Time & Place: Brian Eno Ambient 1: Music For Airports
Russian Circles was tracking our third album Geneva at Electrical Audio in Chicago back in the spring of ‘09. I was crashing on a couch at Mike’s apartment during the recording process. Most nights, I would go to sleep listening to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports on headphones. I had never fully embraced Eno’s work prior to that timeframe, but the album completely won me over in those weeks that we were in the studio. Writing and recording Geneva was a very positive experience. We had written most of it in a basement of a house in rural Wisconsin during the winter of ‘08/’09. We’d hole up at the house for a week at a time, drinking coffee and writing at a relaxed pace during the day, then drinking beer and playing cards while listening to records at night.
Touring on the record, however, was less than ideal. Every tour on that album seemed to have a stumble. The very first show of the very first Geneva tour, we had a guitar stolen off the stage at the end of the night. A guy literally walked onto stage while we were packing up, grabbed the guitar, and walked out a back exit. We were in two automobile accidents over the course of the next year, one of which totaled our van, trailer, and a large chunk of our gear. But the most frustrating setback came on our first European tour to support the album.
There were a few issues here and there over the course of the tour: some ongoing gear problems, some glitches due to some rescheduling of dates, a pesky stomach flu among the ranks, etc. But the real issue came at the very end of the six-week trip. We had two shows left: a set at the Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands, and a fly-in date in Athens, Greece. The night we played Roadburn we got the news that the European airspace was shutdown due to volcanic ash resulting from an eruption in Iceland. We would be unable to fly to Greece the next morning for our final show. What was worse was that our flights home were booked out of Athens, so we wouldn’t be able to fly home either. We were stranded. The Athens promoter was flexible enough that we could reschedule the show whenever the airspace opened back up, but the forecast for that happening was fairly grim.
We spent nearly a week at a hotel attached to Schiphol Airport. Every morning we would wake up, walk down to the terminal to see if any flights were announced, then walk back to the hotel and rebook our hotels through Priceline. It was strange: all the hotels in the area were booked solid because of stranded travelers and the terminal at Schiphol started to look like a refugee camp, but somehow we were able to rebook our rooms through Priceline every morning. In many ways, it was a very relaxed several days despite the uncertainty of our departure date. I worked out at the hotel’s gym, used their sauna, and took the train into Amsterdam to pass the time. At some point they started recommencing a few flights and we were able to get to Greece. In Athens, the laid-back vibe the previous several days disappeared. There was still no guaranteed day we’d be able to fly back to the States. We were staying in a hotel in a neighborhood filled with junkies. We had a bag stolen while checking in. We tried to count how many heroin needles were littered on a single block, but gave up because the number was so high it became depressing. People were nodding off on the sidewalk. A man without pants and with shit running down his legs was begging for change. The government was proposing austerity measures, which meant there were protests in the streets. Local businesses would only accept cash, but anarchists had smashed all the ATMs in the area. There were burned out cars on the street. Between the junkie-zombies, natural disasters, and civil unrest, it felt a little like the end of the world.
But we got home eventually, after about an additional ten days or so. We acknowledged our Athens experience by titling our next album Empros, which means “onward” in Greek. We also gave a little shout-out to the airport that had been our refuge at the beginning of the ordeal by titling a song “Schiphol”, a composition meant to capture the subdued melancholy of those days before moving on to the dramatic conclusion of our tour in Athens.
I just returned from another European tour a couple of days ago. The trip was about as smooth and hassle-free as one can hope for. No volcanoes. No theft. No van wrecks. We played “Schiphol” every night, and about halfway through tour Mike started playing a couple of passes of the main piano melody from the first track off Eno’s Ambient 1 before going into our own homage to the airport. Part of me hoped there would be some folks out there that recognized the melody and made the connection between Eno’s piece and our song. At least one person in Copenhagen noted the melody, yelling out “Music for Airports” later in the set. Whether or not anyone picked up on its relation to “Schiphol” is unknown to me. But it doesn’t really matter. Ultimately the interlude just made me happy to think of how things have come along in the last few years—from the idyllic moments leading up to Geneva’s release through the hardships of those tours, from the difficult process of creating Empros through the reassuring tours in its wake, and, finally, being in the position to reflect on those experiences while moving onward to the next chapter.
here’s an interview i did with a Brazilian website, for any Portuguese-speaking folks out there…
Artwork by Carmen Monoxide
Bassist Brian Cook’s current band, Russian Circles, released a new album in October called “Memorial”. In addition, Hydra Head Records just reissued Botch’s “We Are The Romans, on which Brian also had bass duties. Please enjoy our conversation with Brian about some of his favorite records, and how moving with records sucks.
toffeethief asked: So, I saw that on your current European tour, you've got a couple dates in Russia as well. As a gay man, how does it feel to play in a country that is very outspokenly intolerant of homosexuality?
I definitely had some reservations about going to Moscow and St. Petersburg on this last tour. Our soundguy (a fellow gay man) opted out of the dates completely. But I’ve been to Russia twice before so I know that their political policies don’t necessarily reflect the attitudes of the average citizen, and after talking with the promoter of the shows, I felt reasonably sure there wouldn’t be an issue with the authorities. Mainly, I was concerned that if the Russian embassy researched my name they might see that I do a lot of queer-themed interviews and that could be an obstacle towards getting my visa approved. But there were no issues with the visa, so I figured that was a good sign in terms of flying below the government’s radar.
With regards to Russian citizens, Moscow and St. Petersburg are like New York City and Los Angeles—they’re huge, diverse, open-minded, multicultural cities. My gaydar might have been skewed by the cultural differences, but based on past experiences, it seemed like there was no shortage of gays and lesbians in the two cities. Had we been booked in small towns, I might’ve been a little more apprehensive about homophobia from the general populace. But we’re also fortunate enough to have a fanbase comprised predominantly of progressive forward-thinking individuals. Consequently, I wasn’t nervous about playing the "bearitone" in front of hundreds of people both nights.
I’ve had queer friends ask me about how I felt about the ethical implications of conducting business in a country with homophobic policies. I looked at it this way: I think it would be punk as fuck if Limp Wrist played in Russia, but I think it would be pretty lame if a huge Billboard-topping artist like U2 played in the country without publicly addressing the issue. Our audience is pretty enlightened. Refusing to play to our crowd in Russia wouldn’t alter the country’s position on gay rights; it would merely isolate us from people that most likely already share our political views. Putin doesn’t give a shit if Russian Circles don’t play in Russia. I’m sure he doesn’t want us there to begin with. It’s a different story with major media figures whose voices reach a wide spectrum of political and sociological mindsets.
For several years Chicago Post Metal instrumental act Russian Circles have been constantly charming us with their long winding complex compositions. With Memorial (Sargent House), their new album, they have taken a step in a different direction, moving from long epochs to shorter numbers that swing between the two extremes of emotion blended in their sound. Ghost Cult decided to have a chat with bassist Brian Cook.
What was the process of creation for this new album like, was it different from earlier albums?
In some ways, the creative process for this record was very similar to our older records. Mike wrote a bunch of parts, he and Dave worked out some arrangements, they sent me some rough recordings, then we all jammed together and totally reworked the songs. Over the course of the last several records we learned that we like to have enough time in the studio to make changes to the songs once we hear them back, so we allotted ourselves plenty of studio time so that we could make the inevitable edits. The process was different this time around in that we all knew how malleable the material was. We knew that things would take a different shape in the studio. One could say that we were less prepared for Memorial than any of our other albums, but I think the more appropriate assessment would be that we were just way more flexible with the material we had on hand. The songs changed dramatically in the studio—more so than on past records.