“I look at young people in bands and I can’t help but wince.”
With the recent release of Guidance, Russian Circles is now six albums deep in a career staked on instrumental post-metal that can be both bleak and beautiful. Few other bands can shift between darkness and light with such aplomb, especially without the aid of a vocalist. We touched base with bassist Brian Cook to discuss the new album, getting older in the music industry, the highs and lows of 10-plus years of touring and whether they’d ever consider recording a full-length collaboration with a vocalist like Chelsea Wolfe.
The cover to your new album, Guidance, depicts a military scene of a stoic man being led to his execution. I understand this was a photo that, along with others, was received with very little context from a war veteran. To what extent did these photos serve as inspiration for the music on this latest album?
Truthfully? None whatsoever. I know a lot of artists work with a muse of some kind. And I know a lot of artists like to have a concept before they start their work. We don’t work that way. We just compose a bunch of music, find the bits and pieces that resonate most with us, and then try to find some sort of subconscious impulse behind all of it. I think it’s more interesting to allow gut instinct to guide music and then try to decipher what it all means rather than trying to impose some abstract idea into sound waves.
After working with the same producer over the past few albums, what was it like to switch things up and record Guidance with Kurt Ballou at his GodCity Studio?
It was great. We really enjoyed working with Brandon Curtis on the last few records. And having a studio like Electrical Audio just down the street from [guitarist] Mike [Sullivan] was a real privilege. But it’s also nice to mix things up and hunker down in Salem, Massachusetts and really immerse ourselves in the recording process. It’s nice to have the creature comforts of your own home to look forward to at the end of a day of recording, but it was also refreshing to work in relative isolation without distractions and other commitments.
Russian Circles has always seemed to work in contrasts, capturing both beauty and ugliness, light and darkness. This is especially evident on Guidance. There’s been plenty of ugliness in the world lately. Do you derive inspiration from our society’s current climate, or do you turn elsewhere to capture these two poles of the human condition?
Darkness is inevitable. My husband and I were talking about celebrity suicides a while ago, and specifically how people tend to look at those deaths and think, “They had money and fame, why were they so unhappy?” But here were these people that had everything, and it still wasn’t enough. That must be so depressing. The more we sanitize the world and try to insulate ourselves against ugliness, the more inexplicably unhappy we become. I think we need that reminder of darkness and misery to make us appreciate what we have. And that’s why we gravitate to music that is uncomfortable and unpleasant. It fortifies us against harsh realities.
Congratulations on passing your 10th anniversary. That is a long time for any band to stick together. What do you credit for your longevity?
We’re old. Seriously. I look at young people in bands and I can’t help but wince. I’m not talking trash on the younger generation; I was a crappy bandmate in my younger years, too. I was irresponsible, selfish, anxious. I had a terrible work ethic. Your worldview is so much more limited. You make terrible decisions based on listening to the wrong people. We were lucky that we’d all been in other bands before and had gotten the bulk of that out of our systems. I’m still irresponsible, selfish and anxious, but I do a better job of hiding it now, which makes me a little bit more bearable to be around for weeks at a time. Hopefully.
What were some of the top moments during that run? Which shows do you consider the most triumphant and why?
Honestly, some of my favorite shows have been pretty recent. Our set at Hellfest last summer was one of my favorite experiences on stage ever. Similarly, playing dunk!festival in Belgium and Desertfest in London this spring were both really incredible experiences. Playing in St. Petersburg, Russia back in 2008 was a real trip. There were 2,000 people there. We couldn’t believe it. We’ve been really fortunate to have some amazing shows in places we’d never dreamed of playing—places like Serbia and Singapore. All of those shows felt very triumphant.
How about some low points? Any shows going horribly wrong or bad interactions with the crowd?
We build a lot of our songs around loops that we layer up over the course of the songs. If a loop gets off, or if the pedals we use malfunction, it can derail a whole song. We had to stop a song in Metz, France on this last tour because it simply wasn’t salvageable. When you rely on technology in that capacity, then sometimes you have those moments. Fortunately, we haven’t had a lot of bad interactions with crowds. I remember once on my first tour with the band, we played in Brooklyn and some guy yelled “connect with your crowd!” between songs. Like, he wanted witty between-song banter or something. We were happy to disappoint him. On a recent tour, some guy in the crowd was trying to ingratiate himself by rolling cans of cider to us across the stage. In the process, he knocked over a full beer onto my foot keyboard and shorted it out. That meant having to cut songs from our set. It was a really nice beer too, and I’m not a cider fan. Good intentions, bad delivery.
You like to play with minimal lights on you. Why do you prefer to play in darkness?
We’re shy. And we like to be in total control of our performance. And that’s easier to pull off if you have your own lights. Also, it discourages people from spending the whole set trying to take pictures on their phones. Or maybe it means that people have to spend more time getting a decent picture. Fuck. Maybe we need to rethink this.
I’m always curious how bands who make instrumental music name their tracks. How do you name yours?
First and foremost, phonetics. And we like ambiguity. Most titles are references to things in our lives. They’re places and people that have played a part in the band’s existence. They’re hat tips and inside references for those close to us, and mysterious markers for everyone else.
What about “1777”? Where did that one come from?
Chelsea Wolfe’s vocals on 2013’s “Memorial” is such a perfect moment. Have you thought of doing an entire album of songs with her or another vocalist?
We wouldn’t be opposed to doing more collaborations, but doing a full album with vocals might require a bit more logistics than we’d be willing to deal with. We love “Memorial,” but it’s a bummer we’ve only had the opportunity to play it with Chelsea a handful of times. I don’t think I’d want to commit a year’s worth of work to making an album that we never get to play live. But we’ll see what happens.