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Russian Circles' Mike Sullivan

February 8, 2012
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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–. 052.

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 live looping?

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.

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