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.
Okay, my initial questions are done. Let me preface my next set of questions by saying that if I actually called you with my real number, you would probably ask if I lived in Cranston or something.
What, you have an area code of 401?
Oh. You use to live here? Where are you now? You said you were in California…
I grew up there, in Rhode Island.
So yeah, needless to say, I’ve been aware of some developments in Providence, so these questions are related to that. First, I want to talk about an obvious subject. Few weeks ago, peeps were all, “Hey, some club burned down in West Warwick 10 years ago, it was such a tragedy, etc. etc.” But the thing is, a lot of shit happened afterward. I heard bits and pieces here and there, but talking to Dan Deacon and a few others with some connection to what was going on, the general thing was, I get the general sense that the fire ruined Providence. It was on the way out, yes, but it was still a last nail-in-the-coffin sort of situation.
A little bit. When that happens, shortly after… I was living in this building, and there was a whole bunch of people in that building and the building next door. We all got cleaned out of there shortly after that fire. The fire marshal people went looking for anything. In one swoop, they just knocked out this huge chunk of the underground scene in Providence. I mean, Providence has a history of going up and down with its underground scene, like having a place to have shows and then just having nowhere to have shows. Or, having places like AS220, which are always really steadfast.
But there were a few years after that fire where you couldn’t do anything, really. Everyone was so scared. Then, we would feel that reflecting on things. I think we were playing in New Orleans or something, and the place had just installed a bunch of stuff because of the fire in West Warwick. The laws had trickled down to all these other cities, these new protective laws that were pretty stifling to some extent.
But the fire was insane. It’s hard to know what people are supposed to do after that. One of the craziest stories ever: Lightning Bolt played in Milwaukee, no, Minneapolis. The next morning, I woke up, and I needed drum parts, so we Google’d some stores, and there was some store at the edge of town. We drove out there, waited till it opened, maybe like 20 minutes, and this guy shows up. Probably, I dunno, 30s or 40s or something, a healthy-looking drummer guy. So we go into the store and get the stuff we need, and I gave him my credit card or something, and 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.”
Yeah, it was insane! Like we went to this store, and this was the guy. He was the drummer in that band. He was there that night, playing drums. He lived in L.A. and was a drummer-for-hire. He wasn’t even in the band; he just had a freelance contract-for-hire with them for that tour. But he was there. He was playing, and he saw some smoke, and he just got up and walked out the door right next to the stage, and was smoking a cigarette out back and really didn’t even know what was going on: That there were piles of bodies by the doorway, melting, right around the corner from him. He didn’t even know. He was all, “Oh, gotta get out of here.” So, that was pretty wild to meet him.
[He] really didn’t even know what was going on: That there were piles of bodies by the doorway, melting, right around the corner from him.
Wow. Gah, that has got to be the most random thing. Especially after what happened to you guys.
It was so random. And now it’s the 10-year anniversary, so it’s kind of in the news again. People have been talking about it a lot. It’s just a crazy story. I think there was just another fire in Brazil: 250 people died in a nightclub just two weeks ago or something. I’ve been at so many shows in so many places and thrown shows in so many places that one move could have been a huge tragedy. That’s what underground music can be, and in general nothing ever happens, and nothing will ever happen in those things. It’s life, to some extent. But I definitely think about it. Like last night, at this show I went to, it was a small show but it was packed at a friend’s building. There was a part of it where an artist lit a plastic bag on fire — which was kind of gross, but still really good, the way he was doing it — and I definitely… many years ago, I wouldn’t have thought about it. I would have just been like, “Yeeaaaaah, rad!” But last night, I definitely looked around for the exits. When that happened, just a little thing like that, it’s on my mind. I’ll still go to a weird hole in the ground with only one door and barely any lights and bad wiring and play a show. But I try to know where the exits are, if anything.
It’s an interesting point. Going back to being cleaned out though… It’s funny you say that; I remember one of those sweeps, and it made national headlines because it was… it was the following winter. There was one building that got cleaned out… I don’t remember where it was, but it was close to Eagle Square, and the timing was awful, for it was the coldest night on record in the last 30 years or something…
Yeah, that was me and our building.
It was 13 degrees all week, and they gave us three days to leave. It was January. There were maybe 60 or 70 people in these two different buildings, but they made this L-shaped complex. Yeah, it was in Olneyville, right behind Wes’ Rib House. I’m in another building now, and I can see where that was. It was so aggravating, because the building I was in, it was made of cement or concrete: Like a steel structure with concrete walls. I could not have burned that thing down, no matter how hard I tried. Yet, I was kicked out because of fire safety issues.
Yeah, it felt like they were looking for an excuse.
There was a little bit where people thought of suing the landlord or the city or something, but it just didn’t happen. And we just didn’t know what the hell was going on, and not believed in lawsuits. But it was just one of those things where you say, “Really? You really believe that kicking 60 people out in 13-degree weather is better for their safety? Do you really believe that?” [laughs] “Well, we’re definitely not going to burn to death out here on the street in 13-degree weather. I guess you’re right: You saved us from burning to death.” I mean, nobody froze to death, so they don’t have any regrets or something. But it was traumatic, and really, it sucked.
