On August 5th Russian Circles will release their sixth studio album, Guidance on Sargent House, which as far as we're concerned is one of the year's highlights. Bassist Brian Cook answers or questions about the new album, its influences, genre definitions and more.
Over the years you have expressed your admiration for the artists that had the biggest impact on your band numerous times. Which were your main influences while creating Guidance?
There wasn't really any overt outside influences on this album. I remember being very enthralled by Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway album while we were writing Memorial and being very interested in trying to achieve that kind of attention to detail and sonic diversity, but it turned into a very different record than I originally anticipated. I can't speak for the other guys on this one, but I personally went into Guidance with the idea of being very open to whatever happened. I didn't want to try and force any ideas. If something clicked with everyone, great. If not, move on. I honestly don't remember what I was listening to at the time of working on this record. In general, I'm not the kind of person that tends to fixate on one album or artist until I've exhausted my interest in them. If I find something new that I like, it goes into the rotation with everything else I've been listening to for the last 25 years of my life. Yes' Close To The Edge is another album that I always look at as an archetype of sophisticated, protracted, album-oriented songwriting, so that will probably always hover in the back of my mind as something to aspire to. But I wouldn't say there's much of anything on Guidance that sounds like '70s prog-rock.
The cover art for Guidance is really captivating. Where did it come from and why did you choose such an image to represent the album?
My husband was working at a non-profit HIV/AIDS organization years ago and an older volunteer gave him an envelope with a bunch of old photos in it. "I thought you should have these," he said. Inside were a bunch of photos of public executions from somewhere in Asia. There was no explanation and no context. We kept the photographs but we never knew what to do with them, and we didn't understand why he gave them to my husband. The photos have kind of haunted us. One of the things we talked about with this album is how much uncertainty there is in our personal lives at the moment. We're all living in flux. We called the album Guidance because it spoke to that absence of answers with regards to the future. And for me the photos have an absence of answers with regards to the past. All we can do is hover in the moment and try to make that meaningful somehow.
What do you think that Kurt Ballou’s production had to add to the new compositions?
Even though metal plays a big role in our music, we've elected to work with engineers and producers who aren't tied to the metal community on our last few records. We liked the idea of our songs being captured by people who weren't going to fall back on the current metal production techniques. We wanted fresh ears to interpret the songs. But we also realize that we're not a metal band. And so when it came time to make this album it was exciting to think about making a record with someone who had a strong reputation for making oppressively heavy records. How would he tackle the more reserved material? It seemed like an interesting way to approach recording from a new perspective. Kurt was a pleasure to work with. He understood what we were going for and spoke our musical language. I think it was the easiest and most relaxed recording experience we've ever had.
Are there any differences in your approach to songwriting now than how things were back in 2007 when you joined the band permanently?
For sure. For one thing, I really tried to simplify things on Station. I was excited about making a record that had a lot more breathing room, and I was also writing bass lines with the idea that the band would eventually find a full-time member in Chicago to play these parts, so i kept things pretty straightforward. But then I got asked to do some shows, then some tours, and then we started writing new songs, and it became apparent that I was in the band. So I started making things a little more complicated and a lot more textural. I think we hit an apex with Memorial in terms of making really dense and layered music, and now i'm trying to figure out how to write things that don't involve adding a bunch of pedals into the mix or juggling multiple instruments. We're all trying to simplify things now. I know there will always be people that love Enter and how those songs have lots of parts and tons of abrupt changes, but we're gravitating more and more towards economy and groove, having fewer parts, and working on developing and evolving those ideas over the course of a song instead of cobbling a bunch of riffs together.
Your song titles have always been simple and quite enigmatic. Are you ever worried that people might be interpreting them to something different than their original context?
No. If anything, I like the song titles being a bit enigmatic and open to interpretation. We choose titles that have a phonetic quality that lends itself to the song, so I like the idea of the title's literal definition being disembodied from the song.
In the course of those twelve years in the band’s existence, all your albums have been released on great looking and sounding vinyl editions. How do you feel about physical media over digital? Are you a record collector yourself?
