INTERVIEW: Brian Cook – Russian Circles
After more than a decade of work, RUSSIAN CIRCLES have created six album of highly atmospheric, weighty post metal. Since Guidance back in 2016, there’s been some a growing anticipation of new material, with fans relishing the three years of almost constant touring about the US and with various stints in Europe. Now, RUSSIAN CIRCLES return with their latest album, Blood Year. Coming off the back of that highly acclaimed back catalogue and prior to the release of their new album, we spoke to Brian Cook about the changes in the band’s tonal temperament, their changing lifestyles and what that all means for greater coherency going forward.
Firstly, are you excited to have Blood Year almost out for release?
Brian: Very excited. I’m jealous of all the artists back in the ’60s and ’70s who’d record an album and have it on the store shelves a few weeks later. We were finished back in February and have just been waiting for all the machinations of the business to do their thing. I guess we could expedite the process and just go full internet-only and skip all the production stuff, but I love the tactile experience of physical formats.
How long have you been writing this record, as it’s been a little while since you brought out Guidance?
Brian: Well, we’re not a traditional band in the sense of writing and rehearsing. We live in different cities, different time zones. We can’t meet up a couple of times a week to practice. So, we make a record, tour on it for a year or two, stockpile a bunch of new riffs and song fragments, and then cram all our song writing in several week-long marathon writing sessions. So, in some ways, we’ve been writing since we finished Guidance, because I’m sure our guitarist Mike [Sullivan] has been working on rudimentary ideas since we finished the previous album, but we really only buckled down and started piecing ideas together since September of last year. That said, I wrote the bulk of Ghost on High back in 2011, so maybe we’ve been writing the album for eight years.
You’ve noted that Guidance was written as a response to the uncertainty of the future, what would you say the theming was around Blood Year?
Brian: I think it’s important to note that we don’t write songs with a theme in mind. We compose our music based on gut feeling. Then we sit back and reflect on what we’ve made and try to figure out how it’s a reflection of our lives at the moment we made it. Guidance was written at a moment in our lives when we all knew we were on the cusp of a lot of upheaval, both in the broader context of American politics, but also in our individual private worlds. Mike was getting ready to move away from Chicago; I was trying to figure out a way out of New York City, Dave [Turncrantz] was trying to navigate the immigration process for his wife who’d moved to the States from Barcelona. We all knew our lives were going to look a lot different in a year or two’s time, and the only real control we felt was in the creative process. When we finished Blood Year, it felt like a response to the previous three years. We were all in a more stable place in our lives, but at what cost? We’d just come off the most strenuous tour schedule of our lives. We were all trying to find a balance between our personal happiness and a communal well-being. For me personally, the year leading up to recording was really tumultuous. In some ways, I was getting everything I wanted—I moved back to the Pacific Northwest, bought a house, and managed to eek out another year as a “professional” musician. But in other ways, shit was falling apart. There was some pretty intense health crises in my family. I watched several people really close to me grapple with some gnarly addiction issues. And I had to sever my ties with New York, which was a city I’d come to consider home, largely because my husband and I had to move back west to tend with ailing family members. As with Guidance, Blood Year was this thing that was completely within the realm of our control, and that was really cathartic. Writing felt like one of the few constants.
RUSSIAN CIRCLES have toured pretty heavily from Guidance to now, how has been on the road for such a long time changed the way you approach your music writing for this album?
Brian: We really just wanted to make a no-frills, heavy record. Live, we definitely tend to prefer the assertive songs to the atmospheric material, and we spent so much time on the road that we just wanted to make a record that was suited to the stage. We still wound up with a couple of mellow songs on the record, but all in all, I feel like this is the most straight-forward bruiser of an album in the band’s catalogue.
Thinking on touring for a second, RUSSIAN CIRCLES are a band that doesn’t shy away from being on the road. Do you enjoy that constant momentum, and do you find the lifestyle change at all jarring when you come home?
Brian: I generally feel a sense of contentment on tour. Even though there can be a lot of stress and aggravation on the road, the constant momentum is satisfying. I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing when I’m on tour. Every day has a purpose and a goal. It can be pretty jarring to get home from tour and suddenly find yourself with no schedule, no end-of-the-day reward, no commitments. I usually deal with a little mild depression when I get home from tour, just because the inertia from being in constant motion for weeks on end makes home life feel like a brick wall. But then you’re home for a few weeks and then the idea of going on tour seems overwhelming and stressful because you’ve acclimated to the pace of home. It can be tough, for sure.
As a band, you’ve been in this together for a long number of years, do you think that the bond you have as musicians is a big part in creating impactful music, especially instrumental music?
Brian: That’s a hard one to weigh in on because I’d be commenting on it from the lens of someone that’s entrenched in the inner band dynamic. I mean, there’s definitely a bond between us, and that yields a certain creative chemistry. But how does that bond relate to any other band dynamic? I can’t say.
