After 20 Years, Lightning Bolt Is Still Two Dudes Making a Ton of Noise
Drummer Brian Chippendale talks about staying primal after two decades.
The concept behind Lightning Bolt is simple. Brian Chippendale plays drums. Brian Gibson plays bass. Together they make a primeval rock duo that explodes with volume and sends vibrations through your bones. The two Brians—who met while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence, Rhode Island, and still call that city home—started playing together in 1994, and over all these years their formula has remained relatively unchanged. But at this point, they’ve refined their approach to the point where even their subtlest touches carry tectonic-shifting weight.
Lightning Bolt’s new album, Fantasy Empire, is their most polished effort yet. On past records, the Brians would record all of their material live. For this one, they shacked up in Rhode Island’s Machines With Magnets recording studio, isolating tracks, laying down overdubs, and spending more time building their songs. As a result, the riffs are more colorful, the crazy fills clearer in the mix. Even Chippendale’s notoriously incomprehensible vocals—which he typically values for their abstract tonal qualities rather than the actual lyrics—are more sing-songy this time around. “Most of the lyrics are just kind of shit captured live, but ‘Horsepower’ and ‘Runaway Train,’ I actually re-sang them to try to get some clarity in there—get a little bit of message,” Chippendale says. “I like to think of vocals [as] just kind of reminding people that it’s made by humans.”
Chippendale, who’s also a visual artist and did the cover art for Fantasy Empire, recently spoke with me on the phone from his home in Providence. It’s been a snowy winter in the area, and he doesn’t have ample central heating in the abandoned factory-turned-artists’ complex where he lives with his wife. But the sun’s been coming out, and he says he’s managed to stay warm. Among the things we talked about were drumming technique, the definition of “rock music,” and Chippendale’s onetime rhythmic rivalry with Zach Hill from Death Grips and Hella.
Noisey: You guys have been together for over 20 years.
Brian Chippendale: [Laughs] Yeah, you’re like talking to an old man. I have a cane and long gray hair.
What do you do to stay inspired and stay motivated?
We take breaks, that’s for sure. We’ll tour and then we’ll just walk away from it for a few months. We both do other stuff, so there isn’t a whole lot of pulling going on from one member to the other being like, “I wanna work harder!” We have a pretty even temperament about how we wanna do it, which just makes for a successful relationship. And for the playing, we just drive the same way. We just go back there and we play and we record stuff, and sometimes we’ll be playing and smiling because it’s good, and sometimes it’s a bummer for some reason. Despite being super limited, just musically, in a simple way of structuring things together, it still feels intimate. Obviously we have covered a certain amount of ground and we don’t stray that far away from that area in a way. But it still feels fresh and it still feels lively. I mean, as a drummer, it’s funny. There’s certain bands that change a lot over the course of their career, and there’s certain bands that steer pretty close to the ship, but where the drums are concerned, almost no matter what band it is, it’s kind of the same. It’s still like: bass drum, snare drum. I’ve got like five drums back there and I can somehow be psyched every night when I play them. It kind of reduces you to this monkey state, and you’re just satisfied by a small cardboard box or something.
Lightning Bolt’s music has always been so primitive and raw. What about that is appealing to you?
I’m a fan of dance music. I like rhythm and I like beats. Drums are just really primal in their nature. They’re just the most simple thing. You’re just banging on stuff, and through banging on stuff, you’re getting this adrenaline rush and a chemical reaction. Whenever I think about music, and when I hear music, when music tends to just feel really earthy in a way, like grounded and heavy, it just appeals to me. So I’m all for the primal aspect of it. It just rings true to me. I don’t think of us totally as dance music, but I don’t not think of us as dance music. Honestly we’re some sort of dance music, because people definitely—I guess if you could call it dancing—dance to us a lot of the time.
There’s always been a lot of repetition in Lightning Bolt’s music. When you first started drumming and developing the Lightning Bolt sound, did you have to train yourself to just play the same thing over and over and just be cool with that?
We had this one song years ago, it’s on our Bandcamp. I finally dug out this old tape of it from like 1998. But it was called “20,” and it was something I wanted to do. We put up a clock and we had this one pattern, a slightly strange rhythmic pattern, and we would just turn on the clock and play that for 20 minutes. And it was really fast. The idea of just locking into a thing and then pushing yourself beyond your limits with it—in a way, it almost sums up our career. You impose these limitations and then you just beat the hell out of them, and then you kind of watch the subtle shifts in how it happens and then find some kind of delight in subtle shifts.
