Brian Chippendale (Black Pus): Interview
“The whole point of music is that it is separate from words, really.”
Gah, I’ve been getting a little too personal lately. Too introspective, even. A little tale behind the idiot behind the curtain, if you’ll indulge us: I was born and raised in Rhode Island. Can’t say I miss it much. It’s a weird thing for me. Unlike Rod Dreher, whose reasoning for leaving his little town in Louisiana had more to do with urban ambition, my reasons for leaving my home on the edge of suburbia in South County were more pragmatic: I just did not fit there.
Still, I hold in high regard a period of time when Providence was an awesome city. Brian Chippendale was there and has been a fixture to Providence’s art and music scenes combined since the mid-1990s. In recent years, he established a music solo project called Black Pus, which has allowed him to play around with new ideas and sounds. His latest album, All My Relations on Thrill Jockey, brings about some new directions in sound, including a new confidence and coherence in his vocal ability. But it is still very much a Chippendale experience: Drums of a graceful fury, fullness in tonality, and singing off-handedly about silly things. In addition, he has released a brick of a comic book, If ‘n’ Oof, which our noble Ben Pearson discussed with him a couple years ago, and has been intermittently publishing a web comic, Puke Force.
I recently chatted with Brian about everything.
First things first: let’s discuss your setup a little bit when you recorded. Were you doing all the instrumentation? I know it sounds silly to ask, but…
[laughs] Yeah, I do. Well, I’ve done it a few different ways, but yeah, all of the Black Pus stuff has just been all me. Maybe half of the stuff recorded on [All My Relations] is live stuff, and then there was some songs where I just resang the vocals, or replayed the… There’s this oscillator that makes a lot of the tones and the bass sounds, and I can do that live too. But I’ve replayed it on a few songs just to correct the tone or be able to kind of maneuver it a little more, because it’s a little rigid when I play it live.
When you play something like that live, it’s not exactly surprising that it could be a little bit rigid.
It’s cool because it does these little weird things on its own, and then I run it through some stuff, like some wah pedals or distortion pedals. So I can color it and give it some texture. For the bulk of the stuff that I have recorded, I have tried to make them live captures, and I’m trying to break out of that. I’m fully aware that the record and the live show are different things, but I still have a point of pride to be able to say, “Yeah, I did it all live.” But what’s the point of thinking about the point of pride when they’re just listening to it?
I think some people seem to just miss that. I mean, you kind of made a point with the little comic that you made with the record. Some people just want to identify music before they even listen to it.
That was a joke partially because I have had that conversation, and then also partially because there is just so many venues online to put your music or whatever you’re signing up your music to. They’re always like, “Categorize it.” It’s hysterical.
It is hysterical. It’s sadder still… I’ll be the first to admit Tiny Mix Tapes is just as guilty of this, but there are a lot of publications doing this whole “microgenre” thing, and it just gets to be a bit much. Maybe we don’t need genres anymore…
Right, yeah. It does help to be able to describe stuff and have words to describe stuff, but only to an extent. The whole point of music is that it is separate from words, really.
He was like, ‘Oh, Rhode Island.’ Then he gets kind of quiet. And he goes, ‘I was the drummer in Great White that night at the fire.’
I understand you have a live tour in the works. Are you running the whole thing on your own?
Yeah, I am. I’ve been doing it for the last couple years. It’s just drums, and then I trigger an oscillator sound through the bass drum. Then I can loop that, and then I can loop vocals, and sort of color the vocals and the oscillator with various titles. I do that all myself, and I think I’m good enough at it that it feels like a convincing package. I’m hoping people don’t look at it and go, “Oh, that’s interesting music for such limitations.” That’s not necessarily the point. I think it comes across a possibly minimal but full thing.
That’s an interesting point. I feel like there is that expansion or fullness going on, especially in comparison to Primordial Pus and previous Lightning Bolt releases. The most obvious difference I can hear is that I can hear your vocals clearly. I guess that, no offense to your telephone mic, but you’re using an actual microphone?
