This was supposed to be a different essay.
The essay I wrote in my head involved having some kind of revelation while watching Russian Circles— instrumental rock stalwarts and one of my favorite bands in the world—play in Brooklyn after having completed the New York City Marathon in November of last year. That didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself in a bed in a nondescript hotel in Queens, fighting cramps and shivers, eating a burrito that seared the roof of my mouth with every bite because the unseasonable heat and humidity had desiccated my entire body. I looked up the show’s setlist the next day. They played “Youngblood.”
I can’t write that essay, but I can write this one. I grew up in a hockey town in Ohio, a few miles north of Dayton. The kids in my neighborhood turned the streets into rinks, the curbs into boards. Their dads coached them from Mite to Squirt to Peewee to Bantam to Midget. (A 2016 rule change by USA Hockey has since renamed youth hockey divisions by age group, thank goodness.) A kid from the next town over won a bronze medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics, and my orthodontist put her picture on the wall. When Sarah Palin gave a strange and fascistic campaign speech at the arena next to my high school in 2008, she greeted the crowd with a braying “Hello, hockey moms!”
Hockey was a way of life, but it was never my way of life. That’s probably because I never learned how to ice skate. Hell, I never learned to rollerblade. I could more or less keep my composure at the roller rink, flinging myself off of the wall and coasting for most of a lap while Creed’s “Higher” or Smash Mouth’s “All Star” echoed off the painted brick and sticky linoleum. But I lacked the most foundational skill required to play hockey, so I seldom did.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like sports. I loved them, especially basketball. A teal Grant Hill Pistons jersey was my most prized possession, and I spent hours playing make-believe 5-on-5 on our backyard hoop, keeping meticulous stats for all 10 players I was pretending to be. I played little league baseball, pee-wee football, rec basketball, and one season of youth soccer that was cut short when I got stung by a bee on the field and decided it wasn’t for me. As I rounded the curve from childhood into my preteen years, I fell in love with film and art and dense science fiction and fantasy books—but I fell most deeply in love with music. Pretty soon, the ground began to shift under me.
One night, after a crushing road defeat with my seventh-grade football team, I shared my headphones with a teammate on the bus ride home. My knockoff Discman was loaded up with Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast, an album from 1982 that had become my north star in 2003. My expectation was that this teammate would have the same life-changing holy shit reaction that I’d had when I heard “Children of the Damned” and “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” That’s not what happened, of course. I was reclassified as the team weirdo, and I don’t know if that teammate and I talked again all season. The following year, I quietly declined to try out. I would never play organized sports again.
As my athletic career wound down, my engagement with music shot way up, and a rigid binary began taking root in my adolescent mind: You could be into sports, or you could be into music. It couldn’t be both. At some point, I realized that music wasn’t just being made somewhere far away and mysteriously making its way into the FYE at the mall. There were people here, in Dayton, recording music and performing it live. Soon I was seeing shows at photography studios, rec centers, church annexes, VFW lodges, bingo halls, abandoned storefronts, and on one memorable occasion, in a gazebo in a public park while a thunderstorm raged outside. While I no longer knew who was playing in the World Series or how the Ohio State football team was looking this year, I knew that on Friday night, my friends and I would be going to a basement downtown to see some weird bands play.
The scene in Dayton in the mid 2000s skewed heavily towards post-x: post-hardcore, post-rock, post-metal. I spent my weekends seeing bands like Mouth of the Architect, Kenoma, Romance of Young Tigers, LVNGS (formerly When the Tigers Broke Free), The Juniper Wait, and Gathiens. Touring acts that came through included Sparrows Swarm and Sing, The Ascent of Everest, and Men as Trees, a Michigan band who seemed to have a standing residency with a couple of local photo studios that booked gigs. This was dramatic, emotionally intense music, and I built a new version of my teenage self around it.
Dayton punched above its weight, but it was but a distant satellite to the true mothership of post-rock and post-metal, 300 miles away in Chicago. Tortoise, arguably the first post-rock band, called the Windy City home, and bands like Pelican, Yakuza, and Minsk carried their torch. My favorite was Russian Circles, who had released their debut album, Enter, the summer before my sophomore year. I loved Enter, having tracked it down after seeing the band’s name floating somewhere in the post-rock ether, probably on MySpace. Their second record, 2008’s Station, was even more enticing. It featured new bass player Brian Cook, who had taken over for Colin DeKuiper in 2007. Cook was best-known as a founder of Botch, but in my Dayton-centric world, he was the guy who had played bass on Mouth of the Architect’s The Ties That Blind. I couldn’t have been any more excited for Station if I tried.
