Russian Circles Guitarist Mike Sullivan on the Band’s New Instrumental Epic, ‘Guidance’

The guitarist discusses collaboration with Kurt Ballou, touring with Tool, Chicago pizza, and much more

Russian Circles interview

Russian Circles (Brian Cook, Mike Sullivan, Dave Turncrantz). Photo by Ryan Russell

Stalwart instrumental trio Russian Circles have forged their own path in the music industry. The Chicago rock band is over a decade into its career, and they continue to broaden their musical palette and experiment with genre boundaries. The band’s sixth album, Guidance (available August 5th, preorder here), is their first collaboration with producer Kurt Ballou. According to Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan, the album explores the band’s “really dark and dissonant” side while also venturing into “overtly melodic” territory. Listen to the alternately introspective and menacing cut ‘Vorel’ below.

Earlier this month, the band was forced to cancel a few gigs due to a car accident that hospitalized Sullivan. I spoke with Sullivan recently for a discussion about his recovery (which, thankfully, sounds to be going well), the creative process of Guidance, and much more.

Dan Redding: I know you’ve been recovering from a car accident during the last few weeks – how are you feeling?

Mike Sullivan: Yeah, that was somethin’ – I’m getting better day by day here. Unfortunately, we had to cancel a few shows. It was an unfortunate accident, but it’s the kind of thing where I feel blessed to be walking and talking, because it was a pretty gnarly one. It could’ve been a lot worse on my end. The other car didn’t fare so well. It was an ugly situation, but I’m taking it easy and letting the painkillers do the work for now. I’m gonna be good. I appreciate you asking.

Well I’m glad you’re starting to feel better. I want to discuss Guidance. What impact did working with Kurt Ballou have on the new album?

He had a significant part. He was somebody we wanted to work with for a number of years. We always kind of avoided it because it seemed too obvious. A lot of our friends were going with him, and we tried to not do the obvious choice. But once he showed enthusiasm – as did we – to work on this record together, we hit it off right away. It was really smooth. It was productive – every day there, we were getting stuff done. He would always have ideas for us, or a different tone to throw on top of an existing track that was complimentary to the overall mix. It was cool. It was fun.

Did he have an impact on songwriting?

The songs were all fleshed out. They were all arranged, and a done deal. Maybe here or there, he’d say, ‘I could hear that one part coming back at the end of the song for a few more measures,’ but his expertise lied in serving a song and finding what tonally needed to happen, how to carve the mix out to make each instrument speak loudly and make room for one another. Each one of us – we wouldn’t settle for anything until we were truly happy. There was one delay pattern that I wasn’t totally comfortable with. I’d tell myself I was cool with it, and then I’d hear it back, and be like, ‘Kurt, I’m sorry man – it’s just not there for me yet. I’m not hearing it.’

You have a reputation as having a refined sense of the sound you’re looking for, and for knowing your gear really well. So does Kurt – he has a reputation for auditioning gear and fine-tuning sounds. Were you guys able to bond over that?

Yeah, I think there was some common respect there as far as how we approach things. We have different tones as guitar players, but it was fun to articulate how I wanted it to sound, and go through a plethora of amps … and I’d be able to find the sound without struggling [to communicate my goal to Kurt]. At the end of the day, we wanted a warm yet clear sound, which is sometimes two opposite things. He was able to help dial that in with the right configuration of amps and cabinets. Elsewhere, on previous records, we wouldn’t spend as much time honing in on the guitar tone. This is the first time I’ve recorded with a guitar-playing producer/engineer, so he really got what I was saying, and we could really get right into it and plow through every combination possible until we found something that really satisfied us.

Kurt’s band Converge played possibly the heaviest and loudest live show I’ve ever seen in my life. Did he bring out your aggressive tendencies at all, as a guitarist or as a songwriter?

Not so much as a songwriter, but again, back to the tonal aspect – he would never say, ‘That’s too distorted,’ or ‘That’s too blown out,’ ‘That’s too compressed.’ Usually in the studio, you’re kind of told, ‘Hey, take it easy man, pump the breaks, that’s getting a little too sizzle-y.’ … Kurt’s always game to throw it up there and see how it sounds. He never said no. He’s always like, ‘Cool, let’s give that a shot and see if we can make that work.’ He definitely encouraged me to mess around with different tones.

Can you describe the process of writing the song ‘Vorel’?