[laughs] It actually is the same microphone. Well, I’ve gone through many of them, but it is the same thing. I think it’s just been, I’ve always run those through a distortion pedal, and some of that has just been to get the volume I needed live. And maybe it’s partially that it can be louder and clearer, now that I have better amps. Also, I’ve gained more confidence in my vocal ability. There was always a bit of hiding behind distortion, but not entirely. I’ve always liked that growling sound and the sound of feedback: It has a real energy to it. But it’s just me branching out, and again just break down a few of the rules that I set for myself, and try some other stuff and communicate a little more with the vocals.
Well, it’s pretty cool to hear you sing again.
I can sing all right, sometimes. [laughs] I don’t know, sometimes I can’t, sometimes I can. It’s definitely my weakest point. I consider myself a drummer first. Of course, I’ve always been considered the singer of Lightning Bolt and obviously Black Pus. But, I sometimes scare myself when I start singing and miss too much and forgetting that the drums are really carrying stuff. I want to make sure to keep the vocals in a place to some extent. But yeah, I think I’ve been growing as a vocalist.
Going back to art, the cover art of All My Relations reminded me a lot of the cover art for Earthly Delights. Just wondering if that was a coincidence.
I guess it’s a little bit of a coincidence. For me, when I look at the stuff that I’ve made, I’m seeing other things. I forget that I’m still working in this shrunken universe of art-making. I look at it and I think, “Oh no, it’s so different from that other one, because that one incorporated more pen marks, where this one incorporates more silk screen printing” or something. But I’m the only one that’s seeing that. It’s a little bit like my music: I’m so in there, that I don’t necessarily notice the similarities as much as the differences. So I can see that. There’s a fractured imagery with a lot of noise elements vibrating through it. It was just more of a phase I am in. For most of the artwork, I make art simultaneously as I make music as the year progresses, and they both kind of inch forward in my vocabulary of sounds and images and mark-making. There’s a co-evolution going on.
So would you say there is more a mutual dependency in your art and your music than a relationship?
Yeah. I think so. They have a life on their own, but they both evolve in the same slow way. It’s like I’m applying similar growth and similar educational processes to them. They’re both busy, they’re both loud. And instead of pulling a lot of elements from outside into my music and art, I tend to dig into them and explore them from the inside. I don’t want to say I’m recycling a lot of stuff, but I’m just picking apart maybe minute details of this reservoir of stuff. I don’t even know what all that means. [laughs] But yeah, there are similarities, that’s for certain.
It’s a good point, and it reminds about If ‘n’ Oof… actually, have a funny story about that book. I was trying to seek out the book in San Francisco when it came out, but no comic shop I went to had it when it came out back in 2010, and people just gave me a funny look when I asked. [laughs] Then, about 7 months later, I was in Berlin, and I went into this shop in Kreuzberg called Modern Graphics, and I just wondering around, kind of bored that afternoon. I walk in and I see a copy of it, and I thought “Seriously?” It was 30 Euros. I thought, “The hell is wrong with San Francisco?”
You had to go all the way to Berlin just to get the thing?
All the way to Berlin.
[laughs] 30 Euros, wow.
It’s probably got some import tax or something, so it’s not that much more.
Yeah, with Euros, it comes about the same. It’s definitely not a cheap book. It’s a bit of a brick, even if it is a black-and-white brick.
You’ve talked about this a lot with our previous writer, Ben Pearson. You seem to talk a lot about the amount of detail involved in drawing these comics, and what seems to get my interest about it is that there are not that many artists who have that sort of focus on detail. With a lot of zines and such, the detail is very basic, or there are very limited amounts of shading or something like that. I can only think of one or two people that seem to represent that sort of imagery that you work with, besides maybe Mat Brinkman.
Yeah. Well, me and Mat come from a similar place, which is trying to investigate some world, like really map it out and get a feel for it or something. Story almost comes second to setting, in a way. Which again, you can throw over to my music: The sonic qualities may come first and then songwriting might come second in a way, or the experience might come first. A lot of people tend to focus on story and stuff like that. I tend to be interested in where they’re hanging out. [crosstalk]… Oh wait, what?
