A conversation with Mike Sullivan
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Don Caballero can be a frightening reference point for reviewers. Don Cab was a great band - and perhaps still is [drummer Damon Che is now back with an otherwise new lineup] - but they influenced a lot of not-so-great instrumental bands who have been guided toward the type of post-rock drudgery that bravely throws away the road map but, in the end, could benefit from stopping to ask for directions. Russian Circles, fortunately, know when to stop, when to veer off onto the road less taken, and when to hop back onto a straight highway and just floor it. Many listeners will be introduced to the Chicago trio via their new record, Enter, and its standout tracks like "Carpe." But, as guitarist Mike Sullivan explains, you don't really know Russian Circles until you see them live. Sensitive types should bring their earplugs.
What led you three guys to starting a band together?
The bassist [Colin DeKuiper] and myself were in a band prior to this called Dakota/Dakota—it was instrumental, a little more mathy and tech-oriented. That came to an end around 2004. Our drummer, Dave [Turncrantz] was in a band called Riddle of Steel. We were friends with them and put out a split seven-inch. Dave and I have known each other since high school, we used to be in punk bands back in the day, and we’d always stayed in touch. I said, “You know what, we should move up here. Let’s do something together.” We started playing around September of 2004, with no plans of what we wanted to do. We didn’t know if it’d be instrumental or what, but after we wrote the first few songs, we thought it was good the way it was and kept plugging along.
Going back to the high school days, was there formal training involved? You wound up as a pretty technically impressive band.
Well, I think it was the different influences. In high school, we were into the standard punk stuff, but I also grew up as a metalhead. That’s where I drew a lot of influence. Dave was a huge Police fan and got into that earlier pop stuff. Colin is more in the Sonic Youth vein. We all have different tastes—but similar tastes at the same time. We’ve been playing our instruments for too long, and this is what happened.
All of us came from the punk rock thing, but kind of got bored with the whole formulaic verse-chorus-verse-chorus. Bands like Fugazi were the ones that got us to realize you could challenge traditional punk rock writing.
So when Russian Circles started to gel, there was something that you specifically wanted to avoid in the genre.
Yeah, just regurgitating the same crap that’s already out there, you know? Punk rock is in a sad state right now, I think. All the commercial success has had a negative effect, although a lot of bands will challenge what people hear on the radio and say, “Look, punk doesn’t have to be this bubblegum stuff. There’s a lot of roots and history to this music.” It’s all about the open mind and progression. Within the vein of a genre, you don’t have to do the same stuff, you can do whatever you want to do. So we wanted to not let any kind of strict writing process get in our way—if a part needs to happen, let’s do it, let’s repeat it, let’s let the music take itself where it needs to go.
Is this the one-and-only project for all three of you guys? Or are there other bands?
This is it for us. It’s pretty time-consuming. At the moment, this is it for us.
Some of the songs on Enter had initially appeared on your demo. I assume that they had been getting adjusted in a live setting for some time, then, before you took them into the studio?
Yeah, when we went in to record the full-length, we knew exactly how we wanted to transition from song to song. We wrote and recorded those songs for the demo and hadn’t played them live yet, we hadn’t really felt them out yet. This time, we knew exactly what we wanted to do and how we wanted certain parts to sound.
Instrumental bands will sometimes say that they feel like they, compared to bands with vocalists, have to work harder to keep the attention of an audience. Have you found that to be true in your own experience?
I don’t really think so. It’s a matter of not losing the audience by beating them over the head with the same part a million times. The more dynamics you have, the more the audience will feel involved. If they feel like they’re going up and down with the songs, that’s equally if not more engaging than lyrics and vocals. I like a lot of bands with vocals, obviously, but I’ll see bands and I love the music and then the vocals will chime in and I’ll stop paying attention to the song structure and I’m like “What’s he saying? How’s he singing?”
For people who have just experienced Russian Circles on recordings, how is the live show different?
