Masks Made from Kids' T-shirts, Grant Hart, & Eye on a Bike: An Absurdly Long Interview with Lightning Bolt Drummer Brian Chippendale
by Dave Segal
on Sun, Apr 10, 2011 at 4:59 PM
Originally posted Friday, but moved up, because: Lightning Bolt. Stay tuned for video and words on the show.—Eds.
17 years into their career, Lightning Bolt remain one of the planet's most explosive noise-rock combos and a megaton blast in live contexts. Drummer Brian Chippendale harnesses the power of natural disasters on his kit; he's the molten mountain to Hella's Zach Hill. I did a long-ass interview with Chippendale, which took me about 37 hours to transcribe. I tried to keep it fairly whimsical, geeky, and interesting. Please read it. Thank you.
Lightning Bolt play with Flexions and the Planets Sat April 9 at Healthy Times Fun Club, 9 pm, all ages.
Where are you? Chippendale: Buffalo. This is day two of the tour.
Let’s talk about how Lightning Bolt relax. What do you do to chill after a hard day creating a ruckus in the studio or after a live performance? Your music is so strenuous and combustible: how do you wind down on tour or while you’re recording an album? Relaxing is something I’ve never learned how to do. Drumming tires me out so much that I can sort of chill out after we play. But at the same time, we’re both somewhat relaxed people. I read a lot. What does the other guy [LB basist Brian Gibson] do? I don’t know… [laughs] You know, we can relax some. But we’re kind of workaholics, so it’s a fine line.
You’re in multiple bands [Mindflayer, Black Pus] and do comic-book drawings. Yeah. This week I didn’t relax at all. I feel like shit, because I’ve been trying to finish so many things before running out the door.
So you don’t have any special techniques of relaxation? Hot shower? There are no special meditation techniques. Although I started taking yoga one day a week, a beginner’s class with my girlfriend. That calms me down.
Does it help your drumming? I don’t know if it helps my drumming. It probably does, because it’s an extra stretching routine every week. So it probably does help my drumming. I have to stay limber somehow, as I age.
Do you guys need to maintain a fitness program to be able to play the music you do? Your drumming is very athletic. [laughs] I just practice. I do try to maintain a certain level of fitness for my own well-being. But I don’t do anything outrageous. I drum four to six days a week; I do some stretches every night after we play; I bike around town. I do a good amount of physical stuff, but I also spend a lot of time sitting at a desk drawing, which doesn’t do a thing for me. On tour, we’re always carrying these giant boxes around, speakers and stuff. So we’re kind of turning into real super humans.
What are your favorite ambient-music albums? This goes back to the relaxing question. I get into these habits where I listen to the same things over and over again. There’s a side project from two of the guys in Hair Police… this awesome tape we listened to in the car to chill out to. It was sort of evil. What the fuck was that called? I think the band’s called Sick Hour. Ambient stuff…it’s like an old Jim O’Rourke project, Organum—sort of Terry Riley-style drone. Tubular Bells is always good.
Do you listen to Eno’s ambient work? I don’t listen to much Eno. It’s a path I haven’t taken yet, but I want to.
It’ll be there when you’re ready. When you’re on tour, do you and Brian have any conflicts with regard to the music you play in the van? Our big conflict is neither of us even bother to put any on. We have a conflict with the music we don’t play.
What do you do when you’re driving to the next town? We stare out the window. At the beginning of a tour, we can’t even get our heads together to put on music. but this new van has a CD player. Our shows are so loud and in order to hear the music in the van, you have to crank it up. So we tend toward quiet in the van. Our ears have been through so much. Maybe we’ll slip in some comedy eventually.
