Russian Circles: Embracing a New Sound on Second Album

Dave Turncrantz, drummer for Chicago-based instrumental rock group Russian Circles, speculates, “I think that Chicago has its own sound, because it gets so cold in the winter people get bitter. Maybe it’s all the salt in the air.”

He is obviously at least half joking, but the facts are nothing to laugh at. Chicago has given an electric jolt to the blues, witnessed the birth of house music, and acted as a cornerstone of the blossoming independent music industry of the 80s and 90s.

Today, Chicago plays a prominent role in nearly every popularized style of music in America. Chicago’s music lovers have nurtured some of the least conventional and most inspirational artists in the history of independent rock and created an environment where newer bands are encouraged to write their own rules, and then break them.

“Chicago’s a very close network of musicians. It’s very open, very supportive. People go to see each other’s bands, and have split bills together. There is no question of it helping to shape our music,” says guitarist Mike Sullivan. Turncrantz adds, “There is no room for ego.”

Russian Circles are at the forefront of Chicago’s newest generation of musicians that deviate from the norm. After parting ways with bassist Colin DeKupier, they became a two-piece, although they continue to perform as a three-piece. Their recorded music is intense, dramatic, and at times a little intimidating, qualities that become even more pronounced in a live setting.

The overwhelmingly positive response to both their debut album Enter (Flameshovel) and their emotive live performances has brought them into national consciousness. Anticipation for their upcoming release, Station (Suicide Squeeze) featuring These Arms Are Snakes’ Brian Cook on bass, is quickly mounting. Their blend of ethereal melodies with crushing heavy rock, has traversed boundaries between die-hard fans of instrumental, progressive, post-rock, and metal genres and a growing audience enjoying these styles for the first time.

Sullivan and Turncrantz met in Missouri while still in high school. They both joined and later quit the same local punk band. Sullivan made the move to Chicago, partially for college, but also because, “All my favorite bands were from Chicago, so I moved up here to [using quote marks for sarcastic effect] ‘immerse myself in the scene.’ I was hoping to get something going up here.” He began playing in mathy instrumental outfit Dakota/Dakota with DeKupier. Back in St. Louis, Turncrantz drummed in punk-influenced rock group, Riddle of Steel.

After Dakota/Dakota broke up in 2004, the friends discovered a mutual desire to play music with a heavier sound. Sullivan drove to St. Louis for a practice session, and the two wrote parts for what would later become “Carpe,” first released on their 2005 self-titled, self-released EP and later as first track on their debut full-length, 2006’s Enter (Flameshovel). Turncrantz moved to Chicago, and after experimenting with instrumentation and lineups, they settled as a three piece, with DeKupier on bass guitar.

A few months after their first practice, the group released a self-titled EP and began touring the Midwest. They became known for their captivating live shows; Turncrantz’s unique drumming style and Sullivan’s fondness for finger tapping helped the group develop a reputation as highly skilled musicians.

The band also drew attention for Sullivan’s use of a looping pedal, which at times makes the band sound more like an army of musicians than a three piece. Sullivan says that it lends itself well to communicating ideas and escaping the confines of genre, but also, “It’s kind of limiting in some ways. Once you loop something you can’t change, so the structure is very set and there’s not much room for improv within the riff itself. It’s the way DJs look at music; the part or the song will progress by adding parts and taking away, rather than changing individual notes within a passage.”

Equally noted was the absence of a singer. As it turns out, Russian Circles was never intended to be an instrumental project. At first they debated over who would sing, but soon realized, as Sullivan explains, “There was too much shit going on. Before we knew it…vocals would be a distraction.” Turncrantz adds “[vocals] would just clusterfuck it.”

Russian Circles believe that playing instrumental music opens up a broader range of interpretations of the music’s mood. Sullivan says, “We don’t have a singer, and we play kind of heavier stuff. Once you have a dude screaming on top of it, people get really turned off and don’t want to listen to it. Same with the quiet stuff, hearing someone bitch and moan. People who are more metal hear it and think ‘What the fuck is that?’ and vice versa ‘It’s too heavy, why are you so angry?’”

He concedes, “I think it’s weird that instrumental music now seems like it’s a new thing. Groups like Trans Am and Don Caballero have always written simple, but memorable and easy to grasp music. Even bands like Tortoise come from that, easier ideas being built up.”

Enter was recorded with Greg Norman at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studios and released on Chicago-based Flameshovel Records. Turncrantz says “When we recorded the demo, we were driving home listening to it, thinking it could have the worst reception or the best reception, I had no idea.”

