Saturday, August 25, 2012

Steel for Brains - Voiceless Noise: An Interview with Russian Circles

The premise is simple. The execution? The antithesis of anything simplistic. Three guys. Three instruments. A sound that at once crushes and transcends the listener - Russian Circles has been around for a while not doing the same thing necessarily but retaining their signature, bombastic sound combing elements of prog rock with shoegaze with punk and even elements of psychedelia. I recently sat down with bassist, Brian Cook, to discuss the ins and outs of the band and how they, for a lack of better terminology, pull it off:

From where Russian Circles started out to now how do you see yourselves as a band and the progression of your music?
I don’t know. That’s a hard one for me to answer, because I wasn’t in the band originally. Colin DeKuiper was the original bass player in the band, and he was on the first album, Enter. But as someone that watched and toured and saw the band in that incarnation, I came into the band as a fan and was really excited about what they were doing just because I thought it was a kind of amalgamation of a lot of the things I liked. I mean, it had the sort of proggy elements of Yes and more modern stuff like Mars Volta, but it was still kind of driven by that Chicago touch and go kind of post-punk sound. Don Caballero and others - I mean they weren’t a Chicago band, but I feel like they were always kind of affiliated with that city because of their label. I liked that sort of combination. I mean, now I feel like, ever since I’ve been on board, and been around longer, I feel like – and maybe it’s because I’m too entrenched in it – but I just don’t see the sort of comparisons as recently anymore probably because I’m too involved. I think of where the band is now, and I don’t have a frame of reference. We just run on what sounds good and sounds fresh to us.

On that note, for this last release, what was the collective goal or thought process for the band going into Empros? What did you guys see on the canvas?
You know, when we were in the practice space, there wasn’t a specific idea. We’ve never approach a song with the idea that it was going to go in a specific direction. Every song is a blank canvas. It’s not like we see the picture we’re going to put on it. It’s more of a stream of consciousness exercise – throwing it down and seeing what works. So it’s more…abstract expressionist. Whatever works there and resonates with us – that’s where we’re going. We’re not going for an image so much as we’re going for a gut-level, emotional response on our end.
With instrumental rock or metal, there’s so much that can go wrong – it can be derivative – it can be stagnant, but it seems like you guys are carving out these melodies and these harmonies out of this dissonance – this noise. It’s chaotic and also it’s completely and utterly organized at the same time. How do you pull that off? 
I think part of it just comes from there’s a balance between the three of us where we’re all sort of stubborn, driven people with our own distinct ideas – our own sort of mutual respect but also a desire to make things interesting on our end. I think a lot of times it’s easy to fall into one of two traps. One being when you have a bunch of players in a band who are just really excited to showboat, overplay, and try to bust out all the tricks over the course of one riff. Or the exact opposite where it’s all about creating one sort of unified sound. And there’s not anything necessarily wrong with either one of those approaches, because there’s great bands that do both things – great bands where you have all players going ballistic at the same time. You know a band like Hella or something where it’s just complete oversaturation – hyper-musicianship. Or on the adverse end, totally reductionist like Sunn O))) – probably the most extreme example – where it’s just like, “Okay…we’re gonna play just three notes for the next five minutes.

[Both Laugh]

Either one of those approaches is cool, you know. Unfortunately there’s a lot of bands who try to do those things and doing either extreme is really hard to pull off. I think we try to find some sort of middle ground where we’re all doing something that’s compelling to us as individuals but still making it unified is kind of interesting. I was just thinking about this band, Akimbo, that’s from Seattle where I live – they’re breaking up – their playing their last show on Saturday. They’re a trio and one of the things I’ve always loved about them is they have a great drummer, a great bass player, a great guitar player, and they all know how to lock in together, but they’re all interesting players on their own – the bass line is really interesting, the guitar playing is really interesting, and the drumming is phenomenal, and that’s what I’ve always liked in bands. Whether it’s something area-rock sized like Rush or something like The Minutemen or Unwound. You can isolate any one instrument, and it’s still compelling and interesting, or you can throw it in with the entire group, and it sort of blends itself to one sound. If you can find that balance – to me, that’s the sweet spot. I mean, that’s what we strive to do. It works individually and from a unified perspective. You’re like “Oh shit, listen to what the drummer’s doing there.”
I think you guys definitely achieve that equilibrium.
Thanks, man.

The atmosphere of the show – the fact that there isn’t a spotlight on anyone person. It’s just you three guys playing and achieving this balance is what people see.
Well, I think ultimately that’s what we’re aiming to do. I mean, going back to what you were asking about this last record. The goal is always to make something that works on that level. How successful our songs are – how successful the music is largely depends on that balance. And I think this time what we were wanting to do was make the record about the three of us, whereas the record prior we brought in a lot of instrumentation – we brought in horns and other things – it was really fun to make a record that was grandiose – a very layered thing. But as much as I love that record as a document – as a finished sort of stand alone piece – it wasn’t really a fun record to try and perform live, because it kind of strayed from the path of what the three of us try to achieve when we’re playing together. I think ultimately we’re a band that likes to perform live, and we like to be able to do what we do on record live. As a band we want to be able to try new things and so we were able to make this record, kind of blown out, big production. And with Empros it was sort of a deliberate step to say “Okay, it’s just going to be the three of us. Everything we do on this record we have to be able to pull off live.”

