“There’s something to be said for having something sound gnarly”: Russian Circles’ Mike Sullivan on old-school death metal, Kurt Ballou’s pedal collection and his enormous Hiwatt rig

With Russian Circles guitarist Mike Sullivan mainlining At The Gates and Pantera, the band’s new record Gnosis might be their heaviest yet.

“It’s not an ‘Yngwie’ sense of classical,” Russian Circles’ guitarist Mike Sullivan tells us. “It’s more symphonic. Especially with layering and looping. You can create something you can hum, that can be stuck in your head – not just thrashing.”

Clunky genre labels like post-rock, post-metal and instrumental progressive sludge have always done Russian Circles a disservice. There’s a classical feel to their arrangements – just not in the way you might think. Their eighth album, Gnosis, is as crushingly dense and devastatingly emotional as ever, sweeping between heavy, droning textures, pummelling riffs and gorgeous clean passages.

Their symphonic approach means melodic clarity is essential – throughout all the intensity, the band’s three members are always audible. Mike Sullivan’s guitar, Brian Cook’s bass and Dave Turncrantz’s drums are given room to breathe, both through deft arrangements and meticulous production.

Gnosis was tracked in two studios. The drums were recorded in Chicago’s Electrical Audio, with Sullivan and Cook playing live alongside Turncrantz’s takes. “I don’t think there were any songs to a click,” says Sullivan of the process. “There’s one that’s synced to a syncopated delay on the guitar, that was it. Compared to previous records, it was more, ‘no click, just jamming’ – just playing what felt good.”

The rest of the record was laid down in Salem, Massachusetts, amid the vast apparatus of Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou. “We saved Brian’s synth work and all the guitar stuff for God City Studio,” Sullivan says, “just because Kurt has so many gizmos, toys, and so many amps. The amount of resources he has is far beyond Electrical, in part because he has his own pedal company, God City Instruments.”

However, Ballou’s resources would have been all for naught were they not put to good use. Fortunately he and Sullivan know what they’re doing. “Both Kurt and I have an idea of what the guitar sounds like in this band – live and in the studio,” Sullivan says. “The first day of guitar tracking, we just brought the pedalboard into the live room, looked at all the amps and started doing a shootout with them and which sounded the best with which pedals – that let us tailor the gear towards the songs.”

The first task was to pare down the expansive amp selection to just three, which took hours. It wasn’t just the über-brutal metal amps getting attention either. “Anything was up for grabs,” Sullivan says, “whatever the name says, it’s irrelevant. For most of the record, it was two Traynor heads and a Gibson Titan.”

Once he and Ballou got things sounding good in the live room, Sullivan shrewdly took the pedalboard into the control room to hear how everything sounded through the mics and monitors. “You might lose or gain something when you include the mics,” he says. “Kurt would play with them to see which ones were playing ball with that particular amp, and then from there we pretend the pedalboard doesn’t exist. Just plugging individual pedals straight in, as few as possible at one time for fidelity reasons.”

Russian Circles - Gnosis

Extra headroom

Sullivan’s approach to his guitar sound is pedal-centric, with amps functioning as high-headroom pedal platforms, which means that amps with gain channels – or just not enough headroom – aren’t his first choice. “You have less options that way. I wish I could do the dual-channel amp thing, because amp distortion sounds arguably better than just a chain of gain pedals, but for looping and adding a distorted part over a clean part, you’re not gonna do that with a dual-channel amp. I used to have a Sunn Model T but I found it to be limiting as far as delay trails going from clean to dirty and vice versa. So I’ve just committed hard to the whole stupidly-long-pedal-chain thing. I’m a huge fan of being able to mix the textures of different pedals.”

As for picking those pedals for tracking, that’s when God City really started to pay off. “Because Kurt knows so much about pedals, it was fun to see him go full mad scientist on it. And again, there were no bad ideas – the amount of songs that have a Boss Metal Zone tucked in there somewhere is hilarious.”

