No Tricks, Just Treats; An interview with Mike Sullivan of Russian Circles

Russian Circles

Russian Circles

By Blake Garris

Chicago’s Russian Circles has been described as instrumental, metal and even post-rock but any characterization abandons the subtle nuances of their music between the loud and soft or the chaos and redemption.  The new album Memorial, their fifth full length in total, captures this ideal even more so than before where the beauty lies in transition.

Ghettoblaster recently spoke with Russian Circles’ Mike Sullivan about this new record, the music scene in Chicago and even how Step Brothers should have won an Oscar. This is what they said.

There seems to be a harder and more emotional edge on this album than previous Russian Circles works. Can you explain where your mindset was during the making of this record?

I don’t think there’s much to explain, really.  We don’t write records with a preconceived notion of what we’re going to create.  There are some minor variables that might be considered on the front end — in this instance I know there was some talk of emphasizing groove over technicality — but generally it’s just a matter of finding sounds that resonate with us at the time and I don’t think that’s something we can usually articulate.

There has been a resurgence in the popularity of instrumental music in the past decade or so between yourselves, Explosions In The Sky and even some of Mogwai’s work. First off, what do you think the catalyst for that was and secondly where do you see instrumental music headed?

There are a lot of decent math rock bands that are rendered pretty dull and monotonous by their vocalists.  And there are a lot of metal bands that come across as totally absurd because of their singers.  So much of that music is based around the instrumentation and the vocals are almost like an afterthought — a compulsory element.  I think folks just finally realized how unnecessary singers can be.  Not that I’m advocating for bands to forgo vocals, but I just think that they can sometimes ruin an otherwise great band.  And I’m saying this as a guy that rallies behind David Berman’s “all my favorite singers couldn’t sing” motto. Anyways, I have no idea what the future holds for instrumental music.  I imagine we’ll see a lot more of it though.

That being said, you do have a few tracks in your discography with vocals. What is the decision making process behind that?

Nothing is off the table for us. “Praise Be Man” was an old demo of mine that was never intended for Russian Circles, but I shared it with the guys and they wanted to use it.  “Memorial” was definitely written with the intention of having Chelsea Wolfe contribute a vocal melody. So our two forays into singing had very different creative processes involved.

It’s been said that the new album is more polarizing than ever, between heavy and quiet. To you, which sound is the most powerful?

I really enjoy writing and recording the quieter moments.  Hearing those moments come together in the studio is really satisfying. But in the live setting, I think we all gravitate towards the heavier material just because it’s so much more visceral.  But ultimately, I think their power is linked.  The quiet parts make the heavier parts seem that much more aggressive while the heavy parts make the quiet parts more serene.

You put on a really wonderful stage show. Can you explain to fans what they could expect from your upcoming tour?

Thanks.  No tricks live.  Just three people facing one direction and a couple hundred others facing the exact opposite direction.  We’ll be playing a mixture of old and new material.

You’re from Chicago. Can you describe what the music scene is like there?

The thing I love about Chicago is how diverse and supportive the scene is.  So many great venues and clubs that put on great shows week after week.  I’ve always enjoyed going to shows alone knowing I’ll bump into random friends or come across new bands.

In interviews, people always ask you if you consider yourself a metal band. So, to join the crowd, do you consider yourself a metal band yet?

I suppose we just consider ourselves a rock band.  We have metal moments but also many non-metal moments in our albums.  We’re more interested in the mood and the feel of each song rather than the genre.

What is your favorite place to play in your hometown and around the world?

My favorite place to play in Chicago is the Empty Bottle but admittedly it’s been ages since we’ve played there.  Great sounding room with really gratifying stage sound for the performer.  You can always expect familiar faces at shows.  As for international shows, we love playing all over.  Hard to pick a favorite.  Barcelona and Singapore are always a great experience.

After all these years, what has made you decide to stick it out with Sargent House as a record label?

Sargent House has been great to us.  Genuine people who love music and would do anything for their bands.  Cathy and her posse have done so much more than we would expect from a label.  Having management and label under one roof really makes the process much easier too.  I can’t thank Cathy, Caitlyn, Marc and Dave Clifford enough for there tireless work ethic.  Sargent House was formed on its love for independent bands with no regards to genres.  They’re not trying to be part of any scene; they just want to help the bands they love.

And finally, you’re known for your almost obsessive tinkering with effects in your music and live shows. Is there anything you obsess over outside of music like as a collector or tv/film fan?

Brian reads more books in a week than I’ve read my whole life.   Dave obsesses over making his vehicle the most high performance machine possible.  Music keeps me pretty occupied on a daily basis.   We all enjoy delicious beer and agree that the movie Step Brothers should’ve won an Oscar.

(For more from Russian Circles, visit their website here: