Russian Circles and Hot Sauce

Photo by Chris Strong

This afternoon I was aimlessly walking around downtown Chicago. The well-to-do and bejeweled middle-aged women were in abundance, walking their dogs. The new-moneyed 20-somethings were running around in their business suits looking for something important to do. The obvious tourists with their street maps were standing puzzled at the street corners. Suddenly from out of the blue, deep, dark black clouds rolled in from Lake Michigan. With thunder and lightning and torrential downpour everyone began to scatter and run for cover. Chicago went from smiling faces and jovial conversation to utter fear and dismay. At the time, I was listening to the second track of Empros by Russian Circles, “Mládek,” and I couldn’t help but think that this was the perfect soundtrack to this scenario.

Whether you’re running into a viking battle, stuck in a nightmare that’s going from bad to worse, or watching a sunny day turn into disarray, Russian Circles has  you covered. The band manifested out of the ashes of Dakota/Dakota in 2004, which was very much its predecessor, but Russia Circles took on a much heavier breed of instrumental music, delving more into melodic death metal and metalcore than math rock. Originally made up of guitarist Mike Sullivan, bassist Colin DeKuiper, and drummer Dave Turnkrantz, Russian Circles turned the sleepy idea of instrumental music that most were familiar with on its head.

Later in 2007, it was announced that DeKuiper decided to part ways with the band, and that Brian Cook (These Arms Are Snakes/Botch) would take his place. Since then, the trio has done nothing but sell out shows and receive more and more praise.

THE BOMBER JACKET spoke with Cook in anticipation of the band’s upcoming, extensive European tour.

TBJ: A lot artists struggle to find the balance between consistency and progression, and either wind up stagnating or pushing themselves in directions too different. You’ve released four albums now and the progression seems incredibly natural and organic. Is there a lot of control and restraint on what Russian Circles should sound like, or do you approach things more freely?

Brian Cook: That’s a good question. It’s definitely easy to overthink the creative process and wind up forcing something just for the sake of trying to do something new, especially once you have a few albums under your belt. I think a lot of artists want to revisit that initial rush when they first start a band and everything feels like uncharted territory. I think that’s why you have bands forcing themselves out of their comfort zones and taking big artistic leaps. It’s understandable, even respectable, but I don’t think it always comes from a truly genuine place. It can seem really forced. Ultimately, we just rely on our collective tastes. We don’t have the desire to keep doing the exact same thing over and over again. We want to keep challenging ourselves. On the other hand, we don’t feel like we need to reinvent ourselves with every record. We have our balance that we’re comfortable with, and hopefully we can continue to sustain that balance in the future.

I guess with instrumental music, the instrument has to shine and the musician can’t really hide behind power chords. I’ve seen you live a few times and I can say that you guys don’t screw up, or if you do you turn it into musical gold. That takes a lot of talent and practice. When did you personally first pick up an instrument?

I started playing bass when I was fourteen. I think Dave and Mike started playing their instruments even earlier. There’s definitely a bigger emphasis on accuracy and locking in together when you’re an instrumental band…there’s no frontman to serve as a diversion.

I remember sitting in the back of my parent’s car, driving back to Pennsylvania from Quebec when I was about 8 and the song “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys came on the radio. I had heard the song before, for some reason it sounded different, or maybe I just really paid attention to it, but that was the first time I fell in love with music truly — you know when a song speaks and connects to you on such a perfect level, you’re able to find a full appreciation for it. Do you remember the first time you fell in love with music?

I don’t have a specific memory like that. I started buying music pretty early on though. It was the 80s and I was really into a lot of soft rock stuff: Chicago, Survivor, Foreigner…the stuff that was on the radio all the time. I remember being annoyed that the songs they played on the radio were so much better than the remainder of the material on those albums. It was all very hit-song oriented. I was too young to realize that the music industry was geared toward a “singles” market, but I do remember getting burned out on music as I approached adolescence. It wasn’t until I discovered “alternative” stuff like REM, Pixies, They Might Be Giants, and Camper Van Beethoven that I realized there was music out there that was more substantial and meaningful than the Billboard Top 40 stuff. Those albums were the first records that I would listen to front to back over and over again. That led to listening to stuff like Minutemen, Dead
Kennedys, and Fugazi, and those were the bands that made me want to start my own band.

There’s a lot of room for personal interpretation with your music since there aren’t lyrics telling people what to think. Everyone, therefore, hears and paints the picture a little differently. Do feel that listeners ever misunderstand or misinterpret what you’re about as a band because of that? Is there a particular way you’d like to be seen?

