In 1994, the same year as Green Day’s Dookie and the death of Kurt Cobain, a two-piece formed in Rhode Island’s tiny city of Providence. Since the band’s inception, Brian Gibson has played bass and Brian Chippendale has played drums. Equal parts art project/musical experiment, Lightning Bolt has managed to survive two decades thus far, tirelessly carving out their own niche in the weirder annals of rock ‘n’ roll.
Known for their frenzied, hysteria-inducing live performances, it’s difficult to find an equivalent to the experience of a Lightning Bolt show. Gibson’s bass is arena-rock loud, blasting out of the bevy of amps behind the band. The excess of volume corresponds to the emphatically manic drumming of Chippendale, donning a mask made of old t-shirts with a microphone stitched into the mouth. Distorted, mostly undecipherable vocals add an extra layer to the wall of sound. I’ve been to several shows where members of the audience came equipped with construction headphones to spare their hearing. I’ve also seen people stick their heads into the hollow kick drum and remain there for way longer than advisable. Lightning Bolt makes people lose their shit.
Aside from their sonic capacity, the band is astonishingly cohesive for being made up of so much chaos. Perseverance and musicianship set Lightning Bolt apart from the sea of “noise rock.” They generate their own unique brand of blissful pandemonium. Steve Albini may have put it best when he said, “There’s a craziness about their performance and their aesthetic that seems genuine. It doesn’t seem like it’s showbiz—it seems like they’re super duper excited about being in their own band. How can you not be charmed by that?”
Lightning Bolt recently released Fantasy Empire, their seventh album. It’s been six years since the band’s last full-length and it’s their first offering recorded in a proper studio. The songs are decidedly heavy; an ongoing progression away from the exultant stylings of the past and towards darker material. With that said, the band’s sound hasn’t changed drastically. Lightning Bolt’s commitment to a relatively simple formula is probably one of the reasons they’ve been able to remain a band. Rather than reinventing themselves, Lightning Bolt has focused on gradual fine-tuning. With two decades behind them, the duo have built themselves up and become luminaries, whether they intended to or not.
I recently spoke with Brian Chippendale to hear his perspective on 20 years of Lightning Bolt. We talked about economic collapse, personal happiness, the mystery of the beginning, and the crossing of age’s threshold.
Both you and Brian Gibson have managed to find a way to support yourselves via your passions, a rare feat for most artists. Outside of the band, Gibson designs video games. You’re a visual artist with gallery shows and published books. I’m always interested in learning how artists and musicians manage to pay the rent, especially early on.
Lightning Bolt started in ’94. There’s always been slow periods, even recently, where we’re not playing that much. So art usually subsidizes, or I can do solo music stuff to subsidize. But finances still get tight sometimes. Back in the beginning, up until the early 2000s, I definitely washed dishes. I bagged groceries at Whole Foods. But I was very bad at sticking to a job. One time I signed up for a sleep study in Boston. I had to put a monitor around my wrist and then there was a week or two at home when I had to get on a very definitive schedule and this thing would be able to tell if I went to sleep and woke up at the right time. I just couldn’t do it. I was trying to sneak around, hand it off to another person. I had a few little tricks to try to get through pretending I was on the right schedule. I was excited to go to the sleep study because I thought, “I’ll just go into a room and they’ll tell me what to do and I’ll just do it.” But the idea that I had to do some kind of scheduling outside of that didn’t work so I ended up not doing it.
How did you end up in Providence?
I’ve been in Providence since going to school at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design]. I left without actually graduating. Actually, I left RISD twice without graduating. I left, came back, then left again. Up until 2002 we just piled in so many roommates, rent would be like $140 a month. It seems like a long time ago but somehow fairly recent. You could do so little for money and get by. I remember when that changed in 2003 and my rent went from $140 to $500. I just lost my mind. I couldn’t figure out how to do it and I was utterly stressed out all the time.
Fort Thunder, the Providence warehouse, is often mentioned when discussing the origins of Lightning Bolt. It served as an underground venue as well as living/working quarters for artists. After six years, it was lost to urban development. Around when was that?
