Music lovers first took notice of the stellar guitar playing and pounding rhythms on Russian Circles 2006 release ?Enter.? Earlier this year, with ?Station,? and those same fans and many more became enamored the awesome sounds that Russian Circles put to tape. Scene Point Blank recently spoke with guitarist Mike Sullivan about the band?s latest offering, recent tours, and other guitar wizardry.
Scene Point Blank: Tell us your name and your role in the band. Also, Where does the name Russian Circles come from?
Mike Sullivan: Mike Sullivan, guitar. The name comes from a practice drill introduced by the 1980 Russian National hockey team.
Scene Point Blank: The band is currently in the midst of a tour with Coheed & Cambria. What has the reaction been like thus far?
Mike Sullivan: Surprisingly good. We honestly had no idea what to expect but thankfully everyone seemed to understand what we were getting at when we played.
Scene Point Blank: The response to the band?s debut full-length, Station has been overly positive. Did you have any reservations when it came time to write for the full-length? Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
Mike Sullivan: There wasn't any reservations while writing, Writing is always the most rewarding element of playing music. I wouldn't necessarily say I'd want to do anything different but we learned a lot from that recording.
Scene Point Blank: The band enlisted Brian Cook of These Arms of Snakes to record bass on Station. Did this change the songwriting dynamic at all? Were the songs written prior to his joining the band?
Mike Sullivan: The songs were pretty much written and arranged before he joined. However the songs were left very loose so we could rework or extend parts that sounded different once bass was added. We're eager to write as a three-piece and expand on our last two albums. Brian's an awesome musician and a pleasure to play with.
Scene Point Blank: What is the band currently doing as far as a bassist? Have you found more fill-ins or a permanent replacement yet?
Mike Sullivan: Brian is our guy.
Scene Point Blank: How did the signing to Suicide Squeeze come about? Since signing to Suicide Squeeze and releasing Station have you noticed a change in the crowds at your shows?
Mike Sullivan: We did a 7? with Suicide Squeeze a few years ago and they were great to work with. Many of our friends on that label spoke highly of them and acted like recruiting reps, convincing us to go with Suicide Squeeze. We're definitely grateful to be part of their roster. I can't say I've really noticed a change in the crowds at shows. Since the beginning, we've always had diverse following, which we obviously appreciate. I love seeing older people at shows. Receiving a compliment from them means a lot considering how much music they must have seen.
Scene Point Blank: You were in Dakota/Dakota prior to forming Russian Circles. What kind of distinctions did you want to make between the two groups? Was it a conscious decision to remain an instrumental group from the get-go, or was that a decision made after the fact?
Mike Sullivan: When we started this band we wanted to cut out all the technical noodling and focus more on the songs themselves. We're more concerned with arrangement, pacing, dynamics and effectiveness; this was more about restraint than trying to impress anyone. At the same time, we're very open-minded to exploring different ideas. We didn't set off to be instrumental but after the first few songs were written we saw no room for a vocalist. At the time we thought vocals would've been a distraction from the music and would instantly categorize our band on grounds of the vocal style.
Scene Point Blank: During the writing process have you ever written a song that could include vocals on it? If so, how did you deal with the circumstances? If not, any idea how you would react?
Mike Sullivan: I'm sure a lot of our music could easily have vocals but that doesn't necessarily mean it needs vocals. If a song felt incomplete without vocals than we'd change it. It?s not something we really think about. We're not totally adverse to vocals. If it felt natural, we'd be happy to add that if it furthered the song, but so far that hasn't happened.
Scene Point Blank: As a three-piece, you must loop riffs during performances to achieve the same sound as on the albums. What bands, if any, do you look up to for their onstage guitar-looping prowess? What bits of advice would you give to aspiring loopers'?