Staying on being instrumental for a second, do you find that the freedom of no lyrics means you can push harder to obtain an emotional response from your sounds, and if so, how do you go about that?
Brian: Well, we definitely eliminate a lot of context by not having a singer. A vocalist would really pigeonhole us, stylistically. And a vocalist would also insert context through lyrics. But ultimately, most groups I’ve worked with, BOTCH and THESE ARMS ARE SNAKES for example, always crafted music before adding the vocals. So, in my mind, the instrumentation has always had to be compelling and dynamic on its own. So, in that regard, not much has changed since I was 16 years old and playing in hardcore bands. The riffs have always had to be good when you can’t fall back on a three-chord chorus with a big vocal hook to keep people riveted. But because we’re not dealing with the stylistic limitations imposed by a singer, we can push ourselves into territories that might otherwise be off-limits, and I think that adds more emotional dimension to our music.
How do you as a band know when a track is ready? Does it ever become difficult to either refine ideas down or to stop perfecting?
Brian: Yes. And that’s why we normally set a recording date before we’ve finished writing the material for the record, because we’ll never finish a song unless there’s an actual deadline. We never finish an outline for a song and say it’s done. It gets tweaked, rearranged, stretched, and truncated into a dozen different permutations, even in the studio. Mike almost always goes back in after we’re done tracking to add a few supplementary guitar parts. We deliberately opted to book less studio time for Blood Year so that we didn’t have the option of overthinking things.
The feel of Blood Year is obviously very powerful, but it also all feels very organic with each instrument. There’s a real texture to the album as a whole – was that a conscious decision?
Brian: There are a few things that happened on this album that might contribute to the organic vibe. As I mentioned earlier, we definitely aimed to make a more forceful record with less emphasis on the ethereal and atmospheric aspects of the band. Ever since the Geneva album, there’s been more and more exploration of different tones and textures, and while I’ve found that journey to be really exciting, I also feel like there’s moments where I’ve spent more time focusing on coming up with a really cool sound rather than writing a really cool part. And we’ve done more and more touring overseas where we play on unfamiliar gear and it gets really frustrating trying to figure out how to replicate all these different sounds on different backlines. There’s very little pedalboard trickery on this album, very few unorthodox textures. There are barely even any delay effects on my contributions, which is pretty unusual for this band, and even more unusual for whatever “post-” genre people wanna file us under. I really just wanna lug around less gear, so I didn’t want to add even more effects to my pedalboard. If anything, I wanted to scale back. So there’s that.
But a bigger component might be the recording process. There’s an undeniable magic to the old school way of recording where you throw everyone in a room together and run through a song a bunch of times until you capture that magic take where everyone is locked in, but that doesn’t really work for the way we operate. We have this unorthodox aspect of our band where a lot of our music is comprised of Mike stacking these loops of guitar riffs to make a layered, orchestral sound. And that process means that Dave isn’t the primary timekeeper- Mike’s loop pedal is keeping time. So when we record our albums, we often have reverse-engineer the songs, because in the live setting there will be a loop that’s established the tempo, but when we’re recording we have to lock in the drum parts first, so a lot of times we’ll have to figure out a tempo map and an accompanying click track for the songs to account for these guitar loops that are going to be overdubbed later. It gets tricky, and it’s a bit of a deviation from how we play live. This time around, we were committed to tracking everything together, so the process of having all of us banging shit out in a room certainly made it feel like a more live and aggressive recording.
In terms of feel, you’ve balanced the incredibly heavy sections with moments of optimism, like with Kohokia, and even quiet tracks like Ghost on High bring in some lighter sounds. Is this a case of just thinking about pacing, or are these little moments inspired from something more internal?
Brian: Well, again, I think the goal was to make a more aggressive album. But we’re also a band that really likes to play with dynamics. We want a variety of moods, tempos, and textures, but there’s also the dynamics of complexity and density. Kohokia is still a pretty assertive song, but we wanted it to have more space and breadth than, say, a song like Milano. And while the big pay-off in Kohokia certainly has a more triumphant feel than the earlier riffs in the song, you have to offset certain elements of your art with contrast if you want them to be effective. I mean, there are great metal records that are just unrelenting from start to finish, but look at Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets – there’s so much yin and yang on those records, so many ups and downs. And those records are some of the greatest metal records of all time. We really wanted to tap into that kind of juxtaposition.
Finally, with there being such a solid set of tracks on Blood Year, is there one you’re most looking forward to playing live for people?
Brian: I’m really excited about them all, to be honest. After three years of touring on Guidance, I’m just really excited to play new songs period! [laughs]
Blood Year is out now via Sargent House. RUSSIAN CIRCLES are featured in the latest issue of Distorted Sound.
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