For delays, Sullivan used the Source Audio Collider delay/reverb. “One of the functions is that you can turn the reverb side into another delay, so you can use two delays at different times – one can be a dotted quarter note, one can be an eighth note – and they’re synced perfectly. So for things like the intro to Gnosis and for most of Bloom, there’s two delays going at two different times.

Russian Circle's Mike Sullivan

“And since we had the God City Instruments pedals on hand, and Kurt knows them forwards and backwards, we used them a lot – and there were a few recurring characters. One was the Jugendstil – that’s a HM-2 clone with a fuzz circuit that you can blend in. There was also the Hellstache on there too, an Abominable Electronics collaboration with God City Instruments. Pretty much all of Kurt’s pedals made their way onto the record at some point. And there was plenty of HM-2 on there in various formats, from various makers.”

But despite the hairy, untamed sonics that can be wrought by a HM-2-based pedal, Sullivan for the most part avoided fuzz pedals. “Brian is so fuzzy that it’s more advantageous for me to carve my own niche with distortion, and let the fuzz wrap around that.”

The guitarist clearly puts a lot of thought – and passion – into pedal-stacking. “I’m right next to all my shit right now,” he says, holding stompboxes up to the camera. “This pedal, it’s the Electronic Audio Experiments Halberd. I wasn’t hip to it until recently, it was super-useful for the loud clean tones on the songs Gnosis and Bloom – that pedal can do so much more than just that but it’s got a great natural grit to it.”

There is a practical limit to the show-and-tell portion of this interview, however. “There were so many pedals used it would be absurd to list them all,” Sullivan says. “A lot of it was blending sounds to find the right one.”

Gnarly, dude

Given all this gear, it was inevitable that Gnosis would end up being Russian Circles’ heaviest record yet. “I suppose we’re getting a bit gnarlier and more aggressive with the tones,” Sullivan says. “The songs are more riff-focused, so that always comes first – when you have a great metal riff, you have the freedom to add all kinds of filth and crap on top of it. A great drum sound is the foundation, but then we just destroy it with blown-out guitar and bass sounds. There’s always been low-fidelity aggressive metal music, but in this day and age it’s easy to clean it up. There’s something to be said from an expression standpoint for having something sound gnarly.”

Gnarliness doesn’t have to be limited to just signal chains either – rather than favouring long-scale baritones or seven-strings, the guitarist tunes down as low as A, often on Gibson-scale guitars – using only a .056 as his lowest string.

“I like it to be kind of floppy – the Black Sabbath thing where you hit it and it drops out of tune for a minute, and then falls back into place. When you play sludgy music, I don’t like it to be super-tight. I want it to be a little off. When you dig in harder, you can really feel it. With a super-tight string where the tension is high, it’s harder to get that feeling of movement – it’s nice to have your attack matter, and not sound the same every time.”

Unsurprisingly, Sullivan has been on a pretty heavy kick recently. He tells us he “can’t stop listening to Pantera,” along with a wealth of death metal. “A lot of Cannibal Corpse, a lot of At The Gates. Some modern death metal, there’s a lot of great death metal out there. But Pantera and At The Gates were the two pillars for this record.”

Russian Circle's Mike Sullivan's pedalboard

Did At The Gates inspire the abundance of chainsaw tones on Gnosis? “We’ve had HM-2s on previous records, no stranger to them,” Sullivan says. “But it definitely meant more. And then also Bolt Thrower – they’re fucking amazing. Those guitar tones sound fucking killer. And I’ll always love Gorgoroth, their older stuff always hits home for me. There are certain bands that always have that thing of, you put them on and go, ‘Oh, that fucking riff’. You get riff envy of how good it is.”

Sullivan is inspired by bands who take the time to carve their sound rather than opting for bog-standard metal settings on digital modellers. “Like Mike Scheidt from Yob,” he says. “He really has his own sound. It sounds like 25 guitars at once, even though it’s one person. That cacophony of noise as a result of combining all these different shades and textures. It’s cool, it’s more expressive than plugging in and going, ‘Oh, that sounds good enough’.

“And look at Baroness – they’re all single-coil, Fender stuff, through combo amps. And they very much have their own voice, their own tone. So it’s like, what are you doing? What are you going after? Because that will dictate what you should do.”

