Russian Circles’ envyable discography is considered by many a songwriting prowess. The band’s growth has been outstandingly impossible to ignore. Their initial records that range from Enter to Station and Geneva had seamlessly gained access to half of the underground’s playlists without any second thoughts. Their true form and refinement came from the Sargent House era, with whom they’ve released some of their best feats like Empros, Memorial and Guidance. Whether it be the mood-board that so often defines the sound palette of a record or the astonishingly broad taste in music (along with other musical endeavors), talent isn’t always enough to define Russian Circles’ nature, but the substance in the landscape of emotional depth really does make a difference.
Blood Year was released in 2019 through Sargent House. Not only does the record underline the adult years of the band, but it also shows how refinement’s framework can improve the maturing process of the band’s songwriting. If that wasn’t enough, their popularity has grown enormously with the new year’s arrival. With that being said, an European tour is about to go underway, and besides their Roadburn headlining show, the trio will make its presence felt from head to toe of the European continent. Portugal, once again, will get to revisit their sonic travels, this time alongside Torche. So, as in means of anticipation, we had the chance to catch up with Brian Cook (bass) to talk about the band’s work ethic, their newest record, Sargent House and much more.
Not only has it been sixteen years since Russian Circles were founded, it’s also been eleven years since you joined the group, while maintaining the exact same line-up since then. Tell us what has been the most important lesson in keeping such a healthy bloodline of work all over the years?
Brian - I don’t have any particular wisdom to impart on maintaining a healthy and consistent creative streak. For me, I think of creativity being like a muscle that needs to be exercised, otherwise it atrophies. I can’t go months without doing something artistic and then expect to just jump back into making something without feeling sluggish or bummed on my output. But the band doesn’t really work along those lines because we spend so much time on tour or living thousands of miles apart from each other. So I’ve found it helps to have other creative outlets to fill in the gaps—whether it be music related or in some other medium like writing or painting. But that’s just my take and I imagine you’d get different thoughts from Mike or Dave.
The chemistry is widespread all over the band’s discography, but if you had to pick a record that peaked the band’s overall tenacity, which would you choose?
I’m not sure what you mean by tenacity. I think different albums have different chemistries involved in the process, and different members have their different levels of satisfaction with those specific approaches. Blood Year was deliberately meant to be a more stripped-down and straight forward riff-driven album, which was mostly due to how much touring we’d done on our previous album Guidance and how we tend to gravitate towards the heavier material live. We really just wanted to make a record that had the intensity of the live show. But we will openly admit that this approach requires scaling back on some of the dynamics and depth of our other albums, so we’re likely going to swing back to the other extreme on our next record and make something that’s a lot more atmospheric and layered.
Talking about Blood Year, it’s the fourth record you release alongside the Sargent House family. How vital is it for you to work with them? How much of a role does the label play in the Russian Circle world?
Sargent House was originally conceived as an artist management company for fringe musicians. Cathy Pellow (the owner) had done some A&R work for major labels and video production for bigger bands and just got tired of seeing musicians have to compromise their visions just to make these bloated major labels more money. So she took a few bands under her wing and quickly realized that even a lot of the indie labels were pretty shitty to their artists, so she set up the label arm of Sargent House with the idea that artists could basically self-release their music through it. It’s definitely a bit more of a proper label than that nowadays, but for us it still basically feels like we’re sorta free to do whatever we want. We don’t have a label guy complaining about not having a hit. We’re not nickeled-and-dimed. We feel like we have people working for us rather than the other way around, which isn’t always the case with record labels. Some of that might be the luxury of being an established band, but I also think Sargent House and Russian Circles have grown together symbiotically since we first started working with Cathy after our Enter album.
The band seems to have great balance between heaviness and spaciousness, which makes it really hard to define your sound. How is working again with Kurt Ballou helping shaping these different approaches? What helped set the mood and concentration at the studio while recording?
We love working with Kurt. He still has that punk philosophy of recording stuff quickly, honestly, and with an emphasis on energy rather than perfection. The dude is also a total wizard when it comes to guitar tones. Obviously, he’s known for a lot of hardcore and metal stuff, but he’s a broad minded person and he’s very keen on branching out into territories that aren’t just heavy riff after heavy riff. So he’s a good accomplice because he’s excited to diverge from metal and to dig into those ideas, but he also shares our vocabulary when we wanna dive into chuggy caveman riffs.
