Chicago instrumental heroes Russian Circles are deep into preparations for their first Australian tour since 2014, with bass player Brian Cook admitting the band can hardly contain their enthusiasm for what they see as a long overdue series of shows for their loyal fans.
“I have no idea”, he laughed when pressed on what we can expect, “I close my eyes, walk on stage, and then it’s over. What happens up there? I have no clue. Maybe there’s pyrotechnics? Sword fights? I couldn’t tell ya. It’s like listening to our records, but way louder, and with more feedback. And the occasional fuck-up”.
Five years is a long time in music, particularly in the modern age where content seems to be winning out over quality in some markets, but Cook is confident the length of time between visits will be of little consequence after they fire into their first note on stage.
“We’ve done a lot of touring (since their last tour). A lot”, he measured on how the band has changed, “so we’re probably tighter? Or at least I would hope so (laughs). We have different gear now so maybe that changes things up a bit? I don’t know. We’re still a gloomy, dark, brooding instrumental band. If anything we’ve just gotten more bitter and fatalistic over the years, so it’s probably generally more depressing and oppressive sounding”.
Possibly the most significant change has been the success of Russian Circle’s sixth studio album, Guidance, which was released in 2016. It is an album that drew high levels of critical acclaim and is widely regarded as their finest work to date.
“I felt really good about Guidance when we finished it up”, Cook nodded, “although I also felt a sense of closure with it. I feel like Empros, Memorial, and Guidance all had a lot of connective tissue between them like we had this single overarching idea that we were trying to hone in on with those records, and with Guidance, I felt like we finally got it. That’s just me though. I imagine Mike (Sullivan, guitar) and Dave (Turncrantz, drums) might feel differently. But we just finished a new album and I definitely don’t feel like it belongs in the same camp as the last three studio albums, even though we’re still working within the sonic parameters we’ve used in the past. I don’t know. Talking about your own art is hard”.
Being an instrumental band each member and their role in the band is defined more and in greater detail. Things such as mood and atmosphere are terms bandied around with greater respect, but Cook sees it as more of a positive by-product rather than a hindrance.
“I don’t know if I’d say that”, he replied in regards to mood playing a larger role in an instrumental performance. “I think because we don’t have a singer to provide a context for the emotional scope of the song we tend to behave like each instrument has its own voice. That may sound kinda corny, but there’s no point in Mike playing rhythm guitar when there isn’t a lead guitar or a vocalist, so that means he has the freedom to fill up the sonic space with loops and drones and harmonies. It becomes a much more sophisticated instrument. Same with drums and bass. We don’t want to be a flashy band… quite the contrary. But we want each instrument to be interesting and compelling in its own right so that probably causes us to err on making the instrumentation a bit more dramatic, and that might have something to do with what you’re saying. But there’s all kinds of great vocal-driven music that I would describe as being very moody”.
Although Cook was not part of the initial line-up for Russian Circles when they formed in late 2004 he still fondly recalls the time period that contributed to their existence.
“At the time I was living in Seattle and touring with my band These Arms Are Snakes“, he recalled. “It’s hard for me to speak to the musical climate surrounding their origin. Mike and Dave had been friends back when they were kids in St. Louis, then Mike moved to Chicago to go to college, started playing this really wild math rock with this guy Colin in a band called Dakota/Dakota, and eventually Dave wound up in Chicago and bumped into Mike, and they decided to start a new band with Colin and this noise guy named John. The music was so intricate that there wasn’t really room for the noise guy, and after one record it was decided that Colin was gonna go his separate way, and then I came on board. But in 2004 I think there was this renewed interest in heavy music that was creeping back into the indie rock scene that dominated Chicago at the time, and the band was a part of that. Like, we’re all fans of what was happening in Chicago in the ’90s with Touch & Go and Thrill Jockey and all that stuff, but there was also this collective interest in stuff happening outside the city like Mastodon, or the Fucking Champs, or Turing Machine, and that grittier stuff was really appealing”.
Rather than rest too long on the success of Guidance, Cook reveals that the follow-up, Blood Year, is completed and almost ready for mass consumption.
“It’s done. Tracked. Mixed. Mastered”, he smiled. “Test presses are approved. Now we just have to wait until August so that the vinyl plants and the press outlets aren’t scrambling to do their thing. It’s less atmospheric and more chunky (than Guidance) with more riffs and less ambience”.
In the meantime, Australian fans can bide their time with a special live release that until now has been unavailable here on vinyl.
“We actually released Live at Dunk a couple of years ago”, Cook offered, “but it sold out pretty much immediately, so we did a small repress so that folks can have a bit more advance warning to snag it. We’d always wanted to do a live record because the songs evolve a bit after we play them on tour night after night. But we also had a lot of trepidation about doing a live record because it puts us in the wrong headspace while we’re performing. But we played Dunk! Fest in Belgium a few years back and they did an audio recording off the soundboard without telling us in advance, and we all loved the show, so it all worked out”.
As for messages to their Australian fans, Cook smiled cheekily.
“Please come to the show, because it’ll probably be another five years before we come back. It’s hard to tour Australia”.