Chicago-based instrumental trio Russian
Circles takes its name from a hockey maneuver that
involves skating in circles—a fitting moniker considering
the band’s combination of brute muscularity
and fleet dexterity, and the key role that looping
plays in the music, particularly when layering guitars
during live performances. Although typically billed
as a “metal” band, Russian Circles largely eschews
the drastically detuned guitars, relentless rapid-fire
riffing, and highly technical soloing endemic to the
genre. The band can be monstrously heavy, pummeling
an audience with the best of them, but there’s
majesty to the mayhem. An uncanny mastery of dissonance
fused with keen dynamics and a minimalistic,
almost serial melodic sense results in beautifully
foreboding soundscapes of cinematic scope. On Russian
Circles’ fourth album, Empros [Sargent House],
guitarist Mike Sullivan, bassist Brian Cook, and drummer
Dave Turncrantz have further concentrated those
elements into what may be their masterpiece.
Russian Circles is in some ways the antithesis of the average
hyper-technical metal band. What put you on that course?
My last band was also an instrumental band, and
we were a bit more technical, though not in the sense
of over-the-top death metal-type sweep arpeggios. I
can’t even make that happen, so that’s not a
concern. But when Dave and I started Russian
Circles, we decided to keep things really
simple, and to focus more on song structure
and on groove. It was challenging at first,
partly because there weren’t a lot of reference
points for what we were trying to do. But the
simpler and more malleable the song structure,
the more freeing it is, because you can
take the music in any direction from there.
Describe your compositional process.
Usually, I’ll come up with a ton of different
riffs and ideas that are compatible, and
I’ll let Brian and Dave sift through them—
mostly Dave initially—and see what works.
Say I have five parts for a song and two work
out—cool. And once we begin jamming and
developing ideas we may end up ditching the
original idea or ideas entirely if something
else feels good to everybody. We’ve also been
recording our rehearsals so we can refer to
them, which is something I’ve known I should
do for 20 years but haven’t, kind of like playing
with a metronome. You never do it and
then when you finally do you’re like, “Son
of a bitch, this is great!”
What guitars did you play on the new record?
I mostly played a Gibson Les Paul Custom
that has a Dirty Fingers ceramic bridge pickup
and a 498T alnico neck pickup. The Dirty
Fingers has a lot of body, which I like, and
the combination works well for me. I also
have a stock ’57 Les Paul Reissue with a
pair of 57 Classic Vintage humbuckers in it.
One thing we did differently this time was
to double a lot of parts with a Fender Jazzmaster,
which blended well with the thick
Les Paul tones on both distorted and mellower
parts, and added clarity and definition.
There’s also a Gibson Sonex 180 on a
few tracks, and I played a Larrivee acoustic
on the intro to “Atackla,” an Alvarez acoustic
on “Schiphol,” and an inexpensive nylonstring
here and there. I string the electrics
with Dean Markley strings, gauged .011–.
Do you ever play in standard tuning?
I do for educational purposes, but not with
the band. I took a huge break from standard
tuning and going back to it has been a lot of
fun. But the more I play in standard, the more
I’m writing riffs, and I’m like, “Oh crap, now
I’ll have to bring another guitar on stage.”
What tunings are you playing in?
“Schiphol” and “Atackla” are played in
DADGAD, and “Mladek” and “Batu” are
played in a variation of DADGAD, with the
first and sixth strings dropped down to Db.
On “309,” I also drop the fifth string down
to Ab, because I missed having a low power
chord in open position. They’re tunings that
make no sense, but I’m really happy with
how dissonant and disgusting they sound.
Speaking of “309,” how are you getting that
massive tone on the dissonant drone section?
That was re-tracked several times because
it was almost too over the top, and there are
all kinds of guitars coming and going, including
the Jazzmaster. Most of the tone was
coming from a Sunn Model T Reissue with
just a little bit of distortion, set at like 4 or
5. The really gnarly, out-of-control sound is a
Z.Vex Fuzz Factory. I could just be in a room
with it all day having a good time—limitless
tonal options there—and it’s amazing how
it cuts through even heavily distorted parts.
