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Russian Circles interview (07/2020)

With: Brian Cook
Conducted by: RaduP (e-mail)
Published: 03.07.2020

Band profile:

Russian Circles

Main photo by André Steënkamp

Russian Circles was one of the bands I was most excited to see at Roadburn, but we all know how that ended up. As much as I'd wanna see them live, getting to ask Brian Cook a few questions was a pretty good replacement, especially since I'm also a fan of his work in Botch, and I'm getting into more of the other projects that he's done. The fact that he also has done some music journalism himself is also a plus, so I got to get some of that veteran advice.

RP: Let's get to the gist of it. I was gonna see you at Roadburn this year, especially since you (should I even say thankfully anymore) wouldn't have clashed with anyone I was willing to consider seeing over you. We all know how that went down, so can you tell us how this whole thing felt for you? When did you lose the last bit of hope that you could still make it through? Do you have any fear about next year's edition?

BC: I was about two hours away from heading to the airport to fly to Europe when we had a conference call and decided to cancel the tour. It wasn't an easy decision, especially since some of our crew were already en route, but the information that had been coming in during the previous 24 hours was looking increasingly bleak, and we had a few friends already on tour in Europe who were a little spooked by how things were going. Within 24 hours of our cancellation, it was apparent that we'd made the right decision. I think most if not all of our shows would have been cancelled anyways. I have faith that a vaccine will be in place in time for next year's festival, though.

RP: If touring will not come back in the near future, what would that mean for the music business' finances? What would it mean for you especially?

BC: It's a situation so completely out of my hands that I'm not spending a lot of time wringing my hands over it. We have some shows lined up for Fall, but realistically, I imagine it's going to be more like Spring 2021 before tours can be booked with confidence. And that's tough because---as I'm sure most people are aware at this point---touring is the main source of revenue for most musicians. Fortunately, I have some money set aside so I can ride this out. I'm more concerned with the survival of venues. Musicians can still find ways to earn income, even if it means taking on side gigs outside of the music world. But I don't know how venues are going to be able to pay rent without any income, and that's really worrisome.

RP: Speaking of tours, what is the best thing one can do to get over post-tour depression?

BC: Recently, I've been getting tattooed to fight post-tour depression. I think the tough thing about getting home is that you get acclimated to always being in motion and always being around other people so when you get home it just feels like the whole world comes crashing to a halt. I need to have obligations and social interactions, and a tattoo appointment satisfies both. Plus, there's the endorphin rush from being subjected to low-level pain for hours on end. On top of that, I immediately resume my gym routine. And even then, I have to remind myself that I'm going to feel restless and stir-crazy for at least a few days before I recalibrate to home life.

RP: Now that you're no longer touring, have you changed your feelings in any way regarding the more live-oriented approach on Blood Year?

BC: Well, it's funny that we made Guidance with the plan to not tour as much, and then proceeded to do way more touring than we'd ever done on an album. And so we made Blood Year with the idea that if we were going to continue to keep touring so much, we should make a record that's more satisfying to play live, and now it looks like we'll be doing less touring on this one than any other record. The universe is truly fucking with us. Also, it's a little weird that we made an album with a title that's basically our way of acknowledging that some years will inevitably have more loss and suffering and hardship than others, and now we can barely tour on it because of a global pandemic.

RP: How's progress on the upcoming album?

BC: There's been some tinkering with ideas via file-sharing, but we haven't all been in the same room together since February, so it might take awhile to make real progress. There was initially an idea that we'd make an EP during quarantine with each of us recording remotely, but Mike has been dealing with some repetitive stress injuries from playing so much guitar, so he took some time to heal up for a couple of months, and we're just now getting the creative ball rolling again.

RP: You obviously owe a lot to metal, but do you feel it is reductive to label your band post-metal? Does it ever feel like having metal in your music negates the rest of the influences in terms of how people perceive yours of any music in a similar situation? Other than the obvious post-rock, what would you say are some non-metal influences that have a definite impact on your music, but are less obvious? Do we even need genres anymore? How should we talk about a band's sound without pigeon-holing it into neat little boxes we call genres?

BC: Yeah, I really hate the post-metal tag. Ha! I mean, I suppose it applies to us, but man... I really don't have any interest in the post-metal genre. Or post-rock for that matter. We like all sorts of music and try to incorporate all kinds of stuff into our sound, but I have little interest in listening to anything that sounds like it operates in the same sphere as us. Ultimately, I love metal but if it was the only music in my diet I would feel extremely malnourished. And when we make music, we want a nice well-rounded meal. Unfortunately, having that kind of variety and diversity in our music means we get lumped in with all the post-metal stuff. Lately I've been listening to early '70s jazz or krautrock or death metal in my downtime, but I don't know if any of that stuff comes out in our music. I try to not think about genre stuff because it wires your brain into thinking it's supposed to adhere to a formula or elicit a certain kind of response.

RP: What emotion would you say it's the most difficult to translate into music, and which one is the most cathartic?

BC: I don't think there's any particular emotion that's difficult to translate into music... I just think it's difficult to convey emotions in a way that doesn't rely on old tropes or signifiers. Everyone knows that a violin playing a minor key melody conveys sadness, but it's so obvious it usually comes across as empty to my ears. The real challenge is to make people feel things in unexpected ways.

RP: What happened to that "fun" thrash riff that Mike scrapped?

BC: It was buried deep into the earth. No fun riffs allowed.

