On stage, Brian Cook isn’t the most vocal musician you’ll find. For one thing, he plays bass – an instrument that typically doesn’t draw a lot of attention – in Russian Circles, an instrumental post-punk outfit known for dense, often angular songs with a cinematic bent. It’s not a job that requires a lot of dialogue.
But ask Cook about the current political landscape in the United States, and it can be hard to shut him up.
“I’m glad it’s a train wreck,” says Cook, “in that folks in Europe on our last tour were saying that a lot of far-right parties over there were losing traction because Trump is such an international embarrassment and obvious failure. But if the FBI and the Guardian actually have all this dirt on the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, can we please start an impeachment process or treason charges before he and his cronies completely gut our public schools, rob the American populace of access to health care, rack up government spending so our oligarch-elect doesn’t have to pay out of pocket for his family’s extravagant lifestyle, pillage the environment for the extremely short-term economic gain of a few industrialists, start another series of wars and create a whole new wave of terrorist warlords in destabilized regions from this media-hungry narcissist’s complete ineptitude of diplomacy and foreign policy?”
Clearly Cook’s quiet, on-stage demeanor belies a torrent of strong opinions. But despite the lack of an overt message, Russian Circles has garnered a rabid following over the course of six studio albums. After a decade of noodling in the studio and pummeling audiences all over the globe, the band this month released Live at Dunk! Fest, its first live album, recorded last year in Belgium. For a band that’s notorious for meticulously planning every detail of its often-complex songs, it’s odd to hear that the live record came about rather spontaneously.
“Going into a show with the plan of documenting it on record was never really something we were too excited about,” says Cook. “Too much pressure. Good shows aren’t a matter of playing everything perfectly; it’s a matter of creating a good vibe. Our performance at Dunk! Festival was streamed live online, so the festival organizers had a quality recording of it.”
The unplanned nature of the recording, Cook says, worked out in the band’s favor.
“Had we known in advance that it was going to be a proper recording, it would’ve probably been lingering in the back of our minds during the entire set and wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable of a show for us,” he says. “It was fortunate that of all shows on the tour, this was the one that got captured. It’s by no means perfect; there are very obvious flubs here and there. But the night before, we had a nightmare of a show where our equipment crapped out on us, and we had some literal showstopper fuckups. I think we were so bummed on the show the night before that this performance felt particularly triumphant for us. And it was a headlining set at a big outdoor festival, so the crowd was enthusiastic, which gave everything an added boost of energy. Everything fell into place nicely.”
“Live at Dunk! Fest” offers an interesting look at Russian Circles' music, capturing live versions of songs from across the band’s catalogue (excepting the first album, Enter, on which Cook didn’t play). For all the work that goes into crafting such intricate tunes in the studio, the band is, after all, an artistic endeavor best experienced in the unpredictable setting of a live show. While the differences between the recorded and live versions are subtle, Cook says, they’re an important part of what Russian Circles does.
“The live record serves to show how the band has adhered to a certain creative philosophy, emotional range and sonic timbre, but the strategy and approach has changed,” says Cook. “In terms of seeing the older material evolve, it’s mainly a matter of watching the songs become streamlined and filled out. For as busy as our music can be at times, we really value simplicity and groove.”
As with any instrumental band, characterizing Russian Circles’ music is tough. It’s easy to lump them in with other post-punk/aggressive rock bands, but that glosses over the seismic differences that set such groups apart. Cook, however, doesn’t waste a lot of energy trying to categorize his band’s sound and has a pretty good sense of humor about the whole topic.
“I just say we’re a heavy instrumental band,” he says. “Three-piece. Guitar, bass, drums. I usually mutter something else about being dark and cinematic and heavy and then get awkward about it and try to change the topic of conversation. Or if it’s, like, a border officer, we usually say we sound like Metallica crossed with Pink Floyd, and hope they like one of those bands. An immigration officer in England once asked if we sounded like Biohazard and Sepultura. We said, ‘Absolutely.’”