Lightning Bolt “I don’t know where those people are anymore.”

Throughout 20 years of touring and spreading ear damage and sweat cleanses and acid cheer to people in basements (and now on stages — what sellouts!), Lightning Bolt have remained a consistent, singular force. Their whirlwind aesthetic continues with a fifth album, Fantasy Empire, the duo’s debut for Thrill Jockey, and I was lucky enough to interview bassist Brian Gibson. Live, he’s the calm eye of the hurricane to drummer Brian Chippendale’s masked mania, but no less of an intimidating sonic presence.

I caught Gibson at Harmonix, where he’s worked as a lead artist for some time now. It’s an interesting moment for me — Lightning Bolt’s been an influence on me since high school, ever since the squeal-blast of “Assassins” opened the gate for a world of weird and impossible new sounds I would soon discover. Similarly, I found myself excited over the prospect of a new Amplitude, a game that was probably just as influential in putting music into my life, which he tells me Harmonix is developing. But he’s not working on that, he says.

“I’ve been focused on my video game [Thumper] the past few years,” he tells me. “That’s the thing I’m most excited about after this record comes out.” It’s what he calls a “rhythm violence” game; it has you navigate a beetle along a thin track through a hyperactive blast of neon colors and spastic sound objects. While he’s telling me this, it occurs to me that “rhythm violence” is a pretty good descriptor for Lightning Bolt too. I spoke to Gibson about the new record, the old tours, and the role of spontaneity.

How many years has the new record been in production?

I guess like five. It’s been a really long time. We really took our time with this one.

What kind of challenges did you face when recording it?

Well we tried initially recording it using some of the old techniques that we had used on our past records, but we we weren’t feeling very satisfied with the way it was sounding. It just wasn’t sounding new enough to us. The songs had changed in a certain way, and it didn’t feel like the next step, so we made the decision to go into a studio, which for us is a bold decision.

How would you describe the new sound?

It’s clear. You can hear more detail. It sounds like everything is closer to you, like you’re right up at the front row.

Would you say this is a darker album than previous efforts? I noticed this is the first record not to use a “nature” theme in the name.

I think we have been dark for the past two records. Earthly Delights seemed like a really dark record to me. This one is kind of dark too. But I’d have to think about that. I don’t think of it as dark, it’s kind of in the middle somewhere. Wonderful Rainbow and Ride The Skies were pretty upbeat and joyful, so compared to those records we’re not quite there, but this one I don’t think is as dark as Earthly Delights. There’s a lot of different moods throughout the record.

Are there any specific focuses in the lyrics? Any themes?

There’s musical themes. Our songs have a sort of structure that’s conceptual.

There are people who would like to see us do something super-weird. I feel like a lot of people would be like, “Oh this is the real Lightning Bolt! They’re being playful.” But no. That’s not the attitude we have. That’s not how we do it.

But nothing as directly political as, say, “Dead Cowboy”?

Well Brian [Chippendale], I think would be better to speak on the politics of the lyrics. I tend to formulate my own opinion about what he’s singing, and I’m sure everybody does.

Of course. You can’t quite make it out, so you kind of make your own interpretation.

I think that’s probably the way he likes it. Every once in a while, I can tell, he’s got a little message that he’s trying to say, but I don’t bug him about it too much.

So how did recording this at Machines With Magnets come about?

We’re good friends with those guys. We had talked about recording with them in the past, and we knew they wanted to record with us. It went really well; Keith and Seth are fun guys to hang out with and fun to work with. Seth is a wizard on Pro Tools. Everything went so smoothly.

What was the easiest part of working within the new studio?

Well our typical recording process was very live. Dave Auchenbach, who engineered our other records, would basically be mixing while we were playing, and changing mics between every take. Every take we would do would be an experiment. Sometimes we would play a take well but the setup — he’d literally be turning knobs on things that were going into the recording device, changing the way the record was being captured in real time. He’d do things like put a delay pedal over the whole mix while we were playing, and all that stuff had the potential to be awesome. We had some amazing moments when we recorded with him, but at the same time, it could be frustrating cause we’d have to do a lot of takes before we’d find that magic moment. Sometimes we’d have a great performance but something else about the arrangement wasn’t working, or we’d have an amazing sounding recording, but we didn’t play the song very well. With Machines With Magnets, you could basically guarantee the recording was going to sound good.

We actually played a show at Kerrville, Texas, at a Church’s Chicken on a stage in the middle of a strip mall. I remember this one old man… watched us. And after we were done he said to us, ‘You guys are like Jimi Hendrix! You’re gonna be famous!’ Which was cool. It was mystical like that. We had interactions with weird people.

Do you feel like something might be lost in removing that element of spontaneity?

Yeah there’s something lost. But I feel like we have so many records of that, that I’m not worried about losing it. There’s something lost when you don’t go into the studio and record the songs exactly the way you want, which is what we did on this record.

Have there ever been any efforts to catalog your live performances?

Brian has done a great job of cataloging our practices. He has [a] literal mountains of cassette tapes of our practices. We talk about digging into that stuff and releasing things, but it’s a lot of work to go through. It’s twenty years of material. So much stuff. And when we practice 75-90% of the time we’re improvising. It’s a lot of craziness. Days and days of recordings.

Is that how you find inspiration, through improvisation?

Yes. That’s kind of the only way. We get together and we improvise and record it, and then listen back and talk about what we both liked and try and play it again, and arrange structures around that.