I think it ended in 2001 or right at the beginning of 2002.
New Orleans has seen an influx of young artistic types over the past few years. Currently, the city is also seeing a surge of redevelopment. Many dilapidated-yet-adored buildings have become luxury condominiums. Having lived through Providence’s time as a premier destination for young weirdos, do you have any thoughts on what’s happening in New Orleans?
I heard right after the storm that the house flipping creatures came flying down there and started buying up property. I wish I had a defense against that. It just seems like a painful reality. In Providence, development was at a height around 2009 and then it really slowed down. When I moved into the space I’m in now, which was twelve years ago, I figured I’d be gone pretty quickly. I was trying to build walls and shelving that were very portable. The first couple of places I lived, I really dug in. Then I was trying to think of the advantage of a nomad, the benefit of always being able to up and go and be comfortable with that. If you’re in a space a little longer, you start to dig in. Right when you settle is when they come knocking.
Twelve years is a pretty good run.
It’s crazy! I didn’t expect to be in the same spot for twelve years. The building almost got sold a few years ago but the deal fell apart at the last minute. Now the building’s kind of sinking into the ground. It’s a funny balance. You want it all to hold together a few steps above ruin so it’s cheap and malleable but it doesn’t just cave in on your head. Now I’m just kind of lingering season to season.
Waiting to see if you get kicked out?
Yeah, see if they boot me out. Currently I’m on the top floor of a three-story building. It’s a really high third floor. There’s a weird printing press I moved up there and the elevator’s broken so I can’t go anywhere. They can’t really get me out even if they wanted to. I’m just sort of up here. It sucks to be in this weird position where you’re praying for the economy to crash to stop the condos from happening. A lot of the time when they say the economy is doing well again it just means that rich people are getting richer again. The bulk of everyone else is just kind of holding steady or barely getting better or sinking even deeper.
I recently rewatched The Power of Salad and Milkshakes, the documentary that follows Lightning Bolt on a 2001 tour. In the film, you play a tiny kitchen in Lubbock, Texas to what looks like 20 or so people. Could you still imagine a Lightning Bolt tour where you show up to a city and no one knows who you are?
I don’t know. We’ll see when we get to Boise if anyone shows up. There’s still some towns where it’s pretty rough. I did a solo tour last year. It’s sustainable for me to do a solo tour around the states. People come to the shows, but it’s nowhere near Lightning Bolt level. It’s really different when you’re just starting out. Especially then, back in 2001. The internet hadn’t really caught fire yet, so a lot of stuff was literally word-of-mouth. That show in Texas was especially strange. We showed up to the town and there weren’t any fliers or anything. Basically, the people had just flaked on putting the show together. We tracked them down, I think through the phone book, and found the dude who was supposed to do it. We called him and he was sort of apologetic and was like, “Well, I guess you guys could come play at the house.” So then we went and played in his kitchen. That’s like a world away from where we are now.
Now you’re about to go on a month-long cross country tour and a number of your shows are already sold out.
Yeah. I guess the “Power of Salad” tour in the movie was our third big tour. That might have been the first one where we broke even. Our first tour was in ’97. You’ll never recapture the adventure of your first tour. There’s nothing like the very beginning. It was so surreal. It wasn’t like a musical tour. It was just a road trip that we occasionally played shows on and a few people came. It was a mess but it was real adventure. Now, it’s very much a scheduled thing. We know where we’re going and the phone tells us how to get there. We know what time we’re supposed to be there and there’s some people kind of counting on us arriving. It’s more of a job, which is cool. We can play shows and make money without having to worry as much. We have more stability, which allows the tour to be more about just playing music. But there’s something amazing about forever driving towards mystery. Just the beginning, it feels so mysterious.
The last couple of Lightning Bolt shows in New Orleans were at all-ages spaces, as was the most recent performance by your solo project Black Pus. Your upcoming New Orleans show is at Siberia, an 18+ venue. As a band celebrated for playing D.I.Y. shows in unorthodox spaces, what are your thoughts on younger fans not being able to see Lightning Bolt as a result of performing in more conventional venues?
