Russian Circles: It's A Midwest Thing
Posted 3/26/2008 by cal
Some people call it “prog-metal,” but you’re not going to see Chicago’s Russian Circles playing any ten-minute moog solos. Some call it “post-metal,” but these guys have the heavy riffs to defy being called post-anything, along with the melodic sense to create engaging songs without the benefit of a human voice. Enter the new buzzword, “instru-metal,” a somewhat annoying but fairly accurate description of the band’s music, although it short-changes them on the moody atmospherics that help make their live show so dynamic. The band released its debut full-length, 2006’s Enter, and toured extensively, developing a formidable live reputation. Before recording a follow-up album, the group parted ways with bassist Colin DeKuiper, a position which remains officially open. The group enlisted the help of These Arms Are Snakes bassist Brian Cook to complete Station, due out May 6 on Suicide Squeeze Records; Cook has since filled in on bass for all of the band’s live dates as well. Before their February 29 show at the Cactus Club, I spoke with drummer Dave Turncrantz and guitarist Mike Sullivan over pints of Guinness at a nearby watering hole.
Me: Music writers’ new favorite term for your style of music is instru-metal. I’m wondering what you guys think of that. Chicago is known as a hotbed for that scene right now. Is there a sense of camaraderie between you guys and, say, Pelican?
Dave Turncrantz: Oh, yeah, we actually practice at the same practice area. We share a space with them.
Mike Sullivan: They’re good friends of ours. My old band [Dakota/Dakota] played with them back in the day, and I’ve known them for years. They’ve helped us out since day one. We’ve toured with them here and there, and business-wise, they’ve been super helpful. Musically we’ve sort of taken different paths, but that’s good; we’re both supportive of one another. The more we go on, there’s less competition, no one’s stepping on anyone’s toes, and it’s easier to support one another.
As far as the instru-metal thing, I think that applies to other bands more so than us. I think we have metal parts, but for each metal part, we have a ton of softer passages. It’s definitely a valid term; there are so many bands like that, whether they want to be called that or not. But there’s enough good metal around right now; metal’s still doing all right.
Me: Do you feel that there’s a scene in Chicago of bands in a similar vein growing as a community, or is it just a media-created idea?
MS: I think it’s kind of latched onto certain bands. You know, they could say “instrumental” but they wanted something more. They could say “instrumental metal” which would probably be a lot easier, but they had to come up with something more clever. But there’s a band like Minsk, and some others from Chicago, and I think it all kind of came up with the popularity of Sunn O))) and Isis, but it’s happening everywhere. We’ve run into bands that sound just like Pelican in the middle of New Mexico. But I think Chicago has its own unique sound that a lot of other people try to mimic, but for some reason it just happened to come out of Chicago; I have no idea why. Maybe there’s more camaraderie in Chicago? It’s not a city where bands are super-competitive, like New York. Everyone’s supportive of one another; we like to see one another do well. We’ve only made more friends since we started. Chicago’s a pretty humble city, I’d say; I think it’s a Midwest thing. I get the same vibe from Minneapolis—they have a great scene there. There are bands from here [Milwaukee] that are great. The Midwest has a unique thing going on.
Me: It seems that Pelican, as well as a lot of other bands in that sphere, are moving toward a somewhat more accessible sound, shorter songs, whereas you guys are sticking to the longer, more riff-oriented stuff. Is that a conscious decision?
MS: Well, this time, I actually thought, “Let’s have some shorter songs, just for the hell of it.” I just want to convey the idea of the part. If we can’t get through it in enough time, then we’re not going to cut it or alter it. That’s what we learned from the last album: give the part enough space to breathe and not force transitions. Let the transitions happen naturally. So, after we started writing the record, the songs started to get longer again, and…that’s what it takes for the songs to mature into a final product. It was pretty funny; we had a couple songs that were five minutes, and we were like, “Okay, great, let’s keep it at that,” and then after the record, we were like, “How long was that?” and it was like eight…twelve minutes?
DT: I think if you go in there consciously thinking, “I’m going to write a short song,” and get to the point, here and there it’s possible, but you can kind of ruin a really good song. There’s definitely a lot of bands out there [who play] a riff that I love, and I don’t hear it enough…which is great; I’ll listen to the song over and over just to hear that riff, but…if there’s a way to do it tastefully, just go with it.