Mike Sullivan: Since I saw Don Caballero at the Fireside in '99, I?ve been blown away by Ian Williams' musicianship, both with Don Cab and Battles. There's not question that he was the biggest influence for my looping. Dave Knudson from Minus the Bear has an equally impressive command over live looping. There are also many talented noise artists who do great things with loopers that is impressive, but things get a bit trickier when looping with a live drummer,
Scene Point Blank: What bands have had the biggest influence on your sound as a guitarist? What record(s) would you attribute to your picking up a guitar?
Mike Sullivan: Fugazi's Red Medicine and Shellac's At Action Park were the two albums that literally changed the way I looked at music. I heard both those albums in 8th grade and was blown away at how dissonant and wrong everything sounded. But at the foundation of those wretched tones were catchy rock songs that didn't follow conventional norms or structures. After hearing those records, I didn't want to play powerchords anymore. When I first began playing guitar, I was more interested in Van Halen, Metallica, Faith no More and Pantera.
Scene Point Blank: You?ve played with a few impressive acts thus far - Minus the Bear, Red Sparowes, Pelican, Dälek, Young Widows, and Mono. What is it like opening up for established acts like these? Do you plan differently based on who else you?re performing with to cater to their crowd?
Mike Sullivan: We don't alter our set for any particular audience. We play songs that we're excited to play and if we're feeling the songs, hopefully there will be a meaningful interaction with the audience that isn't genre specific.
Scene Point Blank: What was reception like on your recent tour (as far as crowd reception, the band members themselves, and onstage antics) with Daughters?
Mike Sullivan: Ha. Our fans and Daughters fans are definitely different breeds. I've never seen more fights at shows than on that tour. My parents saw Daughters on that tour and were less than impressed by their onstage banter and nudity, but my aunt saw them a few weeks later and absolutely loved them. Every night was a different performance for them. Made for a hilarious tour, both on and off stage.
Scene Point Blank: Our staff writer Cory has a similarly topic-oriented question for you: you've toured with Fear Before the March of Flames and Daughters. How many collective times have you attempted to commit suicide?
Mike Sullivan: Well, on the Fear Before the March of Flames tour my body flipped out on me and my hands and feet became grotesquely swollen, which caused us to drop off the tour. Maybe my body was trying to kill itself without checking with me first.
Scene Point Blank: ?Station,? the ?Enter? EP and the ?Upper Ninety? single were available on vinyl. How important is releasing your material on vinyl?
Mike Sullivan: Very.
Scene Point Blank: What are your thoughts on the CD vs. Vinyl vs. Digital debate?
Mike Sullivan: I prefer vinyl over all formats but I believe all are important. My only fear with digitally bought music is that the tangible element and artwork of the music is neglected, not to mention labels and bands not getting paid for illegal downloading. As far as the downloading debacle, I'm not that concerned with it, but I think people should be aware of the repercussions. When the labels aren't getting paid, recording budgets drop and the overall product is affected. I think we'll see more of that in the coming years, especially the smaller indie and punk labels.
Scene Point Blank: How do you react to people saying they?ve downloaded your music?
Mike Sullivan: Anyone who tells us they've downloaded our songs will let us know that they picked up the album at a show or a bought shirt or something. No one just confesses to stealing the album without making any other contribution, which is probably for the best.
Scene Point Blank: What is the music scene in Chicago like? There?s always a constant flux of groups from the city onto the national stage. Is the local scene really that impressive?
Mike Sullivan: I think Chicago does have an impressive community of musicians/artists that are extremely supportive and prolific. Chicago has a deep history of great bands that have an inevitable influence on newer bands.
Scene Point Blank: What music are you currently listening to? Any artists that you?d like to suggest to our readers to investigate?
Mike Sullivan: I can't stop listening to the new Secret Machines album. It won't be out for a while but you should keep an eye out for it. Young Widow's new album, Old Wounds, is pretty awesome as well.
Scene Point Blank: What is on tap for Russian Circles for the remainder of Summer and the rest of 2008?
Mike Sullivan: We're doing a full European tour in the fall and then we'll be a home writing for the most of winter.
Scene Point Blank: Do you have any parting thoughts you?d like to share with our readers?
Mike Sullivan: Vote Obama