That one was pieced together through different riffs. Typically, songs start off with me working on riffs on my own. Then Dave and I start messing around, to see how they’re working out together – the different parts of songs. … [‘Vorel’] was, for the most part, all written in advance, just messin’ around with riffs. Then some of it just kind of happened with finding out, ‘oh this launches into the next part in a really cool way to us,’ and pursuing that. That’s another instance of Kurt in the studio, helping out with melodies and then entertaining all kinds of ideas of low mix countermelodies and harmonies happening, supporting the main riff. It’s a very simple song, very minimal structure to it – but with all the underlying melodies, it winds up being more of a dynamic song.

Russian Circles interview

Photo by Ryan Russell

Does that writing process change over the years – or is that a pretty set process at this point?

More so the latter. It is kind of what we’ve fallen into, comfort-wise. It seems most productive, so we don’t go to a practice space without any ideas. … There’s a lot of pre-work on my end – just kind of organizing what songs kinda play well together, and then getting together with Dave. Once we hear Dave on there, it changes the feel of the song. They start unfolding in a different direction than I thought they would. In a cool way. The more brains you get on the song, it gets more interesting – without it being too much, cause there’s only three of us. Once Brian steps in, the presence of the low end will make more room for myself to step back, or for him and Dave to lock in on various parts. It’s kind of a three-fold process.

What can you tell me about the schedule and work ethic when you and Dave are writing?

I love playing guitar, so I’m just playing every day, and recording riffs every day. They’re all over the map, whether they’re heavy, or more folk-oriented, or weird, drone-type ambient stuff. … Usually it’s just me taking my time for months and months, having fun with different ideas. And once we’re ready to start arranging the songs, Dave and I will go down [to rehearsal] and casually have fun. There’s enough material to draw from, it’s never like, ‘Oh shit, now what do we do?’ It’s always several fingers in the pie – different pies. It’s like, ‘Okay, this is not working, let’s try this other one. Cool.’

It’s not really intense labor until we get to the studio. Then it’s working as much as you can on the work day, then afterwards, working out melodies and other ideas that’re coming out more so in the studio, and you wanna alter something or work something out more that didn’t quite sound right. In the studio, that’s pretty obsessive-compulsive – just really zeroing in on what’s working and how we can make it better. Otherwise, it’s pretty casual and we try to make sure it’s fun. When we’re stressed out or not on the same page, it’s not productive. If we go to the space and nothing’s working, we just go home. It’s not productive to force it. You can’t just work hard; you have to be in the right headspace, we’ve learned.

There are vocals on your previous album, Memorial. Are there any vocals on Guidance?

No, not on this one. We thought about it. This was the first record where it’s just all three of us – no friends or guest musicians. We were gonna have some people sing, but the more we talked about it, we thought it’d be cool to let it sit with just us three.

I want to ask about another producer. Russian Circles recorded two albums in Steve Albini’s studio, and I know that Albini’s work made an impression on you as a teenager. What’s your relationship with Steve Albini?

We have never worked with Steve directly. We’ve worked at the studio, so we’ve met him in passing at the studio. I can only say great things about him. He’s a humorous, level-headed guy when it comes to recording records. We’ve never recorded with him because the way he records isn’t quite the way we prefer to record, oddly enough. I love what he’s done with a lot of my favorite bands. The way we operate – we don’t like to just throw up the mic and say, ‘this is us as a band.’ That’s a lot of his ethos, and how he likes to approach recording. Whereas, we like to really have total freedom to do whatever we want – if we want to compress something hard and do that, or do stuff via Pro Tools, and have the freedom to mess with stuff and not just go the tape route. We’ve done that a few times, and I enjoy the approach of recording to tape, because you get it in your head: ‘Okay, let’s make this take count.’ There is a different feel to the playing on analog recordings. I can’t say much about Steve – personally working with him – we’ve never sought that out. But the studio’s amazing. By far one of the best studios I’ve ever set foot in. I’m sure we’ll end up there at some point again. Such a beautiful-sounding place and comfortable to be in.

“I think that people trust our music and what we are inclined to follow, and will trust that we’re doing what we think is interesting.”

Did you grow up in Chicago?

Dave and I both grew up in St. Louis. We played in punk bands together in St. Louis, and always stayed in touch. Then I came to Chicago for college, and Dave and I stayed in touch. I convinced him to come to Chicago. Then we started Russian Circles in 2004.

When did you start playing the guitar?

Fourth grade or so. My brother and I both got a guitar for my birthday. That led to the biggest fight ever. My parents realized right away that it was a horrible idea – we just fought over the guitar constantly. They quickly got a second guitar to alleviate the headaches.

Having an older brother was the kind of thing where he said, ‘Here’s Metallica. Here’s Pantera. Here’s Fugazi – here’s all this music.’ He was kind of my lifeline for good music. He kind of curated what I got into for the first ten years or so. That set me off on the races down the path. From the get go, I had fun playing in rock bands, and always gravitated towards heavier stuff, whether it be punk or metal bands. I was always learning – learning trial by fire, pretty much, by not quite getting it right for a long time. But having fun. Having fun playing guitar is one of the best ways to learn, because you’ll keep playing and picking up things through experience.

