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Interview with Russian Circles

November 11, 2009 - 5:01 pm

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The work ethic of the supposed “mad genius” can certainly be admired. You know the type: they hide in their studio,  meticulously crafting their latest endeavor that must outdo anything they’ve ever done, and yet, will never be good enough for their own taste. The three guys from Russian Circles, a Chicago-based instrumental and otherwise unclassifiable band, apply this attitude to their songwriting through precise layering, looping and obsessive tweaking. They work and rework one song for days, sometimes months, on end until it eventually leads full (Russian) circle back to the original idea.

Opening for the likes of Tool, Minus the Bear, and Coheed and Cambria, they’ve managed to convert fans of any taste through the mesmerizing intensity with which they play. Before they hit The Casbah on Thursday, I spoke to drummer Dave Turncrantz (above, far right) about how substituting Brian Cook for former member Colin DeKuiper changed the entire songwriting process, how they avoid being pigeonholed in today’s label-ridden music scene, and where they plan to go compositionally from their most recent (and most acclaimed) album, Geneva

CityBeat: Everyone knows the best way to reflect upon important benchmarks in someone’s life is have them slip into a coma on a cheesy soap opera and see what moments they flash back too. So,  if your band slipped into a coma on Days of Our General Passions, what would those important moments be that lead up to where the band is now, and what would be the fondest, most important memory that ultimately juts you guys awake?

Dave Turncrantz: [Laughs] Wow. That’s a good question. I’m used to “what does your band name mean” and standard, stock answers. Major points were definitely when Brian got in the band when we asked him to play on [2008’s] Station. He said yes to play on the record, but the big moment was when he said he would join the band as a full time member. Very big moment. Playing with Tool in Europe was something that put our name on the board here in the states and overseas. It’s funny how many Tool fans look at message boards, and they all kind of freak out about who Tool takes out and if they like them or not. That was definitely a big step for the band. Let’s see… we bought a van! That was a pretty big moment. [Laughs]

CB: How did the dynamic of the band change with the addition of Brian Cook, and departure of Colin?

DT: The major change was the addition of a really good musician that we really, really trust, that could sit back and listen and then contribute something. When all three of us are together it’s a good, soothing writing process because none of us are trying to take the lead or be too loud. We all listen to each other which is very essential for a band. We always joke around that if we had another guitar player, everything will crumble down. It would be awful if we had another guitar player because a lot our stuff is just loops by Mike and then we play on top of it. So we layer and layer on the loop, and if a guitar player had to play that loop for five minutes straight, I mean I don’t blame him, I’d want to kill myself too. So it’d probably for the best that we don’t have another guitar player. The main thing is, is that we all get along, and we all really enjoy playing music together. Writing is such a big part of being in a band and if you just can’t do it, it makes things extremely difficult, let’s just say that. We’ve definitely had our share of bad practices [before Brian], so it’s nice to have good practices. Let’s just say that.

CB: Did you decide from the start that you would forgo vocalists?

DT: No. When we first started, pretty much everything was up in the air. I lived in St. Louis at the time when the band just started, and Mike drove down to St. Louis to help me move to Chicago. We actually had a practice at my old apartment in St. Louis. We wrote “Carpe” that night, or at least structures here and there for the song “Carpe,” and when we did that we thought maybe we’d have another guitar player. Maybe we’d have a singer. We thought about who would sing and then the more and more we started practicing, the more and more we realized that a singer’s just going to make everything really weird. Especially if we’d get someone that screams. We could definitely be an Alternative Press band in no time, like snap of the fingers we’d be another… I don’t know any crappy, shitty screaming bands. I’m bad with examples of bad bands because I try not to listen to them. How about, uhh… God, what the… Come on, help me out here, what’s a bad band?

CB: Just take your pick, any of any of the ones you hear too many times on the radio.

DT: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. Exactly. From the get-go it’s really hard to get a vocalist that is unique that does something new and beings something new to the table. Especially when we play heavy parts, if we’ve got a guy screaming then all of a sudden we’d be categorized as a hardcore band or a metal band. If we had someone singing—I don’t know. [Laughs] I can’t even imagine someone like really singing over some of these songs. Because then we’d be placed in another hilarious genre of music that we don’t want to be placed in. So we’re actually kind of happy that no one can really define us. Everybody puts “post-rock.” The one term we hate the most is “Instrumetal,” which is really clever—just take away the “n” and then all of a sudden it just all works. But “post-rock” is always slapped on us. It’s just funny to us because we feel like we could write a folk album the next time around—which, we’re not going to say we wouldn’t [laughs]—but we could totally write a folk album and we’d be fine. That’s something I’m very proud of because we like heavy stuff, but we also like the most depressing, wrist-slashing stuff out there. It could go from Will Oldham to a black metal band from Sweden. I like that there’s nothing really holding us back musically. We can kind of do whatever we want.

CB: I suppose your band is filed under “post-rock,” but it’s a grey area. Is there anything you try to incorporate into your songwriting to ensure you can’t be cleanly categorized?

