Interview with Russian Circles about the band’s return to Portugal
Em Português aqui
Last year, the trio of bassist Brian Cook, guitarist Mike Sullivan and drummer Dave Turncrantz released Blood Year, their seventh studio album, which has been described as a more direct and much heavier record than its predecessors.
Do you agree with this afirmation?
Yes, that was the intent with this album. We’ve always prided ourselves on being a band that covers a lot of sonic territory, but we wanted to make a very direct and forceful record this time around.
For us this is an album more Post-Metal then Post-Rock. What is your opinion?
We dislike both of those descriptions. Ultimately, people can label us however they’d like, but I think of ourselves as a band comprised of people that came of age in the punk and indie communities while loving heavy metal, and our music is an attempt at culling from our ever expanding and diversifying music libraries and finding some cohesive way of bringing all those approaches together. The “post-” labels make it seem like we’re aiming for some specific sound or aiming to be a part of a specific musical scene or community, and that simply isn’t the case.
“Russian Circles chose to track the foundations of the songs together in one room as complete takes without click tracks.” Why did you choose this approach and what was the goal in using this way of recording?
So much of our music is built around guitar loops that in the past we’ve often had to reverse engineer our songs in the studio. A band usually leans on the drummer to keep time, but Dave has to lock in to the guitar loops, so in essence the loops are keeping time, and that dictates the way we track instruments. Additionally, a lot of the studios we’ve recorded in God City for Guidance and Phantom Manor for Empros, for example—didn’t have the capability for allowing all members of the band to track at the same time. And there were often sections of music that we wanted to tinker and experiment with in the studio. So our music is often recorded in bits and pieces and then edited together. This approach has its advantages, but it also means that we sometimes compromised a little of the momentum and urgency that the material conveyed in the live setting. Since the material on this record was more forceful and direct, we opted to go with the old school approach in order to retain as much urgency in the recording as possible.
How was making Blood Year? In comparison to your previous works, how did you approach this new album from a creative standpoint?
It was our longest gap between records, and we toured so heavily on our last album that we basically went two years without working on new material as a full band. So that was a little strange for us. I think there was a little apprehension a little bit of “how do we do this?” But we knew the spirit we were aiming for with the album, so it was mainly an issue of sifting through ideas that seemed most in line with the aggressive side of the band.
How do you as a band know when a track is ready? Does it ever become difficult to either stop writing or to stop perfecting?
Yes. We have to set deadlines for ourselves or we’ll just continue to tinker and refine our material. Additionally, we booked less studio time for Blood Year than our last few albums so that we wouldn’t have time to overthink our decisions.
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?
We try to mix up the recording process by using different studios but we always wind up coming back to Electrical Audio in Chicago. It’s just hard to beat the drum sounds in that room, and if we record elsewhere we always wind up having to dedicate a bunch of time to getting the drums to sound sufficiently big and roomy. The older I get and the more records I make, the more I realize there isn’t a substitute for a good sounding live room no reverb tank or delay setting can replicate it. It automatically gives the recording a sense of dimension and space that’s otherwise absent. So I think a lot of the album’s depth and dynamics come from the drum sounds. As far as bass and guitar, we definitely scaled back on the amount of effects we used this time around. I remember counting the amount of effects pedals we used during Guidance and it was somewhere between 120 and 130. This time around I don’t think I even used any delay or reverb in my my pedal chain, which is a substantial omission.
These days, the recording industry is more geared towards studio trickery, excessive production, and a mixing style that caters more towards headphones than speakers because conventional wisdom holds that these approaches improve the sonic experience and provide more clarity, but there is something very synthetic about this approach. You can go back and listen to a jazz record from the ’60s something like Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch or Alice Coltrane’s A Monastic Trio—and they sound like the band is in the room with you. Then you go and listen to a big budget rock record from 2019 and it doesn’t sound like the band occupies an actual space. It doesn’t even really sound human. We’ve auto-tuned and compressed the vocals to a point where it sounds synthetic, robotic. It’s a fake ideal. A false sense of reality. A friend of mine told me that most audio engineers understand that if you use more than two types of reverb on any given track, it counteracts the intended purpose of reverb because it actually makes everything sound more flat. And I think that’s the case with a lot of modern audio engineering. We’ve complicated it to the point of actually diminishing its power. Anyhow, we were trying to revert to older methods because we wanted more natural depth and organic energy to our album, so I’m glad to hear that you could discern the difference.
This is an album more dark and melancolic. His it the refletion of the world today?
