Last week we interviewed Brian Cook, the bass player from the Chicago-Seattle based instrumental band, RUSSIAN CIRCLES. They are a band who have continually turned out evocatively mercurial, genre-defying, instrumental music. These three come to the table talented, both in playing and in their writing which I can only describe using the jazz term “compositions.” Their artistic integrity coupled with their musical abilities leaves the easy description at the front door as they guide you through a maze, transporting you seamlessly from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. My best suggestion is to see them live (meaning tomorrow, Monday, Nov. 28 at the Troubadour) so you can indulge in the opportunity to have what will undoubtedly be the delivery of a viscerally fulfilling and soulfully emotional, capriciously captivating experience. You, the lucky attendee, will be left with a desire to immediately purchase whatever available music they have and return to the mundane with that much richer of an appreciation for all of their hard work while you eagerly await their return.
First of all, I did not realize that you live in Seattle, whereas Mike and Dave live in Chicago.
How hard and different is it to write together that way?
It’s not bad. Mike and Dave do the bulk of the initial songwriting. I go over what they have when it’s a rough outline of a song and then throw in my 2 cents. It’s probably not the easiest arrangement but it’s the arrangement we’ve had since I’ve been in the band. We’ve figured out how to make it work. I’ve been in a lot of other bands in the past and I’ve always been a fan of and found it easier to write material when there are not multiple people trying to play on top of each other and force their ideas on top of someone else while they’re playing. I think, basically, it needs to start with a couple of people bouncing ideas back and forth off each other before it becomes a full band project.
How do you wind up solidifying those songs? Does that require you guys getting together or is it just somehow, at some point, through sending files back and forth, you all come to some sort of conclusion and say, “Okay, it’s done.”?
It usually involves me flying out to Chicago every few months and then we do these marathon rehearsals when I’m out there. There is actually not a whole lot of file swapping, which is kind of funny because it has probably never been any easier to be in band with people stretched out over long distances given all of the technology for home recording and the internet and whatnot. There hasn’t been that much of that. They’ll do some practice recordings and send them my way, I’ll listen to them and flesh out some ideas but we don’t really get the songs together until we’re all together in one room.
Songs are stories essentially, in some form or fashion. When you have a story that you’re telling, particularly in an instrumental way, what do you feel those are conveying at this time, especially on the new record?
I don’t really know how to answer that because I don’t think it really works for us. I think when someone hears the song they hear something emotional behind it and they kind of project what they hear in the song. If the song is sad or happy, then they are kind of projecting onto that. When we’re writing it doesn’t always start off with an emotion and then we try to somehow craft a song around it. We write music in the same way people hear music, where we hear potential in a certain collection of notes and then we just try to extrapolate on it. A song starts off just on a couple of chance notes that are thrown together and then all of a sudden Mike hears something in that and he’ll elaborate on it. When he shares that with the rest of us then we all build off of that so I don’t think it’s necessarily storytelling in some sort of musical form. I think it’s really just kind of us doing what music sort of does for everybody, whether they are the writer or they are a listener, they hear something in the collection of notes. We then try to build on top of that so it’s not nearly as premeditated or as deliberate of an action as I think people have a tendency to assume it is. It’s definitely a lot more intuitive, allowing a song to do what it does.
So what I’m hearing is there’s a lot of organic growth and you’re not coming in going, “Okay I’m going to write something in a minor and we’re going to go from here.”, it’s just kind of what comes out and you move forward.
It’s interesting to me that you said that because I found this new record almost stripped down in a way. Whereas Geneva had all of this other stuff going on in it; like the strings and the horns and additional ambient overlay, this almost seems kind of like a step backwards in terms of stripping down and then a moving forward because it is so balls-to-the-wall emotional. Do you think that there was something purposeful in not having strings or brass or anything of that nature in this record?
I think there were a few things going on. One thing was that when we did Geneva, we had a really, really nice studio and the bulk of the money just went to studio time. We really got a good deal at the studio but we were still under a lot of pressure to nail everything and we were on a strict deadline. We figured out we wanted this additional instrumentation and so there was a lot more pressure. There were definitely moments where we were under a lot of stress trying to get a certain part down or realizing that something wasn’t working. There would then be this additional moment of panic with, “Okay, this idea sounded really good in the practice space but hearing it back it’s not working.” and then feeling like we were compromising artistically. We made a decision about what we originally wanted so we turned it around. We knew we were going to do a record that was a little bit more lo-fi just because we wanted to have way more studio time at our disposal so we could hear things back and make changes along the way. Because we wanted to do so much work in the studio, it made more sense to not try to book someone to turn out strings or anything like that, or have additional musicians come in. Instead we wanted to cut it all ourselves.
