An Interview with Mike Sullivan from Russian Circles: Anonymous Shadows

For over nine years, Russian Circles have been road-dogging from city to city, bar to club to music hall to theater. With their artful coalescence of stunning melody and heavy rock rumble, they are one of the premier instrumental rock bands in the metal scene. On stage, the band is entrancing. They don’t speak to the crowd directly; instead they stand backlit on an otherwise dark stage performing as silhouettes, allowing the audience to experience their music subjectively. On record, Russian Circles’ is as deep as any of their contemporaries with complex, cinematic movements and nuances of instrumentation that reward repeat listens.

While in the midst of a seven-hour ride to Albuquerque, NM, guitarist Mike Sullivan was more than happy to discuss the band’s state of affairs and their current tour supporting Coheed And Cambria and Between The Buried And Me.

Is this your first theater tour?

I suppose so. We’ve done theaters here and there supporting other bands through the years. But this is probably the most consistent, long tour of these kinds of venues.

Anytime I’ve seen Russian Circles, Isis or a band of your ilk in a big room, I’ve felt the cinematic aspect is enhanced. Is there a big difference from your perspective on stage?

I think it’s good, overall. There’s not much negative to it as far as sound. We always play tight on stage; whether it’s a big stage or a small stage, we always play kind of close together, so it sounds relatively similar to a small club with that atmosphere.

We prefer to play loud, in a smaller venue that can be kind of too much for the people up front. In theaters you can push the P.A. a bit more. It’s a comfortable spot to be in. It works out well for us and it doesn’t feel too different.

Once we’re playing, I kind of zone out and I’m not really conscious of what venue it is. I don’t really look up and say, “Wow, what a beautiful feeling!” That’s more of a soundcheck thing when we’ll check out the venue. When we’re playing, we’re focused on the task at hand and doing that. We’re not so aware of what’s happening above or beyond us.

Do you still play with the lights out?

Yeah, we do. It’s always evolving. Same thing with the lights, but we’re honing in a little more getting it a bit more comfortable. It’s interesting seeing that translate to bigger venues. We’re still able to pull off our painfully humble light show (laughs). It’s a lot of fun because it’s low maintenance and we’re happy with the visual aspect. It translates better, I think, to the bigger theaters than the smaller venues. It is dark, but it works out.

Would you ever add a more involved light show with more visuals?

We’d definitely be open-minded to that but nothing too elaborate. I don’t see lasers and stuff like that in the future. We’re big fans of white light in general. I’ve seen several shows where a huge band will play and then very tastefully use one light and not all kinds of crazy strobes and colors and stuff like that. That stuff can be very effective and very great for some other bands, but I’ve always been a fan of just using one color. I think there’s room for growth for us. We’ll see. Hopefully it will keep evolving and we’ll keep trying new stuff out. A little goes a long way, there’s no question about that.

I’ve always thought the white light was fitting, possibly because I’m influenced by artwork and the first record of yours with which I became familiar was Station, which has a black and white cover. I thought it was cool how you came on stage, didn’t say anything to the audience, played and left.

Yeah. One part of the lights is to make us anonymous figures. We’re not the coolest dudes to look at on stage, by any means. It’s more about the music and we’ve hopefully learned that doing that gets people’s attention more so than anything we’re doing on stage. The white light distracts from any kind of stage antics or funny business happening and gets them to focus on the music. I’m not sure there’s a truer presentation of the band.

You definitely make people experience the music. It’s like how sometimes I’ll put on an album and just do that; I’ll just listen to it without doing anything else. When people see you live, that’s what they have to do.

Yeah, true. We’re just trying to get them in our headspace. The light is appropriate for the music, it seems like it’s the best way to frame it.

You are most popular in the metal community, but do you consider yourselves a metal band?

It’s hard to say if we’re a metal band or not. The lines are so blurred. There are some bands who say they’re metal, but they sound like pop. Then there’s some bands that get offended if you call them a metal band. We don’t think about it too much. We’re definitely a heavy band, there’s no question about that. I guess what’s more important is the vibe we’re getting across more so than the actual genre.

