When Brian Cook first hit the Seattle metal scene in 1993 with his influential mathcore band Botch, he made a deep impression with his aggressive riffs and brash creativeness in a technical trio format. When the group disbanded in 2002, Cook went on to form These Arms Are Snakes, where he used his bass skills to explore the realm of experimental post-hardcore music. From there he was recruited by the Chicago instrumental rock outfit Russian Circles, who recognized that his mastery of distorted tone and ability to juggle effects and pilot loop stations made him the right man for their darkly orchestrated sound. Russian Circles recently released its fifth album, Memorial, which displays the depth and maturity of Cook’s playing. Equipped with his go-to Gibson Ripper and an overflowing pedalboard, Cook’s bass work fills out the low-end spectrum, making it hard to believe that his band is merely a three-piece. Songs like “Burial” and “Ethel” show his grit in the pocket and his ability to maintain a deep foundation of lows while still crunching decibels with more than a few distorted layers and fuzz-powered channels.
What were your goals on Memorial?
The songs were dense and layered without me even playing on them, so my goal was to accent the most important elements of each song. But that means a very different thing in the context of an instrumental band. With only three instruments, every person needs to be doing something engaging and interesting. At the same time, we aren’t particularly interested in virtuoso music. I don’t want to be Victor Wooten.
Your use of distortion has increased over the span of your career.
It’s funny, because when Botch started, I was really opposed to distortion. I think it was because I only noticed distorted bass when it was done poorly. Somewhere along the way I started using fuzz for parts where I wanted a big volume jump. One of my favorite bass players growing up was Rob Wright [of Nomeansno and the Hanson Brothers], and I never could figure out how he got his tone. Now I realize that he adds just a little bit of overdrive—not enough to distort, but just enough to make the bass more punchy and prominent. That’s the sound I had always been subconsciously going for.
You use a lot of loop pedals and effects live. Is it tricky to manage all of your gear and hit your parts onstage?
That’s the hardest part about playing live. There isn’t much on the fingerboard that really stresses me out; all the stress comes from pulling off the changes on the pedalboard. Mike [Sullivan, Russian Circles guitarist] made an analogy the other night about how it can sometimes feel more like playing a video game than playing music. It’s like doing the Contra code with your feet while playing Guitar Hero with your hands.
Describe your playing technique.
I’d describe it as ham-fisted. Heavy-handed. I grew up on punk and hardcore bands—stuff that lacked subtlety. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate players with a bit more nuance. But my default technique is still just digging into the strings and throwing in power chords whenever I can get away with it.
Was it difficult taming your playing for the cinematic sounds of Russian Circles?
It was definitely a new approach, but I was ready for that challenge. It allowed me to try out new things, and it made the writing and recording process a lot more interesting. Writing was no longer just about making riffs; it was about crafting tones. Recording is no longer a matter of playing things perfectly; it’s about getting an interesting performance.
How have you evolved from the Botch days to this point in your career?
The big development is that in my younger years I measured quality by how complicated and f’ed-up something sounded. I wanted things to sound wrong and difficult. Now I’m more interested in variation. I want every song to have its own timbre. I still love gnarly brutal stuff, but when it comes to Russian Circles, I’m less interested in cranking everything at a full 10 at all times and more interested seeing what 1 through 10 sounds like.
Russian Circles, Memorial [Sargent House, 2013]
Basses Gibson Ripper II, First Act Delgada
Rig Verellen Meatsmoke, Ampeg SVT- 810 cabinet
Effects Electro- Harmonix POG2, Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy, DigiTech Whammy, Tym Big Bottom V2, Fuzzrocious Rat Tail, Fuzzrocious The Demon, Dwarfcraft Eau Claire Thunder, Dwarfcraft Pitchgrinder, Akai Headrush E2, Way Huge Swollen Pickle
Strings Cleartone Medium (.045–.105)