Author: Ciauro, David
Date published: May 1, 2010
Since its 2004 debut, the eclectic Chicago-based instrumental trio Russian Circles has gained increasing notoriety and respect from a broad spectrum of musicians and audiences alike. The band's sound, which incorporates elements of metal, prog, and post-rock, isn't easy to pin down, and Dave Turncrantz's playing, sound choices, influences, and drumming philosophy contribute immensely to Russian Circles' uniqueness. Turncrantz believes that woodshedding may make for a skilled drummer, but it's what you learn from playing with other musicians that makes you a skilled musician. His drumming on the group's latest release, Geneva, proves he knows when and how to let loose, but also when to hold back, listen, and let parts breathe.
MD: Russian Circles is tough to classify musically. Your playing and the band's overall sound are much more organic in nature than the stylistic labels you're usually given might suggest. What do you attribute that to?
Dave: For the type of music we're playing, if I were a drummer who was schooled at Berklee-not that there's anything wrong with that-I think my approach would be much more mathematical or formulated. Playing in bands has taught me how to feel out other musicians and the music.
When I first started playing, at fourteen, I would consciously think, Okay, I'm going to sit down and write something really hard that looks really cool. Gradually, though, as I matured as a player, I started to appreciate drummers who play in the pocket. When I took that approach with our newer material, everything started sounding better-more organic and spacious-but it also made the complex parts and busier fills I play have much more of an impact on the song.
MD: Who are some of your influences?
Dave: Stewart Copeland, John Bonham, Dave Lombardo, Rodney Holmes, Jon Theodore, Will Goldsmith, and Bernard Purdie, to name a few. I also learned a lot from instructional videos, especially Dave Weckl's. I took what I liked about everyone's individual style and brought [those elements] into my drumming. I think it's important to have the whole package as a drummer: timekeeping, dynamics, musicality, creativity, groove, chops, and power.
MD: The drum sounds on Geneva are huge and very cohesive. Where did you record the album?
Dave: Steve Albini's studio, Electrical Audio. There's a massive live room in studio A where they usually record guitars, but I was pretty set on recording my drums in a huge room.
MD: It sounds like you used a ton of room mics.
Dave: Yep. Room mics are the greatest invention. You get such a natural sound. I didn't want the drums to sound perfect. I wanted to hear the imperfections-the buzzing of the snares in my bass drum mic, the cymbals ringing out in the tom mics. I wanted the whole kit to make one massive sound. I wanted it to sound as organic as the songs felt.
MD: In keeping with that theme, were the drums recorded to analog?
Dave: We recorded the drums using Pro Tools but then dumped the tracks to tape, which added to the natural sound. The advantage of doing it this way is that you have more control over the mix but still get a nice vintage sound.
MD: Did you use your Gretsch kit?
Dave: Yeah! It's funny, every time I go into the studio, I have the mindset that I'm going to use eight different kits and a slew of snares, but I always go back to my old Gretsch.
MD: The song "Geneva" has a great drum outro. It sounds like multiple grooves going on at the same time.
Dave: I recorded a second take in a small "dead" room using an old four-piece Ludwig kit, a ride, and a hi-hat. I accented off the original drum part, playing on the "& a" instead of on the beat. We pretty much used all room mics in the dead room as well, and then we dirtied it up in postproduction to the point where the cymbals were pretty much taking over.
MD: For a three-piece instrumental band, Russian Circles has a huge layered sound. How do you go about translating that in a live setting?
Dave: Mike [Sullivan, guitars] is really amazing at using looping pedals, which allow him to play a guitar line, step on the pedal to loop it, and then play a second line over that. So for a three-piece band we're able to still have a layered sound in a live setting.
MD: You must play to a click then, right?
Dave: Unfortunately. I don't. I just pick up on an accented note or phrase and follow that. We knew our material would be a challenge to pull off live without a click track, so we rehearsed for almost a year before playing out.
MD: Without a click, I suppose a lot of factors can hinder the monitor mix.
Dave: Yeah, a lot of people assume I have in-ears, but I don't. I need to hear Mike, so if we're playing a venue with poor monitors, Mike will set up his amp closer to me and maybe slightly behind me.
MD: The opening groove of "Melee" involves a lot of interplay on the rims, but it sounds like there are distinct tonal differences. What exactly are you playing?
Dave: I'm mainly playing a pattern between the rim of my brass Supra-Phonic, which has triple-flange hoops, and my rack tom, which has die-cast hoops, and ending the phrase with a paradiddle on the wood hoop of the bass drum.
MD: For a prog-ish instrumental trio, you play on a pretty minimal kit. Have you ever considered expanding it to have more sound options?
Dave: I like the challenge of being creative on a four-piece kit. Fills become all about the placement. Big kits are a blast to play, but if I had a bunch of toms to playing descending fills on. it would limit my creativity in some ways. I can see myself adding another cymbal or two before I add more drums.