There’s riffs here and there, but are they metal riffs? I don’t know. It’s about getting the point across through loud music. We’re definitely a loud, heavy band. We could be metal, post-rock, whatever. We’re okay with whatever people decide. The more we say we are something, the less freedom we feel on the next album to do something. We’d rather keep it open so on every record we can grow in different directions without alienating anybody.

I read an interview with you a while back in a guitar magazine, where you expressed that you feel strongly about leaving bass frequencies to the bass guitar. As a guitarist you prefer to cover the higher register. As a bassist, I want you to know I think that’s wonderful!

Yeah, a lot of our friends who are bassists remark on that also (laughs).

What lead you to that opinion?

It’s just a sonic, scientific truth that the guitar is in a different range than the bass. When there’s only three of you, there’s no point in stepping on anybody’s toes. If someone can do something more efficiently in my range, there’s no point in fighting that. I’d rather come from the opposite source.

I like a bassist to play like a fucking bassist and do it with conviction. I don’t like to have guitar and bass cloud each other. For a three-piece, bass has to have its place. Each of us can do things sonically that the other can’t do whether it’s percussively or a frequency thing. It’s all about dynamics and how often you play. Guitar can cut out for a while, bass can cut out or drums can cut out, that creates another dynamic. A lot of it is giving the music breath in some ways.

The distribution of tones and space in the mix of all your records is always something I really like. Do you spend much time with bassist Brian Cook figuring out how your sounds work together in a mix?

Not as much as you would think. Typically [drummer Dave Turncrantz] and I write most of the songs. Then Brian will come in and help tweak stuff. Once the bass is present on the songs, that changes the sonic identity. I’ll step down a little bit and let Brian come in a little more. Sometimes if there’s too much saturation, one of us will back off the fuzz or turn up the fuzz. We’ll leapfrog as to who needs to be louder or quieter in certain parts. Tonally, we don’t worry too much. It’s more about volume and rounding out the space.

We don’t talk about tone too much. It’ll be understood when a part needs to pop out if others need to lay back. It’s part of the writing process. If a part needs to be louder or grittier, then it will happen. Tone is part of the writing process.

So when the bass comes into it, will you sometimes change a guitar part, maybe play in a different position or chord voicing?

Yeah, sometimes if the bass is on lockdown, I can change something. If he can hold something down, I’ll play high on the neck or I can harmonize or play the exact same thing as him, that’s what’s more powerful at a certain point. Once something has been mixed you can reassess what’s happening where and what has to be different. We can question whether something works or not. You have to think about it for a little bit after.

Are you going to be playing any new music on this tour?

Not on this tour. We’re just playing a few songs from each album so far.

Do you have new stuff ready or are you still working it out?

Yes and no. Some stuff is looking really good, some stuff we just need to work on a little more. We’re not touching that this tour. Since we’re opening and playing to new people, we’re leaving the newer stuff on the backburner.

Being an instrumental band, how do you know when a song is done?

That’s a good question, I suppose. At certain points, you’re excited about each part of the song, each transition, the way they work out. Sometimes it doesn’t feel quite right yet. It may sound fine, but if we’re going to play a song for countless years every night, we should be excited about every transition, the beginning and the ending and make sure it all flows. It speaks for itself usually. If a song isn’t all there yet, we’ll keep changing stuff. There’s a million different [demo] versions of our songs [that we’ve recorded].

You have to go back and figure out what works. Some parts are fun to play, but don’t sound that good. From a listener’s perspective you have to listen to it. You never know what a song needs to be finished, you just need to know what it needs. When you’ve finally done it, you know it. But you can also drive yourself mad, changing stuff over and over again. Sometimes we come to a point where we’re satisfied with the arrangement and we move on from there.

Russian Circles will play Radio City Music Hall in NYC on March 16 as part of their tour supporting Coheed And Cambria and Between The Buried And Me. For more information, go to