Gear is just gear

When it comes to getting the show on the road, Russian Circles hold no prisoners – gargantuan, high-wattage amps and cabinets reign, along with a complex pedalboard and an array of Les Pauls. “You don’t have the luxury of dictating the volume when someone pops on a record. In the studio, you try to cheat, do whatever you can to enforce the more aggressive tones. Whereas live, you can’t turn it down, you just get pummelled by whatever the band is playing.”

Sullivan wrote Gnosis through headphones over covid. When the world opened up again, one of the first live shows he saw was Yob. “And it rattled my body,” he says. “I’d forgotten what it feels like to shake from head to toe from low-end resonance. I liked the band, happy to see them, but it was a nice surprise – I didn’t know I missed that. I didn’t know that was absent from my life. So yeah, I value playing loud, more so than ever, as a result of that absence.”

Late last year, though, tragedy struck – on the face of it at least. Sullivan has a very zen approach to the theft of the band’s entire touring rig. Irreplaceable amps, guitars, basses, drums, and more – gone. He’s focusing on the positives. “There was an outpouring of support from the community. It was very heartwarming and enriching to see what happened.”

Russian Circle's Mike Sullivan's Hiwatt Amps

“Plenty of gear companies reached out to help, one of which was Hiwatt. They said, ‘Hey, sorry to hear what happened, how can we help?’ We had no correspondence with them prior to this. But I thought, ‘I do need amps, I’m currently at a crossroads where I’m not happy with what amps I’m playing.’ I took them up on the offer to borrow some amps. They were amazing. Whatever mojo is in those amps, I don’t find elsewhere. I wish I had them for recording, I’m sure they would have been all over the record.”

“It’s funny,” Sullivan adds, “I guess it started out as just a shot in the dark for Hiwatt. Now I can’t shut up about them! They’re that good.”

The new Hiwatt setup for Mike – pictured above – consists of two DR-103 heads, each with a 4×12, and a DR-50. While the previous setup of Fender Twins “sounded great through the front of house,” the guitarist is happy with the extra on-stage volume that the new setup affords. “Now we’re just kind of a big dumb rock band again, where it’s just loud, old-school gear being pushed heavily. And also utilising the stereo field, with the DR-103s on each side, so the ping-pong delay and all its nerdiness is in full effect.”

Sullivan feels almost grateful to “those methheads” who stole the band’s gear. “That’s not a thank you,” he notes, “but you’ve nudged us into a different path sonically. Brian changed gear too, in the bass department – new amps, new pedals.”

As for Sullivan’s guitars? “A friend who lives near the area where we had our gear stolen lent me a Dunable Gnarwhal. I was like, ‘Sure, I need a guitar. And I love Sasha [Dunable], I love his guitars. I’ll check it out.’ Yeah. And then it was, ‘Son of a bitch. This thing’s great. I love this.’”

The Gnarwhal resembles a sludge-metal version of a vintage Mosrite electric (“with that funky lower horn,” as Mike puts it). For him it has one specific benefit. “I do some tapping here and there, and with a Les Paul, when you’re tapping up at the higher frets, you kind of have to commit to having your strap really high like a jazz nerd. Going super-low is just not an option because the toggle switch is always going to get in the way. So with the Gnarwhal it’s like, ‘Man, I can play this thing like a normal human being now’. Put your guitar wherever you want but for me it feels more comfortable to have it a little lower.

Alongside letting the band actually tour again, the huge outpouring of support allowed Sullivan to adopt a philosophical approach to the incident. “Nobody was hurt,” he says. “It didn’t bum us out, didn’t break our spirit, whatever. We didn’t miss any shows. Gear is just gear, and it led us down a different path.”

Gear may just be gear, but given Mike’s approach to soundcraft, with amps and pedals as much as part of his instrument as his strings, having his whole setup reinvigorated makes us curious as to what the next Russian Circles record will sound like. Until then, we have Gnosis – and it’s packed wall-to-wall with gear, tones and cataclysmic riffs.

Russian Circles’ Gnosis is out August 19.