After the May 2006 release of the six-song LP, Russian Circles cultivated a steadily growing stream of fans, much of it through word of mouth — the organic buzz that corporate executives salivate just thinking about because it is something that money just can’t buy. Sullivan says, “There wasn’t a whole lot of instant press about it, which was good for us. We toured non-stop for a year and a half by doing that. It was a slow and steady thing, it wasn’t out of nowhere. We opened for a shitload of bands and met awesome people. I’m thankful we had that.”

Aside from the constant touring, they attribute much of their growing recognition to the Internet, noting that a lot of people are buying Enter after discovering it online, two years after its release.

When Russian Circles began to develop material for their second album, Turncrantz and Sullivan headed away from many of the proggy, technical characteristics of their first record in favor of a more stripped-down approach. Of Enter, Turncrantz says, “I listened to it maybe four times afterwards, always thinking ‘I don’t know what’s going on right now. What the fuck am I playing? Why am I doing that?’ I think the more catchy and simple it is, the more people who wouldn’t normally like instrumental music will be drawn towards it. I love bands like Hella, but I couldn’t tell you the third song on the record, I couldn’t hum it for you. I want a CD I can actually listen to from start to finish.”

Sullivan says “A lot of people want to get shred happy and you don’t need to do it.” But not everyone was in agreement. The conversation turns serious as Sullivan and Turncrantz describe how they parted ways with DeKupier last year. Sullivan explains, “[Colin] wasn’t that excited by where we were going. I think he was happier going a different way…. We sat down at a bar, and we all knew why we were meeting. The question “why” wasn’t asked once. It was a mutual understanding.”

Turncrantz says, “Mike and I work really, really well together. It’s funny, we’ll write a part and change it at the same time, like we don’t even look at each other, we just know it should change. And when there is someone who isn’t on that level, it definitely holds us back and takes us a lot longer to create and complete a song. When we parted ways with Colin it was a relief, musically. Writing was a relief and songs just came out.”

That wasn’t the only change they made. Sullivan explains “The last record was a Chicago label, recorded in Chicago, everything was Chicago. We love Chicago but we just felt that it was the best thing for us to try something new.” They signed with Seattle-based Suicide Squeeze Records, who had released their 2006 single “Upper Ninety,” and arranged to record with producer Matt Bayles (Isis, Pearl Jam). The eclectic label felt like a good fit for them because, as Sullivan spells out “There are no expectations because they are more an indie label than a heavy label.” However, he quips “Matt Bayles is known for heavier stuff, so it’s a good juxtaposition of the indie/metal world.”

Turncrantz says that working with bassist Brian Cook was a pleasure. “With his writing mindset, we were all the same page. We would write stuff the day we went into the studio, like the end of “Verses.” We wrote the part right then and there and it’s one of my favorite parts on the record.” Although Cook has already agreed to work on their third album when the time comes, chances are, he’ll never join the group as a full-time member. After all, he already has a full-time band with These Arms are Snakes, a commitment Turncrantz and Sullivan would never disturb. They also aren’t sure they even want a permanent third member. Turncrantz says, “I like the structure we have right now, because it feels good, refreshing to play with different bass players. So I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Russian Circles took their time on the cross-country drive from Chicago to Red Room Recording in Seattle, which Bayles co-owns with Chris Common. They spent a few relaxing days sightseeing in places such as Yellowstone National Park, and the effects of the peaceful trip can be felt in their recordings. “Not to be lame,” Sullivan says, “but the drive out there definitely affected the mood of the record. It made it a bit prettier.”

The record does have a distinctly open, airy feel. True to their vision, it is more accessible than their previous material, demonstrated by delicate opening number “Campaign,” and somber “Versus.” That’s not to say that they’ve lost their edge, if riff-heavy “Station” and thrash-inducing, heart-pounding “Youngblood” are any indication. Although it is a bit of a departure from their first record, it retains trademarks of their sound. No song maintains the same mood throughout its entirety. Listening to either Russian Circles album is to course though a huge gamut of emotions.

Turncrantz anticipates a surprised reaction from their audience in response to their evolving sound. “People don’t understand, they think they’re going to buy a record, and it’s going to be real noodley, like Enter. Before we did the new record we were like ‘Dude, it’s going to be massive, its going to be so heavy!” and of course, all the songs turn out to be really pretty.’ That’s what we’re going for. We wanted to write more of a timeless record that people could listen to ten years later.”