DT: It’s just going to happen, unfortunately. The first thing someone does is try to categorize it. Like any band. TV on the Radio could write a noise record that ends with funk basses behind it and they’re all automatically going to say it’s funk, but it’s not really funk, man. That doesn’t even make sense. It doesn’t matter. Even if we write a folk record, someone’s going to say it’s post-rock just because there’s no vocals. We think its kind of funny, to be honest with you. It’s just what people do. And I do it too. I’m guilty of it. If  someone asks me to describe something I always categorize it in something it probably shouldn’t be in. So, I can’t be that mad if I do it myself.

CB: How has your band’s sound evolved from Station to Geneva?

DT: I definitely feel Brian, when he became a full band member [after recording with them on Station], became a huge part of the writing process so the bass is a huge deal on the new record [Geneva]. I think it’s pretty evident from listening to it that the bass is really up front. On Station, me and Mike wrote all the songs, and Brian had input on a lot of them, but they were mainly just given to him a couple weeks before we recorded. So he really didn’t have a lot of time to sit down and voice his opinion on certain things here and there. So with Geneva we all got together, we all wrote. Me and Mike got structures, but very, very little into them and we all sat down and played along with it and all voiced our opinions and I feel it shows on the record that all three of us put our brains to it. that’s the main thing. And we weren’t afraid to experiment a little more in he studio because we had more time. So, you know, we got the string section to come in, and Brandon [Curtis] from Secret Machines produced the record. He’s a lot smarter than us when it comes to music. That definitely helps when you have someone that tells you these things and you have no idea what he’s talking about, and then he shows you and you’re like, “Yes, you’re smarter than me.”

CB: You guys are known to be extremely meticulous when crafting a song. How long does it, on average, take you to write a song, and how do you know when it is complete, if ever?

DT: That’s hilarious. We are—we’re kind of crazy. It could take one week to five months. We always try to use the philosophy “keep it simple, stupid,” kind of thing. The “K.I.S.S.” philosophy. But then we always dissect it, and every time we dissect it we just ruin it. Always. I can’t even tell you how many times we wrote a song that was really good and we kept trying to change it and change it, and then six weeks later we’d realize and say, “Hey, let’s start playing it like the first time we recorded it. Let’s just start by playing it.” We’d play it like that and we’re like, that’s amazing—why did we change it? We can be kind of hilarious when it comes to that. But it’s always for the best because you always wonder, you know, what if we did do that? And we try it, and we keep trying it, and if it doesn’t work in the end, it wasn’t meant to be. So yeah, it varies. A song like, for example, “Melee,” the third song on the new record, we wrote it like it was and then spent so much time trying to change it, and it really didn’t need to be changed. We had an idea that we wanted strings on it, and we almost scrapped it a week before we recorded, but luckily we didn’t because now that’s one of my favorite songs on the record. It’s funny though, my mom wanted to hear the demos so I played them for her and she hated that song. She’s like, “I don’t like that song at all. I don’t like it.” Thanks, mom. Awesome. Thank you very much. And then, of course, when the record comes out that’s her favorite song. Even our parents voice opinions, but no one knows what they’re doing. [Laughs] It’s one of those things where you think you’re fixing it, but you’re really just making it worse. So we’re glad that we kept it kind of the same as when we first started and it came out really awesome.

CB: Is there a difference between “simple” and “minimal” to you?

DT: I put them in the same category. When we first started, we didn’t know what kind of band we were. On the drums I was trying to do—not crazy stuff, but stuff that was a little harder to pull off. Looking back at that record [Enter], I can’t even get through it all the way. I mean, I like it and I’m glad that we put it out, but the older I get the more I want things to be more of a hook. Something to grab on to. I would say minimalist stuff is just something we can write and loop for three or four minutes and slowly layer and layer and layer on top of it, and that’s something that grabs my ear more than someone doing some crazy drum solos and some crazy guitar riffs here and there. So “simple” and “minimal” to me are kind of the same because “simple” is just keeping the back beat on the drums, and not really trying to take the lead or be in the spotlight. Just making the song speaks for itself.

CB: Cellist Allison Chesley and violinist Susan Voe are featured on Geneva. Do you plan on incorporating more strings into your songs?

DT: Yeah! I think so. We really enjoyed it. Like I said, Brandon was an awesome producer and knew his stuff, but those two came in the studio with sheet music. They asked us crazy stuff like in line 2 on the second chorus—and we were like, what are you talking about? It’s “the heavy part.” We have the dumbest names for parts of our songs. So these people, professional musicians, are mind-blowing to us because a lot of us are self-taught, or we took lessons but for us to come into a studio with sheet music and to play directly off the sheet music is totally out of our realm. So it was awesome to have them down there. I’m a huge sucker for cello. Cello and grand piano are two of my favorite instruments. Just like Brian Eno stuff, minimalist composer stuff is something that I really, really like. I can definitely see a lot of violin, cello, and grand piano on the next record for sure.