Do you think your music is capable of instigating social change? [laughs] I might have thought that at some point, but maybe I thought it was capable of dimensional change, unlocking secret [inaudible]—which could lead to social change. These days, society seems to be on this serious path. It’s a hard train to steer. I’ll settle for our music kind of being a ticket into something primal to remind you of that. It’s like stretching every day. We’re reminding people that they’re human. Meanwhile, we’re doing interviews on iPhones…
Do your fans ever relate their feelings to you after a show? I get a lot of ‘Your band made me want to start playing drums’ or ‘Your band made me want to quit playing drums.’ I’m sure Brian Gibson gets some bass comments. But I have talked to kids who’ve said we helped them through a dark time or we opened them up to shaking off the genre traps. So within music and maybe through lifestyle, we’ve helped some people along the way. I’m happy to settle for just having a good time with the music.
Does it appear to you that your crowds are predominantly male? [laughs] Ooohhh, yeah.
What do you think are the reasons for that? I think there’s the aggressive quality, which lends itself toward men. I also think we’ve dug our own grave with this play on the floor thing. It even ups the level of physical strength… I know plenty of girls who could beat the shit out of me, but it’s still kind of a male thing, fighting your way to the front to gather around the band. We’ve been switching that up; we’ve been playing on stages some. We’re trying to appeal the feminine side of our audience—trying to bring em back. Where we play depends on the shape of the room and how big of a show it’s gonna be.
Has your method to set up on the floor of venues ever gone horribly wrong? Nothing horrible. There’s been some blood, but no major gashes. I’ve gotten hit in the head with a flying amplifier, but I’ve never gotten clocked with a speaker. We’ve been really lucky.
People respect your space? Not really. People invade our space and break our shit. Our stuff gets fucked up but there have been no major physical issues. Glasses get broken, but that happens at all different shows. But we’ve been lucky. Some of these shows have gotten too big and ridiculous, and that’s why we move to the stage. It’s just not fun or safe. Not even half of the people in the room would even know we’re playing. Just a big pud ball. What’ll happen is, we’ll play onstage and some kid will break his neck stage-diving. Rock and roll brings the risk.
Was the initial impulse to set up on the floor to be unconventional and to draw more energy from the crowd? It was that and we like designing the room… when there’s not that many people there, it’s a way more memorable show. It elevates the experience for some. But as the shows get bigger, it decreases the experience for others. They can’t tell what’s going on. If it’s a small show on the floor, it could be one of the best shows you’re ever going to go to in your life. Kids who complain when we play on the stage, I tell them sorry you missed it.[laughs]
Are Lightning Bolt mellowing with age? A little bit. I don’t know about musically, but in general as people. We get along better than we ever have. We’ve always gotten along pretty good. I’m 37 now.
Lightning Bolt started in 1994. Has it been smooth sailing the whole time with Brian Gibson? Do you ever fight? We’ve had some issues. We’ve had some problems here and there. I get a little aggressive and he sort of steps out sometimes. Our balance gets out of whack. I’m getting way too charged up and he’s getting way too charged down. And that lingers. But it’s been pretty smooth sailing. We took a year and a half off between the last album [Earthly Delights] and the one before it [Hypermagic Mountain], just because we burned out on stuff. Lately, though, it’s been fun.
What have you been dong since Earthly Delights came out in 2009? Have you recorded any new material? Yeah, we have. We’ve been recording the last couple of weeks and we’re going to record when we get back from tour, the first couple of weeks in May. So we should have an album done—at least the music recorded—by the end of May. We’re playing a lot of new stuff on this tour. We do other stuff, too. That takes up a lot of time. We’re working on Mighty Robots. Gibson does computer-game stuff. It’s a long process. I’ve been doing some comic-book stuff and other music stuff.
What’s the music you’ve been working on lately going to be a continuation of Earthly Delights or are you going in another direction? Yeah, like the big, classical orchestra, horn section… [laughs] Oh, god. Can’t do it. Yeah, it’s somewhat a continuation. We’re not taking any giant leaps. We have certain parameters that keep us rooted to a certain kind of thing. There are definitely more vocals going on with the new material. I’ve been doing a lot of solo drumming and singing in the last couple of years. That’s influencing Lightning Bolt to some extent. The stuff we’ve recorded so far is a little more upbeat than Earthly Delights. That was a pretty dark album. We’re bringing the fun back… sort of. We’ve got this song that kind of sounds like Motörhead—really driving rock.
