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

Premier Guitar Mike's Rig Rundown

Total Guitar: Me and My Guitar

Guitar Player Magazine Interview with Mike Sullivan (2012) 

Russian Circles takes its name from a hockey maneuver that involves skating in circles—a fitting moniker considering the band’s combination of brute muscularity and fleet dexterity, and the key role that looping plays in the music, particularly when layering guitars during live performances. Although typically billed as a “metal” band, Russian Circles largely eschews the drastically detuned guitars, relentless rapid-fire riffing, and highly technical soloing endemic to the genre. The band can be monstrously heavy, pummeling an audience with the best of them, but there’s majesty to the mayhem. An uncanny mastery of dissonance fused with keen dynamics and a minimalistic, almost serial melodic sense results in beautifully foreboding soundscapes of cinematic scope. On Russian Circles’ fourth album, Empros [Sargent House], guitarist Mike Sullivan, bassist Brian Cook, and drummer Dave Turncrantz have further concentrated those elements into what may be their masterpiece. 

Russian Circles is in some ways the antithesis of the average hyper-technical metal band. What put you on that course? 

My last band was also an instrumental band, and we were a bit more technical, though not in the sense of over-the-top death metal-type sweep arpeggios. I can’t even make that happen, so that’s not a concern. But when Dave and I started Russian Circles, we decided to keep things reallysimple, and to focus more on song structure and on groove. It was challenging at first, partly because there weren’t a lot of reference points for what we were trying to do. But the simpler and more malleable the song structure, the more freeing it is, because you can take the music in any direction from there. 

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Mike Sullivan interview with Guitar World (2011) 


"Once it gets too fancy, I start losing the groove," says Mike Sullivan of the challenges of playing guitar in Russian Circles' deceptively dense musical pockets. 

Indeed the Chicago-based post-rock band are capable of creating intricately layered pieces of music, often from simple, intertwining melodies that when combined are capable of creating harsh soundscapes, vast acoustic caverns and everything in between.

On their latest album, Empros, Russian Circles tend to pay more attention to those extremes than the stuff in the middle. You might swear Johnny Greenwood was behind the ambient folk of "Schiphol," while "309" wouldn't sound out of place on an early Celtic Frost record. And dynamics aside, Empros also features a major first for the band: Their first track with vocals, album closer "Praise Be Man." 

I recently caught up with Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan, who acted as a guide through the musical journey that is Empros. 

The last time we talked, I asked you how you could describe the sound of Russian Circles to someone who had never heard it before, and you said it sounded like a mix between Metallica and Pink Floyd. I think this album absolutely captures that, and then some. Parts of "309," for instance, sound like Celtic Frost or Emperor. How did those extremes come to be on the album? What inspired you to go into harsher sonic territories? 

There wasn’t much thought to, "Well this song sounds different." Anything that different sounds kind of fun and exciting. It didn’t take much effort, actually. It was one of those songs that kind of wrote itself after a while, you know. The riff's there, and you try to change it, and then you want to go back to how it was; it had a little groove there.  

There was definitely a lot of heavier influences as far as that song goes. We’re obsessed with that band Craft and the album Fuck the Universe. So we liked them for some time now, but it’s a matter of finally getting more comfortable doing certain things, especially heavier stuff. 

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Noisecreep Interview w/ Mike Sullivan (2009) 

Many are going to call ‘Geneva,’ Russian Circles‘ third album, a return to a heavy frame of mind that wasn’t displayed on the band’s last effort, 2008’s ‘Station.’ But for guitarist Mike Sullivan, ‘Geneva’ is much more than a loud record. “There are a lot of unsaid emotions,” he told Noisecreep, while discussing what lies behind the record for himself. For Sullivan, the tucked emotions come from his battle with two major health issues over the past year, with one making him question whether he would be able to play guitar again — and the other if he was going to live or die. 
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Music Radar Interview with Mike Sullivan (2010) 

We're all Russian Circles fans here on Guitarist – there is simply no other instrumental band making music as atmospheric, emotional and powerful as this US trio.  

Back in issue 326 we featured guitarist Mike Sullivan but now here's the full transcript of our conversation with even more detail on the making of their third album Geneva and Mike's special playing approach. 

One of the biggest changes to your sound on Geneva is bringing in musicians outside of the band for a number of tracks – string and brass players. How did that come about? 

Mike Sullivan: "The strings were something we had planned out long in advance. We made sure we got together with the cellist and violinist, arranged the parts and had that all worked out.  

"The brass came about because Greg [Norman engineer] plays trumpet and trombone. Late at night when we were done tracking he'd be kind of messing around after we'd had a few beers. He's try some stuff out and it started off as a joke but then we'd go away for an hour and he'd worked something out and we thought, these horns sound pretty good – let's do it. It was kind of a last minute thing." 

How do you feel about your own playing on this album? In some ways it sounds like you're playing less on a technical level but bringing even more to the atmosphere and mood of the music… 

"Exactly. It wasn't a conscious shift but in the evolution of what we've been doing so far, it just seemed natural. I guess we're more concerned about the actual arrangement than how technical it is. It's also fun to do the technical stuff too so I can't say that's behind us but it felt more natural this way for all three of us. We can play off of each other more – it's more open to that. More room for expression." 

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Punk News Interview w/ Mike Sullivan (2008) 


Russian Circles have been having a busy 2008. They released their second album, Station, and have been hitting the road quite a bit in support of it and will embark on a US tour with Daughters in June. 

Our own Jason Gardner recently sat down with Russian Circles' Mike Sullivan to discuss what's been going on with the band. 

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