CB: You’ve played with Minus the Bear and Tool, among a handful of other great bands. Is there a certain genre of bands you prefer to play with that you think complements your performance best?

DT: It’s funny because we get shows with Minus the Bear and we’ve play a lot with bands like Clutch, and we get a good response either way. It’s really awesome. I really like to play with bands that you wouldn’t normally see us with because we’ve got a lot of great fans in a certain niche of instrumental—I said “instrumental,” not “instrumental” [laughs]—and we grab a lot of those audiences from playing because there’s not a lot of bands like us out there besides, like, Pelican, so it’s always nice to play with a band you wouldn’t really expect us to be with. Us playing with Mono is kind of expected, but with a Clutch, or when we did a Coheed and Cambria tour, it worked out in the end too. Playing for audiences who wouldn’t normally see you just offers more opportunities for more fans.

CB: I want to hear about your relationship with the band Pelican, and the kinship (if any) of the Chicago music scene.

DT: Pelican, they’re good friends of ours. We actually share a practice space with them in Chicago. They definitely helped us out in the beginning when no one know who we were. they’re just great guys. two of the brothers live in LA right now, Larry and Brian, the bass player and drummer, but Laurent—Mike, our guitar player, works with Laurent at a tutoring program at local schools. So we see them quite often. Chicago has a great music scene. It’s something that’s very inspiring for a musician. For example, Tortoise and Shellac—the list goes on and on and on, there’s great musicians all around. A lot of guys from Tortoise do improve stuff at bars in the Chicago area so you can see them play and get mad because they’re really great players [laughs]. Get your mind blown. I’m really proud that we come from a great music scene in a great music city because the bands in Chicago are a little different than other cities. They’re more about unity and helping each other out more so than trying to one-up someone else or be better than someone else. You know the music industry can definitely be kind of nasty at times with people trying to be bigger than their friends’ band just because. In Chicago it’s more like here, we’ll put you on a show and hopefully you’ll gain some fans out of it. It’s something that definitely helped us out in the beginning because if we started in LA it would have been us trying to fight for an opening spot on who knows what kind of bill.

CB: Heard you had some bad luck starting this tour off, did Mike find his guitar yet?

DT: He did not find his guitar yet. It’s pretty frustrating because we know who the guy is who took it. We know his name, we have pictures of him, we just don’t know where he lives! The one good, shining moment out of that is that he did have it insured. So he can buy another one, but the problem is it’s such a rare guitar it’s going to take awhile for him to find one. there were very, very little made. I think there were 100-200 made. So it’s a bummer. And the guy who did it is an asshole. But it was just hilarious because it was the worst first show ever. Everything fell apart, and then we get a guitar stolen. That is the best way to start a six-week tour, let me tell you.

CB: Well, you get it all out of the way at the beginning.

DT: Yeah! I guess you’re right. It’s funny, I got sick the second day and then everybody started to get kind of sick. I got my brother [the tour manager] sick, Brian’s kind of sick. So we’re getting all the sickness and guitar stealing out of the way right at the get-go, and then hopefully by the time we get to the west coast everything will be great. Or we might all be dead. There’s only one of two routes for us right now.

CB: What can you tell San Diego about your live show to adequately prepare us for such an experience?

DT: Ok. We’re an acoustic rock band. We kind of sound like Dashboard [Confessional] [chuckles]. This is weird, I hate talking about ourselves.

CB: Sorry, I have to do it. I have to ask the hard-hitting questions.

DT: Yeah, it’s going to be soul-crushing. No, we just try to recreate what we put on record and it’s definitely something you can’t get off a CD player or record player, it’s something you have to experience live. We have a great time doing it and I think it shows. Um, we play with our shirts off which is a definite plus.

CB: Ooooooh.

DT: You don’t want to see that, actually. We have a good time and it should be a lot of fun. It’s going to be a very loud show.

Russian Circles plays with Red Sparowes, Young Widows and Helms Alee on Thursday, Nov. 12 at The Casbah. 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Maggie permalink
    November 15, 2009 - 6:09 pm 6:09 pm

    I was in the very front of the crowd for the Russian Circles set at the Casbah this past Thursday. It was an incredibly moving experience from beginning to end, and I loved how powerfully moved and touched everyone around me seemed to be right along with me. The guy standing next to me was even brought to tears at one point!

    I was immediately impressed with Russian Circles the very first time I heard them a little over a year ago, and I always knew their live show would leave me speechless. That is exactly what happened at the San Diego show. 🙂 My boyfriend and I saw them a second time at the Echoplex in Los Angels on Saturday which was phenomenal as well. But The Casbah performance was something I will remember as long as I live, and definitely worth our long drive from Santa Barbara.

    We were able to meet Mike, Dave, and Brian after the show and I gotta say, what nice down to earth genuine people they are! They are sincere musicians who have true passion for what they create and we are so blessed that they have the ability to translate their own beautiful connection with their music over to rest of us.

    Russian Circles is what real music stands for to me!

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