Russian Circles are currently on top of the game. The fall of 2013 sees the band engaged in a lengthy bout of sold out European shows with labelmate Chelsea Wolfe and following 2011’s highly acclaimed Empros, Russian Circles have just released their fifth record, the heavyweight Memorial (10/29/13). I caught up with bassist Brian Cook (also of the now-defunct Botch and These Arms Are Snakes) to get some info on Russian Circles new record, the tour, their collaboration with Chelsea Wolfe, and the ambiguity of reunion shows.
1. Memorial is Russian Circles fifth full length record after nearly a decade of existence. What is the biggest difference between the band now and when you joined permanently in 2007? How has the band’s approach to playing changed? Specifically with you and playing the bass.
Well, I think it’s important to note that I didn’t formally join the band in 2007. When the band parted ways with Colin (DeKuiper), they only had a short period of time before they were set to record Station. I volunteered to play on the album much in the same capacity that I filled in on bass for Mouth Of The Architect’s The Ties That Blind record. So I figured it would just be a matter of learning the songs, putting a little bit of a personal spin on the material but keeping it pretty straight-forward, and that would be it. Then it turned into doing the record and a few shows around the time of recording. Then it turned into doing a tour out to SXSW. Then it turned into more touring. I’m not even sure when I officially became a member of the band; it was a slow gradual process. So for me personally I guess the main difference between now and then is that I’m more invested in the writing process now. But at the same time, I think we think more as a band now and less as individual players trying to exert our own singular will on the material.
2. Did the success of the previous record Empros cast a shadow over the making of this album?
Not at all. I’m glad people like Empros. But that was a difficult record for us. I look at Geneva and the entire process of making that record was pretty ideal. We isolated ourselves for weeks at a time up in rural Wisconsin and worked on writing the album on some property Dave (Turncrantz, drums) was watching over at the time. We recorded Geneva at Electrical Audio in Chicago, which is the nicest studio any of us have ever worked in. I was an official member of the band. Everything about the situation was ideal. If anything, I felt more pressure with Empros because it felt difficult to top Geneva, so we deliberately tried to make a more raw and unrefined album. It’s hard to scale back in that capacity. So even though we knew we were aiming for an imperfect record, it was really difficult to differentiate between a deliberate lack of polish and lazy sloppiness. With Memorial, we were really excited to make a record that swung between the ugliness of Empros’ darker moments and the lushness of Geneva.
3. What is this album in the memory of, as implied by its title?
The title isn’t meant as a specific reference to anything, though it has taken on a few unintended meanings for us personally. I apologize for being cryptic with my lack of details, but ultimately every piece of art is a memorial—an attempt to document and pay tribute to a moment in the past.
4. What served as the biggest influences behind the creation of Memorial?
I can’t speak for the other guys, but I was pretty obsessed with Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway during the writing process. In particular, I was really fixated on “Back In NYC”. While learning the parts for “Memorial” from Mike (Sullivan, guitar), I kept the 7/8 beat by thinking of Phil Collins’ drumbeat from that song. I learned the guitar line in the verse of “Back In NYC” on acoustic guitar and wrote a few different things on my own using the same picking pattern. One of those guitar lines wound up in “1777”, though it was modified to fit into the 4/4 beat of the song. Additionally, Mike was playing a lot of the latest Portishead record and the affiliated Beak project and I was pretty inspired by how those records are actually pretty heavy melodically, but texturally they belong in a whole other realm. The thick, warm, analog synth sounds of those records made me a bit more interested in cramming a bunch of Moog Taurus onto the album.
5. Your label, Sargent House, has had a stellar year with big releases by And So I Watch You From Afar, TTNG, Chelsea Wolfe and now yourselves. What makes Sargent House such a successful label?