The live show is like the CD up to 11…up to 100. It’s the same format, same songs, but there’s no way you can translate the live show into a CD, as much as you want to. I’m happy with how the album turned out, but after a live show I feel like that’s who we are.
What kind of a tour is in the works, then?
We have our record release show next week, and then we’re going out for ten or twelve days with Mono and Pelican. That’ll be a lot of fun. That’s throughout June. In July, we’re doing West Coast with Appleseed Cast and Criteria. We have a few more shows with the Minus the Bear guys, too—we’ve played on and off with them for the last month or so. Those guys are a great time. We love ‘em.
What’s the touring lifestyle like? Is it rock and roll decadence?
It’s…funny. So far, we haven’t been out on a long, long tour; we’ll go out for a number of weeks, come home for a few days, go back out for a few days. We snap back into reality really quick. We’ll be having fun and living it up on the road, then we come back and it’s like “Oh, yeah…jobs.” What makes us want to play music in the first place, to escape this.
But it’s funny how bands interact with each other and with other bands. Certain bands bring it, so to speak, more than other bands as far as hanging out, but everyone has been awesome. I’m so thankful for Flower [Booking] because we’ve played with a lot of their bands, and the best part about that is getting to watch those bands play, because they’re bands that we love.
Has radio airplay been a struggle? Is it even a concern?
It’s been fairly good so far because of college radio here. We don’t expect anything with our music—people can take it or leave it. It’s been positive on college radio. Commercial radio, we have absolutely no expectation. If something happens, great, that takes one more spot away from some dumb band that gets the kids to write bad music. (laughs)
Even in the absence of lyrics, are there specific narratives that go along with the songs, or that motivate the songwriting?
I wouldn’t say that. It’s more just emotional content. Writing can be tough, you can get frustrated, and that can come out in the music sometimes, whether you want it to or not.
Is the songwriting process always collaborative?
Yeah, mainly. One of us will have an idea and take it in and we’ll deconstruct it and see what parts we like, how we can grow. And then… (laughs) we practice way too much. We’ll go through a song and end up cutting 85 percent of what we originally had, then putting in new stuff. We’re concerned about having everything flow well together. If we don’t, it will be pretty obvious; that is different for instrumental bands, there’s no question about that. We want it to feel comfortable, but not predictable—or too disjointed. Either of those, and you lose people. Dave will keep Colin and I in check; we’ll write some ridiculous lines and he’s like, “What the hell is that?”
You guys didn’t work with a producer on the record. How come?
Well, the songs were written by us three, hanging out late at night and playing. We asked a friend of ours, Rob Lowe, who appears on the album at several points, but we didn’t really know what producing was. (laughs) We asked him to help out and he gave us some input, and maybe we changed the rhythm of one little part. In the studio, he’d say “Hey, maybe if we tried this or this,” just as far as texture, not really changing structure. So we said, “We’ll put you down as producer on the album.” He said, “I didn’t produce anything at all.” (laughs) “What a producer do?” “Help write songs.” “Oh, okay…those are out there? People have people who help them write songs?” Coming from where we come from, we’re not used to that. It’s just the three of us banging it out.
Changing gears a little for the last question, for those of us who know Elizabeth Elmore as a musician (The Reputation, Sarge), how is she as an attorney?
Oh, she’s a ballbreaker. Bitch is the wrong word, but she’s so aggressive and mean to us. Put that in bold at the top of everything. (laughs) No, she’s really nice, obviously, and she’s been really helpful to us. We don’t have a high income at this point whatsoever, and we weren’t too familiar with the Biz, if you will. She’d say, “Here’s what you should do, this might not be a good idea,” and she didn’t care about the money so much. She’s been very, very kind.
It’s also weird saying “attorney” or “lawyer” – those are not terms we’re fond of; we’re glad to have her, but it’s unfortunate we have to have a lawyer involved. We’re just here to have fun and play music. Having the whole legal side to think about is kind of a bummer.
Well, at least you didn’t end up with some stuffed shirt with an office in the Sears Tower.
Exactly. We’ll try to keep it as minimal as possible.