During the 90s it seems like metal went through this, honestly, terrible phase, and now it seems as if metal is garnering that respect back again – the respect it had in the 60s and 70s. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s really easy to look back on any period of time and say that a particular genre of music took a dive. I mean, you can look at the 80s and like every fucking rock artist from the 70s that carried over sucked. The Rolling Stones, you know. But I think a lot of amazing things came out of the 80s like whether it was American hardcore or the sort of beginning of what’s defined as “indie rock.” With metal, I was never…I was never a big fan of the British wave of heavy metal. I feel bad saying it. Haha. I mean, that period of metal – I respect it. I just don’t listen to it as a fan. But I mean, you had thrash metal that came out during that time. And I love that era of metal. Like the early thrash bands. So when the 90s came around it was like thrash took a hit and sort of became out of vogue. But then you had the sort of early black metal stuff then which I think a lot of people were scratching their heads over at first, myself included. But I think a lot of interesting stuff spawned out of that. A lot of hardcore bands, bands that were from the punk scene from the 80s came in during the 90s and basically did their own thing. Whether it’s the Melvins who did their own heavy, sludgy thing or if you’re even talking about grind bands like Assuck or even crusty hardcore bands like His Hero’s Gone. It wasn’t metal in the traditional sense, but I think it was still bringing that sort of heavy, blown out, angst-driven, atonal, distorted, ugly music. I think metal needed that as a sort of resurgence to like recalibrate. I mean, we have all these metal bands that all of a sudden blew up into the big time – like Metallica and what not, and they kind of lost the things that made them special and they took this new generation of listeners to basically rewrite the history of the genre.

I’ve always thought of the 90s as the kind of enema to flush out the shit music, and here, now, we’ve got these great metal bands who are getting their platform. It’s not about showmanship or even building an audience – it’s more about the art itself.
I think so many of the bands right now that are the, for me, torchbearers of modern metal: whether that’s a band like Mastodon or Agalloch. I mean, you know, even a band like Lamb of God. It’s all dudes – I mean a lot of the guys involved with that – my impression with that is that these are guys who grew up listening to hardcore and metal and punk along with other things and just basically started playing and said “Fuck it, this is what I love doing, this is what we’re gonna play, and we’re not gonna hold back.” And their success basically came from that. I mean, we’re talking obviously wildly different levels when we talk Agalloch versus Lamb of God.

[Both laugh]

They all came from playing art spaces and VFW halls and what weren’t what we consider to be “metal” crowds.

Do you guys ever read on tour? What’s your escape?
I try to read on tour, and I have very little success because it’s sort of like…you have a book you’re really into. Like, on this tour, I read the Bob Mould autobiography which is incredible. Or like, I read, all the Girl With the Dragon Tattoos, DaVinci Code, but then I’ll try read something that’s a little more highbrow like our last tour I brought Jean Janet’s Lady of Flowers, some French author’s book from the 1930s and all the beat poets loved it. The book’s fine, but it’s definitely not a page turner [laughs]. I’ve kind of learned that I have to do my sort of pulp/junk food reading on tour and save the James Joyce for when you’re at home.

One last question, man. What do you look for in a venue as far as what Russian Circles try to accomplish with their shows?
I imagine you have a lot of people say the Bottletree, because the Bottletree is actually an incredible venue. They take amazing care of bands. I mean, it’s a good sized venue – especially for a place like Birmingham. You get thirty people in the room, and you’ve got a good show, and a backstage like this? Yeah. [Laughs]. I mean, most of the time it’s like a janitor’s closet.

Like at the VFW?

[Both laugh]

We always look forward to playing here, and I don’t think any band is blowing smoke up Birmingham’s ass when they say they love playing at Bottletree. I’ve read interviews from bands that aren’t even in Birmingham, and there’s so many that are like “We love the Bottletree.” Black Mountain just said the other day that this was their favorite place, and those guys are used to playing to 1300 or more up in Seattle. It’s funny. Every time we play here, I’m like, “Man, this stage is tight,” but I know the Melvins have been up there with two drummers, so I’m not going to complain. I mean it’s a venue that’s run by dudes who are in bands. They know how it works. I mean, I think of the main issues with American venues as opposed to those in Europe, and I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about European venues from other bands you’ve talked to is that so many of the venues are volunteer run, arts-driven, community centers. They kind of function on a level like this. The people that are working at the venue are there because they have a passion for the music. I know a lot of the people that work, and they recognize that it’s a pretty special place. A very crucial difference between playing a place like the Bottletree and the Knitting Factory in like LA or New York. The one in LA doesn’t exist anymore, so they can go fuck themselves. I mean, when you’ve got a bunch of people that are there just to get a paycheck it’s a drag, man. Here, you’ve got that sense of community. It’s just more fun to play somewhere where you can have a conversation with the people who work there, have a drink with the promoter – you know, just comfort. We all grew up playing basements and shows run by our friends. It’s always about making a scene happen – a community.

Thanks to Brian and the guys for the interview. A few things: if you’ve not listened to Russian Circles, start here. It’s my personal favorite song of theirs, so I have zero shame in linking it up. If you’ve got a favorite feel free to comment. Also, if you’ve yet to catch any show, metal or whatever, at the Bottletree Cafe in Birmingham, Alabama, you’ve yet to experience what’s considered by many to be one of the best venues anywhere.

This is the part where I whore myself out: if you have a facebook page, follow me at If you’re liking these interviews then follow me on tumblr. I assure you there’s a hell of a lot more to come. Thanks again to Russian Circles for a great show and thanks to Bottletree for keeping good music in Birmingham.  Also, thank you to my friends at BFP Music for their support and for making music and music journalism what it should be - free of bullshit. Until next time. Support good metal. Support good music.

Cheers. - D

Jonathan Dick is a writer/musician from Birmingham, Alabama.  He is an award-winning writer of poetry/prose in addition to being an avid metalhead.  

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