With their sixth album ‘Guidance’, Russian Circles carry on in their quest to conjure multi-dimensional dramatic instrumental narratives and to scout out new textures from their respective instruments. Songs aren’t constructed out of highbrow concepts; they’re forged out of gut instinct and base emotional response. Every Russian Circles album has had its share of new sonic vistas, and ‘Guidance’ finds the band still searching out new sounds while continuing to play to the collective strengths of guitarist Mike Sullivan, drummer Dave Turncrantz, and bassist Brian Cook… We talk to Brian Cook about sounding human, working within parameters and Brooklyn’s happy hour…
TSH: Talk us through the band’s creative process in the lead-up to ‘Guidance’…
Brian: I’m sure every band has their specific way that they work, and given the specific dynamic that exists between any random assortment of individuals, some things work and other things don’t. For us, given that we don’t all live in the same city and we don’t often get the opportunity to play together, and given the fact that we’re an instrumental group that values each individual component to the music, it makes sense for us to work in a manner that is very efficient on time while also allowing three voices to all have their input. If we practiced three times a week, I’m sure we would do more jamming. Instead, we only have the chance to work on new material with us all in the same room a few weeks out of the year, so there’s a lot more individual composition, and then the group practices are more about trying out ideas and putting all the pieces together.
TSH: With this record, was the band was interested in trying to achieve a kind of attention to detail and sonic diversity?
Brian: Any time you go into the studio you’re obsessing over details and trying to make something with enough variation and dynamics that it holds your interest over the span of forty minutes. At this point, I think the bigger struggle is learning how to let go of fixating on perfection and figuring out how to make a cohesive album. It’s never been easier to make a sonically rich and perfect album; that’s where modern recording technology has taken us. But how do you capture the kind of vibe that made albums from before 1975 stand the test of time? I don’t give a shit about making a record that sounds as flawless as modern active rock radio bands. Nor do I care about the current DJ-influenced obsession with making music that touches upon and references twenty different genres of music or four decades of recording technology. I just want to make something that sounds natural and human.
TSH: Was it a key aspect to have drones low in the mix on this record?
Brian: The drones were a source of debate at times. Mike employs a lot of long, sustained, looping notes when we play live, and that really helps fill out the sound and enrich a lot of the melodic elements of the band. It also makes for nice ear candy. But the more you layer a recording, the less impact each individual component has. So there were several conversations as to how many embellishments should be done on the recordings. I think we found a healthy balance.
TSH: In terms of production, how pleasing was it to have the songs produced by people who weren’t going to fall back on the current metal production techniques?
Brian: It was good to work with Kurt Ballou because he’s definitely aware of how modern metal production works, but he doesn’t go that route. We’ve done a few of our past records at Electrical Audio in Chicago, which is an amazing studio that really pushes to do everything as live as possible. But we do so much stuff with loops that it makes more sense sometimes to record everything piece by piece. And because we don’t have a lot of time to write together in the practice space, we do a lot of writing and editing in the studio. So while we love Electrical Audio, it sometimes feels like we’re disappointing their engineers with our approach. On the other end of the spectrum, most current metal records are almost more like electronic records—everything is tracked on a computer grid, everything is corrected and edited to sterile perfection, all the drum hits are either squashed or triggered into sounding identical and mechanical. So with Kurt we had a guy that knows how to capture live, unruly hardcore bands, but is also very aware of how to construct things in the studio piece by piece in a way that still captures that energy. And that was ideal.
TSH: What was the thinking in placing ‘Asa’ as the album opener?
Brian: ‘Asa’ was just something I came up with on baritone guitar without any intention of it being a Russian Circles song, but it resonated with Mike and Dave and after jamming on it a bit it felt like a good way of building into ‘Vorel’.
TSH: With ‘Vorel’, was it surprising that with all the underlying melodies the song has, it ended up being more of a dynamic track?
