“Music can hit you in a variety of different ways, but for us what matters the most is that it makes a connection. You can acknowledge the emotion behind it and it’ll resonate with you without lyrics.”
Chicago instrumental post-rock trio Russian Circles are an incredibly loud band. When guitarist Mike Sullivan, drummer Dave Turncrantz, and bassist Brian Cook get together, the decibels are raised to massive levels, the syncopation is tight like a double knot, and the senses are surely going to feel something.
Their eighth studio album, Gnosis, that came out In August via the Los Angeles-based label Sargent House continues this trend in emphatic fashion. As part of their tour in support of the release, Russian Circles will perform at The Sinclair in Cambridge on Nov. 8. Fellow Chicagoans REZN will start off the evening at 8pm.
Sullivan and I spoke ahead of the show about the album having a local connection, playing around with a bunch of pedals and amps, writing the album remotely, and keeping things open to interpretation.
Gnosis has a connection to Massachusetts due to Kurt Ballou from Converge handling the engineering and mixing of the album at his recording studio, God City Studios in Salem. This is the third album you’ve had Kurt involved in, so what made you want to keep him into the fold and what is he like to work with?
Kurt’s great to work with, he has a way of production that nobody else quite has as far as getting a unique sound and utilizing the gear to make that happen. We’ve never been enticed to go anywhere else because we’re so happy with Kurt and we’re still trying to find out what we can do together so we’re not done exploring sonic possibilities. I feel that Gnosis was a further exploration of what we could do with him so we’re happy to keep the train rolling, he’s great and Salem is an absolute blast to set up shop for a week or so and take it in. I love going up there, I love Salem.
Yeah, it’s a beautiful little town. When it comes to the equipment that Kurt has for bands to use, does he have a lot of vintage equipment or is it a mix of new stuff and old stuff?
It’s mainly guitar-based just because he’s a guitar player, so for myself it’s really enticing and it is a mixture of vintage and newer gear. When you’re in the studio doing an all-instrumental record, you’re going to want as many flavors as possible and different tones so the luxury of his studio is a million different pedals and many different amps. Initially it’ll take some time to see which amps are working best for the songs, but once we choose the amps then we’ll start going through the pedals. The pedals are stripped down to nothing for each song, we’ll have a blank canvas with each song having its own tone. We’ll have the same bass, speakers and heads with amplifiers still involved but there will be nuances changed in the pedals and the effects change.
That wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have a plethora of pedals to choose from like Kurt has. It was really helpful and again, as a guitar player that’s pretty much why we do the guitars there. We did the bass and drums at Electrical Audio in Chicago because that plays to the studio’s strengths. It’s an exceptional room for catching drum tones so with that we always stick to Electrical Audio and bring Kurt from Salem to Chicago. Once that’s all buttoned up, then we’ll go back to Salem for recording guitars.
Before the recording sessions, the album was written remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did you go about this process given the circumstances? Was there a lot of emailing back and forth and Zoom chatting or did you, Brian and Dave correspond and collaborate in a different way?
It was completely done through the latter. Once COVID hit, we canceled a big European tour and it made it easy to shift gears to writing because what else were we going to do? There was no guaranteed income but obviously part of what we do is writing so we were in a fortunate spot where we could keep that going. I dove into the world of home recording and I became more proficient, I guess that’s the same for all us in our own worlds. Dave got an electric drum kit so he could play to the demos we sent him, but as far as how it happened each song was fully composed by a member and then we worked on it.
In the past, there would be a lot of guitar riffs assembled and then we would go through all the riffs while piecing them together to see which ones play well together. They might be in different tunings or different time signatures or in different keys but I would transpose those to make sure they’d all fit. This time, each part was written exclusively to be in this one song to fit in between the two parts that surrounded it so it was a much more purposeful writing session where each song was supposed to be in its own world and not bleed too much into the other songs before or after. It was really fun, I think we gained a lot of confidence in our writing just from constructing these elaborate demos that we never did before so it was a step forward for us when it came to growing in the writing phase.
I can definitely understand why, especially with it being a totally different situation. It must have widened your scope a bit when it comes to knowing how to adapt to certain things and how to incorporate various things. From listening to the album there’s an abundance of cohesiveness with the driving riffs and rhythms. Was this something you guys had in mind right from the start or did this approach evolve with the writing and recording process?
I think that’s from the nature of us playing to our strengths. Some songs are written to be a dueling guitar thing but then we’ll realize that it doesn’t work. It works remotely in demos but live it’s missing something, it needs bass or it needs some low end. There’s some last-minute pivots to take songs in different directions just to make sure that the low end is intact or that there’s not too much low end. Brian and I are very aware of filling out the sonic spectrum and not neglecting something, or if we do neglect something we do it on purpose and by design.
A lot of that was just seeing how the songs came together in an actual studio with instruments coming through all the pedals and everything. Once you start mixing it all you’ll realize what is and what’s not working, so we made a few adjustments after the demos were made just to make sure everything did have that cohesiveness and feel like a Russian Circles song.
With Russian Circles being a primarily instrumental band, do you find the creation process of the music to be a bit different than other projects you’ve been in before due to space for vocals not being required? What has always made this band stick out for you as an artist?
My previous band was also instrumental and I’ve been in that world for over 20 years so that isn’t anything new for me but playing with Dave and Brian keeps it interesting. What I bring to the table, it depends on what kind of song it is or what kind of riff but it’s exciting to see what they match it with. If they’re doing this, it allows me to add this texture or add space where the rhythm section can line up in a unique way. The most exciting part for me is if I send a long demo, first I hear Dave’s parts back and then I hear Brian’s parts back. They’ll come incrementally, not as one, and that’s probably the most exciting part because I’ve already worked on those riffs for ages and know them like the back of my hand.
When I get to hear the creative input from my bandmates, that’s when it all feels like our band. I’m just one member, when it’s all three of us together that’s when it starts feeling like Russian Circles. It’s a rewarding part of the process for me, when it all finally comes together it sounds like us.
The completion process of it, I totally get that. For the people who haven’t heard Gnosis yet and they plan on picking up a copy after the upcoming show at The Sinclair, what do you want them to feel while listening to the album?
Music can hit you in a variety of different ways, but for us what matters the most is that it makes a connection. You can acknowledge the emotion behind it and it’ll resonate with you without lyrics. We’re not pointing you towards any theme or direction lyrically, it’s intended to be open so it should be more of a gut feeling. Whether that’s an emotion or a certain feeling it elicits from you, that’s the point. To have some kind of emotional connection, it can be as simple as anger or it gets your blood going or identifying with something that’s a sadder component of a song.
It could also be more primal where it’s catchy and people dig it, that’s cool too. They’re supposed to be catchy songs so any entry point into the music is cool with us. There’s a lot to get out of it in different layers, obviously the deeper it goes the more rewarding it might be but I can see various entry points for why people might like it. If they don’t like it, that’s cool too but if people dig it then that means a lot to us.
Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, RI who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of DigBoston, he also writes for The Providence Journal, The Connecticut Examiner, The Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Northern Transmissions and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theatre, visual art, food, drink, sports and cannabis.