Guitar Squid’s Featured Artist & 5 Questions with Russian Circles’ Mike Sullivan
Who: Russian Circles
Vibe: Instrumental, progressive metal
Bio: The Chicago/Seattle -based trio is made up of Mike Sullivan on guitar, Brian Cook on bass, and Dave Turncrantz on drums. They came out with their debut album, Enter, in 2006, followed by their second and third albums, Station (2008) and Geneva (2009). Since then the band has worked with producer Brandon Curtis (The Secret Machines and Interpol) for both Geneva and Empros (2011). Watch a video of Russian Circles performing the single “Geneva” from their previous album below!
Gear: Sullivan plays Les Paul Custom through a Verellen Meatsmoke. Read more about his gear and essential stompboxes below in “Five Questions with Russian Circles’ Mike Sullivan.”
Five Questions with Russian Circles’ Mike Sullivan
1. Empros came out on Oct. 25, and it was called your “heaviest album to date.” Tell me how you guys put this one together and what was different from your previous three albums.
We learned from past mistakes of all the records—what we did well, what we could have done stronger and with a little more conviction, and played with more confidence. Plus, cut some of the excess. And in the process of that, we realized that there was a little heavier approach to it. It became a little more expressive for us is what we’re trying to say. It’s what we wanted to do. It felt more comfortable. But it wasn’t a conscious switch like, “Oh we gotta write something heavier.” It was just that all of our writing kind of gravitated toward heavier stuff.
I think the big difference was having more time recording. We broke the recording sessions up into two week intervals. So after our first break, we had some time to go back in there, change the stuff we didn’t like or if something was missing something. We could add a little bit here and there. It’s funny to watch things change, especially with guitar. I’ll have a new approach and it’ll end up giving the song a fresh breath of air. It wasn’t the most pristine studio, but I’ll take time and comfort over rushing through a several day recording session.
2. As an instrumental group, what is your writing process like? Do you get together and jam, or do you each come in with ideas?
Typically, I’ll have a few riffs. A few ideas that can go in any direction. So usually Dave and I will get together. We’ll kind of mess around for awhile, see what’s working and see what can be tossed. And if something kind of catches in the air, and we’re kind of jamming on it, we’ll start recording. Once that feels comfortable and more hashed out, we’ll send that to Brian. We’re in Chicago, and he’s in Seattle. So we set up the whole foundation of the song, then it goes through Brian’s filter. And I kind of rework it once his bass is in the mix, because it changes the sonic frequencies and what’s happening. So I may omit some guitar parts, or add higher parts, or reinforce the bass.
3. You’ve just started your tour in support of Empros. What gear do you have on the road with you?
As far as amps, I’m playing a Verellen Meatsmoke through an Emperor 4x12 and a 2x12. And I think it’s the best amp in the world. [Laughs.] It’s the loudest thing ever with a ton of headroom. The Verellen is a bass amp, or it can be a guitar amp. It’s 300 watts. And I have a Sunn Model T Reissue with another Emperor 4x12. For guitars, I have two Les Paul Custom ‘57 Reissues.
I’m a big fan of the Fulltone Plimsoul and OCD pedals. They really work well together. I’ve always used a Memory Man Delay for a dark, warm analog delay. I’ve recently become a fan, both Brian and I, of using Malekko effect pedals. They’re really cool, small pedals that are spatially-friendly on the pedalboard, and they sound great. Nothing too crazy. A little wah pedal action here and there, which is dangerous and fun for me. And those are the meat and potatoes right there.
4. Are there any differences between what gear you brought on the road, and what you used in the studio?
Not too much actually. In the studio, we have more to choose from. But I actually end up bringing out a lot of those pedals with us. Like a chorus, a phaser, and wah pedal. I used the Z. Vex Fuzz Factory a lot too. It makes it sound really gnarly with other distortion pedals. But most of the stuff we used on the record, we were able to bring on the road with us. Basically, there’s no studio magic that can’t be pulled off as far as crazy effects.
5. I read somewhere that you put a bridge pickup in the neck position of one of your Les Pauls for a brighter sound. Do you have any other tricks or tips with guitars, amps, or effects for fellow guitarists?
Just go with whatever sounds good, you know. Every amp responds differently to different cabinets, to different speakers, to different pickups, to different distortion pedals. It’s really subjective, so it’s up to each person. I try to avoid muddiness at all costs. So if I can eliminate any kind of loss of clarity, I’ll start tinkering with stuff.
It’s more up to the person. Don’t be afraid to mess with stuff, tweak stuff, or put stuff where it doesn’t belong. There’s no wrong way to do stuff. A lot of people think the pedal chain has to be a certain way and that there are rules. There are no rules. You can do whatever you want. If it sounds good, that’s great.
I don’t think there’s anything tricky. It’s all just the sound in your head and chasing that down. It’s important to know what you’re looking for instead of wandering around trying different options for the hell of it. If you’ve got an idea, you know, trial and error, trial and error. I’m still figuring it out [Laughs.] I’m sure five months from now, I’ll still be swapping out stuff.
Written by Voodoo Squid