Lightning Bolt is an icon of the contemporary American underground. Over the course of two decades, six albums, and hundreds of crazy live shows, the Providence, R.I., duo of Brian Gibson and Brian Chippendale have worked within the deceptively simple idiom of drums and bass to create sonic assaults bordering on the transcendent for sweaty crowds of noise-heads all over the world. Even as larger venues have forced them to abandon the classic Lightning Bolt “down in the moshpit” set-up, their chaotic energy has not faltered.
Now as the band enters its third decade comes Fantasy Empire (out now on Thrill Jockey), an album five years in the making and risen from the ashes of several scrapped sessions. Like all Lightning Bolt albums, it functions partly as a document of what worked best in those all-important live shows, but this time the band decided to change things up by recording in a proper studio. The resulting 49 minutes of art-rock mayhem manages to accomplish some new tricks while still sounding unmistakably like Lightning Bolt. It’s also perhaps the first Lightning Bolt album that doesn’t seem redundant to someone who’s seen them live.
On the eve of the album’s release and the band’s imminent tour, the Observer got Brian “holy-shit-how-is-he-making-a-bass-do-that?” Gibson on the phone for a chat about the state of DIY, New York vs. Rhode Island, and the difference between the two Brians. Also: the bizarre-sounding videogame he’s been working on in his other life as a developer.
‘I know I’ll deal with Vice in the future. Whatever. They fucked people over, they will again. They’re assholes, right? Isn’t that their aesthetic?’—Drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale
The Observer: How important were the touring and the shows in the creation of this record? I know you guys are very much a live-oriented band.
Brian Gibson: Yeah, our records are usually more about documenting the live stuff. We don’t usually make recordings just for the sake of recording. It’s usually capturing songs that we found over time worked really well in our live shows. Sometimes the records are a little awkward because of that. They don’t flow exactly the way we would necessarily want them to if the records were just pure compositions we’re writing in the studio. A lot of songs that evolved through our shows tend to flow in a way that works really well live, and sometimes I’m not sure that it works as well on record, but we end up kind of going through those structures anyway.
This was the first record you recorded in a proper studio. What were you hoping to achieve with higher production values?
I think it was more about capturing something new than that we wanted to be polished for some specific reason. Just hearing a new angle or casting a different light on what we do was really important to us. We’ve always tried to do the authentic capturing of the experience of our shows, and that’s always gonna be unsatisfying. What sounds good on record is just totally different than what sounds good in a room, unfortunately.
Fantasy Empire sounds a little more metal-influenced than previous albums. Was that a conscious thing for you guys?
I don’t listen to metal, but I understand it well enough, and I’ve heard enough of it to let it seep in, and yes, there’s a metal influence in there. We’re already doing so much stuff that’s metal to begin with, just having distortion and intensity, and it’s really just a way of playing a riff that can turn it into metal. I’m not that interested in just sounding like a metal band, but yeah, there are cool things about metal.
Even the title I feel like is sort of metal.
I guess so.
What does it mean to you?
I like that it can mean many things, but guess for me personally it makes me think of the false belief that we are in control of our own reality. And particularly how that relates to making art and music.
I think we trick ourselves into believing we are making these autonomous creative decisions, and forget that they are almost entirely a mysterious product of our interactions with others, our cultural conditioning, and other predispositions that are completely out of our control.
So your band is very emblematic of a certain era in DIY music and you played the last night at Death By Audio. How do you feel about all the closings of DIY spots that happened this past year?
Well, that stuff all happened in Rhode Island 10 years ago during the housing bubble.
All the artists and musicians who were working and living in cheap spaces in Providence all got kicked out because developers were trying to buy up all the property and develop it. And that’s happening in Brooklyn now. I’m sad about it; I don’t know what to do about it and I don’t know who to blame, or if there is anyone to blame.
It just means there’s gonna be some other place that’s gonna have to play the role of providing that kind of culture. Maybe it’s just gonna get pushed out to the fringes more and more, like geographically get pushed further out.
It’s unfortunate, because I do think that having cheap space and nice venues where people can go to really does create scenes, and more bands appear in those kinds of environments, and good bands. It’s a really healthy environment. Good music comes out of it. And there’s just not going to be good music that’s gonna come out of Brooklyn. There’s not a music scene in Manhattan, and there’s not gonna be a music scene in Brooklyn.
‘I like that we’ve worked with this limited vocabulary for a long time because it’s allowed us to explore a simple idea completely.’— bassist Brian Gibson
How did you deal with it when it happened in Providence?
