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Russian Circles interview

| December 29, 2006

Russian Circles
The Heavy

To ask Mike Sullivan who his fans are is like asking him if he went to prom in high school. “We don’t get rabid young girls screaming at us because we’re hot dudes. That’s not the case, unfortunately,” he says. The 26-year-old guitarist of Chicago’s Russian Circles is the kind of guy who spent his prom night at home practicing Van Halen’s “Eruption” in the basement. A guitar aficionado since 11, Sullivan puts music before everything else. It’s now his career. And a Gibson Les Paul Classic Double Cutaway is the love of his life.

Russian Circles are between a rock and a hard place. Neither indie darlings nor heavy metal behemoths, the instrumental trio from Logan Square play brainy music that begs for an explanation (and tablature). Audiophiles familiar with heavy-hitters Slint and Don Caballero can decipher the general genre of the band, but don’t expect slacker ethos or sly jokes from Sullivan. “I have no desire to have humor a part of the music,” he promises. The band’s full-length CD, Enter (Flameshovel), is a determined concept album that will become either timeless or lost in the shuffle of over-classification. Call them anything, Sullivan says, because rock sub-genres don’t make any sense, anyway.


“People like to classify stuff. To us, it’s a kind of rock music. There are math rock elements, I suppose, but it’s hard to even say what math rock is anymore. We’re called everything from post-post-rock to pre-post-post. It’s fucking ridiculous,” he laughs while on tour in Georgia. Enter suggests early Rush and Early Man with a major influence from local instrumental upstarts Pelican. Russian Circles and Pelican are friends who share a Chicago practice space, gear, and advice. “We’re all huge fans of Chicago music, so we naturally draw from that for our influences,” Sullivan says.

All the world might soon be a stage for Russian Circles, a band with a 10-year plan who formed in 2004 with the seriousness of King Crimson. “We’re just laying low,” Sullivan says from a van heading south to Florida on the band’s only day off in a two-week stretch. They are nearly finished with a 50-date U.S. tour, having played with Pelican, emo stalwarts Minus The Bear, noise act Daughters, and rapper P.O.S. Shows in Europe and Japan are in the planning stages. Crowd reactions across the United States have run the full gambit. Success depends on the age of the audience more than anything, Sullivan surmises. With intricate songs stretching up to nine minutes and no singer in sight, Russian Circles lose a few people along the way. “The 18-and-up show was definitely way more energetic and a better crowd response,” he says, dissecting their two Atlanta gigs. “It’s always funny. I think older people have more patience. Younger kids don’t know what the hell is going on sometimes.”

It’s anything but their fault, he adds. A subscriber to a DIY aesthetic he learned while evolving from Van Halen to Fugazi in high school, Sullivan detests the rise of band compartmentalizing on the Internet. He describes how Web sites like MySpace and even Wikipedia inadvertently subvert hard-to-define music: “I was in a discussion last night with some guy about Slint and Shellac. I just love those bands, and it’s a kind of conversation you don’t normally get into with younger people, because they don’t have that background or familiarity. With some kids, their point of reference is harder bands like The Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge.” If a band doesn’t directly have that “hardcore tag,” they’re lost on some of the all-ages scene, he says. “Thankfully we have a very diverse crowd, and usually they’re older.”

Russian Circles aren’t hardcore, but they’re punk in principle. Before Sullivan moved from St. Louis to Chicago in 1999, he played in punk bands with drummer Dave Turncrantz. Sullivan met bassist Colin DeKuiper at DePaul University shortly after the move to Chicago and formed Dakota/Dakota, a math rock band that led to the assemblage of Russian Circles in late 2004. Turncrantz jumped ship from Riddle Of Steel and joined his old friend in Chicago on a project that relies as much on their early punk brotherhood as it does on a progressive sound. It’s not the 1990s anymore, but remembering the lessons of Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye has helped the band stay focused during moments of incredible tension.

MacKaye and his record label, Dischord, influenced musicians and labels alike over the last two decades with even-split profits and handshake deals among friends. Chicago’s Touch And Go is one such philosophical descendant — a localized independent label that further conveyed MacKaye’s mission throughout the Midwest and onto other smaller Chicago labels like Flameshovel. Sullivan matured in the era of Fugazi’s Midwestern emocore descendants — Cap’n Jazz and The Promise Ring — and expected the label most associated with their music, Jade Tree, to follow what he had grown to know about Dischord. So when Jade Tree called in 2005, Russian Circles thought they were going to be greeted with open arms and an open mind. According to Sullivan, they weren’t.

“We were talking to them for a few months, and they finally offered us a contract. And we were big fans of the label, and we were excited to work with them, but the contract was just pretty overwhelming. It was like 25 pages or so. There were a lot of things that we didn’t see eye to eye on, as far as us being an instrumental band and different requests as far as, like, number of songs per album and all this stuff,” he explains. “They wouldn’t budge on any given point, so Flameshovel, who we’re friends with, offered to help us out, and offered way more than Jade Tree. Then we went back to Jade Tree and said, ‘No thanks.'”

Retaining total musical control is integral to Russian Circles. Enter is ostensibly one piece with six movements. An addition of even one more song to the composition would have thrown off the concept, and Flameshovel fully respected the band’s intentions. Jade Tree caved in at the last minute, Sullivan says, but by then, Russian Circles had already decided on Flameshovel for a one-album deal. “It’s more important to have people who will support you and work hard for you,” he says. “Right now I’m happy, too. That would have been a three-record deal [with Jade Tree], which we weren’t ready to do at the time.”

In keeping with their perseverance, Russian Circles and engineer Greg Norman went to extraordinary lengths to record Enter within a budgeted five days last winter at Chicago’s Electrical Audio Studios. The band added Rob Lowe, of 90 Day Men, to their in-studio arsenal for piano, Mellotron, and a support system. “Every session was at least 12 to 20 hours. It was grueling, but we all were pumped the entire time through it,” Sullivan says. “Greg knew we were on a smaller budget. We were charged per day and not by the hour. We worked him to the bone, and he’s awesome.” It was a project made successful in part by meticulous planning.

“We had all the songs down, planned, every note, everything,” he boasts.

So for the Eddie Van Halen still somewhere in Sullivan, it seems practice has paid off with Enter. “All cheesiness aside, if it wasn’t for him, I think a lot of amazing things in music would have never happened.” Like Russian Circles, perhaps.

Mike Meyer

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