Russian Circles On New Album, Influences, & Working With Kurt Ballou

Interview with guitarist Mike Sullivan | By Douglas Menagh | Photo by Alicia Armijo

Chicago’s Russian Circles, comprised of guitarist Mike Sullivan, drummer Dave Turncrantz, and bassist Brian Cook, dropped Blood Year through Sargent House on Aug. 2.

Ahead of the new album, the instrumental trio released “Arluck,” a song with intricate and dissonant hooks, search-and-destroy drumbeats, and aggressive basslines. The single is a technically impressive banger that alternates between moments of tranquility and broadly powerful episodes.

Below, Sullivan shares a bit about creating “Arluck,” recording Blood Year, collaborating with producer Kurt Ballou, loving hockey—the game that inspired the name Russian Circles—and what’s in store for the future.

Congratulations on “Arluck”! What was it like making this tune? What resonated with you and drove its creation? 

Thanks. “Arluck” was the first song we started working on for this album and ended up being one of the last. We went through 12 different arrangements of that song before we were finally satisfied. There was something exciting about starting the song with up-tempo drums that felt fresh to us. When Brian added the basslines, the song took on a new path, which prompted Dave and I to adjust our parts. There was originally no guitar tapping until the final few versions of the song.

How was making Blood Year? As far as writing, recording, and engineering, what was your approach this time around?

The writing process wasn’t vastly different from previous records. I stockpiled a ton of riffs, sent them off to the dudes, and once everyone had some time to sit with the ideas, Dave and I started piecing together the songs. Brian had a cool idea from the last album, [2016’s Guidance], that ended up becoming “Ghost On High.”

The recording process, however, was a departure for us. The drums and bass were recorded in Chicago and the guitar was tracked in Salem, Massachusetts, at Kurt Ballou’s studio, GodCity. Mixing took place in Salem too.

How was it working with Kurt Ballou again?

We love working with Kurt. It was great to see him work his magic at Electrical Audio in Chicago, which is known for its warm, open sound. He really got the most out of the acoustic potential of that studio. As far as interpersonal interaction, we really get along well with Kurt, which I think is important. A lot of it comes down to trust. If he makes a suggestion, we’re all ears. At this point, we’re so comfortable around each other, there’s less room for misunderstandings. No one’s going to get bent out of shape if a part isn’t working in the studio. With the aforementioned trust, there’s less overall stress. You know things will eventually work out.

Additionally, I think it can be beneficial to track with an engineer who’s also a guitarist. He’s very persistent and won’t just settle for an adequate guitar tone when he knows it could be more interesting. He has a treasure trove of amps, pedals, and guitars at his studio. There was always a compelling sound waiting in another guitar or pedal. This record would sound very different if Kurt wasn’t involved.

How did recording in Chicago shape the album?

I think Electrical Audio played a bigger role than the city itself. We’ve happened to record every other album of ours there. It really has its own unique sound and environment. Our main goal was to capture the drums at Electrical. I feel like Dave’s never been happier with a drum recording. Brian and I lodged at the studio, so we would head down to the studio at night to refine parts and iron out kinks. Also, it was pretty damn cold when we were recording. We’d march through the snow each night to meet friends at a riverside bar for a few drinks. This provided a great opportunity to take our minds off the record for a while.

You say in your promo, “Russian Circles chose to track the foundations of the songs together in one room as complete takes without click tracks.” Can you elaborate on that in terms of recording, engineering, and the end result of Blood Year?

Typically, in the past, we’d record to a click track and then build the song around that tempo map. On the previous two records, [Guidance and 2013’s Memorial], Dave would actually track the drums 100 percent by himself, and then, we’d lay bass and guitar down. On this recording, we played the songs together without any guiding tempo or click track. We wanted the songs to feel more natural and open.

You’ve recorded with an impressive lineup of musicians, but what was it like working with Chelsea Wolfe [on the title track from Memorial]? Are there any other artists with whom you wish to collaborate?

We’re fortunate to call Chelsea a friend, but it was still a huge honor nevertheless. The song was written with her vocals in mind, so it was cool to actually write a song with a different approach. We sent her the song, and she recorded the vocals from her home studio. It was a really natural and inspiring process. Hearing one of your favorite musicians sing on your own music meant a lot to us.

There are definitely other artists we’d like to collaborate with, but nothing I’d like to share right now. It seems to be more rewarding to collaborate with artists who aren’t necessarily in the same genre but have overlapping qualities and beliefs.

How wild is it that the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup?

Can’t believe it! Dave is a massive Blues fan and watched nearly every game this season, so this was huge for him. Dave and I both grew up in St. Louis playing hockey, and the Blues were a huge part of our youth. Since moving to Chicago and falling in love with the comedy duo of [announcers] Pat Foley and Eddie Olczyk, I’ve morphed into a Blackhawks fan. I’ll always have love for the Blues, though.  

What are some influences outside of music that inspire your work?

I’m often inspired by random individuals who may not necessarily have any connection to the art world. I love seeing somebody pour themself into their craft. Obsession with their passion—that always fuels me to dig a little deeper. I value humility too. Let your work speak for itself. I also admire people who don’t worry about people-pleasing or receiving judgment from others. I love the fucking weirdos who are just living the shit out of life.

You’re set to tour [North America starting in September]. How do you feel about that?

Looking forward to it. Excited to throw some new songs into the setlist. We’re fortunate to hit the road with FACS and Windhand, two bands we highly admire.

Besides touring and dropping Blood Year, is there anything else on the horizon you are looking forward to?  

Not at this point. We’ve been in a dormant phase over the summer. Come fall, we have nothing but touring on the agenda through next spring.

Purchase Blood Year here


SEP 11 Madison, WI @ High Noon Saloon * 

SEP 12 Minneapolis, MN @ Cedar Cultural Center * 

SEP 14 Bozeman, MT @ Rialto Bozeman * 

SEP 16 Seattle, WA @ Neumos * 

SEP 17 Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom * 

SEP 19 San Francisco, CA @ August Hall * 

SEP 20 Ventura, CA @ Discovery Ventura * 

SEP 21 Los Angeles, CA @ The Teragram Ballroom * 

SEP 23 Mesa, AZ @ The Nile * 

SEP 24 Santa Fe, NM @ Meow Wolf * 

SEP 25 Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater * 

SEP 28 Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall *

OCT 18 Grand Rapids, MI @ The Pyramid Scheme + 

OCT 19 Detroit, MI @ El Club + 

OCT 20 Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace + 

OCT 21 Montreal, QC @ Theatre Fairmount + 

OCT 23 Portsmouth, NH @ 3S ArtSpace + 

OCT 24 Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair + 

OCT 26 Brooklyn, NY @ Warsaw + 

OCT 27 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer + 

OCT 29 Washington, DC @ Union Stage + 

OCT 30 Richmond, VA @ The Broadberry + 

NOV 01 Durham, NC @ Motorco Music Hall + 

NOV 02 Charlotte, NC @ Neighborhood Theatre + 

NOV 03 Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade + 

NOV 04 New Orleans, LA @ One Eyed Jack’s + 

NOV 06 Houston, TX @ The Secret Group + 

NOV 08 Austin, TX @ Levitation  

NOV 09 Dallas, TX @ Deep Ellum Art Company 

NOV 11 St. Louis, MO @ Delmar Hall + 

w/ FACS *

w/ Windhand +

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