Russian Circles have been on my radar since their sophomore full-length, Station. In October, they released their fifth studio album, Memorial. With eight tracks, Memorial brings the listener on an incredible musical journey that showcases the brilliance of the three musicians. The record closes with a unique addition featuring the vocals of Chelsea Wolfe—whom they toured with in Europe last year—on the title-track. With the way the vocals are mixed, it creates an extra layer and fills up space alongside the guitar, bass, and drums.
The band is set to bring these new tracks to the U.S., currently touring with KEN Mode, Inter Arma and Helms Alee. I recently had the chance to talk to bassist Brian Cook about the band’s latest full-length, the album leak, the equipment used and vinyl records. Check out what he had to say below:
The album flows well together with lots of beautiful highs and heavy lows. What gear has been the most important in getting some of these sounds?
I would say the most important thing is to have a great basic sound. For us, the combination of what cabs and amps and guitars we use does have a say in what the material will sound like. Our selection of pedals is pretty crucial to how we recreate what we do. Mike [Sullivan, guitarist], for example, might have to create a lot of loops and he also has a very strict chain of different distortions and overdrives. In order to get the layers to pop out right and to have certain things cut through the signal, he needs certain equipment. Dave [Turncrantz, drummer] usually plays along live to the loops, so he has to be able to hear specific parts and sounds. More than anything, we are more reliant on our own specific pedal board make-ups than guitars or amps, etc.
Have you added anything new to your setup for the songs from Memorial?
Yeah, definitely. I’m not sure how nerdy you want to get with all of this stuff (laughs). When we did Empros , we did a lot of layers, overdubs, and we really embellished the songs. When we practiced playing them for the live show, they felt a bit empty.
One of the things we did to fill up the space was add a Moog Taurus. The Taurus is essentially a synthesizer that you can play with your feet and it allows us to add an additional layer. It became a part of the songwriting progress on Memorial. Now that we are touring more for that record, we are using it a lot more. Because of that, I switched from using the Moog Taurus to the Minitaur, which is a smaller, compact version of the synth. It’s just the brain without the actual pedal.
Did anything in particular help inspire the sound of Memorial for you?
I think there were a couple things. When we did Empros, we went into a space where there weren't enough outlets in the room to plug all our stuff in. It was kind an interesting experience because we knew we wanted to do a more raw and sort of dirty sounding record and we wanted to experiment with sounds a bit more. This gave us an opportunity to rethink the process, but was also a bit more difficult.
When we did Geneva , we could throw a mic in front of the amp and everything sounded pristine and perfect. For Memorial, we knew we wanted to go back to electrical audio. We knew everything was going to be more straightforward in terms of getting the basic sound. We liked being able to experiment with the studio and having leeway in terms of embellishing songs and using studio trickery with the material. We usually try to do the opposite of what we did on the last record, in terms of production and recording.
As for songwriting, we tried to simplify a bit. I feel like there are a lot of songs in our catalog that we like, but playing on tour over and over again is a bit tiring. Perfect example is the song “Station.” We all love it, but we got tired of playing the 10-minute version just because it’s a super loud and heavy song on the front end, and then it tapers into a mellow wandering atmospheric part at the end. Near the end, we wanted to move on to the next song already. Basically, we wanted to get the same mood and vibe as the songs on our older records, but we wanted to do it in a more compartmentalized way. That way, we aren’t making these huge, long, epic songs. We would go to the same places on the album, but it just wouldn’t be all on one track.
You toured Europe with Chelsea Wolfe in October and November. How did the shows go over there? Did everything run smoothly?
They were really great. It was easily the best European tour we have had so far, mostly because nothing went wrong. We are so used to having something throw a wrench in the system. In the past, we have had a piece of gear get lost in transit, we got stuck overseas, and one time, Mike had broken his thumb. This time there were no stumbles, which made everything smooth and easy.
What was the reception like of your new material live?
People seemed really positive about it. It was a bit weird for us because we were going out there before the record came out. It actually came out about two or three weeks later from the start of the tour, which, usually by that point in time, it would have leaked. It’s actually kind of funny because I don’t think the record leaked until we were over there. Ben [Chisholm] from Chelsea Wolfe was like, “You are selling CDs every night of the tour, so I’m going to assume it leaked because your fans bought it.”
You guys created this album hoping fans would listen to it in its entirety. With all of these different formats for music listening, do you think it's easier to listen to an album in full or is it more difficult? For example, applications like Spotify have advertisements, iPods and mp3s allow the use of shuffle modes, and songs can be easily skipped on CDs.
I think it depends on the person. I’m a consumer of all different formats, but for me, my favorite is vinyl because it is the most involved. You can’t just put it on and walk away—you have to stay ready to flip it and you sit and listen to it.
I just came back from Seattle a couple of days ago and I had my iPod with me. Sitting on the plane, I couldn’t listen to an album in full. I always want to skip ahead. Mp3s are awesome because I can listen to music anywhere, but it sort of eliminates my focus.
Absolutely. When I listen to a vinyl, I’m sitting down with the album cover in my hand, reading the liner notes. But when I’m listening to mp3s, I am always on the go, whether it be commuting or at the gym.
Keeping up with that, it’s one of the things we had in mind when making the record. We wanted to keep the running time a bit short and to make it a single LP. A lot of the old classic records, the ones people herald as crucial rock albums like Led Zeppelin IV or Dark Side Of The Moon or whatever, more often than not, they were single LPs and rather short albums.
I guess in the '90s, when CDs were popular, artists would put 80 minutes of music on an album because they could. They tried to fit as much material on there as they could, and I think that would end up creating a lot of loaded records that weren't particularly interesting. Because we are an instrumental band, we don’t have those hooks that people listen to; it might be a struggle for some people to wrap their heads around. So a concise record seemed like the right thing to do.
While other record labels stress album sales, touring and merch generate the most revenue for a modern band. What is it like working with Sargent House, a label that understands the necessity of touring in the music industry?
I had friends in a band that was signed to a pretty reputable indie label. They were given this ultimatum where they had to sell 30-40,000 copies of the record; otherwise, their contract wouldn’t be renewed.
With Cathy [Pellow] at Sargent House, she really doesn’t emphasize record sales at all. She obviously wants the records to recoup and if there is more money to be made, even better. She’s pretty wise in realizing that the old model of selling records and that being the primary source of income is outdated. At Sargent House, the real emphasis is to allow bands to tour and for it to be economical and smart. If records are sold along the way, even better.
Do you guys have any big plans for rest of 2014?
Everything is falling into place. We have the six-week U.S. tour followed by a run of dates in Canada. We are also sorting out a tour of Japan and Asia, as well as Australia at some point.
Russian Circles will play at Philly's Underground Arts on Feb. 19, Manhattan's Bowery Ballroom on Feb. 20, and Brooklyn's Saint Vitus bar on Feb. 22. Memorial is available now through Sargent House. For more information, go to russiancirclesband.com.