Well, first and foremost, I think the most important thing is that Cathy (Pellow, founder) just has good taste. But I think that it’s also important that Cathy’s main vision is to serve as a manager and to make sure that her bands can tour in a smart and lucrative manner. The label aspect of Sargent House really just started because Cathy was tired of having to deal with the labels of the bands she was managing. She figured it would be way easier to just have the bands release their own albums and she could oversee the process as the bands’ manager. In many ways, that still seems like the philosophy, even though I’m sure the overwhelming majority of the populace thinks of Sargent House only as a label. But because Cathy emphasizes touring as the main mode of income for her bands and her company, it takes a lot of the pressure off of actually selling records. Is a band good live? Are people going to come back and see a band play again? That’s what’s important. Glossy ads, obnoxious web banners, features in big magazines, glitzy videos—that shit isn’t important and it costs a ton of money, which requires a lot of album sales. Unfortunately too many labels put too much stock in that shit, which means they don’t sign interesting artists… they sign easy sells.
6. At 36 minutes in length, Memorial is the shortest Russian Circles record. Many of the songs reflect this, many not cracking the 5 minute mark. Did you guys go into this record with the intent on making these concise, compact songs or was that an ideal that developed throughout the recording?
We wanted to make a record that people would listen to in its entirety. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, people had to make short albums because of the format constraints of the LP. But with the rise of the CD, it suddenly became normal for people to fill up as much of the 75 minutes of CD time as possible. But we’d rather listen to a short album that’s solid from start to finish than flip through an hour’s worth of uneven material. All we cared about was that it was as least as long as Reign In Blood.
7. The black and white of the snow on the mountaintops that serve as the cover art for this album seem symbolic of the stark contrast of brutality and beauty that permeate Memorial. Was this intentional or does the cover art serve a different meaning?
There was no deliberate symbolic significance to the album artwork, though I would agree that the stark, high-contrast nature of the photo, along with the underlying subconscious connotations of the dual nature of majesty and imposition of the mountain range just seemed to fit with the album’s tone.
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8. Memorial is fantastically produced, somehow maintaining a rough, heavy low end, and soaring, high fidelity guitar lines at the same time. This is the third time you guys have worked with Brandon Curtis in the studio, how responsible would you say he is in shaping Russian Circles into the band it is today?
I can’t really stress the importance of Brandon Curtis enough. The songs see so many variations and involve so many different textures that we really rely on someone outside the band to have an objective view of the material to help us settle into the final incarnations of the songs. He has a really special blend of skill sets. He knows his music theory, he knows his way around the studio and recording process, but he’s also has an appreciation for varying viewpoints. He can appreciate shit like Teenage Jesus & The Jerks but also likes more refined, trained, nuanced music too. He understands the purity of old, classic, analog recording practices, but also sees the advantages and opportunities in the new age of digital recording. And ultimately, his only agenda is to make us as happy as possible with the final outcome. He’s an outside perspective that we all trust.
9. Is the majority of the sampling initially a part of your songs or is it added during production?
It’s a balance of both. A lot of the songs are built around the loops, but a lot of times we’ll try something out in the studio and have to figure out how to add the new layer into the mix.
10. You guys are currently on tour with Chelsea Wolfe in Europe, playing a number of sold out shows. How are they treating you over there?
It’s been really good. With this being our fifth album, I think we were all thinking that we’d probably hit the plateau in our popularity. And we’d be totally content with that being the case. But we seem to be continuing to build an audience in Europe. We’re very fortunate in that capacity.
11. Speaking of Chelsea, the final and title track of Memorial features a guest spot by her on vocals. How did that come into being?
We toured the U.S. with Chelsea in the summer of 2012 and there was talk of collaborating on a project very early on in the trip. I think she might have even mentioned an interest in singing with us first. So “Memorial” was definitely written with her in mind. Mike wrote the song and sent demos to both Dave and me and Chelsea. She had her parts written before we’d even rehearsed it as a band.