It actually just decimated the art and music scene in Rhode Island. It just killed it.
I think we survived because we had sort of become national, like we got to the point where we could tour and make some money and we were sustainable.
But any band that was really good but kind of on the precipice I think just dissolved. The sense of community and the motivation that everybody was giving each other by always performing and putting on shows and stuff, that just kind of diminished. Luckily, Providence, they tried to develop it, but they failed. So it may come back in Providence because places never actually got more expensive.
What was going through your head during that final show at Death By Audio?
I just remember feeling like I wished we weren’t on the stage; I wished we were just playing in the audience. It was too crowded to play on the floor probably, but it felt like everybody just wanted to have fun and go crazy. I want to be a part of that, and playing on the stage sometimes I feel like I’m not directly participating in what the audience is experiencing. Stages always feel a little isolating to me.
Is it safe to say that setting up on the stage is a sacrifice you made so your fans could have a better experience?
I think so, yeah. That’s kind of the idea. I personally prefer the floor, but it’s a little bit selfish because it makes my experience more fun, but for the person in the back of a room full of 500 people, it doesn’t necessarily make their experience better.
You said before that you like having a limited palette to work with; you’re just two guys with one instrument each. What do you like about that?
It’s like painting. If there are fewer elements, then it’s easy to keep everything unified. I think when you have more kinds of sounds in music you kind of have to worry about how they balance together and how you can keep all the tones in the same universe. But if you just have two elements, it really simplifies things.
I like that we’ve worked with this limited vocabulary for a long time because it’s allowed us to explore a simple idea completely. Whereas if we were trying, if we were using different instruments or—I guess if we were using different instruments and allowing ourselves to change a lot because we’d be getting bored with our instruments, we’d never be able to go deep into that one idea.
It would be easier to keep changing things up to keep it fresh, but I’m glad we keep working on this one idea, like, we keep digging deeper into it, because now we have a body of work that’s a complete exploration of a simple set of constraints.
Like you’re getting closer to the Platonic essence of Lightning Bolt with each album…?
I’m glad you put it that way, because I remember when we started, I was thinking it would be great to be a band that creates its own form. Not that we’ve ever achieved that, but I like the idea of finding some Platonic form. I think that’s always been there. It’s like discovering some truth about the universe or something.
I guess that speaks to another question I had, which is, how have you sustained this specific type of energy for so long?
I think part of that is that it’s actually really fun. There are elements to it that are a lot of work, and my relationship with Brian hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been really rewarding. It’s a great band to be in, because when we play shows people have so much fun, and that just feels great. I don’t know, the idea of stopping is so sad. I think we’re both just enjoying it while we can.
I feel like in some ways our shows boil it down a little more than some other bands do, something kind of simple. You can appreciate that on some smart level or on a very stupid level, and it doesn’t really matter to me. Really all it is is people making a lot of noise and bashing some drums and having fun together.
I know you weren’t the one who said it, but at the end of the final DBA show when the other Brian said, “hashtag fuck Vice” and then looped it for a while … how sincere was that?
You’re gonna have to ask Brian about that. [Ed: see below.]
What do you like about Providence?
I’m like actually kind of wanting to leave Providence lately. So it’s hard for me to give a pep talk about it. But [when I lived in New York], I got kind of sick of the way everybody talks so much about the art and music they’re doing, but then when you’re trying to figure out what it actually is, people aren’t really doing anything or they’re doing something really terrible.
‘I remember when we started, I was thinking it would be great to be a band that creates its own form. Not that we’ve ever achieved that, but I like the idea of finding some Platonic form. I think that’s always been there. It’s like discovering some truth about the universe or something.’—Brian Gibson
I missed Providence because most people here don’t talk about what they’re doing. They just do stuff because they love doing it. It’s so much less about networking and making connections and just about doing good work, and I like that attitude. There’s a lot more of that here. But at the same time, all of my friends are in New York, so…
Can you tell me a little bit about Thumper, the video game you’ve been working on?
It’s a music game that’s really dark and physical, and there’s this scarab beetle traveling down this chrome road that just kind of goes into the abyss. It’s this nightmarish music game experience. It’s hard to describe. This has energy and intensity, but it’s also kind of shadowy and scary, and that’s not the kind of vibe we’re trying to create with Lightning Bolt.
What you just said about Lightning Bolt’s energy reminded me of your tourmate Hunter Hunt-Hendrix’s paper on transcendental black metal, and how he’s trying to turn metal from this negative, nihilistic, Christianity-hating (but also Christianity-obsessed) thing into a positive, transcendent, creative force. Do you identify with that at all?
