You can tell Brian Cook, bassist for Chicago-based progressive metal band Russian Circles, is choosing his words carefully: “I have zero desire to ever listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers again.”
For what it’s worth, he’s trying his best to avoid sounding overly critical – it’s just, well, when you’ve been subjected to Anthony Kiedis’ hours-long biography on audiobook while on tour, it’s hard not to mince words.
“It was pretty painful, just because the whole thing is basically Kiedis making a series of bad decisions and not really processing them, or reflecting in the least. It was like, 'Dude, maybe you just shouldn’t do heroin anymore!' [laughs] And after 20 hours of hearing him talk about shooting dope, and getting blowj--- from random girls – absolutely none of us liked RHCP.”
It’s amusing to hear Cook speak disapprovingly about another band. After all, him and his bandmates are kind of known for being the ultimate gentlemen. In a recent Pitchfork interview with 2012 tour-mates Deafheaven -- their guitarist, Kerry McCoy, detailed how the guys in Russian Circles instilled their, frankly, refreshing attitude toward the people they work with: Have some manners, be considerate and behave respectfully.
“We play a lot of the same venues and work with the same promoters again and again,” Cook explains. “Why would I wanna s--- all over a friend’s business? We’re all in this together: Why be inconsiderate and rude?”
For the uninitiated, Russian Circles are the perfect yin & yang representation of melodic metal. Their albums are usually balanced affairs; meddling equally in both brutally crushing juggernauts and atmospheric, delicate hymns. On their October 2013 Sargent House release, Memorial (buy it here), the band has never sounded more focused on both fronts. The instrumental trio has taken their genre-defying sound to newer heights with even more thunderous riffs (“Deficit”), slow-building, ethereal beauty (“Ethel“), sprawling multi-act arrangements (“1777") and a haunting guest-vocal spot from critically acclaimed chanteuse (and labelmate), Chelsea Wolfe (“Memorial”).
“We’ve heard that our records are too schizophrenic,” sighed Cook, “and that they fluctuate too much between different sounds. But if you listen to great, classic rock albums like Led Zeppelin's III or the Beatles' Revolver -- there’s so much variety. Your brain’s constantly trying to figure out the juxtaposition of all those songs next to each other.”
The band returns to the Casbah March 9, for their first headlining show in town since their 2011 appearance at the club. Cook was kind enough to take a few moments out of the band’s hectic touring schedule to discuss the band’s songwriting, European vs. American crowds and the challenge of keeping people interested in a world obsessed with singers.
Dustin Lothspeich: You guys are playing the Casbah in March, after playing the House of Blues last year. Are you looking forward to going back or do prefer playing larger venues?
Brian Cook: Yeah, it’s more our speed. The House of Blues is good if you’re on tour with a bigger band, but the Casbah is more our size, and it’s a place we’ve been playing for years. I definitely like the feeling of playing a place where it feels crowded. Then again, if it’s too small, you’re not dealing with a huge PA and we’ve got a lot of gear – so that can be kind of annoying. But, yeah, generally we prefer smaller venues.
DL: Have you noticed a difference in European venues and their fans compared to American ones?
BC: I think stateside, metal has isn’t taken with as much cultural weight. Metal is kind of seen as a backwoods phenomenon here. It’s a generalization but as far as full-bore metal goes, you think of classic, metal-show parking-lot demographic. Overseas, it’s seen as a more of a legitimate art form. We’re not a full-on metal band, so our fans seem to be more varied and diverse. But I definitely feel like our crowds in Europe are a bit more mature, a bit more ... more like patrons of the arts. In the UK and America, shows are very “nightlife” and “clubby.” Whereas, when you play in Germany or Belgium, it’s viewed more like a classical concert. Here, it’s more like Halloween, like "OK, now I’m gonna put on my metal costume and see some metal," but if you’re in Gothenburg, Sweden, that’s what their life is about. They’re not all brutally intense or anything -- they’re totally relatable – but they take their shows very seriously. It’s very genuine and ingrained in their culture. I don’t want to imply that American audiences are faking it at all; there’s just more of a separation here. But the love for the music is the same.
DL: When the band is writing, do you purposely try to balance the two extremes of dark and heavy vs. soft and beautiful?
BC: It’s an unspoken thing between us. I don’t think we’d want to make one record that’s full-volume, mondo distortion for 40 minutes. It gets really tiring on the ears. We knew [Memorial] was going to be a shorter record for us, and our record for comparison was Slayer’s Reign in Blood: It’s 30 minutes flat. But in that small chunk of time, it’s perfect as it is. I think it’s just about finding that balance, like you said. We don’t want to exhaust the listener by playing full throttle the whole time. We also have very diverse musical tastes, so we all appreciate music and/or bands that embrace a variety of style, approaches and tones.
DL: The songs are also generally extremely dynamic, with several movements existing within one track. Do you write with that style in mind?
BC: I don’t think we articulate it in that way. We write a bunch of material, and we always have the album, as a big picture, in mind. When we work on a record, we have a rough idea of a sequence in mind. We’re cognizant of how the different songs are placed on the record so it’s not frontloaded with several brutal metal songs. We like to go through peaks and valleys throughout an album.
DL: Do the songs ever get difficult to pull off live, since the band is a trio?
BC: A little bit. We do a good job of writing within our parameters and what’s realistically possible to pull off live. It does get tricky, though. There’s a discrepancy between what you can do live vs. what you can do on a record, and there will be several ways you can compensate for those discrepancies. Sometimes we’ll do an overdub in the studio, and try the song out in the practice space without it, and go, "F---, its way more crucial than we thought!" And then we have to find a way to replicate it live. So, we’re pretty careful about what we add when we're recording.
DL: Chelsea Wolfe performs guest vocals on “Memorial.” How did that happen?
BC: We had toured with Chelsea, and when we talked about doing a European tour, we figured we could write a song, perform it on tour with her and keep it refreshing and interesting. Adding a vocal component a lot would be like opening a Pandora’s Box, though. Knowing it’s an outside person to the band, though, it makes it a very special, very exclusive performance thing that we won’t be expected to do continuously. But it was very easy to go into it with confidence with her. A big part of it was that she’s a much different kind of artist than we are. In terms of timbre and tone, she’s very different. But in terms of the mood she can conjure -- it was right up our alley.
DL: Is it difficult playing instrumental music and becoming successful in a world where everyone loves to dissect lyrics and vocal performances?
BC: I’m definitely surprised we’re able to do what we do on the level we do it. I’m not sure how it works, or if it works against us or for us. I think there are people out there that require a vocalist or figurehead and need that added human element. But there are also a lot of people that appreciate brainy, indie-rock stuff that focuses on instrumentation. Anyway, vocals can be an afterthought in a lot of ways. I hate to say this because we all love Jesus Lizard to death -- they’re awesome -- but when you’re listening to their records, sometimes you’d like to be able to focus on what [Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison] is doing on guitar or what’s going on with the bass. David Yow [the band’s lead singer] is awesome, but sometimes I just want to just hear the music. From that perspective, being an instrumental band works to our benefit. We’ve heard that comment, "You should have a singer!" all the time. And it’s almost a lost cause to try to win those people over. If that’s what you require, then we’re just not the band for you.