Heavy duty: an interview with Brian Cook of Sumac and Russian Circles
Tue. May 17, 2016 by Gregg Shapiro
I was a sucker for soft rock power ballads when I was ten.
brian cook (middle) with sumac
Out bass player Brian Cook talks about being queer in the heavy music scene.
Out bass player Brian Cook is a busy man. Just back from a European tour with his band Russian Circles, Cook is gearing up for the release of What One Becomes (Thrill Jockey) by Sumac, another of his musical acts. Cook, who has a history of playing in post-hardcore/screamo bands, including These Arms Are Snakes and Botch, takes things to a new level with a heavy music group such as Sumac. Not an easy listen (Cook agrees, see below), What One Becomes nevertheless fills a niche with its epic, ear-splitting numbers. I spoke with Cook in May 2016, shortly before the release of the Sumac album.
Gregg Shapiro: Brian, what kinds of music did you listen to when you were growing up?
Brian Cook: The first few albums I bought were all by Chicago; specifically, Chicago 17, 18, and 19. I was a sucker for soft rock power ballads when I was ten. Then I started seeing videos for bands like R.E.M., Pixies, and Camper Van Beethoven on Post Modern MTV, and that led me to investigate stuff that wasn't on the radio. That quickly led to getting into punk stuff like Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and Bad Religion. I went to my first show when I was 14. It was Fugazi at the University of Hawaii. After that I was hooked. I don't investigate a whole lot of current traditional-sounding punk music these days, but the stuff I listened to in my teenage years definitely started an adult habit of seeking out obnoxious music [laughs].
GS: How did you come to play bass?
BC: I grew up in a small town on Oahu and we had music classes in 6th grade that were basically comprised of us playing the ukulele. I'm a southpaw, and there weren't any left-handed ukuleles, so I had to struggle with a right-handed one. I really wanted to play music, but i didn't think I'd have the coordination to play right-handed guitar, so I figured I could maybe hold down the fort on a right-handed bass. You know -- only four strings, no chords -- how hard could it be [laughs]? And where would I be able to find a left-handed guitar in a small town in Hawaii in 1991 anyway? So, a right-handed bass it was. And from there I started listening to Minutemen, fIREHOSE, and Nomeansno because the bass was so loud and dominant in those groups.
GS: Is there a style of music that your followers might be surprised to hear that you listen to? For instance, are you secretly a show-tune or opera queen?
BC: Well, I went and saw Kinky Boots a month or two ago. But overall, no, I'm not a show-tune or opera guy. I think I struggled with coming to terms with my sexual orientation for a long time because I didn't identify with a lot of gay stereotypes. Like, I couldn't possibly be gay because I didn't like Barbra Streisand or Bette Midler. It was the early '90s, after all. There weren't a lot of gay role models, and I was just a dumb kid. So, instead I listened to Black Flag and Pantera because you had these hyper masculine front-men with shaved heads and tattoos and muscles, and I was a 14-year-old kid thinking "this shit is the real deal, plus there's something just... magnetic about Henry Rollins and Phil Anselmo." But there's all kinds of music that I like that doesn't really fall in line with the kind of music that I make. I love a lot of old country music. And I'm not talking respectable stuff like Johnny Cash. I mean, that stuff is great, but no one is going to balk if you say you like Hank Williams or Waylon Jennings. But admitting you like Kenny and Dolly duets... that's a different story [laughs]. I'm also a sucker for breezy '70s folk stuff. I've been particularly into Randy VanWarmer, who's only hit was "Just When I Needed You Most". He followed that up with this weird concept album about space travel called Terraform that makes for really good Saturday morning housecleaning music.
GS: When and how did you first become interested in heavy music?
BC: Even though a lot of the music I've been a part of could be loosely defined as "metal," I didn't have a huge attraction to heavy stuff in my formative years. I liked music that was fast, so I gravitated towards punk. And I liked stuff that had a political angle, so that kind of fueled my interest in bands like Crass and Discharge. It was only when I started hearing bands like Sepultura and Napalm Death where there was speed, social commentary, and heavy riffs that I really started delving into metal. Now, most rock-based music I listen to probably falls under the banner of metal, but even the heavy stuff that I like tends to be more rooted in a punk mindset. I'd much rather listen to Melvins or Neurosis or Swans than "classic" metal like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest.
GS: How did you come to be a member of Sumac?
BC: I've known Aaron Turner since '98. He put out the debut album of my old hardcore band, Botch, on his Hydra Head Records label. We toured together a few times while he was playing in Isis and there was the obvious relationship through the record label. He moved up to Seattle sometime around 2009 or 2010 and we started hanging out and getting coffee. I played on a few records he did with Mamiffer, and there was this idea floating around for a good four or five years where we would write and record a weird heavy record. The problem was finding a drummer. After a few years of talking about the project, Aaron saw Nick (Yacyshyn) play with his band Baptists, and then everything kind of fell into place. Or, more specifically, Aaron got the ball rolling and I just kind of showed up and played bass [laughs].
GS: At last count, in addition to Sumac, you are a member of five bands total, including Russian Circles. What can you tell me about the role you play in each band?
