Mike Sullivan - Guitar - 2004 - Present

Michael Sullivan is the guitarist for Chicago instrumental trio Russian Circles. Created in the wake of the demise of his beloved Midwest math-rock ensemble Dakota Dakota, Russian Circles immediately gained attention for their dynamic compositions, wide tonal palette, elaborate finger-tapped riffs, dexterous live guitar loops, and sheer sonic force. Their debut album Enter (2006) developed a strong enough cult following that they were handpicked by bands like Tool, Clutch, and High On Fire for opening slots on their tours. Subsequent albums Station (2008) and Geneva (2009) boosted the band’s popularity both at home and in Europe. Based on their growing fanbase, Russian Circles landed slots at prestigious festivals like Bonnaroo, Fun Fun Fun Fest, and Roadburn. Throughout the band’s steady rise, Mike Sullivan’s imaginative guitar lines, pedalboard savvy, and compositional expertise was the guiding force of the instrumental group. Not surprisingly, outlets like Premier Guitar, Guitar World, Total Guitar and Guitar Player all quizzed Sullivan on his set-up, technique, and creative process. 
The new decade has seen even greater success for Russian Circles. Their three most recent albums Empros (2011), Memorial (2013), and Guidance (2016) have not only cemented the band’s status as the preeminent post-metal act in the U.S. and Europe, but have helped expand that fanbase in markets throughout Asia and Australia. The band has had the chance to play prestigious stages Radio City Music Hall and Millennium Park in Chicago. Furthermore, headlining sets at esteemed underground rock festivals like Belgium’s Dunk!, London’s Desertfest, UK’s ArcTangent, and Orange County’s Psychofest have bolstered the band’s reputation as an international institution in the realms of forward-thinking rock music. Even mainstream outlets have latched on to Sullivan’s dramatic guitar work. The Empros track “Mladek” was picked up by NBC Sports for their Spring ’14 campaign and was so popular that the network commissioned Sullivan and the band to create original music for future seasons. Sullivan’s reinterpretation of the network’s trademark three-note chime has been used in their advertisements ever since. Sullivan also lent his guitar skills to the 2015 breakthrough album Abyss by American Gothic-noir songwriter Chelsea Wolfe. 

NBC Sports - Music by Russian Circles

"Harper Lewis" for Premier Guitar's Riff Rundown

Premier Guitar Mike's Rig Rundown

Total Guitar: Me and My Guitar

Music Radar Interview with Mike Sullivan (2016) 


“My tastes have become broader, I’m more open-minded,” admits Mike Sullivan as we prepare to grill him about the albums that shaped his life as a musician, as well as his own band’s latest recording.

“What I like I’m in love with and can’t get enough of. I walk around with headphones and listen every day to certain bands and I’m humbled by them. I’ll think, ‘Maybe I should go into gardening or become a cook because I’m so knocked down by these guys who write great riffs.'”

Mike’s a humble man. Because he doesn’t just deliver inventive riffs of his own with instrumental trio Russian Circles, but a wide palette of expression and tone that has helped the band build an immersive discography. Post-rock, post-metal… whatever you want to claim this Chicago band as, they are masters of their own versatile craft.

Sixth album Guidance affirms that, a powerful seven-song journey through the emotive lengths Mike travels with bassist Brian Cook and drummer Dave Turncrantz to move deftly between crushing metal war marches (Vorel), delicate hymns (Overboard) and anthemic major-key positivity (Afrika).

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Culture Creature Interview w/ Mike Sullivan (2016) 

Stalwart instrumental trio Russian Circles have forged their own path in the music industry. The Chicago rock band is over a decade into its career, and they continue to broaden their musical palette and experiment with genre boundaries. The band’s sixth album, Guidance (available August 5th, preorder here), is their first collaboration with producer Kurt Ballou. According to Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan, the album explores the band’s “really dark and dissonant” side while also venturing into “overtly melodic” territory. Listen to the alternately introspective and menacing cut ‘Vorel’ below. 

Earlier this month, the band was forced to cancel a few gigs due to a car accident that hospitalized Sullivan. I spoke with Sullivan recently for a discussion about his recovery (which, thankfully, sounds to be going well), the creative process of Guidance, and much more. 

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Mike Sullivan feature on Effects Bay (2015) 

Russian Circles is a Chicago based band that I’m very fond of. I’ve talked about them on this site several times, and I really enjoy all of their releases. They are the champion of instrumental music (but on the harder side of the spectrum). Instrumental bands are generally broken into 2 camps. The ambient, but driving – Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, etc, and then the harder stuff – Russian Circles, Trans Am, Champs, etc. Russian Circles is the band that can bridge the gap between ambient to in-your-face, and that is why I really like them. Also, they’re a 3 piece, which is also amazing. Normally instrumental bands have 4-6 musicians, so a power trio is pretty rare in this genre of music. 

