Onstage, Lightning Bolt’s bassist Brian Gibson and drummer Brian Chippendale live up to the electricity their name implies. Their raging performances seem like an unstoppable natural force and audience participation is part of the show. While playing, Chippendale wears a colorful mask that contains his vocal mic. Photo by Nick Sayers
Lightning Bolt, a bass-and-drums duo from Providence, Rhode Island, is known for their unhinged live shows. They made their name performing in the pit, on the floor, and amidst the mayhem. They stand, along with their mountains of gear, in the middle of the crowd, surrounded by a “front row” locked arm-in-arm. Their shows are visceral and loud. They’re sweaty, and they can get gross, too. But there’s also a camaraderie and family feeling in the trenches—as if everyone is integral to the success of the performance. In recent years, the band has migrated onto the stage, but that all-for-one-and-one-for-all vibe still permeates their concerts.
Lightning Bolt is drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale and bassist Brian Gibson. The duo started in the mid ’90s when they were students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). They spent most of that decade gigging around town and defining their sound, but it wasn’t until their 2001 release, Ride the Skies, followed in 2003 by their epic, Wonderful Rainbow, that the band really started to take off.
Gibson holds down the bass chair, but also handles the frequencies usually played by a guitarist or keys. He does that with a mutant 5-string bass: three bass strings plus two banjo strings tuned up an octave on the instrument’s high end. That, plus various overdrives, an unusual whammy-octave pedal pairing, an inordinate number of speakers, and thousands of watts of power, help him cover a large swath of sonic real estate.
Lightning Bolt’s most recent release, Sonic Citadel, follows in the footsteps of their 2015 offering, Fantasy Empire. The band, known as much for their untethered improvisation as their exacting arrangements, experimented on that previous outing with doubling parts, overdubbing, and other forms of studio trickery, expanding their sound well beyond their proven live-on-the-floor aesthetic.
Sonic Citadel expands on that methodology. Some songs, like “USA Is a Psycho” and “Air Conditioning,” are aggressive but structured, with definite sections. They’re built around Gibson’s gnarly bass parts that jump between registers and give the illusion there are more musicians at work. Part punk, part prog, the songs are edgy blasts of adrenaline and noise. But the album has a quieter side as well. “Don Henley in the Park” is a pastiche of subtle arpeggios and delays that were improvised in the studio and reorganized in post-production.
“All our records have some quieter pretty things,” Gibson says in reference to “Don Henley.” “But recording at Machines with Magnets [a studio in Pawtucket, Rhode Island], we had the ability to copy and paste sections and edit in a way that we couldn’t before. We knew the record needed a dynamic shift to something softer and more beautiful. We jammed for a little while. There might have been a section that went on too long that we cut shorter, and then an ending part that we stuck on. It also might not have been the exact sequence that we played. Plus, all of those parts were improvised.”
We caught up with Gibson on the phone from Providence to explore the band’s history, his unconventional approach to stringing and tuning his instrument, the trials and tribulations of setting up in the middle of a moshing crowd, and the long and painful saga of his ever-growing, ever-evolving rig.
When did you start playing bass?
My grandfather got me a bass guitar when I was a sophomore in high school. He asked me and my brother what we wanted to play. My parents had got me a trumpet when I was little and my mom also wanted me to play piano. I never really got that into them, and I think my grandfather understood that I would be into music if it was something a little more cool.
Tidbit: Lightning Bolt recorded Sonic Citadel at Machines with Magnets, a studio in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where they also cut their previous album, Fantasy Empire. It was here the duo began exploring digital editing and layering techniques, in contrast to their earlier live-on-the-floor approach.
Did you take lessons or learn off records?
At the time, I was listening to the Who a lot and I was trying to play along. Back then, I didn’t think of John Entwistle as the greatest bass player or anything, but I really liked the Who. Only now I realize how revered he was. That band influenced me a lot, just because they have so much energy and it’s so wild. A lot of John Entwistle’s playing isn’t following rules. It’s noodling around, and I started off playing bass like it was a lead instrument, which I think came from that.
What was your gateway into more experimental or improvisatory music?
That was just going to RISD. That environment had a lot of creative people. Everyone was trying to outdo each other with how weird they were and how unique they could play their instruments. Everybody had their own identity. I was really into the ways that people there played instruments.
You were more influenced by local players than bigger names?
In my freshman year at RISD, Boredoms [an experimental noise-rock band from Osaka, Japan] came. They played in Providence and a bunch of people from RISD went to that show. I think everybody just completely had their minds blown. That show was a huge turning point for me. The big takeaway was that music can be anything you want it to be. It doesn’t have to fit into any category. I got really excited about the idea of starting a band that just does its own kind of music.
When did you start Lightning Bolt?
We started playing around ’94, and it was just done with pure noise. Brian was a pretty amazing drummer and he was playing these tribal beats—more straight. He was on the toms all the time. He was so loud and I just had this little 15" speaker, I couldn’t hear myself over him very well. I was just physically hitting the strings on my bass with my fist and trying to make the loudest rumble possible while he was creating this rumbling tribal rhythm. It sounded like thunder. That’s not exactly why we named ourselves Lightning Bolt, but it was pretty fun. We had a period in the beginning where we were playing with a singer, this guy, Hisham [Bharoocha], and we recorded a little bit of that stuff. I listened to it five years ago. Those recordings are kind of lost, but when I heard the recordings … I remembered it sounding like a rumble, but it actually sounded kind of grungy and ’90s in this weird way.
Because of the types of riffs you were playing?
There’s a little bit of a funkiness to the feel—how Brian is playing drums and the way I was playing bass. I was banging on the strings, but it was kind of like this slap bass, almost. Back then that made more sense to me. Now when I picture that, it sounds dated.
When did you add the banjo string?
The banjo string probably came around ’97, a few years after we started. The bass by itself, to me, sounds a little gray and dull. When Brian and I started playing as a two-piece, when we listened back to the recordings, it just needed that dynamic range. I wanted to hear really high notes, just to break up that sludginess. It is the role that a guitar has in a band, and because it was just bass and drums, that’s why I added the banjo string. I’d also seen Melt-Banana and I remember really liking how high that guitarist’s sound would go. He would play these super high notes with a slide. It might have been seeing them also that made me think, “I want to be able to do that. I want to be able to go up high.”
Do you also use a slide now to get those notes?
No. I use a Whammy pedal to get an extra octave higher. I used a battery for a while, just while we were practicing, and I got into doing some slide stuff, but it was almost more trouble than it was worth. In the context of a show, I don’t like the idea of having to put a slide on and start using a slide and take it off. Having gear for different parts of songs … that just seemed kind of annoying.
Did you add the 5th string for the same reason?
Yeah. Actually, the one string is almost enough, because it doesn’t sound great if I play chords with the two banjo strings, but it adds a little extra to have two. At some point, I needed to replace my bass and I thought that I’d get a 5-string and try two banjo strings. But it wasn’t a huge bonus. I think one high string is enough.
Why a banjo string and not a guitar string?
Just the length; they’re longer. Someone told me that maybe acoustic guitar strings are longer. I’ve wanted to figure out some way, because banjo strings are harder to find. It is a specific kind of banjo string that’s the right length. I think it’s for tenor banjo.
Do those thin strings cause problems with the neck?
It's not as much of a problem as you might think, but, as it is, my necks always seem to go out of whack after a year. But usually just messing around with the truss rod fixes it.