Interview: Mike Sullivan of Russian Circles Talks About the Band's New Album, 'Empros'

"Once it gets too fancy, I start losing the groove," says Mike Sullivan of the challenges of playing guitar in Russian Circles' deceptively dense musical pockets.

Indeed the Chicago-based post-rock band are capable of creating intricately layered pieces of music, often from simple, intertwining melodies that when combined are capable of creating harsh soundscapes, vast acoustic caverns and everything in between.

On their latest album, Empros, Russian Circles tend to pay more attention to those extremes than the stuff in the middle. You might swear Johnny Greenwood was behind the ambient folk of "Schiphol," while "309" wouldn't sound out of place on an early Celtic Frost record. And dynamics aside, Empros also features a major first for the band: Their first track with vocals, album closer "Praise Be Man."

I recently caught up with Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan, who acted as a guide through the musical journey that is Empros.

The last time we talked, I asked you how you could describe the sound of Russian Circles to someone who had never heard it before, and you said it sounded like a mix between Metallica and Pink Floyd. I think this album absolutely captures that, and then some. Parts of "309," for instance, sound like Celtic Frost or Emperor. How did those extremes come to be on the album? What inspired you to go into harsher sonic territories?

There wasn’t much thought to, "Well this song sounds different." Anything that different sounds kind of fun and exciting. It didn’t take much effort, actually. It was one of those songs that kind of wrote itself after a while, you know. The riff's there, and you try to change it, and then you want to go back to how it was; it had a little groove there.

There was definitely a lot of heavier influences as far as that song goes. We’re obsessed with that band Craft and the album Fuck the Universe. So we liked them for some time now, but it’s a matter of finally getting more comfortable doing certain things, especially heavier stuff.

That’s a great album; I’m glad you mentioned that.

Yeah, it's one that kills me. Its one of the meanest, angriest albums ever.

After an album [Geneva] that saw you bring in strings and brass, this album seemed like a conscious effort to strip back to the three-piece mentality. Was it a conscious effort to get back to having the three of you guys playing and not go too far outside of that?

Exactly. Geneva we had the resources and the time to finally add the strings, which is something we always wanted to do but just never worked out in recording time frame. But it worked out with Geneva, and that was cool, but afterwards it was time to go play those songs live and we found ourselves in a little conundrum. "Alright, who the fuck will play the strings part? Who’s going to do this part? Who's playing the trombone here? What the fuck have we done to ourselves here?" [laughs]

Just to make things easier and keep it true to the three piece, we intentionally made this album something that just us three, we can reproduce live, more or less. Its funny; it took a little more work, actually. You can’t just rest on the strings to carry the song. But overall I think it’s a more powerful record as a result. Different vibe.

I’m happy we had the strings on the last album, but it's definitely healthy to get back to three core members and have us take care of all the instrumentation.

This definitely still sounds fairly busy for a three piece. There's usually more than one guitar line going on. For people who aren’t familiar with your live setup, how do you reproduce that live?

Most of the stuff is pretty doable live, as far as throwing a loop down and playing on top of it -- and in some cases a few loops. Nothing’s too tricky, thankfully, and some previous songs will have a passage going that’s a guitar loop of three of the same notes but different octaves in a rhythmic pattern, and its almost impossible to decipher what’s happening once the drums and bass are going, so that kind of lends itself to getting off the beat and getting muddy.

Thankfully, all the stuff on this record is kept pretty simple so it lends itself nicely to the looping and kind of taking away the loop. Reintroducing it without there being any problems with time and whatnot. Nothing’s too tricky at this point, but we’ll see what happens when we go on tour.

Is there anything off Empros that you’re concerned about playing live?

"Schiphol" is the more mellow song on the album, and there’s a whole lot of guitars, bass and baritone happening there. It’s the kind of thing where we can definitely play it live but it might be a different interpretation of the song, so to speak. And "Praise Be Man," I don’t think we plan on playing that live, but if we do we can make it work.

That’s another thing that might not sound as similar to the record but all the conventional songs on the record, short of "Schiphol"; those should be no problem to play.

Speaking of adventurous, I think what will take the fans by the biggest surprise is that there are actually vocals on "Praise Be Man." How did that happen -- who’s doing them?

That’s Brian. It's actually all Brian’s song. He wrote and did everything for that. We were kind of just piecing together ideas, since Brian lives in Seattle and Dave and I are in Chicago; we email ideas back and forth just to keep each other in touch as far as what we’re up to.

That was something he emailed to us and I thought it was beautiful right away, and I gave him a call and I said, “Uhh, so what is this? Is this you? What’s going on here, this is neat, what is this?" And said, "No, I just did that in my bedroom having fun."

