Lightning Bolt discuss Fantasy Empire, the challenges of recording digital in a proper studio, urban life sounds, comic books and video games
Defying category and even personal identification with the use of masks on stage, Providence, RI avant-garde duo Lighting Bolt has built a formidable reputation as a live act, frequently setting up in the middle of the audience and creating a mesmerising sonic mayhem hard to equal.
After two-decades of DIY recording, which didn’t always match their sense of spectacle and mind-blowing energy, drummer-vocalist Brian Chippendale and bassist Brian Gibson finally gave in to hi-fi recording equipment. The result, Fantasy Empire, their sixth album which came out in March, showcases a wall of noise that though clearer and more refined, sounds even more brutal and beautifully unsettling.
I met Chippendale and Gibson in a lovely pub in London’s Kentish Town to chat about the challenges of recording digital in a proper studio, urban life sounds, comic books and video games.
Fantasy Empire is your first album recorded in a proper studio, the famous Machines With Magnets, and entirely digitally? What were the challenges and what were the advantages of this new approach?
CHIPPENDALE: I think the biggest challenge was actually making a change and coming to the conclusion that we should record in the studio, which we had been avoiding for a long time, as we usually record in the warehouse where we also write and practice. But once we were in the studio it was actually all advantages: we could separate the instruments in a way we hadn’t been able to do before, we had easy access to editing, doing overdubs and so on. The only negative thing of a studio is probably the separation you hear, because we are used to recording everything live as if we were on stage and that way our performance is 100% and natural, but when you are in a studio and you have your headphones on, that can partially goes away, sacrificing a little of the performance for control of the quality, which was something I wasn’t interested in before. I think by now we are a pretty solid band and we play very good in all sort of situations, so even if this time the performance was a bit sacrificed, it didn’t take away the energy from the record, and I am happy with the performance we came up with in the studio.
As you are a much live-oriented band, how important were the touring and the shows in the creation of this record?
CHIPPENDALE: Usually we tour with some new material and give the songs a shape on the road, then we go into recording to follow that trough. This time we toured and recorded around half of the album first, then stepped away, toured again and then went back into the studio. One of the bad things about touring is that things can get very fast, sometimes I as a drummer start playing faster and faster, so we have to allow ourselves to get almost a little worse for some of the songs to slow them down. But this time, rather than going to the studio right after the tour and recording everything probably too fast and really wild, we tried to make it a little more refined and mellow, though most people wouldn’t probably tell.
And thematically, was there anything new that inspired you?
CHIPPENDALE: Not, really. So far our records have been a collection of songs written in different times, documenting the moments when they were created. Our songs are pretty much based around sounds and the feelings we are feeling that day, so we actually don’t attach a whole lot of concept, a specific literal meaning. I might do that with some song titles, and some lyrics too, but that is always secondary to the music.
GIBSON: With all our previous albums, like Wonderful Rainbow, Hypermagic Mountain, Earthly Delights, we hadn’t had as much control in the post processing, and we hadn’t chosen how they sounded after the recording, we had just made choices beforehand and gone with the results. This time we had to deal with the fact that we could change things afterwards, and sonically, that made a little shift to the way we came across. So, though not thematically, there was a big difference, as we made a lot of choices afterwards instead of before. Before we just made the choices that could give us the freedom to make changes afterwards, which was almost annoying as it’s funnier not to make a choice on how you want a record to sound and just deal with the consequences.
CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, that was our old style, but now we are trying to be mature adults and make executive decisions. That is a difference in the process though, as the themes and the concepts were very similar.
This is your first record with Thrill Jockey. I know it might still be too soon, but how would you describe your relationship with them in comparison with the one you had with Load?
GIBSON: Load is based in Providence, where we are also from, and Ben [McOsker] and Laura [Mullen] are close friends of ours, so working with them was very intimate and comfortable, we could just go over their house, order a pizza and talk about what was going on with the record. But as Ben and Laura had a child and were therefore busy with personal stuff, we all agreed that it was a good time to try something else, and Thrill Jokey was just a natural place to go because they did the Black Pus records with Brian [Chippendale]. I am still getting to know them, but they surely know how to do the business and are way more professional. Ben and Laura are amazing, but Thrill Jockey is another level.
CHIPPENDALE: They are not so much of a jump, it still feels like a family affair, as Thrill Jokey is a small enough enterprise where you can actually know everybody that works there and what everyone is doing. They really don’t make any demands on the music, it is entirely up to us. We basically handed them the record and asked them if they were interested in releasing it, so in a way it’s still very similar and it’s still up to us whatever we want to do. I don’t think these days there are still labels that demand certain things from artists, or at least we have definitely never dealt with any and I don’t know any people that have dealt with any either.
Are there ever sounds you hear in nature or elsewhere that you’d like to incorporate into a song?