Do you woodshed—work on your technique?
I try to practice every day. I, at some point in my practice, will probably do some weird form of rudiments or something to try to push that to some extent. But I don’t focus on it. I mean, sometimes I try. I’ll watch some YouTube, see some band play and watch a drummer with really precision technique and I’ll go and try to mimic that thing. But I usually end up falling off that boat, half on purpose and half not. A lot of times it doesn’t translate into Lightning Bolt, because as soon as [Gibson] walks in the room and he cranks up his thousands of watts of power, like—left left left right right right left—you just can’t hit that stuff hard enough to make it cut through. So then it’s always been a matter of, “What’s gonna cut through? What’s gonna work in this setting?”
You can’t just be doing some basic paradiddles to all that bass noise…
You just get suffocated by it. I try. I try to develop enough strength so I can hit three quick snare notes with my left hand and have it cut through. But yeah, I think a little of what’s formulated Lightning Bolt too is just getting rid of technique and trying to go for power. Because sometimes you’ll see some band and they’ll be loud, and then you’ll see the drummer and he’s just playing all this crazy shit. You see lots of motion and action, but you can’t hear it, because it’s getting covered up. It’s just light quick playing or something. I’ve always had a problem with that approach.
Who are some of your favorite drummers?
A lot of my favorite drummers are old jazz drummers, people like Rashied Ali or Milford Graves. But also, for current drummers, I think Greg Fox is amazing. I did a record with Greg Saunier from Deerhoof recently. Watching him play in Deerhoof is pretty amazing. I mean, our approach is very different, but he’s a really interesting player to watch. He just plays these fills and you’re like, damn, it feels so classic. But he kinda hits them in a strange way. And then obviously Zach Hill. Honestly I think Death Grips is really, really amazing. I never listened to Hella a whole lot. It’s much… overly complicated for me. I love it when he strips it down a little more. It makes more sense to me.
I remember back in the day when Hella was around, it was always like, Zach Hill versus Brian Chippendale! Two sides of the same coin! One, the super math-y guy, and the other one, the wild animal!
Yeah. Totally. I know. We get compared to Hella all the time, and I’ll even see people saying, “Lightning Bolt is just a Hella ripoff band!” I would always just be like, “Man, we’d been a band for 10 years when Hella opened up for us,” so I don’t know about ripping anybody off.
Your style is completely different too.
I always thought of Lightning Bolt as actually pretty simple, where Hella was just way more intricate than we are.
Have you guys ever had a proper drum-off?
We haven’t, no. I remember one specific show where we overlapped. Maybe we’ve done it twice, where Hella would play and then we would play, come in over them and there’d be this time in the middle where we’d go over each other. I mean, we should. We almost did once or twice, but it has not worked out. He’s on the other side of the country. It seems like he’s ultra-busy right now. One of these days…
I was reading this recent interview with you guys, and you were talking about Lightning Bolt as a rock band. Which is interesting because I never would’ve thought of Lightning Bolt as a straight rock ‘n’ roll band. I’ve always associated you more with noise and noise-rock.
I think it fits. For me, it always just comes down to, well, we just kinda rock. So, I’m like, “Well I guess we’re a rock band, because we just really wanna rock.” I mean, my definition of what rocks might be a little faster and meaner than The Strokes’ idea of what rocks. But I don’t see us as a metal band, even though we have pieces of that in there for sure. But then a lot of metal rocks too. It’s just that weird qualifying statement… it’s hard to say what we are.
Was there ever a time where you’re like, “No, don’t call us a rock band! That’s lame. We’re a noise band.”
I’ve actually tried to steer away from the noise thing, because I’ve just seen so many harsh noise acts, and I always feel so… I’m embarrassed when people are like, “Lightning Bolt’s a noise band!” I’m like, “Oh, god, man, I don’t want Merzbow to hear that Lightning Bolt thinks they’re a noise band.”
I like the idea of Lightning Bolt being considered a rock band, too, because then it sort of changes the spectrum of rock music.
Yeah, it widens it a little bit. We’re like an art-school rock band. [Laughs]
Peter Holslin is on Twitter — @peterholslin