What was the name of your first band and how old were you?

The first band was called Powerhouse, and that was fourth grade. We covered Van Halen songs, Metallica, the Beatles. All that stuff. We had a few originals. The kind of thing where we’d play a party at a friend’s house. I remember we played one song first, and thought it was really cool. … We ran out of songs and played the first song again to end the set. We played ‘You Really Got Me,’ the Kinks song. I had no idea it was a Kinks song – I only knew the Van Halen version. Five years later I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m an asshole, I had no idea that was a Kinks song.’

I think that’s an excusable mistake from a fourth grader!

[laughs] Fair enough.

You know? That’s kind of amazing that you were writing original songs and playing house parties in fourth grade.

I’m sure we sucked. We had the benefit of teachers thinking we were cute – little kids playing rock. We played at school assemblies and that kind of thing. It was a lot of fun for us. Something to get into besides sports at that age.

I read an interview where you discussed being something of an introverted person. When Russian Circles started to gain popularity, what was that adjustment like?

I still am, I’d say, rather introverted. Once I’m comfortable, I’m comfortable, you know? It’s been such a gradual growth with the band that nothing has seemed like a giant step. It’s been twelve or thirteen years now. Nothing seemed out of our grasp, or like we were getting into water that was too deep. It’s funny – playing shows is totally fun, I have zero problem playing shows. I don’t get nervous, don’t get worried about it. But being in public spaces – I’d rather not do that, you know? It’s funny. Unless I’m playing with a friend’s band, on guitar, playing their songs with them – that’s when I feel kind of uncomfortable and nervous. But with our own songs, it’s second nature, so not a whole lot can go wrong. I shouldn’t say that – it can, but thankfully it doesn’t too often.

As far as the growth, it’s nothing that’s happened too intimidating. It’s been very comfortable. You get to meet people and learn from other people. It comes very organically. You just keep working to the best of your ability, and realize that it could all end so quickly. There’s no room for ego or any of that, you know? My favorite musicians end up being the coolest people as far as keeping their humility and loving music in general. That’s what saves most bands – is staying huge music fans. That’s what keeps them interested in writing and learning. It comes down to love of music. That helps you overcome everything, as far as any apprehension about anything socially.

Russian Circles has been around longer than most contemporary hard rock bands. You guys have a devoted, solid foundation of fans. What do you find has changed the most over the years – does it get easier?

To a certain extent, it does get easier. Basically, the fan base grows, just by nature of the duration of time. Hopefully, with each record, we retain a certain amount of those listeners and fans. I’m sure we’ll lose some here and there, with different writing, or just different strokes of life for people – but we already have a captive ear…

And it gets easier as far as you learn how to tour better. How to be more respectful of your bandmates. How to be more respectful of the clubs and the promoters. You don’t want to leave a reputation of being a rude band. It’s easier to be nice people and go through life expecting that you’ll see most of those people again, you know? Things happen here and there with certain people, and you have to trust your gut – if something doesn’t feel right, or you let them know, ‘hey, this isn’t working.’ But it’s like any other business: it behooves you to take it seriously and respect those around you who are helping you, or attending your shows, or buying your records, or playing shows with you – whether you’re opening for them or they’re opening for you. We’ve learned so much from other bands who’ve done it right. That really resonates with us – to treat people with respect.

Russian Circles interview

During your long career, you’ve also seen a lot of change in the music industry – it’s been turned on its head during your career. How has the band’s strategy for making income changed over the past decade?

We don’t consider that too much. We’re more concerned about touring smart, not hard. … First things first, it’s make the best record we can, or what we’re pleased with. And then if those songs aren’t good and don’t live up to what we expect, then that’s the first problem. All the support in the world with a bad record is not going to help out as much as having a strong record with support around it. You need both support and you need a good record. But it all comes down to writing is the name of the game, and performing at a caliber you’re happy with. With every tour, we’re aware of how we can get stronger and better live. Always making changes with our gear to make things smoother and more interesting. There’s always another bar to reach to get better as a band live, and in the studio, and writing.

In terms of those advancements in playing, were there specific advancements that happened on Guidance, in terms of playing or equipment?

As far as writing, each record we try to spread out a little further stylistically. Just further spread the web each record, and go into new territory without it being weird or off-putting. Some of this record has some really gnarly moments that are really dark and dissonant. Other songs – well, even the same song – can be overtly pop-feeling. That kind of weirds us out, or weirds me out. But if it’s resonating with you, don’t question it… Some of those parts, we’re pushing ourselves into territory where we wouldn’t usually go. And not overthinking it. We may lose some people, we may not, I don’t even know.