GIBSON: Lately I have been aware of drones that I hear around me and how ominous they sound. For instance in the hotel where we stayed last night, we turned on the bathroom light and it made this horrible, low drone that you could hear from a distance. I am not inspired by this type of stuff, but I have been aware of how many dystopian drones there are in urban life, frightening sounds people don’t even care about, but that probably affect their lives.
CHIPPENDALE: In the warehouse where we practiced and recorded our last two albums before this one, the engineer would joke about a big power transformer outside of our studio that was making this weird “om” sound, saying that the whole record was going to be in that key, and maybe it did actually affect the scales the songs were written in. Vocally, I have always been interested in animal sounds, which sometimes can be better than human beings, because there is something more musical about it. But for Lighting Bolt I am not interested in super primal, instinctual music, as it’s weird to deliver a written language over that kind of music, though sometimes I think I should work more with vocal sounds.
GIBSON: I have steam heating in my house, and one of the radiators makes a noise that sounds like John Coltrane at his best…
CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, radiators are the best, the one in our warehouse makes this smashing sound that you can hear from a distance. We actually used to have more conversations about this stuff, but then as a band we got caught up in the world of our instruments, it’s getting a bit more interior, whereas it used to be a bit more drawing from the exterior.
GIBSON: We just announced we are going to release it on Playstation4 and Steam in Spring 2016. We have been slowly releasing some trailers and building the expectation, it is very exciting. It is a game I have been working on for five years, with a programmer friend of mine who is in Korea. We are calling it a rhythm violence game. There is this beetle zooming down a path, in this psychedelic, dystopian, terrifying, cosmic landscape, and there will be obstacles you will encounter, and you will have to perform an action to survive them. It is very physical as you bang against things. It has got the mechanics of a music game, but it doesn’t feel like one. There is a genre of rhythm games that do this kind of things, but this one has more physical sounds. In a way it is also a classic driving game with endless highways and stuff.
Chippendale, you are an accomplished comic artist and illustrator. What is the relationship between your visual works and your music? Do you think in a way they complement each other?
CHIPPENDALE: It is a bit of a different muscle. Playing the drums is very physical, it unleashes chemicals in your brain that sitting and drawing don’t do. Playing music to me is like going to a venue and getting lost, as I get to a point when I don’t think and am just fully engaged in that process, and in a way drawing is the same thing, but there are differences once you get going. Comics are very narrative, they have stories and jokes that try to get across very literally, whereas music is more abstract. They are two different ways to translate the same energy, but with comics there are more options for what you want to communicate.
You have also created the album art for all Lightning Bolt releases. What do you think the artwork can actually add to the aesthetic of the music?
CHIPPENDALE: When I make the artwork of a record, it is mainly for myself and the few people I know that still buy vinyls. But that artwork does get around and does get attached to your music, so it is still important. Maybe not for the kids that listen to music on Spotify, but for the people who still buy records the artwork gives an extra experience. Also, it is funny as most people will know the record and the cover, but not the back cover and the interior artwork, which to me should all integrate together. All our records have always been super bright and colourful-looking, almost to show the kind of zaniness of us, but for Fantasy Empire, I tried to change the mood a little and create a sort of dark vibe, putting a limited palette of more sober, darker colours, to make people think that it is all more serious than they think it was and give it a different association. I don’t want to say that there wasn’t an actual change so we had to do a bunch of aesthetic changes instead, but maybe it is actually a little bit of that.
What is your biggest regret?
CHIPPENDALE: We have no regrets. I don’t think we have made the biggest mistake of our music life yet.
GIBSON: I have all kinds of things I wish I have done. For instance I made a lot of solo stuff that I have never released, and also projects I have worked on, but never really pursued. Lighting Bolt have been going on for a long time and it has been super rewarding, but it’d be interesting to explore other stuff properly too.
CHIPPENDALE: I just regret there aren’t fifty hours in a day so that I can get twice as much. There is so much more music I want to make, but you can only do so much and that is the frustrating part. For instance for every record we have made we have scrapped two other full records.
And do you usually go back to old material you left unfinished?
CHIPPENDALE: Not so much, as we are also constantly creating new stuff too, so there is always newer material to go back to and go forward. We have made a whole lot of music that is on practice tapes on my wall. Sometimes what ends up in a studio is not necessarily the best music you have ever created, it is just the best recording you have ever created.
GIBSON: We have certain kinds of records that we have wanted to make for a long time, but for some reason they have never been the priority. For instance I tend to improvise psychedelic music, but we have never done an album like that. We’ve also talked about doing a dance record, having us remixing things and rearranging them.
CHIPPENDALE: We function very well when we play together as we are very even-grounded, but sometimes we have an issue in the studio, because after doing each our own job, producing things, when we start editing, mixing and doing weird things in the studio, suddenly one of us takes more control than the other person by the nature of enthusiasm. We have even talked about making a record, then Brian [Gibson] makes his own version and I make mine, and then we release them both.
"Fantasy Empire" is out now via Thrill Jockey
Originally published on The 405