I'm a collector. When I'm at home, I listen primarily to vinyl. I still buy the occasional CD or cassette tape, but as a general rule I prefer to own music on a format that retains its value. Of course, digital formats are great for convenience, but i tend to feel less invested in something I'm listening to on a computer or on my phone, and I don't listen to music on headphones very often. But I'm an old guy, and I grew up loving the experience of going to a record store and buying an album and coming home and unwrapping it and looking through the artwork and having that whole interaction. And I also like the idea of albums being artifacts. I like making something tactile. As an artist, I like the idea of making something that occupies actual space in someone's home. As a fan, I like the idea that I've actually put money into helping pay for this thing that I'm enjoying. I've mentioned this in other interviews, but when my first band put out our first 7", i remember thinking "if i were to die tomorrow, there would at least be something out there that I helped make that has my name on it," and I can't imagine getting that feeling from merely posting a few songs online. And inversely, I often have a hard time mustering enthusiasm to check out someone's Soundcloud page, but I'll gladly listen to any LP someone gives me. If someone believes in their music enough to press it on vinyl in 2016, then I assume it has actual value.
Have you ever thought of the possibility to write music for film? What kinds of movies do you think your music would be most suitable to score?
I don't know... the idea of scoring a film isn't really a dream of mine. I imagine it would be an interesting experience, but I prefer writing music that comes from some recess of the subconscious, not from the duty to add content to someone's film. I'm not saying that as a diss on soundtracks, but more as a commentary on my own motivations when I'm writing music. I imagine it's a lot less natural and intuitive to be given a bunch of directives and cues for songwriting than to just do whatever your soul feels at the moment, you know? Like, I might wake up tomorrow with a really angry song welling up in me, but then I have to go in and write music for a delicate love scene. But of course, we'd pounce on the opportunity to work on a film made by writers or directors that we admire.
Post-rock or post-metal? Which of the two are you most comfortable with?
They both make me cringe. I imagine a lot of post-rock and post-metal bands are in the same boat with us here. Ultimately, we just wanna write whatever we feel like writing. And because we tend to cover a little more sonic territory than your standard straight-up traditional thrash metal band or your average pigfuck band or whatever other strictly defined genres are out there and because we don't have a singer, then we become a post-metal band. And that's fine I guess. I like Neurosis, so we're in good company. But I don't feel like we're active participants in some sort of post-metal scene. I don't go around investigating new post-metal bands. If anything, i tend to avoid other self-proclaimed post-metal bands because they don't hold a lot of mystery to me. Some days I want to listen to old Samael albums and some days I want to listen to Neu! '75 and the result of having those two disparate things in my head turns into a Russian Circles song. The motivation is to somehow absorb new ideas from random things and make something new out of it. But having the tag of post-rock or post-metal just makes me think someone is trying to do a facsimile of Mogwai or ISIS, and that's not particularly interesting to me. It goes with pretty much anything baring the "post" tag. Post-hardcore? I imagine it's a Quicksand knockoff. Post-punk? Do we need another Gang of Four copycat? I wish we were like Sonic Youth. No one has tried to classify Sonic Youth since the early '80s when they were considered a no-wave band. They just got to be Sonic Youth, ya know?
On the exceptional occasions where you have added vocals to your songs, the results have come out pretty impressive. Is there a chance you’d do that more often in the future? What draws you more into making instrumental music?
I think we're always open to experiment with other participants, but as a matter of general operations, it's just much easier to work as a three-piece. Things are complicated enough as-is that I can't imagine any of us saying "hey, you know what would be awesome? someone else that needs a specific monitor mix that's running around on stage stepping on our cables and running into the drum set." Also, i think being an instrumental band allows us to reach a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't give our band the time of day. Singers tend to hijack a disproportionate amount of a band's aura. There's no shortage of interesting bands that are sabotaged by singers that derail the vibe being created by the band.
In the past you’ve performed live alongside some incredible acts like Boris, Isis and Tool among many others. Who would you like to share the stage with, that you haven’t already?
I'm kind of stumped for an answer. I don't like much "big" rock stuff that came out after 1975. The interesting realms of rock music moved underground at that point and have remained there since. So the bands I'd be most interested in playing with are all pretty small-scale. I'd be stoked to play with Nomeansno or Shellac, but I feel like I'm supposed to name a grandiose arena rock band like Rush or something. I recently met one of the guys from the German grindcore band Mörser while i was in Hamburg and that was pretty cool because I'm a big fan of their band and the Bremen hardcore scene they came out of... bands like Systral and Acme. So it'd be cool to play with them. Or could Fugazi just reunite and take us on tour?
What’s the last album you’ve listen to (and enjoyed) in its entirety?
CAN's Soon Over Babaluma. I know a lot of people aren't into CAN's output after Damo left, but Soon Over Babaluma is a trip. It's like a fucked up disco record from before disco was even a thing. And then it drops into the drones of "Quantum Physics" and it feels like you've been shot full of sedatives.
What does the near future hold for Russian Circles?
Touring. More touring. More touring after that. The rest is a mystery, even to us.