Interview with Russian Circles: The Road So Far

Russian Circles released their latest effort, Memorial, back in October of last year. I spoke to bassist Brian Cook back in February to advance the start of their U.S. tour. Since then, the band has had a very busy year on the road. They took their new material to Europe, Asia, and Australia, playing festivals and clubs alike. It’s been a great year for the band so far, and they made sure to translate their new tracks into their live show as seamlessly as possible. A year out on the road has also been humbling for this mostly Chicago-based band, but nothing beats the love they have for their home. Back in March, they were honored by local favorites, Kuma’s and DryHop Brewers, when a burger and beer pairing was announced in their name.

I recently had the chance to sit down and talk about the Death Rides A Horse Russian Imperial Stout with Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan. We discussed beer culture and the differences in the metal scene in the U.S. compared to in Europe. Gearing up for a string of 10th anniversary shows in December, we also talked about the process of booking shows around the holidays, what it’s like seeing the new material translate to live shows, and the idea of digging into their back catalogue. Check out what Mike had to say below:

I last spoke with Brian back in February, and I asked him about his gear and setup on Memorial. Have you changed or added any gear for the record yourself?

After a record or at the end of every tour cycle, gear will come and go. I always wonder what I can tweak and what would sound better in different scenarios. So, over time, pedalboards start changing and morphing a little bit tour by tour. The quest is always kinda there.

Do you have a favorite new addition?

Well, there is some stuff coming in the mail (laughs). Earlier this year I picked up a B.B. King Lucille guitar. That thing is huge, and the way it is shaped changes the way you write. I haven’t used it live much, but it’s been big in terms of coming up with new ideas. Matching it with different pedals has actually changed the way we approach new songs. I’m looking forward to seeing how that gets implemented live once we have the next record done. It’s such a versatile guitar and I am very impressed with it.

Have any of the songs from Memorial changed and grown legs of their own now that you have been playing the material for quite a bit?

We always joke about how tough the first practice after recording is. In recording, you tinker with a lot of stuff in the studio and add a few things like harmonies, overdubs, and things like that. We would get excited and say, “Oh man, this is going to sound so good.” Then when we go to practice, it’s like we would forget all of the little bells and whistles that we added. If we have songs with a lot of content, we have to understand what we should focus on and sort of trim the fat.

Thats definitely a challenge with the transition from album to live, but I think once you reach that level of comfortability, as an artist, the songs are there and translated well.

Yeah, exactly. There are no nerves like, “Oh, I hope I don’t blow this” (laughs). It’s all in memory, comfortable, and everything falls into place now.

You guys were also recently announced for the 20th anniversary of Roadburn festival. You will be playing alongside some great bands. Are there any you hope to check out if you can?

I need to re-familiarize myself with the bill, but I love Goblin and I am excited to get to see them play. I like Zombi a lot as well; I haven’t seen them in ages. I was talking to my friend last night about that festival. It’s pretty cool, because there are a lot of European bands on the bill, and you may not know them, but they could have a huge following over there. The European metal scene is different than the American metal scene because they seem a little more cultural and have more of a connection to the art community. I’m looking forward to the bands that I am unfamiliar with.

Do you observe these differences between scenes while on stage?

They are different, sure, not in a good or bad way. For heavy music, they seem more serious about it. It seems like a more respectable scene over there. I feel like there might be less shenanigans over there during a show as compared to here in the States. Might have less cell phones being waved around as well. I just think there is a cultural difference, different etiquette. It seems like there is more of a connection with the audience and the band. I don’t think either one is better or worse, they are both great in different ways.

Back in March, the Death Rides A Horse stout was announced. How was it? Are you a big beer fan?

I’m a big fan of the whole craft beer revolution (laughs). It seems as if there are a million great choices out there now. That particular one was paired with a burger over at Kuma’s here in Chicago. It was a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with coffee and all of that good stuff. As a beer fan, it was delicious, and as a member of the band, I was honored and flattered that we were chosen for it.

Are you knowledgeable enough to where you describe everything like the guys that post on BeerAdvocate, or are you like me, where you just rate it and say, Very nice (laughs).

I am way more casual like yourself (laughs). I’m not one to differentiate between different little things. I know what beers I like and what beers I am less into.

I will check the reviews and stuff before I try a new beer, but I couldn’t care less what color the head is, or that there are slight notes of toffee.

Absolutely (laughs). I know I enjoy stouts, IPAs, porters, and that kind of stuff, but that is it. All I can tell you is what percentage of alcohol it has, that’s what is important to me (laughs).

You will be celebrating your 10th anniversary by playing a number of shows, including stops in New York and Philadelphia. Do you have a favorite brewery in the area?

I am actually more familiar with the breweries that are based on the West Coast. The only brewery in those areas that I know is Brooklyn Brewery.

Brooklyn might be one of my favorites in the area.

Yeah, Brian lives in that area, so it’s funny that he will mention their happy hour to us. In Chicago, we don’t really have one of those. Every hour is happy hour (laughs). He’ll tell us how people will get out of work early sometimes and head over to the bars. It’s like a little reward for getting through work.

Do you guys have anything special planned for these 10th anniversary shows?

Yeah, we plan on playing a lot of older songs that we haven’t played or heard in ages. There will be a few from Enter and Station that we haven’t played in a while, so that will be fun. I’m not sure yet about the other albums, so we don’t know which songs we will throw in there just yet. This will be a tour that will focus more on the back catalogue.

Is it a bit difficult being on the road around the holidays, or is everything scheduled to where you have enough time in between to go home and relax?

It’s not too bad really. We actually will be doing more shows for our 10th anniversary on the West Coast and those will be around New Year’s and Christmas. We do have a show in Denver that comes close to interfering with our travel plans, but to be honest, none of us have kids, so we will definitely have enough time to pop in home and say hi to our families and loved ones. Fortunately, at this stage, we are pretty flexible dudes.

Anything else planned for you guys in the future?

In April we will be in Europe with Helms Alee and of course, we will be playing Roadburn Festival. And whenever we are a year into a record, we start thinking about the next one. Try to get some ideas floating around so we aren’t saying, “Oh shit, we should get another record out there.” So it’s all about touring, playing shows, and writing. Unfortunately, there isn’t going to be any recording anytime soon, but we are mainly focused on creating a strong album and will get in the studio when we need to.

Russian Circles will play at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg in Brooklyn on Dec. 11 and Underground Arts in Philadelphia on Dec. 12. Memorial is available now. For more information, go to