Ahead of their third Australian tour, Mike Sullivan of instrumental trio Russian Circles talks to Matthew Tomich about the songwriting process, expectations and working with Chelsea Wolfe.
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Russian Circles deal in polarities. From minimalist progressions to expansive crescendos, the Chicago trio’s sound oscillates from one extreme to another. Over the course of five albums and ten years, the they’ve made a career of defying the clichés of post-rock, eschewing delay pedal abuse and the loud/quiet/loud dynamic in favour complex song structures, gargantuan rhythms and unpredictable movements. For guitarist Mike Sullivan, it’s all about the emotion.
“That’s the most important part, the feeling of it.That’s the only real point — that it sits with you at an emotional level. Not just, ‘oh, that’s a cool riff, that’s a cool drum solo,’ but that it just kind of creeps into the dark spots settles somewhere.”
Those dark spots are most apparent on Russian Circles’ fifth record, Memorial. While the trio’s brand of post-rock has rarely been described is rarely described as uplifting, Memorial is easily the their most downbeat record. “It’s more melancholic, a little more bleak and more intense overall, and that’s pretty much the point,” says Sullivan. “The song titles have a meaning to us — cryptic meanings, different meanings to all of us in a way — but the whole point is how it makes you feel.”
From its not-so-subtle track names (‘Burial,’ ‘Memoriam’) to the sombre synth lines that underpin the majority of the record, Memorial plays out like a eulogy, the soundtrack to an unwritten tragedy in 37 minutes. A lot of that owes to the band’s experimentation with new sounds, from harsh feedback to old synthesizers to string sections.
“There are things we always wanted to do, but didn’t know how to do the best way until this record,” explains Sullivan. “After five years with Brian [Cook, bassist] and ten years as a band, it’s a little more liberating to venture out of our comfort zone, because we can only play so many songs live. So with each record we release, there’s more of that sense of, ‘okay, how many songs can we play live?’ We don’t let ourselves say, ‘we’re a three-piece rock band and we have to play everything live.’ There’s a certain element of that, but if we know a song would be better suited with a certain string section or some horns here or there, we won’t step back and shy away from that. We’ll embrace that and find a way to make it connect in a live setting. Usually the song will come first.”
Memorial not only marks an aesthetic evolution in Russian Circles’ sound, but it also features the first instance of vocals in the band’s catalogue. Sargent House labelmate Chelsea Wolfe guests on the album’s closing track ‘Memorial’ with a beautiful and ghostly performance that feels like the final moments of a funeral.
“That was a song written especially for Chelsea’s performance and her style of singing,” says Sullivan. “We didn’t want to distract from what she was doing with the song. That was definitely a turn for us, as far as, okay, we did not go overboard here. Let’s leave some room for her to do her thing. That was fun, so I had a good time doing that and that was a positive experience. Who knows what will happen in the future, by no means will we shy away from that.”
Yet for the majority of the group’s writing, Sullivan — who’s been playing in bands since he was in 4th grade – prefers the songwriting opportunities that arise when vocals are taken out of the picture. “It makes it easier because there are no expectations. So as long as we challenge ourselves whenever we’re excited about a song, we just follow that excitement and make sure we can continue that through the duration of the song or into the next song. There’s no rule of what we can or can’t do for ourselves. We just gravitate towards songs that that all three of us agree on, like, ‘yeah, that part speaks to me, I kind of like that part, let’s check that out, let’s see what that can go with.’ So it’s very freeing for some reason. There’s no preconceived idea of, ‘oh we have to do this.’ No, we don’t have to — we can just kind of take it as it comes and see what feels natural to us. But still it feels a little bit different and we’re trying something new.”