Brian: ‘Vorel’ is a song that had so much surface noise and so many abrasive textures going on while we were writing it that when it started coming together in the studio and all the melodies became a bit more apparent there was some concern that maybe the song wasn’t dark enough. We always aim for ugliness but somehow the light creeps back in sometimes.
TSH: ‘Mota’ is a stunning track. Talk us through how this one came about from a compositional sense…
Brian: ‘Mota’ was a product of our gear. Specifically, the opening guitar riff was something that blossomed out of Mike fiddling around with settings on one of his delay pedals. It made for an interesting almost electronic arpeggio-like sound, so we tried to build an electronic groove around it, but with our standard arsenal of instruments. And then the second half tries to counter all the melodicism of the beginning.
TSH: Since the song titles have a phonetic quality, do you prefer the idea of the title’s literal definition being disembodied from the song?
Brian: Absolutely. I realise we give listeners very little information to provide context for the songs, and that can make people obsess over the titles a bit. We don’t have lyrics. We don’t have pointed album titles or artwork that’s heavy on iconography. We like mystery.
TSH: Tell us more about yourself incorporating a Moog Taurus for a lot of the keyboard parts and also playing a lot of baritone during the set live, how this gives more range overall…
Brian: Well, Mike has a lot going on with guitar, so I don’t want to impede on his frequency range, but we do want to have a broad spectrum of sounds and dynamics, so sometimes it just works out to switch over to the baritone. As for the Taurus, that originally entered the picture so that we could play “Schiphol” live, but now I’ve found those sub-bass frequencies to be a bit of a guilty pleasure, so I try to squeeze it in whenever I can.
TSH: Since as a live band you want to create an environment and atmosphere that people can get lost in, is it a challenge to figure out how to put that onto a record and have it translate?
Brian: Mike Watt once said something along the lines of “most rock bands tour to promote an album, but fIREHOSE makes albums to support tours.” I can’t say that’s necessarily the attitude of Russian Circles, but I would say that for me personally, I can understand Watt’s stance because I’m more concerned with creating music that functions in a live setting than in making a pristine album. Being a compelling live band is even harder today than it was twenty years ago, simply because we’ve been so saturated by live music. So while there’s definitely a concern with capturing atmosphere on a record, I’m more concerned with making sure the songs work well when the three of us play them together in a room. If they work in that arrangement, I assume they’ll translate onto record just fine.
TSH: How important is it to have the creative freedom and free reign to do whatever you want with no parameters?
Brian: It can be fun to work within parameters. I went out on tour with Mamiffer last year and it was actually kind of nice to take a step back and just help fulfill someone else’s vision. It was illuminating to see how someone else’s creative process worked and to figure out how to manifest their wishes. If that was the full extent of my musical life, I’d probably be unsatisfied, but given my circumstances I found it really rewarding. But overall, yes, feeling free to do whatever you want creatively is obviously a top priority for any artist.
TSH: Is Brooklyn’s happy hour a nice way for you to unwind?
Brian: New York is so hectic that the opportunity to sit somewhere quiet and have a drink is necessary sometimes. That said, I drink less here than I did when I lived in Seattle. Those Pacific Northwesterners love their beer.
TSH: What commonly brings about a pleasing and happy band dynamic during your touring travels?
Brian: Eight hours of sleep and good coffee. I mean, working with nice people at a club, having a decent stage to work with, and being able to grab a warm meal before doors are pretty crucial too, but if we have sleep and caffeine we can usually get through anything.
TSH: Finally, heading forward, what sort of progression and development do you relish with Russian Circles?
Brian: In some ways, I feel like we achieved something on ‘Guidance’ that we’d been working towards for a while—a certain balance of elements that we’d been experimenting with on prior albums. Going forward, it would be nice to branch out and experiment more, but at the same time, I don’t want to force anything. Our approach isn’t academic or conceptual. Our aim is to make something that works on a very primal, visceral level, and that kind of stuff doesn’t work with a bunch of pre-meditated ideas. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.