Russian Circles are a three-piece instrumental band based in Chicago. They’ve carved themselves a reputation for an incredibly rich and potent live sound by utilising looping to create spacious sonic soundscapes far beyond what you’d expect is possible from a power trio.
Constantly exploring dynamics and timbre from melodic serenity to raucous turbulence, Russian Circles have been honing their sound on extensive tours and six albums in, are showing no signs of slowing down. We spoke to the guys ahead of festival season to get the low down on their new album, talked about the upcoming tour and festival dates as well as delving into the nitty-gritty talk of gear.
Hey guys, thanks for taking the time out to do this Q&A, how are we doing today?
Mike – Doing well, thanks.
Your album ‘Blood Year’ releases on the 2nd August, what can fans expect from your latest offering?
Mike – It’s a bit darker than previous records we’ve released. When we perform live, we usually prefer to play the heavier and darker songs. When writing this record we focused on recording songs that will hopefully transfer seamlessly from the studio to the stage.
You’re playing the main stage at ArcTanGent this year, how do you prepare for such a massive show?
Mike – For ArcTanGent, we’ve booked a week of shows leading up to the festival so that we’ll ideally be in decent form by the time we reach the festival. Additionally, we’ll be more familiar with the backline after a number of shows, instead of scrambling just before the set with gear you’ve never touched. The last time we played ATG we flew in and played the show as a one-off performance. As a result, the set may’ve suffered a bit. Nothing horrible happened but I think we all learned from that experience.
What guitar(s) are you gonna be using on the next tour?
Mike – A Nik Huber Orca and an 80s Gibson Les Paul Custom Lite.
What strings/gauge do you use and are you still playing in that DADGAD variant tuning?
Mike – 11 to 56. I use this guitar to tune to the following DADGAD, C#ADGAC#, C#G#DGAC#, and AADGAD. The other guitar is always tuned to BBEABE and is strung with gauge 10 to 52 strings but I swap the 52 out with a 58.
Are you going to be using your all Fender backline on the next tour?
Mike – At least two Fender Twin Reissues. Recently, I’ve also been using a Quilter Overdrive 200 to power a 4×12 as well. Those Quilters are pretty impressive. Especially when mixed with tube amps in the front of house.
I saw you guys supporting Mastodon a couple of years ago and I was blown away by the live sound which was incredibly powerful for a three piece. I understand both Mike and Brian are using loop pedals to help facilitate that expansive sound, are you also doing any signal splitting with your pedalboards by using the looper to go to Amp B for example then playing over the loop using Amp A?
Mike – I run everything as one mono signal… like a caveman. I’d love to mess with a proper stereo setup or have a dedicated amp/line for loops but I haven’t found a way to comfortably make that work in a live setting.
Every guitarist loves to talk pedalboards, what are you stepping on at the moment and what’s the one pedal you couldn’t do without?
Mike – We played a show in Adelaide Australia a few weeks back with 0% of our gear because the airlines misplaced our luggage. That show was a complete mess. We borrowed guitars, basses, pedals, amps, drums…you name it. Anyway, I can safely say no SINGLE pedal would’ve saved the day. I learned there’s no magic pedal for me. I simply need to be familiar with the pedals and know how they interact with each other. Of course, I do have pedals I prefer. I like the Bogner/Rupert Neve pedals for distortion and am a big fan of the Strymon effects. I use an Akai Headrush II for live looping. I’ve tried countless other loopers and for some reason that one works best for my application.
Now some questions for Brian, which basses are you going to be using in August?
Brian – Just the Electrical Guitar Company Series 2. That’s the only bass I travel with these days. I’ll also have my First Act custom baritone with me. I love my old Gibson basses but they’re a bit finicky and I don’t wanna spend all my time fretting over them. Plus, the EGC has such a distinctive bite to it that I can’t imagine playing anything else at this point.
You use a tonne of FX for live shows, more than most bassists who seem to limit themselves to just compression, distortion and maybe an EQ pedal. Which pedals are you using that really change/enhance the sound of your bass?
Brian – My two primary dirt pedals are the Fuzzrocious Rat Tail and the Darkglass Alpha Omega Ultra. For fuzz, I use a Dwarfcraft Eau Claire Thunder and a Way Huge Swollen Pickle. I have a few other things in the chain, but I can’t give away all my secrets, ya know?
What strings/gauge are you using and do you also play in an alternate tuning?
Brian – I use a custom set of Ernie Ball Slinkys—50, 70, 85, 125. I can’t keep up with all of Mike’s tunings so I just keep the top three strings A, D, G and then adjust the low string to whatever the song dictates—D, C#, B.
Are you using any kind of signal splitting setup on your backline?
Brian – Nope. One amp for bass, one amp for Moog Taurus. Keepin’ it as simple as possible cuz I already have enough stuff to load in every night. Ha!
Finally some questions for Dave, what shells are you going to be using on the tour?
Dave – I’ll be using my 70’s vintage stainless steel Ludwig kit I shipped over to Europe a few years ago. Its a 24″, 13″ and 16″ and was my personal kit in the states for a few years.
What are your sticks of choice? Do you ever use any alternatives like brushes?
Dave – My stick of choice is 5B Promark Hickory with the wood tips. I’ve always tried other brands and sizes but always come back to the old Promark 5Bs. I never really used brushes but on some slower songs have incorporated mallets in the set.
Have you broken your 22-inch Istanbul ride cymbal yet? What’s the thinking behind using huge ride cymbals rather than regular crashes?
Dave – I actually did finally! The Xist line is so strong and I honestly think the only reason I break any of my cymbals is from all the flying we do. I can’t imagine how poorly the airlines handle my cymbal case. I use bigger cymbals mainly for the decay with our style of music. The extra wash really helps fill our sound.
You always sound incredibly tight live, are you playing to a click to keep in time with Mike and Brian’s looping or is it just down to your ears?
Dave – Never played to a click and I really admire drummers that do because it seems like a nightmare in a live setting. I’ve always found a way to follow Mikes loops with concentrating on one small section and trying to use that as a weird metronome. I always have Mike super loud in my in-ears and no bass so I can hear the high frequencies of the loops. Sometimes it gets super hard when he stacks several loops on top of each other but as long as I can hear that first loop I’m good to go.
Thanks so much for answering these questions, it’s been really interesting to hear about the live setup and we’re looking forward to hearing the album! Just one more for you, have you ever been into a Dawsons Music store? And if not, fancy popping in to see us next time you’re in the UK?
Mike – Unfortunately, we haven’t paid Dawsons a visit yet. We love scoping out music shops but usually we’re tethered to the neighbourhood of the venue. This upcoming tour, I’ll try to be more proactive and scope it out!
Russian Circles’ new album ‘Blood Year’ is available on the 2nd of August on all major streaming platforms. You can catch them on their warmup tour ahead of the summer festival dates at select UK venues, get tickets here.
Get the Gear
If you liked that then you might like this
Check out our Loop Pedal Overview which gives you the low down on the best loopers.
Enhance your creativity with Alternate Tunings in our handy guide.
Upgrade your Cymbals with this beginners guide.
Matt is a multi-instrumentalist, music geek and current Content Creator at Dawsons Music. He composes, records and produces out of his home studio in Manchester as well as playing in two bands, China Moon and Sawbones.