When is the new album going to come out? If we’re lucky, by the end of the year. If we’re a little slower, it’ll come out the beginning of next year. It feels pretty lively. Each album has a slightly different take on a subject.
How do you know when a track is finished? It’s a little tough. You make a series of decisions about it and when it finally sounds pretty good and you feel like the decisions after that are trivial, then you sort of quit on it. We’re listening to the new album, so we’re talking about the quality of the recording, but we’re also talking about songs. There’s music that you make and then there’s music that you listen to. There are plenty of people who make music that they want to listen to, but sometimes Brian and I make music that we make. When we finish an album, we made these decisions and put together these songs, and brought them to their logical conclusion, using these parameters that we set up. But we didn’t make that Organum album by Jim O’Rourke, which I might end up listening to more. I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff off the Sublime Frequencies label. Real raw, repetitive drum and bass songs with simple melodies that repeat and loop… We’re not really a math-rock band but sometimes we kind of out-math ourselves a little bit just because our brains go that way. We get into writing things that have parts. It is a weird thing: why parts? Why begin a song or end a song? I dunno… weird stuff.
Seems like there’s a lot of chaos in the music. There kind of is.
And spontaneity. It gets pretty planned out. It’s pretty orchestrated. But at the same time, me as a drummer, I keep a rhythm then play around it a bit, so the drums have an element of spontaneity. I never memorize a fill or that sort of thing. I just sort of go with what’s going on. Gibson’s pretty on target with what he plays. He gets it down. And I get it down for the most part, too, but I’m a little more Fruit Loopy or something. [laughs]
Do your and Brian’s parents listen to Lightning Bolt? Oh, no. although my dad listens to a few Megadeth albums. He’s a high-school teacher and I was playing him this one Megadeth album for him and he got psyched about the old historical samples. They took me to John Denver concerts when I was a little kid, so that’s where they’re coming from. But my parents have a hard time with Lightning Bolt. It’s too aggressive and too loud. My dad’s sat through a little more of it than my mom. She definitely can’t take it.
Have you ever had sex to your own music? If so, how was it? While playing?
Haha. No. On playback. Oh. I don’t usually put that on if I’m trying to seduce a lady. Keep Lightning Bolt off the player. It’s funny—most of the people I’ve gone out with seriously don’t really like us. I don’t know what that means. My girlfriend now is probably one of our harshest critics. But it’s good, because she keeps me down to earth.
If the military wanted to use a Lightning Bolt track for an ad campaign, would you allow it? [immediately] No.
Has your music ever been used in an ad or a film? It’s been in some films. There was one of our songs in some Mandy Moore movie that Deerhoof did the soundtrack for or something. I forget what it was called. I wanna say Domestication. It was one word. I think we’re going to be in some South American movie, something like The Band of the Machete. Nothing too mainstream. [laughs] We were in a European movie called The Drummer. We were in the opening credits. It was a crazy scene. It ends in a rape scene and it takes part over this whole song. It was weird because the bulk of it is comedic. It’s all played backwards. Have you ever seen Irreversible? It wasn’t that guy. But it has that true brutality feel to it. It was kind of funny for a while and then it went to this rape scene. It’s his thing, but we let him use the music.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve witnessed in Lightning Bolt’s 17 years as a band? It could involve the music industry or your band or your fans. It’s been a pretty smooth ride. There have been some stupid tour stories. Just the fact that we’ve lasted this long and people seem to know who we are. I’ve met some bands I’ve really been into and they know who we are. First meeting Sonic Youth was mind-blowing. Meeting Jesus Lizard was pretty amazing. Being in this band led me to meet Björk, which was pretty awesome. That was kind of through ATP festival. A friend of hers is part of that and she was looking for live drummers and he played her a clip of us playing there. So I ended up playing on a couple of songs of hers through that.
Didn’t you play on Boadrum 77? Yeah. I remember seeing the Boredoms in the early ’90s and thinking this is the most far-out thing I could ever see. And the idea that years later I would be sitting around with those guys. One of the first times I met Eye, he rode his bike home to go get me the Boredoms’ new record and rode back with it. Little things like that. I thought, ‘Eye is riding his bike home to get me a record.’ [laughs] Me? Why? That’s insane.