How did your take on “recording songs together in one room as complete takes without click tracks” (as said in your promo) help shape this album’s feeling?
Well, to reiterate what I said earlier, we really wanted to make a record that replicated the intensity of the live show, whereas in the past we wanted to make these dynamic records full of peaks and valleys. So it was very important to replicate the way we perform the songs in our natural environment, and that required that we record together. We still wound up overdubbing most of the guitars and bass, but at least we captured the natural push-and-pull of a live band, whereas in the past we often pieced things together in the studio in a way that allowed us to tinker with the recording process a bit more.
Your sound has always been powerful, but this album seems to absorb our thoughts even more than your previous works. Like completely losing track of time and facing our emotions. How do you feel about people reacting like this to your music and what bands have this effect on you?
That’s very nice to hear. Thank you for the kind words. It’s every musician’s hope that their work can allow people to get lost in the moment. And ultimately, it’s our hope that when we walk out on stage we’ll get lost in the moment too. It’s one of the cruel realities of being a musician: you’re more likely to remember every second of a bad set, while the great sets just fly by in a blur, like they didn’t even happen. Lot’s of bands have that effect on me, though I find that I have to deliberately make myself receptive to it. You have to be open. Lately I’ve been trying to find new listening challenges, trying to make myself receptive to things I don’t understand. I’ve been listening to a lot more improvised music---whether it’s old free jazz stuff like John Coltrane contemporary experimental stuff like Bill Orcutt. I feel like that stuff feels way more immediate and intimate…maybe even a little more precarious, so that’s been very illuminating and transportive.
Is it possible to sense each members’ personality in some of the songs?
I think so. I think there’s a good balance to be had between creating a sound that’s unified in a way where you don’t even hear the individual components anymore versus hearing the interplay and nuance of musicians interacting together. It’s another dynamic we get to employ - like loud versus quiet or dark versus light - and I think we would be making our music mono-dimensional if we leaned too heavily either way.
How much of an emotional connection do you have with creating an album?
A lot. Maybe too much. But should it be any other way? I mean, we devote two or three years to every record, so it would be a little sad if it didn’t resonate with us or consume a big part of our psyche. The only downside is that an album can also become entangled with your personal life, so that the music ultimately comes to represent a tough point in your personal history. That’s essentially the point of titling the album Blood Year… some years draw more blood than others. Everyone has their dark periods. Whenever I see an artist compose an album based on their personal trauma, I’m always simultaneously proud of their ability to turn their suffering into something positive, but I’m also a little heartbroken because I know they’re going to have to relive that tragedy every time they perform the music. It’s a tough reality.
Everyone is quite acquainted with songs about loved ones but it’s interesting to see so many cities in your discography from Milano to Lisboa, Geneva, Schiphol (Amsterdam). Where did the idea of drawing inspiration from cities come from? Have you ever thought about making a record completely inspired in cities?
I always advise against people trying to find too much meaning in song titles. Sometimes they’re just personal indicators of where the song idea first germinated (“Lisboa”, for example, was based on a guitar line Mike wrote after soundcheck the last time we played in that city). Sometimes it’s a more abstract connection. Like, “Schiphol” got it’s name because we were stranded at the airport for nearly a week after the Icelandic volcano erupted and shut down the European airspace back in 2010, and we felt like the somber repetition of the song captured that experience. I don’t imagine we’ll do a full album of city-based songs, though.
What are you most looking forward to about this tour? Any expectations about the Portuguese audience?
Portugal is one of our favorite countries to play in Europe. I love the people. I love the cities. I love the climate and the countryside. We’re always excited when we get to come back through the Iberian peninsula.
To end this off, what have you been listening to lately?
Lungfish. Darkthrone. A bunch of ‘70s free jazz. A bunch of contemporary old school death metal bands. The stuff on the International Anthem label.
Interview conducted by Catarina Nascimento and João "Mislow" Almeida.