How did signing to Thrill Jockey work out?

Brian had been working with them with Black Pus and had a good experience, and we made a decision to start working with them. We love Load, and they’d been really good to us — they live in Providence and are good friends of ours — but Ben and Laura, it’s a husband and wife working together, and they have a kid now, and jobs, and I think Lightning Bolt was a lot for them, so we figured we would try something else.

Do you feel like the crowds you are playing to have changed over the years at all?

Well, I’ve changed, so it feels like the audience has changed. Really it’s that I’ve just gotten older. [laughs]

Are you surprised by how long Lightning Bolt has been a band? Have you ever come close to breaking up the group?

In the early days, I was losing money, mainly because I was using cheap equipment, and I was turning it up all the time, and blowing it up over and over again. My amps would fry and my speakers would blow — like once a month I would be spending like $200-300 to replace a speaker. And this was back right when I graduated from college and was working coffee shops and wasn’t making any money. There was a point where I actually quit Lightning Bolt because I was broke and having a stressful experience, and Chippendale was kind of mad because I couldn’t get it together — there was a point in 2000 where I just completely quit and moved to New York. But then I got sick of New York pretty quickly. But when I moved, I saved up around $10,000 doing film PA jobs and painting murals, and I was like, “I’m just gonna buy some really nice stuff and go back to Providence and play in that band.” So I moved back and spent a huge amount on really nice equipment, and then we went on tour. Then we recorded Ride the Skies and things started to go really well for us.

So what’s changed about touring over the years? What have you learned from your experiences?

Touring is really exhausting. We’ve both gotten better at taking good care of ourselves on tour. Brian [Chippendale] gets to play drums every night so he stays in shape but I’m just sitting in a van all day, so I’ll get really out of shape on tour. I have to actively exercise, go on runs, do things to stay healthy. We try to eat well, get good sleep — if there are no good options for sleeping we’ll find a motel or something and get our own rooms.

So no more sleeping on floors then?

We’ll do that if we know we’ll get rest. In the old days there’d be situations where, you know, a lot of people think when you’re on tour that you want to hang out and party all night, and I don’t think we’d survive if we did that. I think you have to really be conscious of taking care of yourself if you’re going to make it through. It’s just brutal, physically.

What was the toughest tour you’ve been on?

Our first tour in ‘97 was really magical but really difficult, cause we lost a ton of money on it. We were playing some shows with five people in the audience. We actually played a show at Kerrville, Texas at a Church’s Chicken on a stage in the middle of a strip mall. I remember this one old man drove up into the parking lot where we were playing, and sat on his car and watched us. And after we were done he said to us, “You guys are like Jimi Hendrix! You’re gonna be famous!” Which was cool. It was mystical like that. We had interactions with weird people.

There was a point where I actually quit Lightning Bolt because I was broke and having a stressful experience, and Chippendale was kind of mad because I couldn’t get it together.

Are there any places you don’t play as much that you’d like to play again?

There’s all kinds of basements and attics and weird little hidden places where weirdos lived that we would play that we don’t do as much any more. I don’t know where those people are anymore.

You think it’s less mysterious now?

Yeah. I mean, playing in a little house in Lubbock, Texas, or in someone’s basement, or on stage at a strip mall, or under a bridge somewhere…I mean, we sometimes will do unique settings for our shows but we definitely don’t play for groups of people who have no idea who we are, and didn’t know what to expect and were completely baffled by what they saw. In the beginning that was every show. Every show was completely new to people, and completely new to us.

But some people are still seeing you for the first time, and that is eye-opening.

Yeah, and that does happen still. But for that one person having that experience, there’s 20 people around them that aren’t; that are freaking out because they have have seen us before and have seen the DVD and have it in their heads how it’s going to go, so the whole show loses a little of that spontaneous feeling.

Is there a pressure to a deliver a certain experience at this point? Do you feel locked into obligations?

Definitely. And it’s not a terrible thing. The shows used to be about really shocking people with something completely unexpected and now it’s more that people are interested in what we’re doing, and we want to give them a chance to see it firsthand. You know, if we showed up and started playing with maracas and screamed or did something kinda abstract and crappy… I don’t know, if we try to challenge and surprise people too much I think there’d be a lot of disappointment.

It’d definitely shock them.

Yeah. And it’d be fun to do that, but I think the prevailing feeling would be disappointment. I don’t like that that’s how I feel. I think it would be cool to be super-challenging, and there are people who would like to see us do something super-weird. I feel like a lot of people would be like, “Oh this is the real Lightning Bolt! They’re being playful.” But no. That’s not the attitude we have. That’s not how we do it.

When you play on stage, the dynamic between you and Chippendale, where he’s out of control and you’re calm and collected, is that a conscious thing?

It kind of evolved. It was a little bit of me carving out my own contrasting space in the performance. I don’t know why. Because he’s going so crazy, it never felt right to try and compete with that. Let him be the visual craziness, and just focus on what I’m doing. I don’t know. It just feels right to me. It makes sense to me.

Do you have any other personal projects in the future? Any new Megasus records?

I’ve been playing with Ryan (Lesser) from Megasus. We have this record we’ve been sitting on for years that we’ve both been too busy to do anything with.

Is there anything happening in Providence right now that we should know about?

Russian Tsarlag. He’s a performer in Providence. It’s just always really interesting to see him play. He takes on this sort of character and puts on this mood that I think is really nice.

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