An exhaustive introduction is not quite needed when the subject is Russian Circles. Let’s just say they’ve kept instrumental heavy music alluring enough to the point of having now a reliable and growing fanbase, particularly when it comes to Europe. Far from hunkering down behind what they’ve already achieved through five exalted records -“Station” or “Memorial” being discographical pinnacles -, the Chicago folks keep pushing forward and do not flatter themselvs aimlessly. What lies next is a European tour along with their Sargent House mates Helms Alee, which will have a Portuguese gig - April 16th, Lisbon - and a special stop at Roadburn 2015. We’ve chatted with bassist Brian Cook about it. But not only.
Time does move fast. And I find particularly curious that some press sources are starting to call Russian Circles «veterans». After being active for more than a decade, is the word veteran comfortable to you? Is aging, as a band, somehow scary?
I’m comfortable with aging. There are downsides, I suppose. Specifically, I’ve found that the longer I play music, the more prone I’ve become to wondering how our current work relates to things we’ve done in the past. I don’t worry so much about whether it’s as good, because I think whatever we’re working on at the time will be more artistically relevant to us, and will consequently be more favorable to our ears than our older material. But I am aware of the audience, and I’m aware that as a veteran, there is a lot of expectation. Different contingents of our audience expect a different ratio of the familiar to the new. Being aware of those expectations doesn’t change the way we write music, but it hovers in the back of my mind when we have to do things like write up a setlist. In that sense, it’s more liberating to be a new unknown artist, because there is no expectation. Whatever you do is occurring on a blank slate. There is a certain luxury in that. But ultimately I really like having a body of work beneath our belt. I feel like there is a certain artistic freedom that also comes from having an extensive back catalog. People are more willing to stay with you through your artistic risks, even if it’s outside of their comfort zone.
You’ve probably seen half the world already, you’ve been in a million places playing songs you know by heart and you keep yourselves motivated to pack things up, drive to the nearest airport and do it all again. What keeps you pumped up to repeat it? Are you constantly setting new goals for an upcoming tour?
I like being busy and I like being in motion. And tour is all about being busy and being in motion. There are bad days on tour when you can really start to dwell on the reality of your situation in a very negative way, but I’m generally much happier when I’m on tour. Every day I wake up with a new destination and a new goal. That’s ideal, as far as I’m concerned.
As a musician in his thirties, who has a career beyond Russian Circles, I picture that you do not want to leave your house if you’re not certain that the tour will be cozy enough: a comfortable place to crash, an appropriate van and so on. But do you still get some unpleasant surprise these days?
All I really care about is sleep. We did a couple of Australian tours where there was literally no time scheduled to get any sleep. For example, on our first tour over there we played a show in Canberra, drove three hours to Sydney after the show to catch a 6am flight to Brisbane. We landed in Brisbane, went to play an in-store at a local record shop, loaded in to our evening show, soundchecked, played the show, then went and DJ’ed an afterparty ‘til 3am, then had to be at the airport at 6am to fly back to Sydney to do an afternoon show AND a late show. I can’t handle schedules like that anymore. Or rather, we can tour like that, but we’re very aware of how it affects both our moods and our performances. It’s not good. In those kinds of situations, I definitely find myself thinking «why are we doing this?» What’s the point in flying to the other end of the world to wear ourselves so thin that we can’t even perform well? It makes no sense. We’re very picky about our gear and making sure we can recreate the sounds from our recording. And we like sleep. If we can ensure a good night of sleep and good gear, then I’m usually pretty content.
I’ve seen you a couple of times and people always love “Harper Lewis”, for example. That song is now seven years old and you must have already played it a zillion times. From the crowd’s point of view, it is always a great moment, but I’d like to know the musician’s perspective who has to rock it day in day out. Can a song like that become exposed to erosion?
“Harper Lewis” is an interesting example. I don’t think a show has gone by since I’ve been in the band where we haven’t played it. It’s a song that we all enjoy playing on a nightly basis even though we’ve been playing it for years. It’s a song that we’re so acclimated to that it almost serves as our way of EQing the stage, because it’s structured in such a way that we can usually dial in any small changes we need in terms of tuning, amp volume, monitors, and pedal settings during the course of the song. If we can get “Harper Lewis” to sound good, we can get through the whole set. “Geneva” is another song that we don’t really tire of, and we usually soundcheck with it for the reasons I mentioned with “Harper”— if we can make “Geneva” sound good, then all the other songs should fall in line. But there are definitely some songs that we’ve had to weed out over time, or only play them every so often. I think that’s just the nature of hearing a song over and over again. It eventually loses its luster.
