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No Wrong Answers: Russian Circles Delve Into The Making Of 'Blood Year'

Thursday, 05 September 2019 Written by Laura Johnson

Brits know how to deal with the rain. We carry umbrellas all year round and scoff at those who are ill prepared for the inevitable deluge. We’re also painfully aware of the risks that come with attending summer festivals in the UK, and accordingly we arm ourselves with wellies and unflattering plastic ponchos as a matter of routine. 

Russian Circles bassist Brian Cook and guitarist Mike Sullivan are not so prepared. Where they come from, the torrential rain that descended on the second day of this year’s ArcTanGent festival would have meant game over. “In the US, this would be a cancelled event. But rain or shine things happen here.” 

The bandmates are sitting in a barn-turned-press area wearing black bags fashioned into makeshift waterproofs, just hours away from playing the penultimate set on the main stage. But they are still prepared to wax lyrical about ‘Blood Year’, their recently released seventh studio album.

For the follow up to 2016’s ‘Guidance’, the trio once again called on Kurt Ballou to produce. The album was recorded at the start of the year between GodCity Studio in Salem, Massachusetts, where the Converge guitarist also helmed its predecessor ‘Guidance’, and at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio in Chicago, where the band previously recorded ‘Enter’, ‘Geneva’ and ‘Memorial’. 

Russian Circles have long excelled at creating dynamic prog-rock soundscapes by expertly exploring how live loops, tonal ranges and captivating post-metal melodies can open up a world of musical possibilities for a band. But with each new album comes a loaded question: do you push things even further or pull them back? Russian Circles chose the latter for ‘Blood Year’.

With the new record you said you wanted to make a more stripped-down and assertive album. Did you achieve that to the extent you intended?

MS: I feel that we made that happen, yeah. Each song stands alone by itself. We can play the songs live easier, there’s not too much overproduction, throwing all kinds of bells and whistles on the songs. They’re more direct and more immediate. It wasn’t hard to do, we just followed through with it. It was not a conceptual endeavour. 

Once a track is committed to record is that it? Or will you continue to tweak it following developments from live shows?

MS: Once it’s recorded, that’s when it’s documented and we’ll keep it that way. We might find a little workaround, and things may change a little bit, but once the arrangement is locked in in recording we stay true to that and make sure that’s how we play it live. 

BC: Like Mike said, there’s little tweaks, little workarounds and then I feel like the song evolves a little bit even after we record it, as we get used to playing it live. Sometimes arts take on a different aura live, the peaks and valleys change a little bit, but the arrangement stays the same.

You described Kohokia as a study in contrast, whereas closing track Quartered was a more basic, heavy riff-fest. Are these elements you’ll hone in on more in the future?

BC: I think with earlier records we liked having lots of dynamics, volume jumps, variations in tone, things like that. But it gets real complicated real quick, especially when you’re doing fly-ins and festivals and you’re playing with backline gear. All that worked on this amp, but maybe it doesn’t work with this amp. 

We enjoy writing in that style, but it was also nice to do a record where it’s like, ‘We’re working with these parameters. These are the tools we’re using and we’re just gonna make a straightforward record with those tools.’

MS: To me it’s not that different, we just zeroed in on the heavier part of things, on that element of our music. We didn’t put a lot of thought into it, as far as, ‘Oh, this has to go here at the end and be the anchor weight of the album.’ It [Quartered] was a much heavier song that didn’t have as many dynamic parts to it, but it was nothing totally thought out or planned. It was a song we wrote and all songs are different, that one just happened to be heavier. That’s just the way that song came out. 

Do you have a set process for writing or is it quite organic depending on the material?

MS: I think it’s a matter of seeing which parts of songs are working together. If other parts had worked Quartered may have taken a different direction. It’s not written in one setting, it’s written over a long time period. Once we have enough riffs we’ll cobble them together to make the songs.   

BC: A lot of times the record you make depends a lot on the environment, the time frame that you’re doing things. When we made our record ‘Geneva’ we were basically isolated in the woods at a house that Dave [Turncrantz, drums] was caretaking and we just camped out there for weeks, spent all day writing and recording, and tweaking things. That album has a lot of different sounds, tonal variations and auxiliary interpretation just because it was made in a very different environment. 

The new record, ‘Blood Year’, was just us in our practice space banging things out. We don’t map out what an album’s going to sound like and then try to fit in the melodies, it’s just whatever happens.

Why did you decide to work with Kurt Ballou again?

MS: He excels at capturing heavier, aggressive guitar tones. And the nature of this record was a lot heavier so we knew before we were even writing, or the songs were arranged, that it’d be a heavier record and it’d be best suited to have Kurt record it. It’s playing to our strengths. If it was a more atmospheric, more out there album then maybe that would be better with a different producer, but Kurt seemed to be the man for the job for this record.

You recorded with no click track. Do you also record live?

