Avant-garde hardcore duo Lightning Bolt may be the heaviest thing ever to come out of Rhode Island. Technically precise, unwaveringly experimental and deafeningly loud, their shows are known for blowing the minds (and eardrums) of headbangers and jazzbos alike.
Drummer Brian Chippendale speaks via telephone from a friend’s house — since he’s currently homeless. For someone just evicted, he’s surprisingly upbeat. His voice has an air of affable bemusement, whether he’s talking about costume design, comic books or the eviction that saw him and others kicked out of a warehouse they called home.
“We had some surprise visits from building inspectors,” he says, chuckling, “and the whole area was condemned.”
He and many others from Rhode Island School of Design began migrating to abandoned industrial zones in 1995, creating an underground community complete with galleries and enough stages for several bands to play simultaneously. Experimental noise projects such as Black Dice emerged from one such community, dubbed Fort Thunder, before it was demolished. Helping out in the creation of these spaces, Chippendale has lived and performed in many of them.
While the denizens of these communities lack money and love brain-boiling volume, there’s little else that characterizes them — unless you count “a lot of knitting,” says Chippendale. Most warehouse residents were design majors, he explains, so design and music merged: The band Forcefield performed at New York’s Whitney Museum in cartoonish animal outfits; Lightning Bolt’s bassist, Brian Gibson, started a costume-clad blues band called Barkley’s Barnyard Critters; and there was a puppet rap band called Wak Attack.
Chippendale works a lot with clothing and costumes, but only one mask appears in his own performances. “The bassist used to wear a mask too, [when we] were more like that,” he recalls, “but now I just wear it because it holds the microphone.’
Microphones hardly seem necessary, since most Lightning Bolt material is instrumental. Loud, abrasive and unstructured, the duo’s output lies somewhere between speed metal and free jazz. Gibson’s bass sounds at times like a steroid-addled King Crimson and, at others, like a rabid gorilla banging out Slayer riffs. Chippendale’s drumming has the bombastic precision of Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, yet encapsulates the exploratory spirit of drummers like Billy Higgins and the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Robert Barry.
“The jazz influence came much later,” he admits, “I was into playing that way, and then someone was like ‘Hey, you play like this kind of stuff. You should listen to this.’ ” He now owns 12 Sun Ra albums.
As a noisy drum/bass duo, Lightning Bolt are frequently compared to Ruins, the Japanese art-punk duo. Chippendale, however, questions the comparison: “[Ruins’ Tatsuya] Yoshida was one of my favorite drummers, but I think we have gone in completely different directions.” He pauses, then adds, “Perhaps. Well, both bands could share the same theme — if one is filtered through math class and the other is through gym class.”
And which is Lightning Bolt? “Oh, we’re the gym class.”
Chippendale says you don’t have to be stoned or angry to appreciate their throbbing walls of noise. “I’m pretty adamant about [living sober],” he says, adding he doesn’t preach about it. “For me, I’m just health-conscious, and I kind of like for my mind to have some level of control, I guess.”
Control isn’t a word that comes to mind at Lightning Bolt performances. Eschewing the stage, they set up on the floor, their amps stacked to dangerous heights. Gibson plays both ends of the frets simultaneously, at levels of distortion so twisted it sounds like power drills, sea gulls and jet engines all blaring at once.
Sonic Youth were so taken with Lightning Bolt’s show that they invited them to close several recent gigs, as well as to the next All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England. But for now, Chippendale is focused on the upcoming Japan tour, their second here.
“The clubs over there are great,” he says enthusiastically. “Once someone explains what we do, they are 100 percent supportive.”
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