For several years Chicago Post-Metal instrumental act Russian Circles have been constantly charming us with their long winding complex compositions. With Memorial (Sargent House), their new album, they have taken a step in a different direction, moving from long epochs to shorter numbers that swing between the two extremes of emotion blended in their sound. Ghost Cult decided to have a chat with bassist Brian Cook.
What was the process of creation for this new album like, was it different from earlier albums?
In some ways, the creative process for this record was very similar to our older records. Mike wrote a bunch of parts, he and Dave worked out some arrangements, they sent me some rough recordings, then we all jammed together and totally reworked the songs. Over the course of the last several records we learned that we like to have enough time in the studio to make changes to the songs once we hear them back, so we allotted ourselves plenty of studio time so that we could make the inevitable edits. The process was different this time around in that we all knew how malleable the material was. We knew that things would take a different shape in the studio. One could say that we were less prepared for Memorial than any of our other albums, but I think the more appropriate assessment would be that we were just way more flexible with the material we had on hand. The songs changed dramatically in the studio—more so than on past records.
It’s a very bipolar album, a difference from your normally more blended sound, why did you choose this?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. I think we naturally gravitate towards a blend of moods. And in the past, that fluctuation of tone generally occurred over the course of 10-minute long songs. A song like ‘Carpe’ or ‘Harper Lewis’ goes through a bunch of different sounds and moods over the duration of the composition. I think the fact that these new songs are a bit more compartmentalized in terms of their emotional timbre is partially due to the aforementioned creative process. In the past, we had songs like ‘Mladek’ that started off as 4-minute to-the-point rockers, but after working on them over and over in the practice space, they just started to build into these epic songs full of peaks and valleys. We were running on adrenaline, just cramming months of tumult into one song. This time around, most of the reworking and editing was done in the studio in a comparatively short span of time. So instead of turning ‘1777’ into a 12-minute epic, we focused on the central repeating musical theme of the song, which plays out over about 7 and a half minutes. The whole outro of the song turned into it’s own composition—’Cheyenne’. So while the songs flow together, we view them more as stand-alone songs now. And while ‘1777’ and ‘Cheyenne’ are very different in terms of their moods, I think the bipolar feel of the record is more a result of the way those moods are parceled out rather than any sort of radically new emotional dynamics within our work.
With the rather abrupt changes in temperament of the album, how do you think it will be received by your fans?
Well, again, I don’t think we’ve really taken a dramatic sonic leap. If people listen to our songs online through avenues like Youtube or Last.fm or Pandora where you hear songs individually instead of within the context of the album, then I suppose those people might take issue with some of the material. But I would hope that most people who listen to Russian Circles listen to entire albums. And I think if you listen to Memorial in it’s entirety, it is a completely logical step in the evolution of the band. I think it’s the same story in the live setting. We strive to make our live shows one long seamless composition, and I think that audiences that hear the new material in that context will see it as a natural progression of our sound.
The multiple faces of this album have very distinct personalities, how would you guys describe the two or maybe more faces of this album, can you tell us a little about them?
A friend of the band mentioned that the title of the record implies loss. And with loss comes the five stages of grief: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This friend posited the theory that the different moods of the record reflected the five stages of grief. I wish that was actually the plan when we started making the album, because I think that’s a really great concept. Fuck it, let’s just pretend that’s what we were going for all along.
Will the future bring a reunion of the different facets of your sound again, or will it remain as a split?
I don’t know. I do know that we kinda phased Station out of our setlist for a while because the song was so long, and we didn’t really like playing the mellow comedown in the latter half of the song. Now we just play the first half of the song. It’s nice to have shorter compositions that we can shuffle around into a longer format. In that sense, I prefer the songs on the new album. But I’m still holding out for the day when we can write a killer twenty-minute epic like ‘Close To The Edge’ or ‘De Futura’.
You worked with Chelsea Wolfe for the last track, how did this get arranged?
We’ve all been fans of Chelsea since her Apokalypsis record. We had the opportunity to tour with her in the summer of 2012 during which we talked about doing some sort of collaboration. We sent her a rough demo of the song ‘Memorial’ and she sent her vocal track back two hours later and it was perfect. It was the most natural collaboration ever.
On you last album you also had a song with vocals, now we have ‘Memorial’. Will vocals be a recurring theme in your music now, or are they all still just experiments?
The band never set out to be instrumental, it’s just that the music never really seemed to require vocals. And it’s much easier to operate as an instrumental three-piece. ‘Praise Be Man’ was a four-track recording that’s been around since before I was in the band. I just sent it to Mike and Dave on a whim and they wound up liking it. Really, we just go with whatever sounds good, and we tend to spend so much time fixating on instrumentation that there doesn’t wind up being room for vocals anyways. Long story short, I doubt we’ll ever fully incorporate vocals into our sound, but I don’t imagine that this is the last time we’ll dabble in the vocal department. I feel like I need to make this disclaimer now: please do not send us demos of you singing along to our music. We are not looking for a singer. We’re just going to laugh uncomfortably at your audition for thirty seconds and then try to wipe it from our memory.
The instrumental music genre, post rock and post metal, seems to be in the lift. Are there any bands out there in the same sort of line as you guys that are inspirations, or just things you really enjoy, or don’t enjoy at all?
I actively avoid checking out new post-rock and post-metal stuff. I’ll listen to our friends’ bands, like Pelican or Red Sparrows. And I still listen to stuff that I’ve always liked, like Sigur Ros, Mogwai, or Godspeed. But I rarely check out other stuff that falls into the same category. I realize that maybe sounds kind of snobby, but I think part of the appeal of music is the mystery behind it. And when you play a certain kind of music, it loses a little of the mystery. I don’t like listening to a song and knowing exactly how the band wrote it. All due respect to Explosions In The Sky, but I just can’t listen to the countless knock-offs they’ve generated. It’s like, I get it, you have a delay pedal and you know how to play a minor scale on the guitar. Do something more with the formula. Be more like Adebisi Shank and do all kinds of glitchy pedal-generated trickery. Or be more like Stars Of The Lid and make these really pretty songs out of really sparse undulating patterns. Or be like Grails and binge on a bunch of super obscure genres to make these weird hallucinatory soundtracks. That stuff is cool. But please, don’t be an ISIS imitation. Don’t be a Mono rip-off.
Finally you’ll be on the road touring for this album, what is the schedule like and are there any gigs you’re especially looking forward to?
We’re on tour for most of October and November. Plans for next year are still coming together, but I imagine we’ll be pretty busy. For now, I’m just looking forward to trying out these new songs on the road.
SUSANNE A. MAATHUIS