Yeah, yeah. He’s doing something different, but I think he’s coming from a similar motivation … I like certain kinds of scary things. I like bands that are scary. That kind of stuff can be thrilling to watch, but there’s a certain kind of nihilistic, depressed, defeated kind of attitude that I don’t really like in music… When we started in the’90s, that was a thing with grunge. I was thinking at the time, “I wanna participate in music culture in a way that gets people excited and lets people have fun.” It wasn’t because I wasn’t depressed or wasn’t unhappy. It just seems like it doesn’t help to have a show that people are bummed out at.
How are the two Brians similar and how are you different?
We’re definitely in many ways opposite personalities. And I think we’ve learned over the years that that is something that makes Lightning Bolt work, but it also makes Lightning Bolt really difficult.
We’re kind of mysterious to each other, so if you really understand someone you’re working with, it can get boring pretty quickly.
We both have a pretty insane work ethic, and we’re both really into doing our own thing all the time, like we both work a lot. And so we work really well together. It’s hard to find another person that’s willing to work really hard, and that’s what we have in common.
But I think one big difference between us is that he’s kind of like always outputting creative work, and he’s always being expressive all the time, artistically. And I tend to spend a lot of time sort of refining one little thing that I’m gonna release in a year or something like, you know, where I’ve been working on this game for five years. He’ll make a comic book and spend a year on it, but he’s also releasing records and making prints. I just think he’s always engaged with people as an artist all the time.
It’s led to some conflicts in the past about how long our records are gonna be, because I’m always wanting to get rid of songs. And I think he’s more seen the value in everything we do, and I think he’d be happier releasing more material. So we have a lot of conflicts about just how much material we’re gonna be outputting all the time, because we’re kind of the opposite in that way.
But the balance ends up being good, because if it was just me in the band, we might never release anything, and then we’d never go on tour. And I think if it was just him in the band we’d be on our 25th record and maybe people would be kind of tired of our records. There’s value in both, and the way we balance each other out is also really unique and valuable.
I’m an introvert, and I wouldn’t say that either of us are entirely introverted or entirely extroverted, but I would say that he’s further on the extroverted spectrum and I’m further on the introvert spectrum.
And so I think generally people who are more on the extroverted side kind of get energy from interacting with people, and people on the more introverted side, actually their energy gets depleted interacting with people.
And that feels like that’s how our tours work, like when we’re meeting a lot of new people and I’m like always trying to hide out, and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with like—he doesn’t mind if people wanna talk to him or something like that. He’s more able to enjoy it.
If I do too much of that stuff I just find that I’m like—actually feel like I’ve become totally depleted. I have to recharge. I have to go off, go for a walk and recharge by myself.
[Ed: After chatting with Brian Gibson, we had to find out the story behind that “hashtag fuck Vice” chant drummer Brian Chippendale started during the duo’s performance at the final show at beloved Brooklyn DIY spot Death By Audio; he answered us via email.]
How sincere was that “hashtag fuck Vice” chant that you looped at the final DBA show? What was going through your head at that moment and during that show in general? (I was there and had an amaaaaazing time.)
Brian Chippendale: What was going through my head. Maybe “deja vu”? This isn’t the first “end-of-a-legendary-space” party I or we have played. I also felt sort of honored to be part of Death by Audio’s final hours. I really enjoyed shows there and have been so blown away by the energy Edan and Matt Conboy and the gang put into making it a good place. Especially the gift of energy in the face of financial survival in Brooklyn. But I also had a certain strange disconnect. Because at the end of it all I just drove away. All the meaning and weight of what was going on there, and I just stayed up till 8 a.m. and drove back to Providence and left it all behind. Felt weird. Surreal.
As for the “fuck Vice,” I totally meant it. They seemed to be interacting in a total douchebag way with DBA. There was no reason for them not to be cool. I understand cities eat their young and bow down to the greater beasts and that’s the way it works but Vice should have been smart enough to really bend over backwards for a pillar of the underground community. They blew it.
I know I’ll deal with Vice in the future. Whatever. They fucked people over, they will again. They’re assholes right? Isn’t that their aesthetic? But they also do some interesting work as well. So it’s not forgivable, how they did what they did, but it doesn’t necessarily remove them from my circle of people I will deal with. They could have done worse. They could have done a lot better. But right there, right then, yeah. Fuck Vice. And fuck them if they don’t treat people better. I’ll hold onto my grievance and have a conversation with them about it if i ever get the opportunity. Remember “Vice Media,” brands come and go but the underground is forever.