Of course, if something bumps the knobs
and they move even a fraction of an inch, it
can change the sound completely. When that
happens at a sound check the dudes in the
band are like, “What’s Mike up to? Checking
the damn Fuzz Factory. I’m going to go
have a smoke.”
What about the tones on “Schiphol”?
The mock organ part was done with an
Electro-Harmonix P.O.G., and the P.O.G. is
also used to get the low-end notes in the
heavy part, though there is also a ton of stuff
on top of that, which is mostly harmonized
chords and my version of a solo. That’s all
with a wah going through the fuzz—a classic
combination that sounds awesome. The
wah is expressive like a voice, and I like using
it to slowly filter the sound of the fuzz, so
each note sounds a little different. The really
heavy tone on that tune is a combination of
guitar and bass. We doubled some lines and
then lined them up in the mix rather than
separating them out.
What other pedals are you using?
My main distortion pedal is a Fulltone
PlimSoul. If I want a little more grit and
girth I’ll add in a Fulltone OCD, and if I want
to push things even further I’ll kick in an
MXR Micro Amp. Those three are in addition
to the Fuzz Factory. My live signal path
is guitar, wah, volume pedal, Fuzz Factory,
OCD, PlimSoul, Micro Amp, various delay
and reverb pedals, and the Akai Head Rush
looping pedal. We also got a TONEbUTCHer
Pocket Pus pedal just before recording, which
we used for some of the noisier stuff. It is a
tiny pedal that runs on a watch battery and
looks totally innocent—but it creates the
most heinous noises in the world.
Do you ever have all of the distortion and boost
pedals on at the same time?
Yeah. For example, I got one of the tones
on “309” by having all of them on at once.
And having the fuzz in an unconventional
place in the chain makes it sound a little
weirder and more muffled in a good way.
So, you prefer to get distortion with pedals
rather than with an amp?
Generally, and although I do combine distortion
pedals sometimes, I prefer using as
few pedals in the studio as possible. Also,
the studio is a little more forgiving in terms
of which amps give you the perfect clean
sound, but live an amp also has to be loud.
My favorite amp right now is the Verellen
Meatsmoke, a 300-watt tube amp that was
designed for both bass and guitar. But if I
have a backline rental, the first thing I do
is dial in the maximum clean volume, and
then I’ll work my pedals around that. When
we did some shows in Australia on the last
tour, I played through a vintage Orange and
it sounded great. I was like, “That’s it. No
wonder Tony Iommi and you name it used
those back in the day.” Something’s been
lost since then.
Looping is a big part of how you reproduce the
sounds on your albums live.
Yeah, and the Head Rush has proven to
be the most reliable and efficient as far as
live looping. During a straight up section of
a song, when I’m playing with a drummer,
I’ll generally just use a single loop. I’ll do two
or even three loops in some cases, but that
tends to muddy things up pretty quickly, and
if the drummer can’t hear the main loop that
means trouble. During the interludes, doing
the noisier drone kind of stuff, I’ll set, say,
a ten-second loop, and just leave record on
as I layer new parts, letting the older ones
gradually fade out.
What advice can you offer when it comes to
If you are going to use a loop as a main
part of a song, keep it simple, and loop it early
on so that if you mess up you can re-loop the
part before you have to do something else.
Also, try to create loops that retain the melody,
so that there’s something there to accentuate,
or harmonize, or play off of rhythmically.
Don’t just loop for the sake of looping.
What are your thoughts on seven or more
strings on guitars?
I’m currently awaiting a 12-string SG from
Gibson, so I’m into the idea. Unfortunately,
7-string guitars don’t look cool, so I’m kind of
turned off by that as a gear snob. Also, many
metal guitarists tune down so low, playing
through massive walls of cabinets, and you
can hardly hear the bass player. Let the bass
player take care of the low end and add some
highs, because without highs there’s also an
absence of low end in an odd way. Being low
is a big trend now, but some metal guitarists
miss the mark by neglecting the higher
end. The guitar is a unique and very versatile
instrument, and I think those players kind
of forget all of the things a guitar can do.