Right. A few years ago we got a booking agent as opposed to me booking everything. We’ve generally stressed that we want to try to play in all-ages spaces but sometimes it just doesn’t go that route. I think unfortunately I’m not spending enough time with oversight on that kind of thing. Something similar just happened in Philadelphia where we’ve always played all-ages spaces. We got signed up for some 21+ bar then we got it moved to this church in Philadelphia that’s all ages and a fun place to play. I actually didn’t know about the New Orleans show, so I’m kind of bummed out about that. You know the place Siberia?
Is it okay? Is it fancy?
It’s not fancy. It’s a metal bar located in a relatively inexpensive yet increasingly hip part of town that is getting more bars, restaurants, and art galleries.
Are there still more underground places to play in New Orleans?
Yeah. There are generator shows. You can be outside here most of the year. There are shows in parks and other hidden spots. You’re not going to collect the same door than you would at a place like Siberia. I don’t know how many generators you would need to power Lightning Bolt.
Probably just a couple. I mean, sadly it’s oversight on our part that we wouldn’t play an all-ages show. I think part of the reason we got a booking agent is because we’ve become busy with our own stuff. Then little details, or big details, get left out. You get a booking agent because you’re not trying to spend all your time booking shows. But there’s still the inherent booking agent thing where they’re looking at all their options and it’s a fine line or a balance between the quality of the show and the finances. It’s hard to be policing the booking agent all the time. But yeah, that’s kind of a bummer. I should write Bryan Funck. Maybe we’ll learn our lesson and play for a pile of college assholes, not that I wasn’t a college asshole too, and then we’ll come back next time and play some other place and most of the weirdos won’t hold it against us too hard.
Lightning Bolt has been receiving a lot of press lately related to the release of Fantasy Empire. Rolling Stone and NPR recently ran features on your band. What are your thoughts on the attention from mainstream media?
It’s pretty weird. People are saying that our new record is a little more accessible. I guess it is. It’s a more produced affair. But it’s not that accessible. We didn’t make an active decision to make something more accessible. I think with NPR, it’s less of us going to them and more of NPR expanding its net. It’s also us working with a new label, Thrill Jockey, which has its fingers in those cookie jars. It’s funny to tell your parents your record is debuting on NPR.
Lightning Bolt has been doing what it’s been doing for so long. It could be said that the music has somehow become more conventional over time without actually changing all that much. It’s as if a facet of culture has come around to what Lightning Bolt has always been doing and as a result it’s less weird than it once was.
In a way, Lightning Bolt’s responsible for that. You’ve gotten people accustomed to it.
Right. Like, we’ve probably influenced others who have been part of more conservative efforts than us and have brought more people into the fold. We’re a 20 year-old band. Eventually everybody’s on NPR. I don’t know. That’s not really true. It’s nice to have distribution. It’s nice to at least give people a chance to hear your stuff rather than just never hearing you. But at the end of the day, what does it mean? We practiced last night and were so shitty. We could be on NPR all day long. It doesn’t mean anything in terms of personal happiness.
The first time I saw Lightning Bolt was in 2006. Even ten years ago, there was a substantial amount of hype generated around the band. How do you feel about the set of expectations audiences have of your live performance?
I remember being in a Guitar Center way back and some guy came up to me and punched me in the arm and was like, “Hey Brian! What’s up?” And I looked at him and I was like I don’t know who this guy is. Then he told me we’d never met and he had seen me in the documentary. He could have just been someone that had been to one of our shows, but there was something different. It’s like there’s this weird web of connection that you create with a person if you’re in the same room, even if you haven’t locked eyes. That connection just doesn’t happen through the internet. If people recognize you off the internet or TV, it’s just a different connection. The whole thing with people coming to our shows and freaking out before we do anything, people learned that from the movie. A learned reaction to a Lightning Bolt show. This is the first time we’ve ever toured right when our record comes out. We always kind of tour at the wrong time. Like, the record’s been out for two years and everyone’s forgotten about it. Or we’ll be about to put out a record and then we’ll go on tour. I feel like attendance should be pretty strong and people will be hyped. I don’t mind people coming with expectations. If people come with a whole bunch of energy, I’m happy to use that energy and help things get more explosive. When people come and they don’t really know who you are, that can be really cool. But it’s not a bad thing to play to a room that’s super hyped-up and wants you to succeed. The expectations don’t really affect us anyway. If we’re going to play, we’re going to play as hard as we can no matter what.