Mike Sullivan, the guitarist, uses some clever techniques from unconventional tapping (which you would not expect from this style of music) and the use of loopers. If any of you have personally used loopers in a band, you understand that it’s not very easy. Time is everything, and with a looper, if you record the loop a few milliseconds late, eventually it sounds horrible. This is fine if you’re a singer/songwriter playing solo, but when you’re working with a drummer and other musicians, you need to be on the money for the song to work correctly. Again, Russian Circles has the ability to nail this, so lots of respect for them using looper in the way that they do. 

I was contacted by Nick last week via Facebook. He knew I was a Russian Circles fan, and he just them play and wanted to know if I wanted some of the photos he took. Well.. hell yes! Nick.. if you’re reading.. thanks much for taking photos!! He got a great one of Mike Sullivan’s pedalboard, and I thought I would do an updated break down. He’s changed his board a few times, so it’s great to get a recent shot:

The Aquarian Interview w/ Mike Sullivan (2014) 

Russian Circles released their latest effort, Memorial, back in October of last year. I spoke to bassist Brian Cook back in February to advance the start of their U.S. tour. Since then, the band has had a very busy year on the road. They took their new material to Europe, Asia, and Australia, playing festivals and clubs alike. It’s been a great year for the band so far, and they made sure to translate their new tracks into their live show as seamlessly as possible. A year out on the road has also been humbling for this mostly Chicago-based band, but nothing beats the love they have for their home. Back in March, they were honored by local favorites, Kuma’s and DryHop Brewers, when a burger and beer pairing was announced in their name. 

I recently had the chance to sit down and talk about the Death Rides A Horse Russian Imperial Stout with Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan. We discussed beer culture and the differences in the metal scene in the U.S. compared to in Europe. Gearing up for a string of 10th anniversary shows in December, we also talked about the process of booking shows around the holidays, what it’s like seeing the new material translate to live shows, and the idea of digging into their back catalogue. Check out what Mike had to say below: 

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Chicago Tribune Talks to Mike Sullivan (2014) 

Russian Circles works in a relatively esoteric area – an instrumental trio that finds the sweet spot at the intersection of metal, hard rock, progressive and experimental music. Its five albums, culminating with last year's elegiac "Memorial" (Sargent House), demonstrate just how expressive and dynamic a rock band without a lead vocalist can be. If an album can be both thrashy and poignant, "Memorial" is it. 

Guitarist Mike Sullivan says he and drummer Dave Turncrantz (later joined by bassist Brian Cook, who replaced cofounder Colin DeKuiper) didn't set out to be an instrumental band, but ended up loving the freedom of being able to compose music without being restricted by a singer's range or a lyric sheet. He describes early rehearsals as open-ended, guided only by a motto of "keep it simple, stupid." 

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Mike Sullivan Noisey feature (2013) 

Alongside guys like McCoy and Knudson (both of whom have toured with Russian Circles), RC guitarist Mike Sullivan is also redefining what being a guitar player in a heavy band means by figuring out a way to implement chugging hardcore riffs into an atmospheric arena and making both dynamics more powerful in the process. Sullivan can also two-handed tap and live loop like a champ, making him a triple threat onstage. To be honest we have no idea how he'll be able to pull off some of the sonic textures on the band's latest album Memorial—but we have no doubt he'll find a way to do it in stunning fashion. 


Mike Sullivan talks to Music Radar about Memorial (2013) 

We've long been fans of Chicago instrumental trio Russian Circles, but their new album, Memorial, might just be our favourite release from them yet. Bleak, brutal and beautiful, it moves from blackened metal to haunting, ethereal layers on a compelling journey that offers a complete experience, rather than just a collection of strong songs. 

It's one of our favourite albums of 2013, so naturally, we wanted to probe the creative mind of their amiable guitarist Mike Sullivan on everything from mini amps to fully collaborating with a vocalist. 

Your last album, Empros, had its dark moments, but there are parts on Memorial that are a whole new shade of black for the band. What was the mindset for this album compared to its predecessor? 

"Once we finished Empros we were terrified because we were worried how the album sounded with the fidelity limitations we were working with. While that album was written in the studio and changed around – and was my favourite record up to that point – we knew we could do better. We knew we could get better tones, better sounds, get our ideas across clearer. We thought that album was going to screw us; we were proud of the songs but we weren't sure whether it came out the way we wanted it to be. 

"So before we even started recording [this time] we decided what we needed to do differently. So we just kept working on riffs, homing in on parts, individually and tonally, figuring out how we fitted into the band. It was a matter of taking a broader scope to everything in terms of what serves the song from each member. Also, a big part of it was that we tuned down to B on certain songs, and that really opened up some sonic potential that we couldn't tap into before. We were capturing ourselves with a more accurate feel. But that said, I'm really happy with Empros but there's no feeling of 'Oh s**t' like there was last time." 

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