BC: At this point I really only play in two bands. Russian Circles takes up the majority of my time. I started playing with them in 2007 and the band has slowly come to be a full-time endeavor. We're a trio, so everyone contributes to the creative process, but as with most rock-oriented music, most of the material develops around the guitar. So a lot of Russian Circles songs start around some guitar ideas, then we build the song around the riffs and corresponding drum patterns, then I come in at the end and try to reinforce, accent, or further develop the song with bass. With Sumac, I'm really just providing a rhythmic accent. Aaron writes these extended compositions and then Nick and I come in and provide the structure to it. I've done a little bit of recording and touring with Mamiffer, which is Aaron's wife's (Faith Coloccia) project. That's really just a matter of trying to fulfill someone else's vision. Obviously, the more creative involvement I have in a band, the more emotionally invested I am in it. But it's also nice to do something like Mamiffer where I'm really just a conduit to making someone else's idea come to fruition. In addition to that stuff, I still get a lot of questions about my old bands Botch and These Arms Are Snakes. We keep re-pressing vinyl for those projects, so it winds up that they're both still in the public consciousness. I'm just glad people still give a shit about those albums. As people who were around back in the day can attest, neither band was particularly popular or profitable for the majority of our existence, but the legacy somehow manages to carry on. That was really my hope from the beginning. I don't like the idea of music being ephemera. I think music should have a long shelf life. The majority of what is popular now will be forgotten in three years. Meanwhile, there continues to be a new generation of kids who go out and buy Minor Threat and Black Flag albums.
GS: Good point. Although there are more and more musicians coming out and speaking openly about their sexuality now, you are something of a pioneer having coming out a number of years ago. Please say something about being out in the hardcore/punk/metal scene.
BC: Well, again, I was drawn to artists like Jello Biafra and Ian MacKaye, who were these outspoken activists as well as musicians. And I gravitated towards the music community they helped create. Not that it was always some sort of inclusive utopia, but it was certainly more welcoming than, say, the traditional heavy metal community. If anything, being a punk and being in the closet was really tough, because the whole bucking-of-traditions non-conformist angle of punk was at odds with hiding your true sexual identity. I was more ashamed of being in the closet than I was afraid of coming out. Again, there will always be idiots and bigots, but the handful of ignorant nitwits I've met in the hardcore scene were ultimately the ones who were out of place.
GS: The new Sumac disc consists of five songs, most of which average in the 10 minute range. Can you please say something about the significance of the song lengths?
BC: The songs are pretty linear. There isn't anything resembling a verse or chorus in any of the songs. There's not even much in terms of parts returning or being revisited. Basically, the songs start in one place and end up somewhere totally different. It's a lot of information to be absorbed, and I guess the motivation on our end is to just overwhelm and bludgeon the listener. It's an endurance test, of sorts [laughs]. Ultimately, I wouldn't be surprised if most people find it to be an impenetrable record.
GS: What can you tell me about Sumac’s songwriting process?
BC: Aaron basically holes himself up at home and writes 10-minutes worth of guitar parts; then Nick and I figure out what to do with it. Or rather, Nick figures out what to do drum-wise, and then I try to lock the guitar and drums together with the bass. There were a few parts on the album where Aaron would have a loose idea of what the whole band would be doing, but by and large, the songwriting process was "here's what the guitar is going to be doing. Do whatever you want with it."
GS: In addition to being a musician, you are also a writer. Your debut novel, The Second Chair Is Meant For You, was published a couple of years ago. What do you get from writing prose that differs from what you get making music?
BC: I started freelance writing for Seattle's alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger about eight years ago. Their music department was starting to focus heavily on electronic music, hiphop, and twee indie stuff, which was a breath of fresh air considering how much emphasis there's been on Seattle's rock scene for the last 25 years. But it also seemed a little dismissive of all the underground punk and metal stuff that was going on. I've tried to fill that void. The problem with writing about music though is that music exists to communicate ideas that words can't accurately express. Iit feels a little pointless to talk about what music sounds like. I just got tired of describing guitar riffs with words. As a writing exercise, I started writing all these little vignettes or short stories that focused on things unrelated to music--religion, capitalism, drugs, pornography--and eventually it began to look like there was a theme running through all these bits of fiction. That turned into The Second Chair Is Meant For You. It was a very satisfying process. Music is great for channeling this inarticulate stuff that's just building up in your subconscious. Writing is a good way to actually come out and say what you want to say. It's also nice to have a creative outlet that's completely my own. There are fewer compromises.
GS: What’s next for you, Brian?
BC: The Sumac album comes out June 10th on Thrill Jockey. The new Russian Circles album comes out August 5th on Sargent House. I leave for a Sumac west coast tour in a few hours and then I'm pretty much on tour until Thanksgiving. Somewhere in there I'm hoping to wrap up a short book I wrote on this gnarly band called Daughters. I spent a whole year amassing interviews with the band and their colleagues and finally finished a first draft, and then a couple of the band members got cold feet. They were definitely a scandalous band, so I can understand the hesitation, but they were also one of the most genuinely fucked up and disturbing groups out there in a scene full of boring suburban phonies. Hopefully I can revise the text to a point where all parties involved are comfortable. I'm also working on a new novel that will probably never get finished because I keep getting sidetracked by other priorities. We'll see what happens.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.