Lighting Bolt’s longevity is surprising because the music is very uncompromising. We’ve really just followed our own muse for how we do things. We’ve never thought, ‘Let’s make a hit.’ We just jam. It all comes from jamming. Some of our jams this time around have been more poppy. We’ll see what that does. Sometimes the jams that are poppy fall off at the last minute and don’t work out.
Has Load Records ever told you do anything a certain way? No. Those guys don’t tell us anything.
They just love you and put out your stuff, obviously. Yeah, I guess so. They’re just super nice. They’ve given up all hope of actually making money from all this stuff.
Wait, Load doesn’t make money? They make some. They definitely make money off our records, but most of the Load catalog just breaks even. It’s not like we’re putting out records that often. But Load’s doing well right now. They’ve really brought down the number of releases per year. [Load boss Ben McOsker] was trying to put out as much as he could for a while and I think it evaporated all the cash really quickly. Now he can’t do that.
Will you be doing Lightning Bolt’s greatest hits for this tour or a lot of new material? Probably a lot of new stuff, plus a couple of greatest hits. We always try to throw a couple old songs in there. I tend to go toward more old stuff while Gibson likes to do more of the new stuff, so we try to find a balance between the two.
What’s your favorite song to play? ‘Mega Ghost’ off Hypermagic Mountain is always super fun. It’s got a beat that’s really different. This new song we have called ‘Horsepower’ which is our Motörhead-y song. It’s really fun to play.
How about “Rotator”? We’ve pulled ‘Rotator’ out on tours recently. That song works better in certain rooms. If the room’s getting a lot of saturated high end, then it sounds good, because the bass line has a lot of these walking high notes. Our shows are weird. Sometimes we’ll play shows where there’s a lot of low end and some of the notes get lost and that song kind of fizzles. And there are the old classics. We’ve played ‘Dracula Mountain’ [off Wonderful Rainbow] a million times, but it’s still fun to play.
Do you still wear the mask when you play? Yep. I think I’m on like mask number 7 or 8 now.
How do you know when to get rid of them? They just become so torn up they disintegrate. They’re just T-shirts that I sew together. I’ll go get little kids’ T-shirts with, like, funny flowers and stuff on em.
Do you wear the masks so you don’t become too famous? Yeah, right. The mask is so I permanently look like I should be in Slipknot. The general purpose of the mask is it holds the microphone. It still does put me in some kind of zone. It also hides the ridiculous drum faces—especially the ridiculous drummer-singing faces. Sometimes I wonder about it. It’s fun to breathe, too. And I don’t want people to look at us like we’re a clown band or a zany band. I dunno, but I keep wearing it.
Who’s your favorite singing drummer... besides yourself? I dunno— ‘In the Air Tonight’ is pretty good. Phil Collins. I was a huge Hüsker Dü fans, so Grant Hart was a big deal to me when I was growing up. He might be my favorite.
What do you think about when you’re playing live? Last night I was thinking, ‘I’m fucking dying.’ The first night of a tour is so hard. I was thinking, ‘Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.’ but I try to get past that. I try to not think about stuff. Occasionally stuff leaks in there and either throws me off or hypes me up. Sometimes I generate images, some emotional thing. My lyrics aren’t necessarily the same all the time; sometimes I’ll stumble upon lyrics that have some emotional impact on me and get sucked up in it. But I try to keep thinking to a minimum.
Do Lightning Bolt get a lot of groupies. It’s a guy-heavy show, so I’d say most of our groupies are guys; they just want to talk. The other Brian tends to find girls to talk to, but I usually end up talking to young guys who are just sort of pysched. If I was single, I probably wouldn’t like this at all, but it’s kind of a good safety device for being in a relationship, being on tour—it’s better to just talk to the guys. [laughs] But sometimes you get into a good conversation, but I’m also happy to talk to girls. They tend not to fight their way to the front and afterward, though.