Published Mar 17, 2015As veterans of the legendary Providence, RI noise rock scene, bass-and-drums duo Lightning Bolt possess a truly singular sound that can't be contained by place or time. Ahead of their new LP Fantasy Empire, which arrives on March 24 via Thrill Jockey, the members caught up with Exclaim! to discuss what's changed and what hasn't in their two decades as a band.
"It's weird, on some levels very little has changed," drummer and vocalist Brian Chippendale says. "We're still kind of doing the same thing. Pile in the van, drive around, the van breaks down, certain shows are not that big. It's kind of just this classic experience that's maintained since our first tour, which was in 1997."
As the band's audience has increased, Lightning Bolt had to embrace new challenges. For example, now that they're a summer festival-sized band, they can't always set up and perform on the venue's floor in a swarm of sweaty bodies.
"I've just heard a lot of people who were bummed at our show that we played on the floor. So [we're playing on stages] for the shorter people or the less aggressive people or people who didn't get there early enough," Chippendale says. "It's a change for the audience, obviously, but it's a change for us as well."
Chippendale doesn't mind the stage, though his partner, Brian Gibson, isn't as big a fan.
"He's just a little self-conscious," the drummer explains. "He's just standing there playing bass. In Lightning Bolt, he's focused on playing all that crazy shit he plays, where I feel like I'm a little bit more like the clown or something."
While they've maintained a rigorously unique aesthetic from the start, Lightning Bolt were the guiding force of the early 2000s noise scene boom in Providence — an era that birthed the neon-drenched outsider sounds of the venerable Load Records imprint.
"I'm pretty nationalistic about Providence — I'm really fond of this place," Chippendale says. Still, times have changed. "It's a little different. Load has slowed down, and there was another record label called Corleone that was releasing a lot and they've slowed down. There's still plenty of stuff going on, but it's just changing. I think for a while it felt like Providence had a very unified vision... and now there's all kinds of small, interesting voices going on, and some bigger acts too. But it's not necessarily like a singular vision."
Chippendale and Gibson have worked together constantly since first meeting in 1994 ("We are such an old married couple," Chippendale admits), and while their environs have changed, their process hasn't. The pair still record all of their improvised practices, sifting through the day's results for gems that they can build into songs. According to Gibson, after all of this time it's still a struggle to find more riffs.
"There are definitely times we play and I can't come up with ideas," he says. "Then one day it will all happen at once. I'll have days when I feel really terrible or kind of down or a little depressed. I'll just be in a crabby mood. I'm sure I'm going to have no ideas. Then somehow when I play, that's the best. I'll have a million ideas for some reason.
"I thought it would co-relate with being relaxed and happy, having a lot of ideas, but it just seems utterly random. There are just some days you'll play and a lot of stuff happens. You'll listen back like wow we had a lot of really cool ideas. But there's no way to control it or plan on it or prepare for it."
When they're not shredding through anthemic fist-pumpers together, the members of Lightning Bolt keep plenty busy in their other pursuits. Chippendale is a renowned visual artist, beloved for his alt-comics and paintings alike (he's created all of the band's artwork), while Gibson works as a videogame designer. In fact, when we catch him on the phone, he's in the middle of promoting his new game Thumper at a conference in California.
The relationship between Chippendale's art and performance is immediately evident. Gibson, on the other hand, doesn't at first see any parallels in his two endeavours.
"The videogame looks really clean, and I feel like Lightning Bolt is really dirty — the look is just super polished and slick right now in this game," Gibson offers. "The thing that's similar, I guess, is that it's a pretty limited palette. Lightning Bolt is just distorted bass and drums. It's just very limited. It makes it pretty iconic, because it's so simple."