When I found out that Russian Circles would be making two Ohio stops on their Fall tour with Young Widows and Deafheaven I knew that I had to track the band down. These instrumental prog metal maestros have delivered one of the most exciting albums of 2011, Empros via Sargent House. Produced by Brandon Curtis of Secret Machines, Empros finds the band showing off a more raw and visceral Russian Circles than ever before.
During the process of tracking down the band, I received an e-mail from the band’s publicist, who turned out to be an old acquaintance – Dave Clifford (of Pleasure Forever and Red Sparowes), who I’d met years ago at Speak in Tongues in Cleveland and then again in Athens when he was pounding the skins for The Vanity Set.
If a little blast from the past wasn’t enough to put wind in my sails, when the interview questions came back, I discovered that Brian Cook was incredibly considerate and conscientious about answering our queries. But, it is no surprise that Cook is such a standup dude – Daytonians will recognize Cook from his time with Dayton expatriate Chris Common filling out the rhythm section in These Arms Are Snakes (Jade Tree, Suicide Squeeze). He also provided bass duties for Dayton’s Mouth of the Architect on 2006’s The Ties That Bind (Translation Loss).
In any event, Cook was kind enough to answer questions about the new record, the band’s move to Sargent House, our common friend Chris Common, and to tell us why he’s scared of Dayton. Here’s what he had to say…
You Indie: Russian Circles and I actually have an acquaintance in common – Chris Common grew up playing in bands here in Dayton where we are located. Is there any chance Russian Circles will do any future recording with Chris? Any humorous stories about him Brian would like to share?
Brian Cook: Chris is actually living in Portugal now, the lucky bastard. He’s got a nice little studio going just outside of Lisbon and just a few blocks from the beach. I certainly wouldn’t mind camping out there for awhile and tracking some stuff. It’s way more inviting than the studio we recorded Empros at. Recording in Chicago during the cold season in an old warehouse on the wrong side of the tracks is probably part of the reason this album turned out as bleak as it did. If we recorded with Chris in Lisbon, we’d probably wind up with a tropicalia record. Stories about Chris? there’s almost too many. These Arms Are Snakes and Russian Circles actually did a European tour together. One show we played was an arts festival in St. Petersburg with a pretty inadequate backline. There was no drum rug, so every time Dave hit the kick pedal the kick drum slid forward 6 or 7 inches. Chris wound up sitting in front of the kick drum for the whole set so it wouldn’t move. No earplugs either. He was getting hammered relentlessly, both sonically and–with that kick drum–literally. He took it for the team that night.
You Indie: It just occurred to me that he also played bass on a Mouth of the Architect record and that those guys are from Dayton too. Any chance we’ll see Russian Circles in Dayton someday?
Brian Cook: Dayton kinda scares the shit out of me. I was involved with hardcore scene back in the ’90s, and Dayton’s scene, the Courage Crew in particular, were not to be fucked with. Actually, funnily enough, the first time I “met” Chris was also the last time I played Dayton. Back in around 1997, my band played the basement of a community center there. Well, we didn’t actually get to play because a fight broke out
between Chris’s band and one of the other bands we were on tour with. Chris was threatening to kick all of our asses. We ditched the show and crashed with the promoter, who was on parole and lived in a house without electricity or hot water. Good times. There’s some really good people from Dayton; I love those Mouth of the Architect dudes. But I’m also a little intimidated by your town, to be completely honest.
You Indie: Speaking of recording, producer Brandon Curtis makes a repeat appearance on Empros, having also worked with the band on Geneva. What is it about Brandon’s style that compliments Russian Circles approach to or challenges the way you make music?
Brian Cook: Brandon has a real grasp for atmosphere. We did some dates with his band Secret Machines and we were just floored by their ability to make such a dense wall of sound with only three people. And their self-titled record really captured their live sound. So we hit up Brandon to find out who they recorded with and it wound up that he did it. He’s really good about balancing between achieving a very live feel for recording, but also using the studio to manipulate things and to really elaborate on the songs, which is what we’ve always wanted.
You Indie: There have been some changes in the Russian Circles sound over the years, especially between Enter and Station to Geneva. It seems as though the band may be relying less on hammering out metal riffs and more about creating a dense atmosphere than before. Empros on the other hand is more of a return to that earlier form. What prompted this change?
Brian Cook: I don’t know. We don’t make conscious decisions to change things. I think we’re just constantly trying to hone our craft. With Geneva, we wanted to make a really lush, layered, “big” record. Strings, horns, piano, all that stuff. I feel like the songs suffered live without all that extra stuff going on, so this time around we wanted to strip things back and make a really raw, visceral record.
You Indie: What are the biggest changes that you’ve made to the band’s sound between Geneva and Empros?
Brian Cook: Geneva was recorded at Electrical Audio, Steve Albini’s highly-regarded studio in Chicago. That place is amazing. It’s the nicest studio I’ve ever worked in. Everything about that place is
structured to optimize the recording process. It’s probably as close to sonic purity as you can get, at least on our budget. With Empros we went with Phantom Manor, which is a total guerilla, makeshift studio. It’s in an old office space of a converted warehouse. It’s a great studio to make really punk, immediate records, but it definitely isn’t easy to replicate the kind of fidelity we got at Electrical. There were a lot more challenges in making Empros, and in some ways i don’t think it sounds as good as Geneva. But we kinda knew that going into the process and I think we were all hoping that the record would sound a bit dirtier and rough around the edges. So many bands keep going for better and better recordings as they get more albums under their belt and so much of the time it feels like something gets lost along the way. In that sense, it felt good to make a record that actually deliberately sounds a little shittier than our last one.