“Russian Circles” is also the name of a hockey drill. Players skate single-file around all five face-off circles, finishing in the opposite corner of the rink. The purpose of the drill is not only to build speed, but to focus on control. If a player doesn’t keep his head up, he risks crashing into another player while crossing the ice. The way Cook, guitarist Mike Sullivan, and drummer Dave Turncrantz weave in and out of each other’s paths on Station requires the same kind of practiced dexterity. By 2008, a lot of uninspired post-rock and post-metal was coming out, built on loud-soft dynamics, crescendo-and-comedown song structures, and little else. Russian Circles may have gotten lumped into the same category, but they were never one of those bands. There was always something stranger and more bewildering lurking in the shadows of their songs, even when they swelled and crashed like tunes by their more conventional peers.
There was an undeniable physicality to Russian Circles’ music. Their songs felt ineffably human, like they were carved from stone by weathered hands. When the distant buzz of the “Campaign” intro gives way to its first discernible guitar part, nearly a minute in, it feels like a trio of travelers cresting the horizon, a blood-red sunset at their backs. The Station opener builds patiently, and the creeping tension never fully breaks. The eruption comes one song later, with “Harper Lewis,” still maybe the finest tune Russian Circles have ever written. Within its first two minutes, the magic of the band’s dynamic reveals itself. The song starts with a nimble drum pattern, which gives way to a thick, muscular bass line, which in turn gives way to a tricky guitar riff. As each player shines, the other two provide crucial support, all while playing their own equally interesting parts. When they all lock in for the big, chugging centerpiece riff, it feels as though they’re on the power play, confidently and gracefully whizzing around the ice.
As Station oscillates between furious action and triumphant repose, you never lose the sense that human hands and feet are making it all happen. I remember seeing Russian Circles with my dad in Columbus in 2008. The stage was dimly backlit and bathed in fog, but the glimpses of sweat and effort we were able to perceive made their effort level clear. (To this day, my dad brings up how great this show was to me—high praise from a man who saw Dio on The Last in Line tour.) This was music played by athletes, at least of a certain kind. Since leaving sports behind for the DIY circuit, I had lost the ability to see the link between creativity and the physical body. Exercise was for jocks; I wanted to be a brain in a jar. Russian Circles shook me awake, helped me realize that such an arrangement was neither possible nor desirable.
In my senior year of high school, I picked the basketball back up, running in pickup games at the YMCA or the park, reminding my body of the sensation of itself. I didn’t abandon music; in fact, I was more obsessed than ever. But I began to unlearn the false binaries that falling in love with music had instilled in me. I continued to play basketball through college, but when I moved to New York a year after graduating, I fell back on old habits. The city was exciting, and the punks and writers I was hanging out with weren’t into sports. They had been the sensitive, creative, anti-jock kids at the lunch table, too. It was easy and affirming to mirror them. I lost touch with my physical form again.
In 2018, five years after I’d moved to the city, a friend asked me to run in her company’s fundraiser 5K. I said yes, even though the most I’d ever run outside of a sports practice or gym class was probably barely a mile. Race day rolled around and I not only completed the mileage, I had a blast doing it. (I distinctly remember wearing a gaudy Death Individual Thought Patterns longsleeve, which can’t have helped my performance but definitely looked sick as fuck.) I took to running slowly at first, getting out for a mile or two in my neighborhood and running the occasional 5K. In late 2019, I ran my first half marathon, on Staten Island. Three years later, I doubled that distance, the night that Russian Circles played in Greenpoint and I shivered in bed in Queens.
I log all my runs in the Strava app, and in the description field for each run, I always include what I listened to while I was out on the road. It’s a formal way to acknowledge what Russian Circles taught me years ago, that the music that feeds my soul and the movement that feeds my body can–and indeed must–peaceably coexist. I’m not perfect, and sometimes I still yearn to be that brain in a jar. But lacing up my shoes, popping in my earbuds, and queuing up Station never fails to remind me to embody my whole self.
Brad Sanders is a Columbus, Ohio-based writer and radio host, covering music for publications including Bandcamp Daily, Stereogum, Decibel, and Pitchfork. You can find him on Instagram at @sanderedfaceless.