Me: You’ve toured with These Arms Are Snakes a few times. Are you actively looking for a new bass player, or are you thinking that Brian is going to be a permanent member?
MS: The biggest problem is that the guys from TAAS are awesome dudes, and we love them, so we don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, because honestly, every one of those guys is rad. So all we do is encourage us touring together as much as possible. But Brian offered to play with us, and we were fans of his work with that band and Botch, and other stuff, so…right now he has an open invitation to play whenever he wants to, or whenever he can. But we’ll see. We’re not really sure. We’re not looking to fill the position right now. It’s really hard to write with three people there sometimes; it’s more volatile. Too many things going on, you can’t hear…it’s just bad.
Me: I know a lot of bands can only operate with one main songwriter, but it seems that you want to have input from everybody. How does that work for you when you’re developing the song?
MS: We’ll come up with a riff and sort of dissect it, and Dave will say, “That first part’s cool, let’s take that and cut away all the rest for now…” So then we have a centralized riff—it may be the first part of the song, the middle, the end, who knows? And then we’ll start jamming on that, and then once we start playing, it’ll change together; you never know how it’ll happen. We write plenty of awesome shit, you know, but we’re not afraid to try every option and see what works. And what takes time in the writing process is to really make sure we’re happy with each part, and exhausting all sorts of bad ideas. Even Brian was good with that. Even though the structures were in place on the demos that we gave Brian, he wasn’t afraid to raise opinions, and sometimes it’s, “Ah, I don’t know…” or sometimes, “Oh, I never thought of it that way, that’s a great point.” It’s kind of natural.
DT: When we had the demo, we gave it to Brian, and he played along, and [the songs are] obviously going to change with the bass player involved. We didn’t write any bass parts—he did. So then we kind of adapted to him, and his parts as well, until they seemed to work dynamically and whatnot.
MS: There’s only two of us, and I want to make sure and leave room for bass, and not just make a guitar-and-drum album…with bass as an afterthought. Too much guitar is not a good thing. It depends who’s playing guitar, but too much for me is not a good thing.
Me: What do you think Brian brought to the development of the songs that was lacking before?
MS: Believe it or not, there wasn’t a whole lot of telling him what to do. We had fun writing the last record, but this time around, Brian came up with everything by himself. Not a lot of input from us—mostly, [Brian] feeling it out, like I said, making mistakes, not afraid to try stuff out. It sounds so stupid and so rudimentary, but it makes a big difference. It solidifies the foundation of the rhythm section.
DT: Yeah, I think the songs came out better because of the fact that he is comfortable enough to play what sounds good instead of trying to project. He does a lot of stuff and there’s a lot of stuff going on, and if you have a higher bass doing noodly stuff along with Mike, everything gets lost.
MS: He’s kind of the bridge between Dave and me, because Dave and I are obviously a different spectrum, you know, not rhythmically but sonically, so the bass is the bridge between the two.
Me: You guys have really toured with a wide variety of different acts. How did you get hooked up with the Tool tour in Europe?
MS: We asked them if they wanted to do some shows. [laughs] No, the bassist [Justin Chancellor] of that band, his brother has his own record company in England, and they re-pressed a limited edition version of Enter over there, and I assume that they got Tool to hear it. We did three shows for the whole tour, and from what I understand, each member of Tool picks two opening bands for different shows. They always take out great bands, too—a lot of bands that you don’t think other big bands would take out. And their fan base is notoriously hard on opening bands, and they challenge the crowd every time. Trans Am is out with them right now, and the last tour Trans Am did was just awesome. But they get all kinds of different acts.
Me: Big Business toured with them last summer, and played with Tool during their set—did you guys get the chance to collaborate?
MS: The second night in London, Herman Li from DragonForce came out for a face-melting solo. That was pretty fun. But no interplay [between us] as far as onstage. They were all awesome dudes, though. That second night in London, I was having problems with my guitar head, and Adam [Jones, Tool guitarist] came to our room and offered assistance. He lent me a head that cost more than my entire rig combined…I smashed it afterwards, obviously. Threw it into the crowd.