“Some of this record has some really gnarly moments that are really dark and dissonant. Other songs – well, even the same song – can be overtly pop-feeling.”

Who wants to do the same record over? It’s always fun to say, hey, let’s do something different. Not just for the sake of it – but if something comes up that seems right, let’s pursue that and check it out.

In the past when you have tried new things and surprised your fans, is that fun – to see the audience’s reaction? Like if you release a song online and people are surprised? You mentioned this poppy direction; that might surprise people. Is that fun to do?

For me, it’s nerve-wracking. I don’t like thinking about it. I’m not trying to mess with anybody – it’s just, here’s the music, and whether you connect with it, if it has some emotional merit to you, that’s the point of it. And I don’t know if ‘poppy’ is the right word to use, but maybe just overtly melodic. We are curious though. Certain songs – I don’t know what people will make of them. … Who knows? I still don’t know what to expect or what people will think of the record. I think that’s okay. I don’t assume that people will like it the same way that we did when we wrote it. I think that’s naïve – expecting too much.

I think that people trust our music and what we are inclined to follow, and will trust that we’re doing what we think is interesting. And will be on board with our taste and instincts.

You toured with Tool in 2007. What do you remember of that experience?

We really can’t say enough good things about that. Earlier, I mentioned how we learned from other bands being polite and cool to other people. Tool was one of those bands that went out of their way – we only did three shows with them in the U.K., but they treated us so well and introduced themselves to us. Adam, their guitar player, helped us out in a rough spot. My amps weren’t working one night. He came to our door and introduced himself. He told me he’d have his guitar tech set up a whole rig behind mine in case anything didn’t work out. It really disarmed everybody, and made it really comfortable to be there. It wasn’t intimidating. We knew their crowd could be kind of brutal to opening bands – bands we love that are much bigger than us that have opened for them, and hearing them get booed, we were pretty much ready for whatever was thrown our way.

When first played that show in London, I wore a hat onstage. I walked out there, not really worried, but just ready to go play our set. Right when we walked out there, someone yelled, ‘Nice hat, f**got!’ I looked at Dave, like, ‘Dude, strap in, man. This might be the most brutal half hour of our lives.’ But thankfully, everybody kinda got it. Their crowd piped down, and the crowd was actually receptive and cool.

Maynard, he sticks to himself, and that’s fine, I knew that. Isis toured with them, and they didn’t really have much interaction with him. I can’t say anything bad about the guy. I respect that he wants privacy… Tool couldn’t have been nicer. I can’t really say enough about how cool of an experience it was for us, as fans, just to be treated so welcoming by a band of that stature.

As you look at the road ahead for Russian Circles, I’m sure the main goal is making great albums and touring behind them – but are there other specific goals that you have for the band?

There’s not so much goals, but we are open-minded about what comes our way. There’s no, ‘We need to do a live album,’ or, ‘We need to do a cool video.’ But if the opportunity presented itself, and it seemed like a good fit, I think that’d be fun to do, just to keep things interesting. We talk about different ideas… I think it’d be cool to document more live footage of us three playing in the studio, just to see what we sound like in that snapshot of time. I like seeing bands being documented like that… A little portrait of where they are at that point in their career.

If you have a friend to visit Chicago, what’s on the schedule for the first day?

Chicago is such a food-driven city, that I’d take them to so many different restaurants. They’d gain twenty pounds. I like to see the city – hop in a car and check out the spots. There’s so much to see. … If a friend came here in February, I’d say, dude, get the fuck out of here. Unless you’re going to the bar… This city totally transforms, there’s not a lot of hubbub and action on the streets come winter. You’ve gotta take advantage of the summer.

Do you eat a lot of pizza, or is that more of a touristy stereotype?

That’s a tourist thing, I feel like. The whole Chicago deep dish pizza thing – when everybody moves here, you have a few slices, then you feel like a sack of shit. Each slice weighs about five pounds and you just go into a food coma. I prefer thin crust. Most people here do. Like you said, the whole deep dish thing is kind of a tourist thing to do. But yeah, there’s so much good food here. … I haven’t had a deep dish in probably eight years or so. When someone orders a box of it delivered to their house, you’d think you have a twenty-five pound weight in there. It’s fucking hilarious. You look at each other, like, ‘We’re fucked. There’s no way we can do this. We’re gonna try to do this, and we’re gonna die at the end of the night.’ But if you haven’t done it, it’s worth checking out.

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