The pairing of Chicago instrumental trio Russian Circles with Converge guitarist and producer Kurt Ballou seems perfect… so why has it taken six albums for it to happen?
“It was always in the back of our minds,” confirms their guitarist Mike Sullivan. “What he gravitates towards for the sound of drums and guitars is right there and so tangible… But we intentionally kind of shied away from it for a while because we thought it was too obvious.
“We like to take the unbeaten path and get there by a different route. But this time we thought, instead of talking about how to get Kurt’s sound in a different studio, let’s go straight to him and go for it.”
Going to God City
With both parties going all in at Ballou’s God City studios, a process began that would change Mike’s ideas on tracking tone, but without distilling the orchestral style and immense sound he creates with his band.
“He has a very unconventional approach,” Mike says of Ballou’s methods. “You may have a tone in your head, but it may take three different amps to get there. We did a lot of discussing beforehand. I mentioned us having warmth and clarity at the same time which doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand.”
Based on what we’ve heard, they very much do on Guidance - an album that defines Russian Circles’ ability to bridge the worlds of cinematic heaviness and glorious post-rock with songs that move seamlessly from simple and sublime to metallically meticulous. Ballou’s leftfield armoury was employed to get there; notably an obscure vintage Gibson Titan amp.
“That thing was the secret weapon,” marvels Mike. “Looks can be deceiving because it’s a mixture of 15s and 12s in the cab, and the head is 6L6 tubes with a lot of headroom. It really blended well with my pedals, too.”
Mike’s ’board included two Bogner overdrives that were on “95 per cent of the album” and the Strymon Flint and DIG units that help the guitarist's canny use of layers, drones and evolving tremolo picking sound so immense on a surprisingly optimistic major key song such as Afrika. But his most unexpected revelations in the studio was actually a pickup change in his trusty 1985 Gibson Les Paul Custom…
“I’ve learned a lot from Kurt from hearing how my guitars sound back through the speakers, and before the recording I decided to put the stock pickups back in instead of the Dirty Fingers I usually use. Those low-output pickups changed everything.
“We’ve done a few shows with the stock pickups and the feedback response was just way more organic because you can just feel the depth of the feedback. And the picking attack is way different. Even through loads of gain you can hear how hard the picking is and that affects the delay trails. I’m always changing my mind, but I really feel like I’m back to something. I wandered too far and now I feel like I’m home.”
Russian Circles new album, Guidance, will be released 5 August via Sargent House.