“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).
And looking back on their journey to get here, it makes perfect sense that they would eventually collaborate with Converge’s Kurt Ballou as producer at his intimate God City Studios in Salem.
“That was a first for me, to work with a producer who is a guitar player himself,” admits Mike, as the mutual fans “went all in” for the project.
“When it came to the first day of tracking guitars, we sat there with just Kurt, myself and his assistant engineer for a good six or seven hours just dialling in the tones.”
A wall of Ballou’s amps and cabs would yield a combination of setups, with Mike’s live pedalboard and trusted 1985 Les Paul Custom providing the bedrock for distortion, discordance and delay.
Mike has expanded on both his use of drones and tremolo picking to enhance Guidance’s compositions with a depth that again belies the perceived limitations of a trio.
“With this record, there’s drones everywhere,” he admits, “and it’s a matter of keeping them interesting. They are low in the mix, and it’s fun to make sure they’re diverse.”
His Strymon Flint reverb pedal remains a favourite for this.
“The Flint is an ace in the hole,” Mike enthuses. “When you get to the '80s reverb setting and that outer space sound that has nearly infinite sustain, you can have so much fun.
“It’s really great for getting drones. You’re able to get a lot of cool things without necessarily looping. It’s not just a static, fixed sound. There’s more movement to it. You can go to town with those Strymon pedals and make no wrong turns.”
That was the case with the writing process, too.
“There wasn’t much discussion with this record,” Mike notes. “As far as when we started writing, it’s one of the fastest records we’ve done. It came together quite easily; we all saw eye-to-eye on each song, and it all fell into place without needing much cajoling.”
If Russian Circles’ creativity seems almost instinctive at this point, it’s still fuelled by a conscious desire to explore their potential as fully as possible.
“We are an instrumental band, three of us doing our thing: let’s find the peaks and valleys and play with major and minor. There are a million ways to make things different from song to song, and it’s not just tempo and volume. It’s more rewarding for us to take advantage of those opportunities to make songs different from one another.”
The time and care Mike obviously takes over his music seems to be reflected in his album choices, too. Because what emerges are considered selections that represent the facets of a unique and gifted guitarist. So if Mike’s list goes up to 11, it’s for a necessary reason.
“You never know what’s going to resonate with you,” he notes of his journey so far as a music lover. “Some people hit it off right away, and sometimes you expect it, but not always. I think music is the same way. Certain bands hit you, and certain lyrics cut to the soul right away. I look forward to that as a listener.”
Guidance is released on 5 August via Sargent House.