Over six albums, Russian Circles have evolved to the extent that they’ve pretty much outstripped (and outlived) the scene that birthed them, expanding any notions of what three guys who like loud, emotive music can achieve. Guidance is a shining example of their loose blueprint at work, a colossal record that delivers a series of gut-punch emotional hits and doing it with enough gusto to topple an oak tree. As news came in of guitarist Mike Sullivan’s recent involvement in a head-on collision, we spoke to Brian Cook to discuss his recovery, Bob Dylan and the art of doing whatever the fuck you want.
Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer these, it’s much appreciated. As an aside, I was the guy you and Mike zapped at the Glasgow show with Earthless years ago (the one with the dodgy earthing issues) so cheers for making it a memorable night!
We still talk about that show all the time. Electricity is strange. Mike had a steel plate in his ankle from an old wrestling injury removed after that tour because we were convinced it was at the root of his conductivity issues. No weird shock episodes since. Thanks for being a guinea pig to our troubleshooting that night.
I guess a good one to start off on, although probably not the cheeriest, is to ask how Mike is recovering at the moment and what exactly happened.
Mike is holding up okay. Fortunately, he didn’t have to get any more steel plates embedded in him. He’s just recovering from some really gnarly whiplash and attendant headaches. It was bad enough in the first week that he couldn’t lift a cup of coffee, tie his shoes, look down at a fretboard, or wear his guitar without being on a bunch of pain killers, but the neck and back pain seems to be abating somewhat, so that’s good. Basically what happened was Mike was driving home from practice one night and a car swerved into his lane and hit him head on. He was in the band van, which probably saved his life because it’s a big old Ford Econoline. The other car got messed up pretty bad. It sounds like a really grim situation. Last I heard both people in the swerving car are recovering, but their injuries were a lot more severe. There’s still some investigating as to why they swerved into Mike’s lane. There was nothing in the road. No turns. No reason to swerve unless they were trying to actually do some damage to themselves.
You have steadily operating at the poles of sound for a while, focusing on outlying tones and dynamics to create something dramatic and conflicting. Is there a certain freedom that comes from working at the extremes and are there limits to it?
The bottom line for us is that we want to be able to write whatever we want to write. There were a couple of songs that didn’t wind up on Guidance because they didn’t fit in with the overall vibe of the album, but it was a drag to have to put those tracks on the back burner. Overall, we feel like we have free reign to do whatever we want. We want to write a melancholic pop song with vocals? We did it with “Memorial”. We want to write a minimalist Americana noir song? Cool, we wrote “Lisboa”. We want to pay homage to Deathspell Omega’s dissonant mid-tempo black metal? We’ll sneak that into “Deficit” and “Vorel”. Experimental folk? “Praise Be Man”. We’re just a bunch of dudes in our mid-to-late thirties that like a bunch of different kinds of music and want to be able to cull from as much of our record collections as possible. I think people appreciate that our albums cover a lot of territories, but I also understand that people want a handy lexicon for discussing what we do. Even thinking of how I would classify the examples I just listed seems weirdly dismissive or oversimplifying the process. But because we veer towards the heavier end of the spectrum, and because we’re an instrumental band, we get put in a box with other heavy, loud-quiet-loud, predominantly-instrumental bands. And I guess that’s fine, but I’m not aspiring to be in that peer group. I don’t want to feel like there are parameters to what we can do.
It sometimes seems like each album of yours builds upon the past, like they’re each an incremental step towards some final goal or ultimate work. Do you think there is some kind of grand scheme across your past work and if there is, where does Guidance sit within it?
I’m sure there’s some sort of Platonic ideal out there that we’re subconsciously trying to attain. Do you know that Bob Dylan song “Visions of Johanna”? That’s one of my favourite Dylan songs. On the surface, it’s all about how Dylan is sleeping with Louise, but he’s really in love with Johanna. But the bigger metaphor is that it’s about Dylan’s art, and how Johanna is what he’s striving for, but it’s this unobtainable idea. We dream of it, but it’ll never live up to your expectations. We’ll never even be close enough to get a sense of it. If Dylan was struggling with this idea, then pretty much every musician is fucked, including us. But I’m not even sure what the ultimate Russian Circles composition would sound like. Maybe that’s why our albums have gotten increasingly dynamic. Maybe perfection resides in the sombre moments. Maybe it’ll come out in the loud cathartic moments. Who knows. We’ll just keep sleeping with Louise.
Was there a difference in how you approached this album compared to past works?
Not really, but we don’t really have a set way of writing songs to begin with, so the albums tend to be a mishmash of approaches. I mean, at no point are we going on absinthe binges and trying to score a soundtrack to Rimbaud’s Illuminations or something. There’s no dialogue about “I’m only going to play in one scale on this album and I’m not going to fret anything with my ring finger” or some such lofty idea.
Were there any reference points that you had in mind while you were working on these songs?
For me, personally, no. On Memorial, I really wanted to try to tap into some of the ambition and classical inclinations of old prog records. I was really obsessed with The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway at the time. But with Guidance I really wanted to keep my head clear of expectations. I didn’t want to force anything. As far as I know, the other guys didn’t have any reference points either.
There has always been this elegant simplicity when it comes to your album and song titles. Names, places… do these titles have any bearing on the content of your music, or do they act more as placeholders or signifiers?