RP: You did mention that there's very little electronic music that resonates with you. Can you mention some that does?

BC: I like early electronic music stuff like Kraftwerk and Kluster/Cluster. And I like super minimalist tone exploration stuff like Pan Sonic and Mohammad. In terms of more modern artists, I like stuff that feels like it has some sort of melodic trajectory and layered interplay, like Forest Swords, Nordra, and nonkeen. I do try to actively research more electronic music, but most of the dance driven stuff doesn't really have much utility in my life, and anything that sounds like it was built on a grid on a laptop... stuff that seems software driven as opposed to hardware driven... just sounds so devoid of dimension and magic to my ears that I can't muster any interest in it.

RP: Why is that Russian Circles is the only one, out of the bands out of the multitude that you are or were a part of, that has been active for more than a decade?

BC: Because we're old and know how to behave like adults and respect each other's boundaries and accept our weird personal idiosyncrasies. No one has a drug problem. No one is "going through a phase". It probably helps that we've been financially stable too. Nothing creates stress and animosity like living with the constant anxiety that a broken radiator in the van will completely bankrupt you.

RP: And out of the ones that have been disbanded, why is that Roy was the only one that has had any reunion of any sort?

BC: Because Roy never officially broke up. And technically These Arms Are Snakes reunited for two-songs at a Dust Moth show a couple of years back. So there's that.

RP: With a few more decades of experience, how do you relate to Botch's music now? What is your favorite bass line from it?

BC: I'm still very proud of Botch and I'm extremely thankful those records still resonate with people. In some ways it feels like a lifetime ago. In other ways, it feels like this quarantine is the longest break I've had from playing loud abrasive music since I was a teenager, so Botch still feels connected to the present, like an extension of myself in some regard. My favorite bass line is probably "Afghamistam" just because that whole song was the purest manifestation of where my head was at in all of the Botch catalog.

RP: Sumac has released a couple of collaborative records, as well as having performed collaborative sets at Roadburn. Do you see that kinda thing ever happening with Russian Circles?

BC: Well, we did do that song with Chelsea Wolfe, but the Sumac collaborations are all about improvisation, whereas the Russian Circles collaboration was more about writing and orchestration. Russian Circles doesn't dabble in improvisation, so I can't imagine there being anything like the work Sumac did with Keiji Haino or Caspar Brötzmann. But something like "Memorial" again? It's possible.

RP: Trying to find information about your journalistic endeavors proved though seeing as I kept bumping into another journalist by the same name. I eventually found out about your work for The Stranger and Noisey. So, as you have probably had the "advice for novice bands" question enough times already, what advice would you give novice music journalists?

BC: That's a tough one. I started writing for The Stranger because I felt like there wasn't enough focus on the heavy music scene in Seattle in the paper. There was a void and I wanted to fill it. I was really coming at the writing thing with a fanzine mindset. I wasn't interested in criticizing people's art and I wasn't interested in weighing in on every hot new artist. I just wanted to talk about artists that I thought were awesome and WHY I thought they were awesome. I'm a big believer that a good music writer will turn people on to new music or help guide people into appreciating difficult music. A bad writer feels compelled to write the millionth thought-piece on Kanye West or Lana Del Rey. So all in all, a good writer should be passionate about their subject matter and should find ways of opening readers' ears and minds.

RP: How was the process of self-publishing a novel like? Are there any plans for a follow-up to The Second Chair Is Meant For You? How is the creative catharsis of writing different from the one of making music?

BC: I'm wrapping up a new novel I started almost immediately after finishing Second Chair. It's a bit more ambitious and I'm taking it a bit more seriously this time around... having a proper editor and all that. I sorta look at Second Chair as a trial run. It was a learning process. I sold through two small printings in a couple of months, which surpassed my expectations. So that was pretty encouraging, especially since writing is such an isolated and private process. You're not bouncing ideas off of other people like you are in a band. You don't have an outside perspective. And I'm generally of the opinion that all music, no matter how crude or rudimentary, can find a receptive ear somewhere, but I don't feel that way about writing. But novel-writing is extremely rewarding because it's entirely your own vision.

RP: If you could have any living director direct a music video for a Russian Circles song, who would it be?

BC: I'm not a big enough film buff or video expert to have an answer for this one. Sorry!

RP: Are you dreadfully anticipating the movies that Hollywood will make about this pandemic, in which they will heroically save the day?

BC: Ha! Well, I'm not a film buff but I'm a sucker for a disaster flick. But pandemics aren't as visually exciting as tsunamis and volcanoes and earthquakes, so I probably wouldn't watch a Corona movie.

RP: With the recent denial of Cynic's Sean Reinert's organ donation due to his sexuality, what can we do to make sure organ/blood donations no longer discriminate on these grounds in our lifetime?

BC: That shit is so crazy. I don't understand it. I used to donate plasma for money when I was younger and I just straight up lied about being gay. I needed the $40 and the discriminatory rules were stupid... they screen the blood anyways. And I have no idea how to change it other than to point out that the rules are stupid.

Photo by Ekaterina Gorbacheva

RP: Anything else you'd wanna add for our readers?

BC: Not that I can think of! Thanks for the chat!

Posted on 03.07.2020 by Doesn't matter that much to me if you agree with me, as long as you checked the album out.


Comments: 1   Visited by: 48 users
03.07.2020 - 22:13

Thanks for the interview!
"Inspired by the future of the past"

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