12. Are there any other artists you like to feature on vocals in the future?
Not at the moment. We just felt that Chelsea’s work treads a line between harrowing tension and sorrow and that seemed like a good match for what we do. The process of working together was surprisingly easy, and I doubt we could ever collaborate with another artist again in that capacity and have it turn out so well or have it go as smoothly.
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13. There is a lot of talk in the underground metal scene now about the hardships, particularly financial, of being in an actively touring band these days, coming to a head recently with open letters by Aeon guitarist Daniel Dlimi and Fuck the Facts bassist Marc Bourgon. What are your thoughts on the difficulties surrounding the modern day difficulties of touring?
Touring can definitely be financially devastating. When I first started touring back in ’96, I was living off of $4 a day. We played in punkhouse basements and slept on peoples’ floors. At one point in ’98, gas was under a dollar a gallon. Given those conditions, my first band could afford to tour across the states only making $30 a night and selling a few shirts and 7″s, but only barely. Things are different now. A tank of gas costs over $100, and that might get you five or six hours on the freeway, if you’re not pulling a trailer. Again, Russian Circles are pretty fortunate. I’m 36 years old; I wouldn’t be touring half the year if I was still sleeping on floors and coming home broke. I can definitely see why people get so frustrated with the realities of touring. But I think the whole get-in-the-van philosophy might have gained too much popularity shortly after the turn of the millennium. It became less of a matter of people just wanting to get out and play and more of a thing where everyone thought they could make a living playing music if they just kept touring. There were more bands than the community could sustain. It didn’t help that everyone wanted to be in a band, no one seemed to want to be in the audience. I think it’s leveling out a bit now. I feel like people are more excited about what’s going on in their local communities. Bands are less prone to go out on month-long tours with only an EP to their name like bands did in the 90’s and early 00’s, and now they’re more likely to slowly build a grassroots fanbase by just playing in nearby cities for awhile. And that’s the way it should be. That’s the way it was when the underground touring circuit started—you really had to bust your ass and build a name for yourself in your region before you left your timezone. And even then, you had to be ready and willing to lose a bunch of money.
14. Are there any artists that you’re really into that people wouldn’t expect an underground rock/metal legend such as yourself to dig?
Probably, but I’m not sure what people would really be surprised by. I like a lot of the stuff my parent’s liked while I was growing up: ABBA, John Denver, Neil Diamond. I’m not ashamed of it. I like a lot of really straightforward classic singer-songwriter stuff too, like Bob Dylan, John Prine, Clancy Brothers. I don’t really listen to a lot of any particular genre, unless it’s ‘90’s DIY hardcore. Otherwise, I’m mainly a dabbler. I don’t like a lot of death metal, but I like Morbid Angel. I don’t like much reggae, but I like Ken Boothe. And so on…
15. I know its only been 4 years since These Arms Are Snakes broke up, but it feels like forever. Any hope for a reunion tour sometime in the future for all the diehards out there?
That’s a tough one to call. These Arms Are Snakes ended pretty abruptly. The band broke up shortly after I told the guys I couldn’t commit to releasing another album or extensive touring. We still had some shows lined up and I wanted to stick around for those dates, and I was open to add a few more shows if the other guys were interested. It was a weird situation because I was quitting, but I didn’t want to force the band to break up. But ultimately the rest of the band decided to just end everything and cancel the dates we had booked. There was always some talk of rescheduling some “final shows”, even some mentioning of them within the band’s official break-up statement, if I recall correctly. But I think there was some dust to settle first and no official plans were ever made. Now that it’s four years later, I guess “final shows” would look more like “reunion shows”. And resultingly, I’ve gotten less invested in seeing those dates happen. I think the idea of doing a few more shows originally sounded like it might bring some closure to the band, but now it seems like it would be a re-opening. That makes me a little uncomfortable, as I generally see reunions as little more than cash grabs, nostalgia exercises, or resting on laurels. But we did say we’d do final shows, so that does leave things a little open-ended.