No, sorry, continue. I was about to start something.
No, it’s fine. I think it’s funny, because this cell phone stuff’s helping us out too, because it’s like you’re a little fuzzy sometimes. Hopefully, I’m not too fuzzy…
I can get most of you sometimes, but sometimes you fade out a bit.
[laughs] Get the gist of the story. It’s the perfect interview, because it’s somewhat distorted for me.
Yeah, it’s an interview as though it were a Black Pus song.
Speaking of which, I wanted to ask: Is there much of a difference between you creating a song by yourself, as opposed to you writing a Lightning Bolt song?
It is and it isn’t. Both of these things usually come from just playing live. So, a lot of times, when I’m just playing by myself, I just hook up all my stuff and just basically play Black Pus, and using that. I’m just kind of jammy with that stuff. So the songs from Black Pus come from the experience of playing that stuff live. It’s the same thing with Lightning Bolt. Most of the songs come from me and Brian jamming together. There isn’t really much having an idea outside of that and bringing it in. So, on that level, they’re similar, because they come from a live experience. But they’re different in that it’s just me. In a band — and my experience is in a two-person band — the experience is that, if the two don’t see eye to eye, certain things you really like will go to the wayside because one person votes “yea” and the other “nay,” and that generally means “nay” because you can’t really move forward if someone doesn’t want to do it. So, what’s great about Black Pus is I can just move forward with every stupid little idea that I ever want. I don’t have to bounce it off of anyone, which of course may result in a product, experience, or sound that’s maybe a little more strange or less appealing in a way.
That’s an interesting point. Just having the separation is helpful.
Yeah, but I love writing songs with Brian, too. It’s just, we’re such an old band at this point. We’ll play for an afternoon, and be like “Oh” or come up with a new thing and be “Oh, shit, this sounds like that.” Or “Oh shit, we did that thing about 10 years ago. Awww right.” So Black Pus is a little bit more of a fresh canvas, which is fun, too.
What’s great about Black Pus is I can just move forward with every stupid little idea that I ever want. I don’t have to bounce it off of anyone, which of course may result in a product, experience, or sound that’s maybe a little more strange or less appealing in a way.
Yeah. I mean come to think of it, looking over details, you guys started in 94 if I’m not mistaken, right?
Your band is 20 years old starting next year. That’s gotta be weeeeird.
Yeah, it’s pretty weird, because it doesn’t feel like that, really. That time went really fast. But yeah, next year will be 20 years. Jesus Christ. We’re like, we’re like… an old band. [laughs] We’re not a new band. It’s still really fun though. It’s definitely a little harder. It comes and it goes. For the last year or two, Lightning Bolt, we have been preoccupied with other stuff. So, it’s been really fun when we play, but then we take a break, and all that time passes. Maybe we’re a middle-aged band in just our focus. It’s like, when we first started, we were just this young and exciting couple or something, and we were making all this music. Now, it’s almost like we have kids. So it just takes us a while to get stuff done.
Back to Puke Force: What is your agenda with that these days? It seemed like you were sending it on another self-destructive bent before you hit the hiatus button back in… September, I think?
I think it was back in August. I was really cranking on it in the spring and the beginning of summer, but then a Lightning Bolt tour came up in August and September, and Lightning Bolt released that LP or EP or whatever you want to call it. So I had to do art and getting all the stuff together for that. I’m only now starting to get back to Puke Force. This fall, I became engulfed in all these other things. The one thing that Puke Force does not do is make any money now, because it is just a webcomic. So I’ll do it as long as I can, and then I have to go find something to make some money to pay the bills or whatever. But I miss it. [laughs] I love it, it’s so fun. When I’m drawing comics, it’s just fun for me. I love doing it. But it’s also easy to get distracted. When I come back to that comic specifically, or any comic I’ve been working on, the longer I’ve been working on it, the harder it is to get back into it, because I have to remember what the hell was going on. But that book is coming to a close. I’ve only got 20 or 30 pages before it is finished, and then it will be released as an actual book.