I guess this question can extend itself to another subject: writing new music. With five full-lengths, how do you keep things interesting when creating – does the old press cliché which goes by introducing new elements work for Russian Circles? Do you add subtle changes? Do you try to blaze some new ground instead of repeating the same steps? The Chelsea Wolfe collaboration comes to my mind as an example.
It can be tempting to throw in a new element to freshen up the creative process. I’m starting to feel like that’s a pretty common cop-out, though. Isn’t it about time for us to do our electronic record? Our “Kid A”? Our “Zooropa”? I like to see bands expand upon their sound, but I almost have more respect for bands like Converge or Shellac who work within a specific framework and explore every corner of it. And I have even more respect for them because they’re not sprucing up their production in the process — they’re keeping things really straightforward. I like that. We’ve added some new elements to our arsenal, things like Chelsea singing on “Memorial” or adding the Moog Taurus to our sound, but those additions weren’t desperate measures to expand our horizons — they were ideas that we were really excited about and wanted to have as exceptions to the rule.
Are you talkative when writing or are you at that cohesion level where you know each other so well that the words are scarce and you easily understand when something is right and something is not?
Actually, most of our writing process is talking. We talk through an idea, try it out, talk through another idea, try it out, and so on. There is very little jamming.
Is perfectionism something that you fight against when writing and recording? Or perfection is what you strive for? I’m asking this because perfectionism might lead you to doing nothing at all, afraid of taking the wrong way. Is it hard to say okay, this song is done, let’s leave it and move forward?
I find the more polished realms of rock music to be really fucking boring. The more you autotune, beat map, and edit music, the more it winds up like electronic music. It winds up being music made on a grid. No offense to electronic music meant there, it just seems to defeat the purpose of being a living, breathing rock band. I’ve brought this up in the past a bunch, but I’ll repeat it here: when These Arms Are Snakes recorded with Jack Endino, the guy who recorded all the early grunge classics, he had a very casual attitude towards our takes. The record we did with him (our split with Harkonen) was the loosest recording we did in our career. Jack’s theory was that the tiny inconsistencies in tempo and pitch were what made all the classic rock records so enduring. The brain recognizes the flaws on a subconscious level, and those imperfections keep the brain interested in the song way longer than if it had been polished and quantized to perfection. We want things to be tight. We don’t like obvious fuck-ups to slide by in our music, but if you listen closely to our records there are weird little mistakes and flubs all over the place. We had a particularly hard time finding the balance between making things sound raw and live in a good way versus a bad way when we were making “Empros”, but hopefully we’ve found a good middle ground now.
With a growing discography, how do you balance your setlist as well? I imagine that, immediately after completing a record, you want to play the full thing on stage, but how hard is it to leave some oldies at the sideline?
We’ve never wanted to play a new album in its entirety. There are so many weird little variables that we have to plot out and rehearse before we play a song live that playing an entire set of new material would be too complicated and stressful to enjoy. It’s more rewarding to balance out the set with old songs that we’re comfortable with and new songs that still present a challenge to us. It keeps things interesting without being too much of a brain drain.
And are you already thinking about the sixth LP? Will your perhaps play something new at this upcoming European tour?
We’re planning to try some songs that we haven’t played in Europe before for this tour, but we aren’t ready to play any new material at this point.
Bonus question: I see people wandering about a These Arms Are Snakes reunion, but I’m a diehard nutcase about Botch. Don’t you miss playing those songs and play those insane hardcore gigs? Is there a remote chance of witnessing Botch coming back from the dead? I’m willing to give away a kidney.
I’m pretty lucky in that These Arms Are Snakes were up and going before Botch played our last show, and the end of Snakes overlapped with my first year or two in Russian Circles. So I’ve been playing loud, dissonant music on stage consistently for over twenty years now, without any sort of hiatus. I’m glad people still like These Arms Are Snakes and Botch — we made those records with the hopes that they would still be interesting after the bands were no longer active. But I don’t really miss playing those songs. Like I said, I’ve never stopped playing loud, abrasive music, so there’s never been a moment where I feel like that stuff is missing in my life. The other guys in those bands might feel a little differently, though. They’ve all had some time away from beating the shit out of an instrument on stage. But I’m too stubborn to quit playing obnoxious music, and too stubborn pushing ahead to want to revisit the past.