It varies. Phonetics are really important, but there also tends to be some sort of importance to the words. Do the titles pertain to the content of the song? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes they really are just placeholders. “Vorel” has a definite meaning for us, but it doesn’t necessarily pertain to the emotional resonance of the song. “Schiphol”, on the other hand, is definitely pertinent to the vibe of the song, though the explanation is long-winded enough that I’ll spare you the details. The impetus behind that song title has been discussed before, so a little internet sleuthing will yield an answer for curious parties.
“… we don’t really have a set way of writing songs to begin with, so the albums tend to be a mishmash of approaches. I mean, at no point are we going on absinthe binges and trying to score a soundtrack to Rimbaud’s Illuminations or something.”
After how well-received Chelsea Wolfe’s contribution to “Memorial” was, I think some people expected vocals to become more of a feature in your music. Was this ever an option with Guidance and are there any vocalists who you feel would complement these songs well?
It was discussed, but “Memorial” was specifically written with Chelsea in mind. It was a collaborative process. With Guidance, any vocals would have been an afterthought, and because of that we eventually vetoed the idea.
One of the things that separates you from a lot of the post-whatever crowd is that your albums are usually on the shorter side, meaning they stay strong and don’t fizzle out. Is this a deliberate move on your part or is it more of a songwriting preference?
It’s definitely deliberate. Geneva was on the long side, and I love that album. But as a listener, I never listen to an album and think, “Man, if only this album was just ten to fifteen minutes longer.” On the other hand, there’s many albums that I love that could use a little trimming of the fat. So starting with Empros we began to try to keep things between 35 and 40 minutes – long enough to go on a journey, not so long that you get bored by the trip.
A lot of people were very excited when you started playing with Russian Circles, especially those who had followed your career with These Arms Are Snakes and Botch. Do you see much of a difference in your technique and musical approach in comparison to how you were in previous bands?
Definitely. It was really refreshing to play with restraint. It was also really refreshing to think less about how I could mix things up note-wise and instead focus on mixing things up texturally. These Arms Are Snakes was already a move in that direction from Botch, but Russian Circles allowed me to finally play in a context that didn’t involve swinging an instrument around and jumping off of monitors and such. It was less about riffs and bass lines and more about figuring out the proper treatment to the song as a whole. It’s still fun to play music that operates at full-throttle at all times, but it’s also satisfying to play with some nuance.
From a quick perusal, it seems that you get quizzed quite a lot on your technical set-ups. Are you guys gearheads yourselves and do you think it’s a good thing that people find your tones and techniques as intriguing as the music you make with it?
Personally, I’m not someone that feels compelled to try out every new toy on the market. I’d rather find something that works and stick with it. That probably stems from spending the majority of my recording and touring career being so broke that exploring new gear was totally futile. I’m flattered that people like our tones enough to investigate our rigs, but I’m not as much of a gearhead as the public interest might imply. More than anything, I just get stoked when friends of mine make cool stuff. I’d rather play guitars and amps and pedals made by my peers than something manufactured overseas. As for the rest of the guys, Dave is definitely of the camp where you find the equipment that works for you and you stick with it. Of all of us, Mike is definitely the guy who’s the most interested in exploring new gear. He’s on a never-ending tone quest. Again, I think it’s cool that people are intrigued by the components that go into making our music, and I’m glad that it brings attention to DIY tradespeople who build musical equipment. But I also think it’s cool when I see people make interesting music on cheap or unconventional gear.
One of the strangest developments in the underground in the past few years has been its partnership with the craft beer revolution. You guys had your own beer with the Death Rides A Horse stout, Pig Destroyer had Permanent Funeral, Red Fang had Murder The Mountains… do you think there’s something to this beyond the whole ‘beer + metal = good’ equation?
This actually kinda ties in to what I was just talking about. One of the coolest developments in recent years is people actually making their own stuff instead of buying mass-produced stuff. I know there’s a tendency to make fun of this sort of Portlandia-esque artisanal-goods phenomenon, but seriously, isn’t it way cooler to be self-sufficient and support small businesses? I’m friends with the guy who built my amp. I’m friends with the people who make a bunch of my pedals. I’m in awe of these people because I barely know how to intonate a guitar. And folks that make their own beer? That fucking rules too. So we were really excited for the DryHop folks to do a beer named after one of our songs.
Actually, what are your beer preferences? Are you a stout guy, or IPAs or lagers…?
I’m a different-beers-for-different-occasions kind of a guy. Sometimes an ice-cold High Life in a bottle is perfection. Sometimes a good flowery IPA is the most delicious thing ever. Stouts were my point of entry for beer, so I’ll always love those. When I first started drinking, I couldn’t understand how people could enjoy beer until I had an Oatmeal Stout, and then it was like the Rosetta Stone for appreciating all the beers out there. Right now I’m really into a good gose-style beer. Sierra Nevada’s Otra Vez is particularly delicious. Some of my other random favourites are Lakefront IPA, Mac and Jack’s African Amber, and Daisy Cutter Pale Ale. Dammit, now I’m thirsty.
Thanks once again for your time, man. Anything you’d like to add, feel free to chuck it in here.
Going back to “Visions of Johanna”… the album version off Blonde On Blonde is okay, but the definitive version is the live take on the Biograph box set. Take note.