MS: We recorded with no click, but it wasn’t all done live where we kept all the tracks, per se. Like most recordings, we recorded the drums first. So we were all jamming in the room at Electrical Audio to make sure we got a take we were happy with. But the songs would change each pass a little bit, where they have a different feel, a different pulse to them, so there was an organic feel, breathing entity to them. It wasn’t just, ‘do it again, do it again.’ Each take was different. 

BC: I think the ideal, dream way bands make records is everyone in a room jamming it out and doing everything live, because that’s the idealistic, natural representation of the band. But for a band like us, where we’re doing a lot of looping and things like that, it’s just not practical.  Because we’re following live loops that Mike’s making and Dave has to lock into that, there’s always going to be push and pull. 

We could easily exhaust tonnes of time in the studio trying to get perfect takes by playing the way we play live but we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot, because we’re trying to line ourselves up with loops that we might edit or fix later. So we’ve always had to build things from drums, and then just piece by piece, which is cool, but there’s also something to be said for having the natural push and pull, tempo fluctuations, doing things naturally. Again, this record just leant itself more to a natural style of doing things. 

Do you consider how the record will translate to the stage when writing and recording?

MS: It’s almost 100% trying to make it so we can play it live. It would be a lot of fun to make a record where we don’t have to worry about that, it would probably sound cooler and better, but that’s not honest, that’s not how music’s made. We’re a live band, we’re made to be seen live and perform live. We don’t want it to be a disservice to the songs to have missing elements. So sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot because it’s challenging to make that possible, but we definitely keep in mind how this translates to the live environment.

With seven albums in your back catalogue, how easy or difficult is it to choose a setlist?

BC: I think with every record we usually find out within a couple of weeks of touring which songs work live and which ones just don’t have the same impact. We have favourites from every record, but now that we’re seven albums deep we can’t play all those songs. It’s a matter of figuring out ways it’d be interesting for us in terms of playing stuff that’s fresh and new, but also playing stuff that you know would create energy from the audience, having that relationship, it’s tricky.

MS: There’s no wrong answer. Whatever songs we pick, some people will be happy, some people will have wished we picked something else. It’s the same way as writing, every decision you make in the studio someone’s going to like it and some people won’t— it’s too atmospheric, it’s too metal, it’s too mellow, it’s too fast, too slow. It’s so freeing because you know they’re going to bitch or be happy either way, so you don’t worry about it and do what you want to do. People trust you, so do what you think is best. 

'Blood Year' is out now through Sargent House

Russian Circles Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows

Wed September 11 2019 - MADISON Wisconsin - High Noon Saloon (USA)
Thu September 12 2019 - MINNEAPOLIS Minnesota - Cedar Cultural Center (USA)
Sat September 14 2019 - BOZEMAN Montana - Rialto Bozeman (USA)
Mon September 16 2019 - SEATTLE Washington - Neumos (USA)
Tue September 17 2019 - PORTLAND Oregon - Wonder Ballroom (USA)
Thu September 19 2019 - SAN FRANCISCO California - August Hall (USA)
Fri September 20 2019 - VENTURA California - Discovery Ventura (USA)
Sat September 21 2019 - LOS ANGELES California - Teragram Ballroom (USA)
Mon September 23 2019 - MESA Arizona - Nile Theatre (USA)
Tue September 24 2019 - SANTA FE New Mexico - Meow Wolf (USA)
Wed September 25 2019 - DENVER Colorado - Bluebird Theatre (USA)
Sat September 28 2019 - CHICAGO Illinois - Thalia Hall (USA)
Fri October 18 2019 - GRAND RAPIDS Michigan - Pyramid Scheme (USA)
Sat October 19 2019 - DETROIT Michigan - El Club (USA)
Sun October 20 2019 - TORONTO Ontario - Lees Palace (Canada)
Mon October 21 2019 - MONTREAL Quebec - Theatre Fairmount (Canada)
Wed October 23 2019 - PORTSMOUTH VA New Hampshire - 3S Artspace (USA)
Thu October 24 2019 - CAMBRIDGE MA Massachusetts - Sinclair Music Hall (USA)
Sat October 26 2019 - BROOKLYN New York - Warsaw (USA)
Sun October 27 2019 - PHILADELPHIA Pennsylvania - Union Transfer (USA)
Tue October 29 2019 - WASHINGTON District of Columbia - Union Stage (USA)
Wed October 30 2019 - RICHMOND Virginia - Broadberry (USA)
Fri November 01 2019 - DURHAM North Carolina - Motorco Music Hall (USA)
Sat November 02 2019 - CHARLOTTE North Carolina - Neighborhood Theatre (USA)
Sun November 03 2019 - ATLANTA Georgia - Hell Stage at Masquerade - GA (USA)
Mon November 04 2019 - NEW ORLEANS Louisiana - One Eyed Jacks (USA)
Wed November 06 2019 - HOUSTON Texas - Secret Group - TX (USA)
Sat November 09 2019 - DALLAS Texas - Deep Ellum Art Co. (USA)
Mon November 11 2019 - ST LOUIS Missouri - Delmar Hall (USA)

Click here to compare & buy Russian Circles Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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