Since 2004 Chicago-based post-metal trio Russian Circles have pounded out one brutally brilliant album after another. Last year, the group, consisting of guitarist Mike Sullivan, drummer Dave Turncratz and bassist Brian Cook, released the epic Memorial. Between headlining their own global tour and hitting the road with the Chelsea Wolfe, it's not as though they've had time to get back in the studio.
Last February, Russian Circles played a triumphant set at Club Dada and now they are back for some festival fun as they will play during the day on one of the outdoor stages set up along the streets of Deep Ellum for Index Fest on Sunday. We took advantage of the occasion by chatting with Cook, a former member of many hardcore bands including These Arms Are Snakes, about his flirtation with veganism, the lack of group banter onstage and his thoughts on always-controversial music streaming services.
DC9 at Night: It's been a year since Memorial was released. With all of the global touring since, have thoughts of the next album even begun to develop?
Cook:We don't do much writing when we're in touring mode. I live on the East Coast while the other guys live in Chicago, so when we're all in the same city it's usually because we're practicing old stuff in anticipation of touring. But we're always stockpiling ideas in anticipation of our next block of writing -- recording guitar riffs, demoing little song fragments, stuff like that. Part of me is slightly envious of bands like Swans that flesh out new material while they're on tour, but the nature of what we do doesn't really lend itself to working through things with trial and error on stage in front of an audience.
Has life after Memorial been different in any way for the band compared to post-Empros life? Do you see audiences getting larger?
Audience growth has been a very gradual thing for us. We haven't ever really seen a huge leap in our popularity. And we're fine with that. The slower the ascension, the slower the decline. Overnight success stories yield sophomore slumps. We've gradually built things up over the course of five albums, so hopefully if we start sucking we'll be able to ride things out for a five-album downward spiral.
According to your Twitter activity, you liked the poutine you had in Canada. Do you consider yourself a foodie?
Well, I like food. I was vegan for a couple of years and I couldn't hack it. I was vegetarian for another 10 years after that, and I eventually gave up in Japan because I'd heard that everything has fish or pork stock in it over there. I also got really bummed out on being a vegetarian on tour and having to turn down peoples' hospitality. Someone makes you a ham quiche and you can't eat it. But the pig is already dead. Now it's been butchered for no reason. It felt like an insult to both the host and the animal. Now I eat pretty much everything, but I try to gravitate towards variety and stuff that isn't overly processed.
You and the guys offer an energy-filled set without talking much or involving any typical, cliche rock theatrics. What's the key to engaging a live crowd in such an understated way?
I don't really know. I've heard a couple of complaints over the years that we don't "engage with the crowd" enough. It's like there's a small contingent of folks that feel like they need to be acknowledged, to be asked, "How y'all doing tonight? You ready to rock?"
And that's fine. To each their own. If one of us was a great orator then maybe we'd actually have a vocal mic on stage to talk to everyone with. But there's enough stuff to do between songs -- tuning, switching instruments, changing pedal settings, crafting interludes -- that adding the whole banter thing just seems like a headache.
How do you prefer to engage with people then?
Back in the day when I used to play in hardcore bands, I really liked the fact that we went up on stage, banged around on our gear to make sure it worked, and then launched into songs without a lot of ceremony. I liked the idea that it was this very casual, rough-hewn event. But with what we do now, I like the idea of creating a new environment, of creating an aura, of making people briefly forget they're in a grimy rock club. I want people to be drawn into the music. And the best way we've found to do that is to make a seamless piece of music that's uninterrupted by us making jokes or hawking merchandise over the PA.
This past February in Dallas, you were sporting slacks, suspenders and a dress shirt. Is that your personal style all-around, or do you kick things up a notch for a show?
I guess that actually kinda goes back to what I was just talking about. Back when I played in hardcore bands, I was really into the whole Minutemen aesthetic where you take to the stage in the same clothes you wore to work. No wardrobe. No theatrics. But after you tour for a while, you realize that isn't necessarily the best tactic. For one thing, I sweat a lot. So rather than stinking up everything I wear on a nightly basis, I stink up the same dress shirt night after night... But I do also like the idea of having a bit of ritual and ceremony. When you have a costume or uniform or ceremonial garb or whatever, then you enter a head space where you're mentally preparing for the performance.
With streaming services now a prime way people listen to music, some artists have been vocal about their distaste for such outlets due to low royalty payments. What are your thoughts on legal paid-subscription services like Spotify?
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I have a Spotify account and I find it really useful. I use it to check out music all the time. But when I'm at home, 99 percent of the time I'm listening to vinyl. There's something really cool about being able to access any artist you want at any time in any environment. But, as I was just mentioning with dressing up for a show, there is something about ritual and ceremony and taking a moment to create an environment that can enhance the musical experience.
How do you feel about from an artist's perspective?
In some ways I think that's great. Bandcamp and online retailers are great. But I grew up with punk and hardcore. It was a business model that was already built in defiance of corporate rock. It catered more to fans and artists. I think labels like Dischord and Touch & Go were ultimately more respectable and noble institutions than Apple and Spotify. They paid their artists better. They respected their customers more. And ultimately, by selling records, they could continue to foster new artists and sustain their established roster.