Lightning Bolt // Interview

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It’s high time Rhode Islands’ sonic titans Lightning Bolt returned with their phenomenal cacophony of noise rock. It’s been too long since our stereos quivered, walls shook and neighbours complained. Sorry, neighbours. Fantasy Empire, their sixth album, is a razor sharp outing; clear, loud and proud. Six years has not mellowed the two piece. Drummer Brian Chippendale was as energized and enthused as ever when I caught up with him ahead of their new release…

Known, loved, revered for cluster fuzz riffs and metal dirges, the band’s new album is a turnt for the books. A much crisper, cleaner articulated sound has come about from their submission to digital technology for the very first time.

“Change is good,” explains Chippendale who, despite being incredibly fond of longtime collaborator Dave Auchenbach’s magical kit of recording equipment, felt that the band had exhausted their mad-fi methodologies: “It was almost like we’d travelled down the road and we’d come to the end of it, like what we could get out of that equipment. The old stuff was recorded to tape and the last couple of records were recorded to weird archaic devices like DAT machines, just weird stuff that we probably shouldn’t have been using. So this time we went in to a studio and used the studio to our best advantage.”

Benefits of a studio might seem obvious but when it comes to this archivist of sound (Chippendale’s warehouse and studio space are something of a museum, with twenty years of equipment housed alongside recordings of live performances and rehearsals catalogued on cassette tapes) going digital seems somewhat out of character.

It was almost like we’d travelled down the road and we’d come to the end of it.

“There were drawbacks to the way we were doing things before. We weren’t getting any separation of our instruments, and you’d make a little mistake and we couldn’t really do an overdub because there was so much bleed-through. So instead of playing one song twenty times because one little snare hit was out of whack, let’s just go in to a studio and do separation and try something different.” His bass-wielding partner in crime Brian Gibson has embraced this new way of working and reaped the rewards. Digital Lightning Bolt is here to stay: “Yeah we’re into it,” Chippendale laughs. “Especially Gibson. He’s always wrestled with how he wants his bass to sound. He’s a very detail orientated person so he’s really getting in to that stuff. It’s given him a doorway into the process where it used to be a little more opaque, so it’s been rejuvenating. We’re excited.”

You will still very much need those earplugs at their live shows, but expect to find the duo up on the stage these days. Their heyday of playing gigs on the floor, surrounded by a heaving, pulsing mass of bodies has passed. Why did the band start their famed guerilla tactics of playing anywhere but where was expected of them?

“The biggest intention was an immediacy thing. Like how can you make an impact on a viewer or a listener? We did the obvious thing. You don’t set up and wait for the audience to come to you; you go across the room and set up where they are and you just play. It was just getting rid of that gap. In the early days there were so few people and then for a long time a very comfortable amount of people at the shows, so you could really get in there.” We could blame health and safety laws, an increase in the popularity of the band or just audience members being jerks for this change up to a higher ground, either way,it was time. Do they miss those days?

“Well it’s still something that we wrestle with, like how to proceed with a show. There’s something about playing on the floor when you’re playing a small place.It’s not necessarily an element of danger, it’s just like a real rush and it’s just so personal.”

I ask Chippendale if he can recall any particularly intense shows.

“Sure, there’s one that stands out.We played at the Knitting Factory in LA, ten years ago, and that show ended with all our drums gone except for a kick drum and a snare drum. There was a kid wrapped around the stand of the snare drum holding it and there was a bunch of kids piled over the bass drum. I’m usually out from the speakers a little way, but I’d been pushed back so that my back was schmooshed up against the speakers. In memory it was just a sea of writhing bodies. I was hitting the snare and I could just see the kids heads like they were just everywhere. And that one ended with Gibson playing bass, but somebody ripped out the cable going in to his bass and when they pulled that – all the wires from the inside came out with it.I feel like since we’ve switched it up and play on the stage there’s been a little less of the total destruction.” I suggest that destruction can’t go on forever. “It can, and it can’t” he laughs “I don’t know. It can go on for a long time.”

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Fantasy Empire is released March 23rd via Thrill Jockey.

Listen to the album now on NPR