’t [know] the exact location. There are a lot of mysteries. He had them, got them developed, and just had them kept in a box. Those family members had asked if he wanted them, and they were very fitting for the record, especially with the title Guidance.
There were some very, very, very disturbing photographs in that box that we obviously did not want to use. We know nothing about the individual being escorted to his execution: what he did, whether he was civilian or military, nothing. There were some photos in there that were hard to look at, but the photographer captured the atmosphere.
I think what we liked the most was the guy being led was so calm and collected. There’s something kind of eerie about it too. There’s no fear, no hesitation in his face. He knows what’s gonna happen, and he accepts being led to his death in a terrifying way. Me, I’d be be crying like a little baby [laughs].
Yeah, I’d definitely be in the same boat as you. There’s always been this enormity in the music you guys make despite being just three people. How do you surmount being only three parts to sound like this oncoming horde?
Luckily, I feel like each one of us has a role to play in that. The way I tune my drums, the types of drums and cymbals I us— if I was using 16” crashes and smaller drums, they wouldn’t fill out the parts I wanted filled out. On that end, I really try to get that bottom sound, that low, with the drums to help fill out the sound.
Brian’s incorporated a [Moog] Taurus for a lot of the keyboard parts and also plays a lot of baritone now during the set, which helps give more range. And then of course Mike has a million pedals on his board, and like every other day I get a text from him about a new pedal he’s trying to use. He’s always expanding his horizons with tone and whatnot.
The type of gear we have is also really helpful in shaping our goals as a band. When we started out, it was definitely not what we have now. We can tell we’re getting older because we’re looking to fill out those gaps, whereas the first record was a lot busier than what we normally do now. We were these 21-year old kids who wanted to play as much as possible in an eight minute song, which is great, but I can tell the older we get, we just want to… groove. We want to fill everything out and make something that you can nod your head to.
What are you using in the way of gear right now? Are you still using that C&C acrylic kit?
Actually I’m with Ludwig now, so I’m using a Ludwig acrylic.
Yeah, I switched over to Ludwig about two years ago, I was using a C&C acrylic kit for maybe half a year, but when Ludwig comes around and asks if you want to be endorsed by them, you kind of can’t say no. I’ve been such a huge Ludwig fan for my whole life.
So I sold the C&C kit and got the Ludwig one which is 26” [bass drum], 14” [rack mounted on snare stand], and 16” [floor tom], kind of the classic Bonham sizes. I’m thinking about maybe buying another Vistalite or even buying a stainless steel Ludwig for the upcoming tour, just have to make sure it’s not like $10,000 for one kit, those things are not cheap [laughs].
Didn’t you have a stainless steel kit for a while on one tour, maybe around Geneva?
Yeah I did, the thickest one: the ‘70s Big Steel. I had that for a couple years in the States, and now it’s the kit I use when I’m in Europe. I had a deal with the company that we use for gear and I was like, “Here’s the shipping for the kit, you can rent it out to people when I’m not over there, just keep it around for me.” They were already shipping over some vintage kits to Prague, so when that happened they just put my kit in with that shipment and it’s there for me now. It’s nice having your own kit, something familiar when you’re in Europe.
I remember back in the day you using a Slingerland Radio King with the single-ply steam bent shell. Do you still use wood snares from time to time or pretty much just metal at this point?
Yeah that golden one, I had that one for years too, sounded really good. But when you go metal, it’s kind of hard to go back to wood.
When you play live, for me especially, Mike and Brian are so loud, it’s so hard to hear yourself in a live setting with those guys just blaring next to you. So for a while I was just the classic Supraphonic, 6.5”x14. I love it, but I just switched over to the copper one, the Copperphonic, and that’s what I used on all of Guidance. It’s right in the middle of brass and steel. It’s perfect. It’s kind of warm, but it also has a sound that can really cut through a mix.
Yeah, I love copper snares. When you said Supraphonic I thought brighter, which I don’t associate with Russian Circles, but copper sounds just right: darker, moody, but with power to cut through.
Yeah exactly, that’s exactly why I love it.
It’s funny because I’ll bust out the Supraphonic from time to time, and as much as I hate tuning the snare higher, it’s kind of essential in venues where the snare’s getting lost, so sometimes it’s good to crank it. Not to like 311 standards [laughs], not super over the top, but to give it more of a crack. You kind of start to lose that snare sound, but it’s nice to have that sharp crack to know where you’re at.
What are some of the more memorable shows you’ve played in the past three years?
We played Hellfest last year in France, and that was really awesome.
I think we’re finally figuring out that we do pretty well in festival settings. We kind of stayed away from playing outside because there were so many nightmare shows when we first started playing. Shows at like 11 AM, sun blazing, playing to like two people. It was miserable.
Now, I think we’re getting to a point where we play later in the night so we can play in the dark without the light just destroying us. But Hellfest last year was pretty amazing. That show was one where there could have been ten or 10,000 people watching us, but it ended up being packed and really good sounding. I’ve never seen Mike more nervous before a show ever [laughs].
The whole last tour was pretty amazing through Europe. We weren’t expecting too much because we had toured there a lot with Memorial, but we played at dunk!festival in Belgium last year, which is kind of like a post-rock festival. It was our first year playing and we closed out the festival on that Saturday, great time playing. Really well done festival.
I feel like a a lot of these festivals are getting too big for their britches now with 20 stages and so much happening. With this one, it was just two stages, really well done, a lot of fun. Our light guy had a million dollar light rig to work with, so he had a blast [laughs].
How does it feel to be on the cusp of your sixth studio album with ten plus years in Russian Circles? What do you see for the future?
I’ve been looking forward to the release for the long time, I’m super happy people can finally hear it. It felt like it was so long waiting for vinyl to get pressed and all the marketing and campaign work to get done behind it. I’m just glad it’s finally coming out.
I’m really excited to tour again, play new songs, and I think we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing. We have a good system, the next record will probably come out in a few years, we’ll do a tour, write some, and keep going. We also have some other stuff up our sleeves for me next year, but it’s too early to really comment on that.
I’m just looking forward to doing this until people stop coming to our shows. We’re going to be that depressing band in our 50s that people are going to be like, “Ugh, Russian Circles is coming to town again.” [laughs]