Russian Circles’ Cloud of Uncertainty

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Russian Circles interview

Russian Circles are in their element onstage. The trio of Mike Sullivan, Brian Cook and Dave Turncrantz thrive on the chemistry that comes from sharing the same proximal space, building intensity from the physical act of performance. That’s not always easy to do as an instrumental band, but through years of touring and honing that psychic musical connection, Russian Circles have grown into a formidable live presence. If you’ve seen them, you definitely remember it.

That very fact led to a conundrum for the band once Covid shut down all live music in 2020, canceling their tour behind their then-new album Blood Year and having to rethink their approach to creating something as a band. They ended up doing something they’d intended to do a long time ago, and began to work on their own individual home studio setups, and from there they let the ideas flow—crafting music from scratch, from a distance, but coming together on a common wavelength even without the luxury of a shared space.

Gnosis, out this month via Sargent House, is a surprisingly physical and menacing album in spite of the distance. It’s the most urgent they’ve sounded in years, capturing something undeniably visceral. Yet for how dark and turbulent this set of songs is, Cook says that being able to work freely and on their own schedule—with no expectations beyond the opportunity to make something—made it unusually satisfying to throw themselves into.

“Having deadlines and things like that sometimes is a good motivator, but with a record like this where there was no real deadline, just writing for the sake of enjoyment, knowing that the future was a question mark, that’s kind of the way I feel a band should operate or artists should operate,” he says. “I’m not working on a schedule, just doing it because it comes naturally. In a year of a lot of negativity and bleak outlooks, it was this really reassuring and optimistic reminder that we can mix things up, and do things in a way that feels like it’s creating a better reflection of who we are.”

We spoke to Cook about Russian Circles’ new album Gnosis, capturing live energy via remote files, and personal growth.

Treble: Gnosis is one of the darkest Russian Circles, tonally—it’s a very intense, menacing record. Was there a particular motivation behind that direction?

Brian Cook: I know at least for Mike and I, we were both pretty into heavy metal as we were working on it. And heavy metal is always been something that’s been part of our sound, but we’ve always prided ourselves on being diverse music listeners and put songs and albums together in a way that there’s a lot of dynamics and contrast. We always kind of want to make things pensive and dark, but there are peaks and valleys. For this one, it was going to be a double album until we realized Sargent House had reserved vinyl manufacturing in advance, so the label’s kind of like “ehhh, maybe take a couple songs off,” which I think made the record better and made the sequencing easier and allowed us to make a record that had a more singular intention. Memorial and Guidance had sonic variation but inadvertently had some narrative arcs to them in terms of how they took off and how the album developed. There are moments of calm. I’m a big believer in just doing what comes naturally and not forcing it. Like you said, it has a different vibe. It’s more menacing. It’s more to the point. There’s no calm or emotional resolve, it’s a very direct and angry record.

Treble: I always think of Russian Circles first as a live unit, and that comes through here, maybe even more so than on past records. How much of that is a conscious decision?

BC: I think there’s always a little bit of a struggle between making something that feels representative of the live show while making this document that’s going to outlive the band. And for most people, their only exposure to the band is going to be the recordings. So if you can add a little more nuance to make up for the lack of live energy, why to do that. It’s a struggle. We did the record Geneva, and I love that record, but trying to play it out was a little bit of a nightmare. The same can probably be said of Memorial. Guidance I think we did a better job of. And we can play it out live, but there’s still some studio candy and ambience to it that maybe wouldn’t be part of the live show. With Blood Year, we were committed to making a “live” album, something we could take on the road. That was cool, except we didn’t get to tour on Blood Year. So that kind of backfired, and then on this one, we really sort of approached it with no ideas off the table. We wanted to make something that you could pull off in the flesh, but if you want to get that crazy guitar tone, who cares, we’ll figure it out and work around it. Its definitely an album we’re excited about playing live, because we communicate well and it was basically put together on home laptops by swapping field, and it was so thought out and meticulously put together in the demo process, that once we were all in a room and set up to rehearse as an actual unit, it went really smoothly, more so than it had for us for a while as a band. 

“Bloom” was the first song we wrote for the record, it kind of retains a little bit of that melodrama and pensive quality that some of our more dynamic, more cinematic pieces had in the past. So we put that at the end to provide a little glimmer of hope, but the rest of the record is a pretty angry, frustrated, bloodletting record. It’s pretty much all release. Maybe that’s what we needed. We were living in tense times under a black cloud of uncertainty. So here it all is, we’re not holding back. It’s not very cerebral, it’s a physical, visceral record. 

If you can get a good decade out of a band, that’s pretty great. Anything beyond that, it gets harder to keep each other’s individual world in each other’s orbit.

Treble: Does having other projects or time spent outside of the band help to kind of refresh things?

BC: I think so. I can’t speak for everyone, but with Sumac, that kind of took off in a way that wasn’t really expected. I went into that thinking it was going to be a studio project, Aaron and I had talked about doing a project together and then all of a sudden it was like “oh this is going to be a thing.” It’s something that’s kind of difficult, because I joined Russian Circles still playing in These Arms are snakes, and I said I was never going to juggle two bands again, because it’s just too messy. But then all of a sudden I was like ‘oh, shit, I’m in two bands again,’ There’s something really rewarding in playing with different people and new configurations. With Russian Circles we tend to be a very meticulous band and we tend to be very focused on being dialed in and as perfect as we can get, whereas Sumac is—let’s play to the room, figure out what the frequency of the room is, and leave large sections open for improvisations and let the room and the audience help shape the songs. It allows me personally to get another aspect of my creative side out. It’s a lot more fun, honestly, to go into it knowing there’s other albums and documents and other aspects of what I want out of music, and that it doesn’t all have to come from this project. It’s liberating, it made it more fun, I think it ultimately made it a better record.

Treble: Russian Circles has been a band for over 15 years. How much has changed or evolved for the three of you since it first began?

BC: Sixteen years is a pretty long time for a band to be together. When bands generally start, you’re kindred spirits. You’re all on the same page. There’s a unified vision, what works. There’s a kind of mutual understanding of what people’s preferences are. At least in my experience, the band kind of becomes the entirety of your world. There’s family life and there’s relationships outside of that, but in terms of creative fulfillment, it kind of becomes the entire universe, and I think that kind of unity between individuals can be tough to carry on for a long time. I think I mentioned this a bit on the past album cycle, but Jaki Liebezeit of Can said no rock band should live longer than the family dog. It’s a morbid way of looking at it, but when I look at bands I love and admire, it’s kind of true. If you can get a good decade out of a band, that’s pretty great. Anything beyond that, it gets harder to keep each other’s individual world in each other’s orbit. Musically we understand each other and some people get into something other people in the band aren’t into, but there’s still room for common ground on other things. It’s tricky because every time we do a record, there’s a sort of rediscovery process. I think the shifts and changes have been pretty subtle over the years, but at the same time we’re all going to have our own trajectories and our own lives and different interests outside of the band. It tends to happen in your forties, you tend to become a bit more socially isolated, so there’s not as much being in each other’s business all the time. And that’s nice. You’re on your own journey. It can be tricky, but we all respect each other’s space and enjoy each other’s company. Working together is not without its struggles, but it’s something that brings us all a lot of joy.

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