Mike Sullivan

By Cleveland, Barry | Guitar Player, December 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

Mike Sullivan


Cleveland, Barry, Guitar Player


CHICAGO-BASED INSTRUMENTAL TRIO RUSSIAN Circles takes its name from a hockey maneuver that involves skating in circles--a fitting moniker considering the band's combination of brute muscularity and fleet dexterity, and the key role that looping plays in the music, particularly when layering guitars during live performances. Although typically billed as a "metal" band, Russian Circles largely eschews the drastically detuned guitars, relentless rapid-fire riffing, and highly technical soloing endemic to the genre. The band can be monstrously heavy, pummeling an audience with the best of them, but there's majesty to the mayhem. An uncanny mastery of dissonance fused with keen dynamics and a minimalistic, almost serial melodic sense results in beautifully foreboding soundscapes of cinematic scope. On Russian Circles' fourth album, Empros [Sargent House], guitarist Mike Sullivan. bassist Brian Cook, and drummer Dave Turncrantz have further concentrated those elements hire what may be their masterpiece.

Russian Circles is in some ways the antithesis of the average hyper-technical metal band. What put you on that course?

My last band was also an instrumental band, and we were a bit more technical, though not in the sense of over-the-top death metal type sweep arpeggios. I can't even make that happen, so that's not a concern. But when Dave and I started Russian Circles, we decided to keep things really simple, and to focus more on song structure and on groove. It was challenging at first, partly because there weren't a lot of reference points for what we were trying to do. But the simpler and more malleable the song structure, the more freeing it is, because you can take the music in any direction from there.

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Describe your compositional process.

Usually, I'll come up with a ton of different riffs and ideas that are compatible, and I'll let Brian and Dave sift through them--mostly Dave initially--and see what works. Say I have five parts for a song and two work out--cool. And once we begin jamming and developing ideas we may end up ditching the original idea or ideas entirely if something else feels good to everybody. We've also been recording our rehearsals so we can refer to them, which is something I've known I should do for 20 years but haven't, kind of like playing with a metronome. You never do it and then when you finally do you're like, "Son of a bitch, this is great!"

What guitars did you play on the new record?

I mostly played a Gibson Les Paul Custom that has a Dirty Fingers ceramic bridge pickup and a 498T alnico neck pickup. The Dirty Fingers has a lot of body, which I like, and the combination works well for me. I also have a stock '57 Les Paul Reissue with a pair of 57 Classic Vintage humbuckers in it. One thing we did differently this time was to double a lot of parts with a Fender Jazzmaster, which blended well with the thick Les Paul tones on both distorted and mellower parts, and added clarity and definition. There's also a Gibson Sonex 180 on a few tracks, and I played a Larrivee acoustic on the intro to "Atackla," an Alvarez acoustic on "Schiphol," and an inexpensive nylon-string here and there. I string the electrics with Dean Markley strings, gauged .011-.052.

Do you ever play in standard tuning?

I do for educational purposes, but not with the band. I took a huge break from standard tuning and going back to it has been a lot of fun. But the more I play in standard, the more I'm writing riffs, and I'm like, "Oh crap, now I'll have to bring another guitar on stage."

What tunings are you playing in?

"Schiphol" and "Atackla" are played in DADGAD, and "Mladek" and "Batu" are played in a variation of DADGAD, with the first and sixth strings dropped down to D [flat]. On "309," I also drop the fifth string down to A [flat], because I missed having a low power chord in open position. …

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