Me: So what have been your favorite tour mates in recent memory?
DT: I would have to say…there’s two: Daughters, that was probably my most fun tour, and the Pelican/Young Widows tour, that was the best.
MS: The Widows, I could watch Young Widows play every night for the rest of my life and be totally content. Those guys sound amazing every night. I love to see a band that sonically has it down. There’s just no potential for them sounding bad. Every band…whether it’s the stage being awful or the venue’s PA being bad, anything could be wrong, but they just sound powerful every night. It’s a pleasure to play with them every night. But I mean, all the bands we’ve played with…Langhorne Slim is a [guy] we toured with two years ago; [he’s got] a folk band, and I’m sure we’ll tour with them soon again. I think we hit it off, just playing a lot together for a while, and then we ended up falling in love with their music.
Me: You guys have played the South By Southwest Festival the past two years, and you’re appearing this year as well. What do you take away from that experience?
DT: There’s too many bands! No, the first year was a lot of fun. The second year was hell. Okay, not “hell,” but…the first year, we were one of the first bands of the night, and then we could go drink, get shitfaced, walk around and be idiots. The second year, we play at one o’clock in the goddamn morning, so you can’t drink all day and then you play a show at one a.m., so it was a little bit more tame. This year, of course, we’re playing at one o’clock in the morning. So I think once you have to get responsible, it’s not as fun. [laughs]
MS: Maybe we’re getting older, I don’t know.
DT: Yeah. But we’re flying in this year, too, which is going to be awesome; we won’t have any gear, so we can just have a good time and not worry about parking a van. Having a trailer and a van in Austin was the worst thing ever. There was a point last year where our tour manager had us drive around for hours…circling around, park somewhere for a few hours…it was so out of control. I can’t complain that much, though. A lot of friends you haven’t seen in a while will end up going down there. Who knows who you’ll run into? It’s that kind of random crowd, so it ends up being a lot of fun. No matter what, it ends up being a good time, but there are stressful, annoying moments.
Me: So after SXSW, you’re touring through the end of March. What’s on your plate after that?
DT: We’ve got a tour getting booked right now. We’ll do a CD party in Chicago, and then at the very end of May through July we’ll be touring around the U.S. As far as bands that may do that one, Daughters might be one of the bands, hopefully, and Young Widows might be as well, so it’s going to be a really good bill. That’s gonna be fuckin’ a lot of fun.
MS: We haven’t toured the U.S. in so long, and the record’s done. We’ll always be writing, but it’s kinda like, let’s go tour, fuckin’ come on! We have a new booking agent, and he’s awesome. He wanted to book something for us, and this tour kind of happened really easily, so we were like, how could we not do this? We haven’t been to the west coast in about a year and a half, and Red Sparowes offered that, and they’re great guys, so that was too good to pass up. It’s so cold in March in Chicago, so it was like, “Sure, we’ll go to the west coast!”
There’s no better way to beat the cold in Milwaukee than a packed show at the newly-remodeled Cactus Club. The Circles had their work cut out for them, sandwiched in between the raw ferocity of Young Widows and the blaring industrial hip-hop of co-headliners Dälek (who alternated the closing spot with Russian Circles for the tour), but it was clear who most attendees were there to see. After the Widows plastered the room with a tight, explosive bludgeoning of post-punk madness, the Circles opened unassumingly with “Harper Lewis” from their forthcoming sophomore effort. Through two more new songs and live staples “Carpe” and “Death Rides A Horse,” the group showcased its considerable strengths. Turncrantz is equally adept with intricate, textural rhythms as he is with a full-force barrage to accompany Sullivan’s heaviest riffs. Sullivan’s fast, melodic licks were as intense as his smoldering atmospheric swells. It was clear that Cook has developed a rapport with the two full-time members; his playing was less furious than his work with Snakes; it morphed with the dynamics of each song and held everything together. Much of the crowd dispersed (their loss) prior Dälek’s set, easily the loudest and most unusual touring rap show on the planet. It was a more-than-satisfying end to a triple-bill show, but Russian Circles were the clear crowd favorite. Look for them to continue expanding their sound as they tour with every conceivable genre-bending act under the sun.
Photos by Jennifer Schattschneider