Rhode Island's noisiest pair return with the relative polish of new album Fantasy Empire – if only bassist Brian Gibson could stop apologising
The interview has barely even begun before Brian Gibson offers an apology, and all for the heinous crime of asking to see our questions in advance. “With certain interviews, it’s almost like I get a performance anxiety or something,” the genial bassist explains politely. “I’m better having casual conversation.” Whether down to natural candour or just straightforward politeness, he's easy to like. Several times during our Skype conversation, having answered queries thoughtfully and in depth, there's visible panic in his eyes when he fears he hasn't been sufficiently clear. He pauses and stares back at us through the prosaic gaze of the webcam. “Do you know what I mean?” he asks, worriedly. We assure him that we do. Not that clarity has ever been an issue for noise rock duo Lightning Bolt.
The reason for our conversation is Fantasy Empire, the band’s seventh album and their first to be recorded in the finery of a ‘proper’ studio, as opposed to their rather more humble practice space. It sounds enormous; a furious blend of piledriving riffs, wild drumming and incomprehensibly distorted vocals, and it’s a triumph. The differences, however, have been playing on Gibson's mind. “We were definitely worried about being too hi-fi, too polished. Both of us had seen bands we liked who’d gone to record in a fancy studio, and then the magic that was there in the beginning is just instantly destroyed. I felt a little bit like that when The Jesus Lizard went on a major label. Even though I still love all their work, the record sounded a little more pristine. I was like, ‘this isn’t the point,’ y’know?”
Naturally, both he and drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale had their reasons for the upgrade – “We felt that we might be able to make something that’s more intense than we could’ve made before, that has more energy, captures more of the intensity” – but their worries naturally stretched to how this new development would be received by long-term fans. “The studio felt way more relaxed – another dangerous thing. It was so comfortable that we were worried the music would lose its edginess.”
“Are we professionals now? That’s not what we want! Not if we're supposed to be a punk band!” – Brian Gibson
In any case, he needn’t be concerned. What their recordings have lost in sonic rawness does not detract from their brutal synaptic shock. Fantasy Empire is a fresh take on a unique formula; a chemistry between two contrasting musicians (Gibson being the steady, contemplative yin to Chippendale's tireless, manic yang) that’s managed to remain vital for 20 years.
“If I was playing with a different drummer, I think I'd play differently,” he says, musing on the intra-band relationship, “but sometimes I think if Brian played with a different bass player he might be more inclined to play drums the same way. I think we’re a little bit different in that way – he’s amazing, his drumming is awesome. We just play together, neither one of us leading. The music's just kind of emerged out of the murk.”
As with previous offerings, the murk has unleashed another collection of raucously heavy noise rock. This time, however, Gibson and Chippendale seem to reach new levels of intuition and understanding, whether exploring the outer limits of what can be wrenched from their battered instruments, or simply peeling the paint from the walls with their sheer volume. Occasionally – particularly within the throbbing currents that drive numbers like The Metal East – they even hit upon something akin to the hard rock/drone crossover that constitutes much of psych’s re-emergence in recent times. Although the 39-year-old happily talks up his krautrock-flavoured listening habits (“Harmonia, Roedelius… lately I’ve been really into Moondog”), he laughingly denies any awareness of the zeitgeist. “I never feel that tuned in. I think if I did know more about the zeitgeist then I might react negatively to it. It might sound arrogant to say that, but I get bored of things quickly – if everybody’s really into something, I naturally wanna produce something else.”
“We’ve had this thing lately where we’re trying not to have too many parts. Like, Ride the Skies and Wonderful Rainbow had a lot more going on. I remember being really influenced by this Boredoms record, Pop Tatari, and how playful it was. They would grasp onto different ideas and just change direction.” He chuckles. “And it’s funny, because now Boredoms are this super-long, repetitive psychedelic band.”
Gibson warms to his theme: “The first time I saw them was in Providence, when Lightning Bolt formed. That one show totally blew my mind and changed the way I started thinking about music. I was really into this idea of a band that’s conveying fun, excitement and joy, rather than being in a heavy band that’s angsty and angry. Boredoms really showed me that.”
This ties in nicely with something we’ve pondered after rewatching The Power of Salad & Milkshakes, the 2002 documentary that followed Lightning Bolt’s tour in support of second LP Ride the Skies. It makes for incredible viewing, capturing the sweat-drenched majesty of their live show from close up (largely thanks to the duo’s notorious policy for setting up amidst the audience rather than using the stage). During one scene, a frustrated Gibson bemoans the negativity of “Slayer-sounding stuff,” adding that darker sounds feel “played-out.” So what inspires the sense of catharsis in Lightning Bolt’s music?
“We've definitely found over the years that it’s fun to be heavy and dark; that has its own quality. Wonderful Rainbow was really playful; we wanted to try being a little more serious, so we started writing more songs that were kind of intense. I have mixed feelings about it; I think when we started doing that, we lost something really magical. But also I’m not a big fan of doing the same thing over and over.”
In that sense, has the documentary come to define what people expect from the band?
“I think so, yeah. I was kind of having a crisis during that documentary, ‘cause even though the audiences seemed pretty small at some of those shows, people had heard of us, and they were going crazy before we’d even started. We weren’t actually playing music for people; we were just fulfilling their expectations. We weren’t a shock anymore.” He stops to reflect. “I’ve embraced that a little more now. It’s actually fun for everybody.” That familiar look of concern causes his brow to furrow. “Sorry, does this sound a little cynical?”
Not at all, we insist – just the healthy perspective of maturity and experience. He nods. “It’s obvious that we’re 20 years older in a lot of ways. There’s definitely a lot of positive aspects – we communicate way better now because we know each other so well. But when we play…! Brian was amazing 20 years ago, but every day he gets a little better, and I think my bass playing gets a little better – I feel like we can do anything and it’s awesome.” A wry, self-aware grin creeps across his face. “We can’t do anything. But our options have expanded a lot. Maybe in some senses that means better music, but in other senses, it’s like, are we professionals now? That’s not what we want! Not if we're supposed to be a punk band!”
So what does he want?
“That’s a really hard question, but it’s always been to be something real in a world that’s very manufactured in one way or another. And I say that humbly, because there’s no way to avoid being a product or manufactured, but the world needs real things that feel like some sort of shared experience.”
And where does Fantasy Empire fit in with all of this?
“I’m going to paraphrase what Brian Chippendale said: ‘It’s a raging record for a raging time.’”
Got it. Crystal clear.