When I first heard of Russian Circles, I was in the midst of a vicious binge fueled largely by the powerful styling of post-metal/instrumental varieties. The internet thread was titled “Russian Circles (RIYL ISIS)”. And so, I clicked.
That click launched me into a brief glimpse of the Chicago instrumental trio’s critically acclaimed debut album, Enter. It was a beautiful and intricately woven six track opus led powerfully by guitarist Mike Sullivan and drummer Dave Turncrantz. Each song stretched the genres the song was pushed into, as Sullivan and Turncrantz dueled over the realms of metal, indie-rock, and math-rock in new and interesting ways. Six songs were all it took, and Russian Circles firmly planted themselves as one of the better instrumental outfits out there.
Flash forward almost two years, beyond a grueling, constant touring schedule, and Russian Circles has undergone lineup changes and switched from Chicago-based Flameshovel Records to Seattle-based Suicide Squeeze.
“We are friends with all the Minus the Bear guys and a friend of ours from Chicago, a guy in Chin Up Chin Up, [are all] on Suicide Squeeze,” Turncrantz says. “Talking to them and [seeing] how happy they were [helped us make] the right decision.” Although Turncrantz agrees to loving their time with Flameshovel Records, Russian Circles felt that signing on with Suicide Squeeze would allow them to become more successful and receive more support.
Russian Circles formed in 2004 when former bassist Colin DeKuiper and Sullivan left Dakota/Dakota and joined forces with Turncrantz. Constant dates in the van took its toll, and DeKuiper and the band recently went their separate ways.
“We went to Europe, came home, and we parted ways,” Turncrantz recalls. “He wasn’t really happy, and we weren’t really happy. So it was the best thing for everybody. It was one of those things where it was an odd fit from the beginning, and it just got worse and worse over the years.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we didn’t get along. The main reason was that the musical spark was gone. He couldn’t write songs, and it was bumming me and Mike out. We were throwing out parts, but songs weren’t getting done. At the way things were going, the record we’re working on wouldn’t have gotten done. This record wouldn’t [have been] out until 2010. If we have one song in a year’s work, something is wrong.”
Listen to “Station”
Since then, the band has enlisted the help of Brian Cook of These Arms Are Snakes/ex-Botch fame to write and record the bass for the new album, Station. With Matt Bayles behind the producing helm, Sullivan and Turncrantz left the frigid winter of Chicago to hole up in the middle of the rainy season in Seattle. The result is a record that is much more dynamic, Turncrantz says.
“We had a lot of aggression on this record, and we set out to write the songs to be heavy as shit, butthey all ended up really pretty,” he laughs. “I can guarantee you if we set off to write a really pretty record, it would be blistering and all metal. But at the same time, we kind of don’t want to do that. We have fans that would rather hear real pretty stuff and we have fans that would want to hear more metal, more heavy stuff.”
The diverse fanbase is easily attributed to the dynamic tour bills Russian Circles commonly finds itself on. There have been the more expected tours, such as with fellow Chicago instrumental outfit Pelican, but there have also been tours with the likes of Seattle indie rockers Minus the Bear and Minneapolis rapper P.O.S..
“We did a tour with The Appleseed Cast, and it was great. No one would think that Russian Circles and The Appleseed Cast would be a good show, but they were just great. Then we toured with Daughters and that worked out really well. Then Tool in Europe and that worked out great also,” Turncrantz says, revealing a laundry list of unpredictable tour partners.
One reason Turncranytz enjoys playing atypical shows is because it gives his band the chance to reach new audiences. “Something I really like [is] when kids come up and say, ‘I wouldn’t ever see you [otherwise].’ Hell, I’d do a Tegan and Sara tour. I’d do anything that felt fitting. There are so many bands out there doing things we respect. We like soft and pretty sounds too. It isn’t like we are in the van listening to Slayer constantly.”
With the new album, Turncrantz says all the musical influences are peeping through much more without too much of the tired (but very true, and very awesome live) formula of instrumental songs which go from a slow crescendo to an epic explosion as if it were the only way to write a song. Despite losing one of the original members, Russian Circles has benefited from Cook, who has added his own two cents into the writing process. His input has turned out to be an invaluable addition for the band.
“Playing with Brian is a new experience,” Turncrantz says. “It is another head in the music. We are just three guys in an instrumental band. We can write the same record over and over again, no sweat. Sometimes it is nice to have a different viewpoint right from the beginning.”
From the beginning, Russian Circles found itself to be an instrumental band because the original material just became so elaborate that the band felt a vocalist would ruin it all. Many of the bands that Russian Circles gets lumped into a category with come with the, ‘If you like ISIS, then you’ll like this’ mentality attached. Aside from the writing of long songs, Turncrantz doesn’t really see the comparison.
“A lot of people wonder if ISIS is a big influence on us,” Turncrantz says. “The answer is, not really. I think they are awesome musicians, and I really respect them a lot; I just wish that people that hear us would categorize us with no category. But people do what they do, and honestly, it has helped. A lot of our fans — they Like Pelican, and they like ISIS. There is no complaining.”
For the past couple of years, the band has been touring with the same material. The last recording session round, Russian Circles released Enter to nothing but the band’s own appetites and for its mothers’ thumbs up. Turncrantz says the band was just stoked that the members liked it themselves. With relentless touring and a critical push also comes the dreaded sophomore slump. Considering the nature of the band’s music and the exceptionally lively musical shifts that occur, it is really easy to alienate listeners of the band that are in it for the soothing aspects, as well as listeners who are in it just to head bang. However, the band is still looking to push its musical boundaries.
“Just thinking about [appeasing the fans] can be a little nerve-wracking. I try not to think about it,” Turncrantz admits, but he has high hopes for the band’s future.
“One of my favorite records of all time is The Shape of Punk to Come by Refused, because it is just so many spectrums; it is all over the place. They pull it off so well. Unfortunately, I wish they would’ve made another record instead of just imploding, because who knows what they would’ve written next? I want people to pick up Enter or our new record, and say, ‘What the hell are they going to do next?'”