Yeah, I definitely think people sometimes fixate on a certain aspect of the band and misinterpret the broader scope of what we do. The first night of our last tour, we opened with “Carpe” off our first album. It’s not a brutally heavy song or anything, but within the first two minutes of playing the song, a fight broke out in the club. Some guy broke a bottle and was threatening to stab people. I never thought of our music being the kind of stuff to incite that kind of behavior. On a less extreme tip, there have been mosh pits and stagediving at our shows, and we’re always a little stunned when that kind of thing happens. We’re not Fugazi–we’re not going to get upset if people are dancing a little roughly–but I do think it’s strange when it happens. We’ve also heard renditions of our songs where people added vocals, and the lyrics were pretty violent. I realize we’re a dark and heavy band at times, but we’re really not interested in being the soundtrack to violence. But extreme interpretation aside, I don’t want to try and force people to view our band from a particular vantage. I think that tends to diminish its impact on and importance for the listener.

You’ve played shows with a variety of acts playing a variety of musical styles. Did you find that say fans of Tool, for instance, approached your music differently than fans of The Appleseed Cast?

Not really. I think most people pick up on the fact that it’s supposed to be contemplative music. There’s always that contingent in the crowd that gets that, and there’s always a contingent that just wants to dance or be more interactive. The only band we’ve toured with that had a hard-sell crowd was Clutch. We did five shows with them right after Christmas and leading up to New Years Eve. That was a crowd that really just wanted to drink and party. We’re not a good band for that type of crowd.

In April you’ll be embarking on a European tour, including a slew of festivals. Are you looking forward to any show or city in particular?

I’m excited for Spain and Portugal, just because that’s my favorite part of Europe. I like the climate, I like the cities, and I like the people. We’re doing a bunch of Baltic states this time: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. We’re also hitting Finland for the first time. I’m really looking forward to those dates. We’ve never played there, and it’s always interesting to hit up a new country for the first time.

When you’re on the road, is there anything, save for the obvious, that you’ve got to have on hand or couldn’t make it without?

A cable tester. It’s the cheapest stress-reducer available on the market. Something is always going to break on tour, and it’s usually just a cable that’s gone out. For twenty bucks, you can buy a Behringer cable tester to identify the problem. Otherwise you can spend all this time pulling your hair out trying to pinpoint the problem through trial and error. I’ve also learned to bring hot sauce to Europe. Mexican food makes up about 50% of my diet, and I go through some pretty serious withdrawals when we’re over there. A little bottle of Tapatio goes a long way.

Empros has received a lot of acclaim since it was released, a lot of people have said that this is your best album yet. I’m sure it was nice and sort of a relief getting that kind of recognition, but is there a pressure along with that, that you’ll have to top it with the next release?

Not really. I was actually fairly certain people were going to hate Empros. It’s a much noisier record than anything we’ve done in the past. It’s a step down in fidelity from Geneva too, in my opinion. Plus there’s the whole thing with vocals on the last song. We labored over that record for a long time. It was a difficult process and by the end of it I was pretty burned out on it. I felt good about the record–I knew we’d put the time and effort into obsessing over every little detail, but I was personally exhausted by it. It was a weird feeling…it wasn’t a positive feeling, but I also felt like we had made the best possible document of that stage in our lives. So I basically felt that people were completely entitled to hate it. It was an honest record, and because of that it wasn’t necessarily the most pleasant record. So to get the kind of positive feedback we got, for me at least, was almost unexpected. It definitely adds a little icing to the cake.

I feel a lot better about Empros now that I have distance from the recording process. And we’ve already talked about what we’re going to do differently next time around, which makes me really optimistic about the next album. Obviously, anyone that says they don’t give a shit about how their work is received is lying. People want affirmation on some level. But if we went in to making Empros under less than ideal circumstances and people liked the result, I don’t think I should waste time worrying about the results of making a record in an opportune scenario.

Aside from touring throughout Europe, what’s on the horizon for Russian Circles? Any new projects or ideas you’ve been playing around with?

Not really. We have a lot of touring throughout 2012. We’ll probably settle down in the winter and start working on new material. Mike’s already showed us some ideas he’s working on, so the process of making a new album is theoretically underway.

Personal Question: I imagine you guys have been pretty busy with all the hype that came out of your last release, but when you’ve got some downtime what do you keep yourself busy with?

I do some freelance writing when I’m home. Band bios, press releases, some music writing for local publications. I’m working on a few larger writing projects at present, but I don’t want to jinx them by talking about it here. we’ll see what happens…

–Rick Knowlton

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