Do your “hit songs” (for lack of a better phrase) like “13 Monsters” or “Dracula Mountain” make their way into the set because you want to play them or more because there’s an understanding that those are the songs that people want to hear?
We actually haven’t played “13 Monsters” in a long time. Every once in a while we’ll pull it out. I feel like the last time we played that song was in 2009. For me as a drummer, questions about the idea of development over the years and people asking me if I like to play new songs or old songs, I’m like, “Look, I’m a drummer. I’m hitting four or five things for every song. Does it really matter?” I don’t want to dispel the whole idea of moving forward. I like to mix it up, play new stuff and old stuff. There’s something you can learn from old stuff. Sometimes when we tear into old stuff it’s just so simple and direct. Even though most people will probably say our new stuff is also pretty simple and direct, there is some more complexity to it. It’s refreshing to play old stuff because it’s a reminder of the power of simplicity. It helps to kind of inform where I’m at right now and give me something to hold on to. We haven’t actually worked out the set for this new tour. We’ll see. There will be some old stuff creeping in there. Brian Gibson likes to go back into the catalogue less, but he does it. And you want people to hear some of the hits, I guess. I mean, do you?
I wonder about that. I know you guys as a band I saw when I was younger. I’d go to your shows on a nearly monthly basis. Now that I don’t live on the East Coast anymore, I’m only seeing Lightning Bolt once a year or once every few years, whenever you guys go on tour. My experience of the band has changed. The Lightning Bolt sets in Providence were different than the ones I’ve seen you guys play as a touring band.
Yeah. Our sets in Providence have historically been more wide-open. We’ll do more experiments because we’re playing more often. People are so sick of it all anyway. Then we go on tour and we try to bring something more universal. I’m conflicted about it because in reality you just want to see a band interested in what they’re doing and sounding really good. I’m not necessarily the kind of person who likes specific songs by bands. I like bands and the sound that they’re putting out. Maybe I don’t even know half the songs. So I don’t even know if songs are new or old, but I know if they sound good.
What do you think about being called a jam band?
Have you seen us called a jam band? I feel like I’ve called us a jam band.
I have a friend who was saying you guys are the equivalent of the Grateful Dead. You have all these committed fans and there’s this certain way to behave at the shows. Although I’m not sure if people are following you around yet.
There have been some people who trucked around to a few different shows. But nothing major. I can’t remember if somebody said we were the Grateful Dead of noise rock or if I said we were the Grateful Dead of noise rock, but I’m into that. When we’re at our best we’re able to tear through songs and we’re also able to propel off of them into some new place, which is what we generally do when we play. The reason we don’t know the set that we’re going to tour with in two weeks is because when we practice we just jam and we don’t feel like playing songs. We’re just like, “Whatever. We’ll play the songs later on tour. Why would we play them now?” Which is another weird thing, because what we really like to do is just make shit up but it doesn’t always succeed. So when we’re in New Orleans for the only time in a few years, we want to sort of succeed.
How do you negotiate that space between playing what you want to play and playing for an audience?