It’s the strangest thing, too, because it was one of those things from my time where I was just like I remember that specific detail. It really changed my perspective on Providence for a long time, and the thing is, a lot of people have left. Come to think, you moved to Pawtucket, if I’m not mistaken…
No, no, I’m actually still in Providence. I almost moved outside of town, and then it didn’t work out, and then I stayed. I live literally two blocks away from that same building. But I was lucky enough to find it: A lot of my roommates had rented another space around the corner, so I was lucky enough to land into that space. But I was furious. There was a book I made called Ninja that came out before If ‘n’ Oof, and there’s a whole section that I drew right around that time. I was so furious, so pissed.
Going back to people leaving Providence and all that: From what I’m hearing back and forth, you’ll hear people saying that things are getting better, and then you’ll hear someone leaving. I mean, on the one hand, I got a close friend from Troop Of Echoes who is leaving for Toronto in the coming months because they need to be in a different scene. On the other, I have heard from Father Finger and others that something is getting back together. Do you think things are starting to get better now?
Since that eviction in 2004, there have been some places that have been pretty fun. But there was about a year and a half that ended about a year ago — so maybe 2009-10 or 2010-11 — where there was another heyday. It was actually in this building that I am in now. The whole second floor opened up: The landlord, who’s been trying to sell the building, started renting to all these kids on a whim. It was a solid year of totally amazing shows and stuff again. It was a big venue, with people playing at all these different spaces downstairs, and it got really crazy. It really felt like another Providence heyday, and that was awesome. It felt really strong. But then that whole floor got shut down, and everyone was kicked out again. That was in November 2011.
But I think that because that was there for a while, it strengthened the community again. So, it has. It’s busy here; there is a lot of stuff going on. There’s been shows every night, almost all this week. And there is a bit of an identity in some of the music; there is a scene. Then again, just this week, I heard some people leaving. But there’s always people coming too, so it’s hard to gauge. I still believe that some key players are still here. Some new really interesting people have moved here too, so it’s… I dunno, it stays relevant to its own history. It’s still an interesting place. But there were definitely some dark times in the mid-2000s. It felt pretty dire.
You’re right in that people come and go. There’s people like Father Finger, and then there are your contemporaries, like the Copelands, and Hisham [Bharoocha], who I think is still in New York. Got married last year, even.
Yeah, yeah. He’s totally still in New York.
Which brings me to my final question; with that creative vibe still in place, is that the reason why you stay?
I think it is. I know I am definitely a creature of habit. The situation I have now is amazing: I have this huge space, it’s really cheap. It’s always threatened on some level: The building did recently sell, and it’s gonna get gentrified or updated or something, and I won’t be able to exist the way I do, which right now means being able to play drums for 24 hours a day and not bug a soul, which is awesome. I have a room for every activity: I have a room where I do drawings, and I have a room where I play drums, and I have a room where I have shit scattered around and I make collages and stuff like that. Of course, half the building leaks all this water through the roof when it rains. For me, Providence still has these spaces that are affordable, and you can still find them for the most part, and you can spread your wings a little bit. In a lot of other cities, you’re just paying a lot more for a lot less in terms of space. So the town for me offers enough where there’s stuff to do, if you want to do it, but it doesn’t smother you or starve you. It’s a good, small city.
Then there are some really good artists here, and it’s nice company: You can go and find someone to talk to about what you’re doing or look at something inspiring if you need to. There is not a ton of stuff; it’s definitely small, you can get tired of seeing the same group of people that you always see or something. But if you can amuse yourself, and you have a lot of energy to make stuff, it’s a good place to be. I’m happy here. But I may leave someday, too, because I have been here a long time. I dunno, it’s a big world.
It’s weird, because now I’m starting to think of leaving the Bay Area because it’s starting to lose its luster. In our situation, it’s basically a lot of people from Silicon Valley who want to turn San Francisco into a bedroom community, as it were.
And they’re kind of having a second boom, too, aren’t they? So there’s just a lot of shit that the city is dealing with for being a tech playground.
…And you see all these unmarked white buses, and you wonder whether it’s Google or Apple dropping off some of its employees.
[laughs] You know, you want to see success, you want to see companies have financial success in your area that are unrelated to you, but you’re like, “Hey, we’re all in the same city. If you’re doing good, that’s awesome.” You want to feel that. But a lot of times, still, it’s like the housing boom and bust. You hear people that say, “Oh, it’s so horrible, the market crashed, and everyone’s leaving their houses, and house prices are falling,” and it’s this great American tragedy. But I’m on the other side of being like, “Oh wow, maybe some day I’ll be afford a house soon, then.” But it’s just weird that there isn’t just this simple way of looking at the economy of American cities. There’s always at least two sides of the coin. Someone else’s success, even unrelated, can complete result in your own failure because, yeah, you get pushed out or just something happens. It’s not that simple.
… It’s funny with Providence. As a person who’s still here, it’s sort of like, when someone leaves, you’re like, “Noooo! We need you!” We need everybody to stay, because it’s such a small community. At the same time, you gotta leave. You gotta go to places and see things and live in other places.