We ended up, a lot of that actual recording made the record. A lot of that was pulled form that actual cassette four-track he did in his bedroom, and we just enhanced it live. As far as vocals, we’ve always been open minded to vocals, but it never seemed to fit or be appropriate. It never really presented itself. But this came up and sounded like good music and it was a no-brainer to us. "This sounds great, it's Brian, someone in the band singing." That was more comfortable than looking for someone outside of the band for somebody else. It seemed natural, and this record is all over the place, and somehow that seemed to fit even more since it was different than some of the rest of the tracks.

Since we touched on some of the heavier extremes, I want to talk about the song called "Schiphol," which someone might even describe is a bit Radiohead-like. Who are some of the more melodic influences that might have informed that and "Praise Be Man"?

"Schiphol," that was taken from Brian Eno. I would fall asleep every night to different songs from Brian Eno, and there was one track from Another Green World where it's just a simple drone. So that song initially was just a giant keyboard kind of drone just doing two different chord progressions throughout the whole song, and I intentionally left it very simple and minimal, and as I kept practicing, I kept adding more and more.

In the studio I added acoustic guitar just to anchor the rhythm since there wasn’t much presence of drums in the first half. That song totally changed from being more of a drone, ambient piece to being more of the structure of a folky, classical weird piece. The ending initially had no guitar solo like that. That was another thing in the studio where we all were thinking this needs something. "How about an over-the-top guitar solo?" That was kind of an example of a song taking itself in another direction. Since ["Praise Be Man"] is mainly Brian’s song, I guess I can’t speak too much about it, but there’s a lot of folk and noise influence over that song.

I can definitely hear Swans or Sparklehorse in that song. You mentioned Eno; have you ever gotten into trying to reproduce any of his guitar effects? The whole Frippertronics thing?

No, I haven’t messed with that kind of stuff. I have a buddy of mine who did some stuff, studying with Robert Fripp, and he told me about the Frippertronics, and that was out of my league. I think it’s beautiful and I’ll leave it at that. Leave it at pure enjoyment and inspiration; that’s a little too intimidating to me.

It’s amazing how well all that music stood up from that era of Eno and Fripp, that ambient stuff. It’s almost untouchable. It still has a melodic element to it. At the end of the song "Batu," there's four minutes of additional drone track, for lack of a better word. That’s just guitar tones being stacked on top of eachother to create a unique ambient kind of mood that just sits there for a while. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s on the actual CD.

You mentioned brining in acoustic guitars, which I would never associate with you guys. Were you guys always open to that idea and they just hadn't fit in until now?

Yeah, God knows we're open minded to a lot, and if it ends up working out, that’s great. Like I said, there wasn’t intentionally a whole lot of acoustic on there. Since we broke the recording up into two different sessions, we had some time to sit on the first few batches of songs that were recorded and all the preproduction of all the demos. Sometimes the acoustic helps to add a three-dimensional quality to the overall music. Whether it's very present or not in the mix, it adds something to the top that’s not quite there with an amp flat guitar.

A lot of that just happens for texture to reinforce what’s already happening but to make it a little more round overall. With the classic guitar in "Schipol," that was more, "You know what lets add this." It calls for this part. Not a whole lot of thought, but it just worked out in the studio.

What acoustics and electrics did you use in recording?

The nylon string guitar on "Schiphol" was mainly done on an old Alvarez; nothing fancy, just something my dad bought to keep around the house so we wouldn't mess up a nice guitar. So that's been in my family for 20-plus years now. For better or worse, I end up playing that guitar almost more than any other guitar. For the most part, it was a Les Paul Custom '57 Reissue -- two of those, actually, one with some hotter pickups and one with the standard '57 pickups.

Believe it or not, I used a Jazzmaster to double all of the guitar parts just to use something that sounded totally different than the stuff that sticks out on the Les Paul, especially on songs like "309" that has a really saturated tone, kind of abrasive overall, and sometimes it's hard to find the notes in there; in all the distortion, it gets kind of lost. Having the Fender in there kind of helped to bring out some of the tones and the actual melodies that would be kind of hard to pick up otherwise.

And there were a few other random guitars. There was a Gibson Sonex, which is like an early '80s Gibson bolt-on guitar made from like composite, kitchen-counter type stuff which has kind of a weird, cool tone that's like halfway between a Fender and a Gibson.

What's your pedalboard like?

That I try to keep pretty simple for recording; there was nothing too crazy in terms of overall effects. A lot of distortion came from a Sunn Model T reissue. I use an OCD here and there, but only for thicker parts. We got our hands on a Malekko phase pedal which we used a lot. For delays, it was mostly Electro Harmonix Memory Man type stuff. But there weren't too many crazy effects over all, looking back. Maybe some reverb here and there, but I tried to get a lot of that tone through the amps.

I know you just finished Empros, but I could see multiple directions the band could go in after this. You've got your first vocal track now, is that somewhere you could see the band going?

Maybe, but I don't really think so. I'm sure if the opportunity comes up to have more vocals then we'll probably go with it, but at the heart of it, we play instrumental music, and that's what we have fun doing.

Russian Circles' new album, Empros, is out now.

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Josh Hart

Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.