Another part of it is I think Geneva definitely felt like the most elaborate record we made and sort of the big budget, epic sounding record. We might still do something like that again in the future, but… Like with so many bands and I’ll just use REM as an example, with them I always go back to the early records where it’s just 4 people playing in a room as opposed to the late records where there are strings and piano and all of this other shit. Where it’s just like, well it’s really amazing but it’s just a lot of bells and whistles. Whereas when it’s just 4 people who have to really nail an idea, it is way more captivating. I wanted to go back to that kind of stripped down place.
Well, you were definitely successful on both ends with Geneva and Empros in achieving both the heavily laden and evocative and then being more stripped down and just as emotional. How do you feel the reception’s been playing live with what you’re playing now?
It feels good. I just got home from tour. We played about half of the album live during this trip. It seems like it went over really well. It’s kind of like every time we’ve put out a new record there’s always a bit of a backlash. The initial reception is that people like the stuff that came out the last time better. As it comes out then all of a sudden it’s the record before that was the best one. With Geneva we heard about how much Station was better; with Station we heard about how much Enter was better. Now people are like, “You’re not playing enough songs off Geneva.” and I’m like well, obviously we have a new record out and you probably don’t like it now and then in 2 years you’re going to want to hear everything off of this so shut the fuck up. We’re going to play what we want to play and just deal with it.
I’m glad that your punk rock attitude is in full effect. In thinking of you as an instrumental band, while listening to the record, when I got to “Praise Be Man”, it was kind of a surprise, to put it mildly, to hear a vocal track. Do you foresee doing anything with vocals again at any point or is that a sort of it-happened-while-it-happened-kind-of-a-thing?
When we were recording Geneva there had been talk about trying to do vocals prior to going into the studio and then with everything else that was going on it just never happened. We can always have that as an option, however there is something about the music where by the time the songs are almost done there’s really no room or need for vocals anywhere.
With “Praise Be Man” that was a thing I had recorded at my house on the side just for my own amusement. When I played it for Mike and Dave they really liked it and they wanted to try and do an instrumental version of it. That never wound up happening and then we were just going to rerecord it all together at the studio which didn’t happen. We ended up using the original version I did in my apartment and just adding a couple of overdubs to it. I don’t know if that’s something we’ll do in the future.
It was a nice surprise.
Thanks. It’s something we talked about doing but I feel like it’s a little bit of a Pandora’s Box if we move the focus and right now we kind of like having the three instruments. We’ll see what happens.
Where do your titles come from?
It just kind of varies. They’re usually homages to people that we work with or people that have been involved in our lives while the writing process is going on. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the emotion behind the song. They’re more of our way of saying thank you to people or our way of cataloging events as they happen in our lives. It’s also our way of trying to be obtuse and retain some of the mystery.
From any direction, any related media; it doesn’t just have to be music, what are your influences? Basically, what moves you and what moves you to then make things that move other people?
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t describe myself as a hardcore kid these days but that was what really got me involved in music. I was listening to a lot of the punk bands from the late 80’s and early 90’s and then getting really involved in the hardcore scene in the early/mid 90’. In the sense of that aesthetic, it’s what I felt really empowered by artistically. Even though I don’t think we have much to do with that scene, it was a very formative time for me. It helped mold my idea of what making art was about. It still, to this day, sort of informs how we operate as a band. Artistically I don’t draw a whole lot of inspiration from Born Against or Black Flag like I would have when I was 19. I still think in the back of my mind what both of those bands did will always have an imprint on how we conduct business and what we want out of music. Right now we are trying to expand our artistic horizons but I think we sort of trace everything back to Fugazi except we do play bars and we don’t charge $5 dollars.
I really appreciate your taking the time, Thank you so much Brian. Enjoy your 5 minutes at home and we’ll see you very soon. RUSSIAN CIRCLES' new album, Empros, can be purchased through their website.