I guess we just kind of make decisions. We work out a bunch of things that we can play during the tour because we somehow remember how to do them and then feel it out as the tour progresses. We try to at least have a section of the set that’s dedicated to improvisation. It’s really up to us to remember to have fun and not just go for the paces. For me, once I’m playing, within the first couple of minutes I’m not going through the paces anymore. Playing music is an all-encompassing thing. I’m in it, even if we’re playing songs we’ve played over and over again. It’s a balance. It’s something we’re thinking about right now as we prepare for tour, figuring out where we draw the line between old and new and completely new. We definitely want to have some brand new songs, or at least ideas of songs, and hopefully an improvisational zone. But we’ll see. I think we kind of refuse to fully answer those kind of questions for ourselves so we don’t have to feel like we failed doing what we set out to do. We sort of leave that space intentionally blank.
You’re into clean living, right? You stay sober?
Yeah. I’ve always been sober. Somehow I managed to get through my teens and my 20s as a sober individual when I could have gone a different direction. I was never morally opposed to it. I just never had a taste for it. The few times when I would’ve been psyched to try something stupid I didn’t have the option or the opportunity wasn’t there. At some point I realized being sober worked really well with being a very physical person. I like having a sober perspective. It’s actually really nice to be a sober person in a group of drunks because you kind of get drunk by proximity.
That’s sort of what my experience in New Orleans is like.
Are you a sober person as well?
I think alcohol or other things can be a crutch. It can make a boring situation fun by shifting your perspective. But as a sober person in a band, I feel like I actually have to make my band really, really good because I can’t just drink and get wasted and have fun doing it. I feel like I actually have to make it distinctive and work really hard at it. I always thought that if you had to be drunk to enjoy something then the thing you’re enjoying isn’t actually that good. I try to make something that’s good enough that sober people will think is cool, too. But then sometimes it’s just really nice to have some drunks around. A room full of sober people can be pretty boring sometimes.
Yeah, for sure. In New Orleans, sometimes it seems like it’s possible to party vicariously through others and avoid waking up with the headache.
Yeah. There’s no hangover. I’m kind of the same way. Generally, if the party is going, at some point people will probably think I’m the drunkest person in the room. But I’m not. I’m just super psyched. But then occasionally I’ll do something stupid like bang my head into a wall or something and end up with a hangover anyway.
How has getting older affected your approach to music? How old are you at this point?
I’m 41. I’ve somehow crossed the threshold. The biggest challenge of getting old is trying to find meaning. It’s not like playing stuff has become more difficult. I haven’t reached that point yet where songs are unmanageable to play. We’ll see when that happens. For songwriting, it’s kind of tougher. We have a limited vocabulary and we’ve hit so many points in it. This past winter we’ve played a lot and tried to seek something new. It’s been kind of challenging to find new ways to make this work and keep it exciting for us. But as far as aging with Lightning Bolt, it’s funny. The 20 years went so quickly. When we start playing, there’s this kind of weird timeless universality of the whole process. It still feels really right. For me, drumming is important and central to my personality. The age hasn’t affected it that much. I haven’t gotten bored. I feel like age would affect you as a musician if you’re getting tired of what you’re doing or if you’re constantly going down new paths that bring you places that are unrecognizable and drastically change you. We’re really kind of slow evolvers. 20 years for Lightning Bolt is really like five years for most people.
Do you imagine Lightning Bolt will still be a band ten years from now?
You want to say “20 years from now” but it’s really hard to imagine.
Well, yeah. You’ll be 61.
When we started, I was 20. There was no way I could have projected we’d still be a band when I was 40. My idea of a 40 year-old when I was 20 was someone who had grandkids and a cane. Now that I’m here, not a whole lot has changed for me. I don’t feel that different from when I was younger. I don’t know what will happen in the course of the next ten years. It’s hard to say. I know I’ll still be drumming. I can’t imagine I’ll be playing some mellow, chilled-out beats. I guess we’ll see. I know it can’t go forever, though.
I have to ask: how’s your hearing?
It’s hanging in there. Probably lost some highs, but I can still hear all the important stuff.
Lightning Bolt plays Siberia on Saturday, May 9th with Mountain of Wizard, Heat Dust, and Silver Godling opening. Their latest release, Fantasy Empire, is out now on Thrill Jockey Records. For more info, check out thrilljockey.com