Sure. Though more than anything it was a reflection of our private lives. We don’t need to go into details there, but I think we all needed some catharsis with this album.
You worked with the legendary Steve Albini on two records. In Guidance and Blood Year you worked with Kurt Ballou of Converge. How are their approaches different and how did that affect the recording of the records?
This is a common error. We’ve never worked with Steve Albini. He owns Electrical Audio, the studio where we recorded Enter, Geneva, Memorial, and most of Blood Year. But he wasn’t involved with any of the recordings in any way.
How was it working with Kurt Ballou again?
We like working with Kurt. Every engineer/producer has their own methods and philosophies, and I think Kurt’s approach is the most in-line with our preferences. He definitely believes in attaining a very live and organic sound, but he’s also not adverse to using the studio to enhance certain attributes or alleviate some of the technical burdens of recording.
Besides them whom would you most like to work with? And why?
If Conny Plank was still alive I would love to make a record with him.
The album was recorded in Chicago. Did that in any way shape the album?
I imagine so, but I’m not exactly sure how. Chicago is our home base, so all of our equipment is out there, and that made it a different experience from Guidance, where we recorded out in Salem, MA on an assortment of personal and borrowed gear. But only Dave still lives in Chicago, so it still involved two of us being away from home and thoroughly immersed in studio life. Mike and I both slept at Electrical Audio, so we would often stay up late into the early hours of the morning tinkering on ideas down in the live room. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to escape the pressure of the studio, but I actually kind of enjoy that immersion. Some of the best ideas happen at weird hours.
The artwork for Blood Year was done by Orion Landau. In the other albuns, you’ve used photographs as the cover, what made you change your approach?
The photographic images on our last album Guidance were so intense and so loaded that I ultimately became uneasy with them, even though they were my photographs and my initial idea. Granted, we cropped the more harrowing and graphic images out of the layout, but I felt like there was so much tragedy in those pictures that it felt almost like we were cheapening the history within them by repurposing them into our artwork. Of course, punk bands have used war images in their album art for years, but I guess i’ve reached an age where I’ve seen enough suffering that I don’t want to exploit other people’s trauma for the sake of my art. I’ve always been drawn to really simple geometric design, and we’d really dug Orion’s non-representational designs, so we enlisted him for this album. As an instrumental band, we eliminate some of the emotional context of the music by taking away any sort of lyrical component, so it made sense to eliminate the emotional context of accompanying images in the artwork too.
What would you say are some of your influences both inside and outside of music?
I don’t really know about influences outside of music. I’m sure they exist on some subconscious level, but it’s not as if we’re, like, scoring imaginary Jodorowsky movies with our music. But I would say that our interest in music is broad and manifests in a variety of ways. We’re not just a bunch of guys who like rock n’ roll and wanna put their own spin on it. Our band is a mixture of history-driven crate diggers, science-brained equipment afficianados, and, of course, straight up fans. And I think that interest in the past combined with an interest in the technical aspects of tone improves our ability to make music that resonates in the present.
Russian Circles have been together as a band 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?
I think it certainly helps. There is no substitute for personal chemistry.
Blood Year is an album with a number of great tracks. Do you have one that you prefer? And on stage wich one to you think the audiance likes the best?
“Kohokia” is my favorite track off the record, though it presents a number of obstacles live, so we’ve only played it a few times. People seem to like “Quartered” a lot, which is probably one of our most simple and straightforward songs ever. Go figure.
Are you looking forward to come back to Portugal?
Absolutely. We love Portugal so much we named a song after your biggest city.
What memories to you have from our country and the concerts you gave here?
We’ve had a great time in Portugal ever since we first played shows there with These Arms Are Snakes back in ’08 playing shows on boats, setting off smoke alarms with fog machines, playing Amplifest with Chelsea Wolfe, wandering the streets of Porto and Lisbon every trip is a positive memory.
What can we expect from the shows? Are you going to play some old songs?
We always try to play a mix of songs from throughout our catalog. We don’t ever abandon our past.
After this tour what is next for Russian Circles?
We focused on the more aggressive side of the band with this record, so we have plans to make a record that focuses on the more subdued side of the band later this year. Let’s see if we stick with that plan
Russian Circles + Torche
18 de Março
Hard Club, Porto – Portas: 20h00; Concerto: 21h00
19 de Março
LAV – Lisboa ao Vivo, Lisboa- Portas: 20h00; Concerto: 21h00
Bilhetes . 22 euros (Amplistore)