Fifteen years is a long time for a band to have negotiated the choppy waters of the modern music industry, let alone a band who mines the seemingly unmarketable niche that is sprawling instrumental gloom rock in uncompromising fashion like post-metal innovators Russian Circles. That they’ve managed to last this long is a testament to their willingness to constantly push the boundaries of their music, not to mention their thrilling, no-holds-barred live show, often hailed as one of the hottest tickets around. Returning to Perth for first time in five years, ZACK YUSOF caught up with guitarist Mike Sullivan – a recently recoverer from a traumatic head-on car collision in 2016 which resulted in neck and spinal injuries – to chat about all things Russian Circles including their forthcoming new album. Russian Circles play The Rosemount on Wednesday, April 24 alongside local post-rock legends Tangled Thoughts of Leaving and Sydney post-proggers We Lost The Sea.
You are returning to Australian shores for the first time in five years. What are your memories of performing in Perth?
There’s something about the isolation that makes it so unique. Whenever when we come to Australia, Perth always tends to stand out among all the other cities. It’s exotic to us in a way that may not be exotic to Australians and we love just being like, loser tourists and taking photos of exotic trees and crap like that (laughs), basically taking everything in as it’s such a beautiful city. I always wish we had more time to explore but we are always in and out of there too quickly. Because of the isolation, it always tends to be an early flight out the next morning with us suffering from a lack of sleep so I look forward to us hanging out and spending more time. Perth is a city we get asked about a lot because of the isolation so I really need to find out more to tell our friends.
Russian Circles celebrate 15 years together this year. What do you owe your longevity to? Playing doomy instrumental music can’t be the safest of career choice for musicians who want to go the distance…
I think it’s just that we work as hard as we can on the records. We know how to play the songs on tour because we put a lot of thought into the songs – maybe too much thought sometimes, overworking them. We know it‘s worth really considering all the options to make the strongest possible record because that is what’s going to last over time. We don’t want to be a flash-in-the-pan type band with albums that are cool for a little bit that becomes irrelevant after a while. We try not to follow the trends too much. We are fans of all types of music but it’s fun to not feel cornered into one genre. That’s why we’ve got all kinds of different songs. It’s survival through diversity if you like.
Looking back on your career, what are the standout moments and is there anything that you would have liked to have done differently?
I wouldn’t change a thing personally. If you are not making mistakes, you’re not learning, you know? Every time something doesn’t go your way, it’s a chance to work at it and reassess your situation. There are a lot of milestones. One that comes to mind for me is a European tour that we did a few years back. We played a small town in Norway called Stavanger which is an oil city but not necessarily a rock city by any means. The tour was going great – great shows – so we rolled into that city and it was a pretty humbling turnout, let’s put it that way. Not a packed house by any stretch of the imagination.
The next day, we flew into Athens for a one-off show in Greece, hung out there for a couple of days and then flew back to Scandinavia to resume our North European tour. Anyway, the Athens show ended up being the biggest show we’ve ever played as a band. It was a massive thing with a great crowd which we were not expecting at all. It was really uplifting to not get bummed out. Don’t take life too seriously because you never know what’s around the corner. I didn’t know that Athens would be such a great show so it was a life lesson, you know? It’s a privilege to be able to travel and play in exotic places you can’t place on a map. My geography is impressive now compared to what it was 15 years ago! Another one was our first tour of the US with Tool in 2007, still one of the biggest bands we’ve ever opened for. Those guys were so kind and helpful, they couldn’t have been cooler. They set the bar pretty high for how to be professional and polite to people on tour and we kind of took that with us as a lesson on how to be kind and nice to everyone when we tour.
Let’s talk about the creative process in Russian Circles. How do you guys go about putting your music together, songs like Vorel and Afrika off Guidance (the band’s sixth and latest album) for instance, with a lot of different riffs coming together? Are the songs the result of constant jamming together, or do you guys go in pre-prepared?
We don’t write songs in a conventional way. I have a stockpile of riffs and we all keep a riff archive going in between records. I amass as many riffs as I can between records and once we have enough and are all toured out, I’ll start sending them out to the guys, going through them to see which ones they are feeling, which ones may work well with other riffs and so on. Like a puzzle piece. Then Dave (Turncrantz, drummer) and I will get together and that’s when the arrangements really start. Dave doesn’t really know anything about the technical aspects of the guitar and will do things that I would never do for whatever reason so when I hear his perspective on the song, I’ll start to rephrase what I’m doing. The final part, Brian (Cook, bassist) will step in and start adding basslines and synth parts and that’s when the fully-fleshed out song starts emerging with a lot of editing. Any one of our records could have ended up sounding different, you know? It’s an interesting process and it seems to work for us.
How do you feel about always being lumped with either the post-rock or post-metal tag? To me, your music seems to transcend those classifications…
The post-rock genre has been very kind to us but when we began as a band, that trend wasn’t around much. When we heard the term post-rock back then, it meant bands like Tortoise, who are from Chicago like us and whom now we love, and Mogwai from Scotland. Those were the common names in post-rock then, who were mainly unknown to us at the time. We’d be looking it up on the internet going, “what the fuck is post-rock?” (laughs). Nobody wants to be like anybody else. When we started, we didn’t even know what the fuck post-rock was and we certainly weren’t trying to be that or anything else. The bands that we drew from were not post-rock bands. We happen to be liked for that genre but by no means we were trying to be that type of band. No disrespect to the genre but we just did what came naturally to us.
Your last album Guidance was your first collaboration with Kurt Ballou from Converge. What was working with him like and what did he bring to the table sonically speaking?
It was great working with him. That was the first time I was really satisfied with my guitar tones on a record. Kurt, he’s a great engineer and producer. It was the first time we recorded with a hardcore, metal-specific sound engineer and all our reference points he knew. Personally, he really helped me with my sound on the record, he was like, “use this pedal, this will get you the sound you want.” All of us were really happy with our individual sounds that we got but collectively, he knew how to mix too to make it a little heavier and put a little bit more hair on it. We are a lot heavier live than we are on record I think and he helped us play to our strengths and make that side of us more apparent. He’s a wealth of knowledge and we learned so much. We just did another record with him and it was so much fun and so seamless that it felt almost like cheating, like “are we allowed to do it again?” (laughs).
So you guys are have finished work on your seventh album?
Yup, it’s 100% finished and turned in, mastered and everything. All the artwork is done too so it should be out at the end of the year maybe. All that is still so far away that I’m pretending that we haven’t done it. We can’t play too many songs from it as it will spoil the surprise but we’ll be playing one from it on this tour. It’s that sort of thing where you have to wait…
Go ahead and tease us, man! Give us a scoop…
Yeah, it’s really bad and really boring. Our label hates the record and it’s all really bland corporate radio rock so you are not missing a whole lot (laughs).