You Indie: How long did it take you to write and record Empros?
Brian Cook: Two years to write, six weeks to record, about a month to mix. Brandon mixed it on his own during his downtime, which accounts for the long mixing process.
You Indie: What catalysts shaped the direction of this record? Are you 100 percent happy with it or is there anything about it that you would change?
Brian Cook: It’s hard to say right now. The record still feels pretty new to us, so I’m not really sure where we’d go from here.
You Indie: One of Russian Circles’ biggest tours to date was the 2007 tour of the UK with Tool. How did that tour differ from smaller club tours?
Brian Cook: I wasn’t with the band at that point. But we’ve played some pretty big support slots and festival dates since then and we all pretty much agree that while it’s great to play in front of a lot of people, we generally prefer to play smaller clubs. I wouldn’t turn down the offer to play bigger rooms, but we’d rather sell out a small club with a good PA than try to fill some big cavernous place that sounds like shit. We like folks in the crowd to hear our amps from stage, not our amps through a PA system.
You Indie: Was it intimidating for those other dudes to play for both an international audience, as well as an audience who was presumably made up of Tool diehards?
Brian Cook: Again, wasn’t there. But Mike and Dave say it was intimidating as hell. Tool fans aren’t very accommodating, and Mike was having amp trouble during line-check right up until they opened the doors. Adam from Tool came out and offered any help he could, which I think was pretty crucial. To at least know that the headliner gave a shit and empathized with the situation means a lot. A lot of bands that don’t even come close to Tool’s popularity would have had a much more “sink or swim” attitude towards an opening band.
You Indie: How does Russian Circles make use of effects, loop pedals and samples during the live set? Is this done primarily to recreate what has been accomplished in the studio?
Brian Cook: We write the songs in the practice space using the effects and loops. They are a part of the creative process. If they came later, we’d be royally fucked trying to figure out how to make cover all our bases.
You Indie: In 2011 Russian Circles signed to Sargent House. What prompted with move from Suicide Squeeze?
Brian Cook: Our contract with Suicide Squeeze was up. I don’t think there was any doubts in our mind that we would sign on with them again. They are a shining example of how an indie label should operate. The snag came when we wanted to consolidate all formats under one label. In the past, Sargent House did the vinyl while Suicide Squeeze handled CDs and MP3s. Dividing up the formats between labels can be a bit of a headache, most of which is logistical stuff that isn’t particularly interesting, though there are some obvious bummers about the arrangement for the audience–things like vinyl not having download cards for mp3s because the digital rights belong to another label. So signing with Suicide Squeeze would mean taking vinyl away from Sargent House, who we’ve worked with from a management capacity since before we signed on for Station and Geneva. So we were going to wind up bumming out someone either way. Since Suicide Squeeze had already done two albums for us, we figured we should go with Sargent House this time around. We’re pretty lucky to have two really solid camps of people willing to work with us; it’s just a real bummer to have to turn one of them down.
You Indie: What is it about Sargent House that made sense to Russian Circles?
Brian Cook: Cathy, who owns and operates Sargent House, has managed the band for years, since before Sargent House was even a record label. There’s no shortage of information on how the music business is changing and evolving. More and more labels are trying to figure out how to remain afloat financially. What both indie and major labels are realizing is that the label needs to be more than just the middleman between manufacturing and distribution, more than just the check-signer. Unfortunately, major labels are looking at things like 360 deals where they’re basically taking a cut off of every portion of the artist’s revenue, and usually without taking on any more responsibility, basically taking more of the artists’ profits without providing anything in return. In the indie world, folks like Cathy are taking the smarter approach, taking more active roles in supporting the artist, trimming the fat by eliminating a lot of the middlemen, and not sticking their fingers in all of the artists’ coffers. The more time we spend on the road, the less time we have to deal with a lot of the day-to-day stuff that comes with being in a band: ordering shirts, applying for visas, sorting through licensing deals, and all that stuff. Basically, we’re basically still operating in the old DIY economic bracket of jamming econo and 50 percent royalty rates, but we now have an infrastructure that enables us to get the band out there more effectively
You Indie: Your upcoming tour, in support of Empros, will be with Young Widows and Deafheaven, right? How did you guys make their acquaintance? What is it about those bands that makes this an ideal bill?
Brian Cook: We’ve always preferred to tour with bands that are a little different than us, but still sort of tap into some of the same sonic territories. We’ve done a lot of touring with Young Widows, who I think are an excellent example of a band that wouldn’t necessarily be categorized as the same kind of music, but still summon the same kind of mood by using the same kind of devices. It’s tricky to find good matches in that regard. Deafheaven was a band that was on our radar that seemed like a good fit, and they were really into the idea of touring together. It came together pretty easily.
You Indie: Is Russian Circles still based in Chicago? Who should we be watching out for from there that may be flying under our radar?
Brian Cook: Dave and Mike live in Chicago. I still live in Seattle. Good Chicago bands to keep an eye out for: Anatomy of a Habit, Sweet Cobra, Disappears, Locrian. Good Seattle bands to keep an eye out for: Helms Alee, Sandrider, Absolute Monarchs, and Tit Pig.