Gibson and Chippendale formed Lightning Bolt in 1994, after they met at the Rhode Island School of Design. In a sense, their practice of playing live in the center of the room or bringing the audience onstage is as much performance art as music. The Talking Heads also have their roots in RISD. Photo by Scott Alario
The sound guys probably weren’t thrilled when you showed up. Or did you have all your own stuff? Did they get the night off?
That’s a lot of why I blew speakers and why my equipment has been such an issue for me, because we didn’t use PAs for a long time. Maybe if we were starting from scratch now and we decided that we were always going to play on a stage, I might play with a little Fender practice amp and just use the monitors. But it is always going to be an issue playing with Brian. He’s just an extraordinarily loud drummer. So even the stage monitors aren’t enough by themselves.
You use Boss pedals for overdrive and distortion.
I like the Boss stuff because it is easy to replace. Anywhere you are, they have it, and I am just not a big tone person. I am interested in tone, but I am not interested in the perfect tone. A lot of people get these really fancy boutique pedals, but I don’t know what you do if you’re on tour and it breaks or you lose it. I wouldn’t want my sound to depend on something that’s fragile, or something that if I go to Europe and it doesn’t work … which happens all the time to me, stuff is constantly breaking. It’s really nice to go on eBay at any time and have a new pedal the next day, or go to a music store anywhere and be able to get the exact same pedal and have the exact same sound that you had.
You also use a Whammy and octave pedal together at times.
Yeah. A lot of the earlier records use this combination of whammy-ing up an octave and then using the octave pedal to go back down an octave. It creates this thick, tight sound that you just can’t get any other way. “Dracula Mountain” on Wonderful Rainbow, or “Assassins”—a lot of our classic Lightning Bolt-sounding songs use that Whammy up and then octave down. If I just play the bass with the octave on, everything is too muddy and low, and if I play everything with the Whammy up, everything is too high and weak sounding. But having both of them together sounds amazing, powerful, and clear. So that’s a big thing. The octave by itself can be really heavy. If there’s times where we want a really heavy part, I’ll use the octave by itself. But then you can set the Whammy to play chords. More and more lately—and on this new record—I use that setting on the Whammy pedal. It makes a fourth, and it sounds like you’re playing a power chord.
In the early days you did a lot of improvisation. Is that still a big part of what you do?
We both are just naturally improvisational. When we get together, we don’t want to play songs usually ever. But for some reason our shows—I think because we like to structure our shows in a way that’s fun for an audience—end up being a series of songs. Then there are moments in between when we might go off doing some improvisational stuff.
How composed are your songs?
They’re pretty worked out. We’re weird creatively. We have a hard time with a middle ground. If we’re going to structure something, we probably structure it too much. We’ve often talked about how it would be cool to write a song that’s in between being structured and improvisational, but it just seems like, with us, that something is either 100-percent structured or 100-percent improvisational. It’s hard to have any rules if you’re improvising.
The music that’s structured—will you play the songs the same way every night on tour?
Sort of, yeah. There will usually become sections of songs where we start to tweak or we’ll open something up. We usually have a few parts of our set where we allow ourselves to do an improvisational portion, but we even structure that. There are often times where Brian gets really wound up at the end of a song and he just starts going insane. I’ll try and accompany what he’s doing. Or we’ll have a break in between two songs and I’ll start noodling around some high, pretty melody. Then Brian finds a vocal line that goes with it and it turns into a segue. Stuff happens. Because there’s two of us, we do have some agency to take a sudden left turn during our sets.
You’ve been playing together long enough that you can probably read his mind a bit.
We’re both probably predictable to each other.
Do you overdub in the studio?
There’s some overdubbing. We play everything live and then I will replay the bass lines to make it stereo—so we can put one version in the left speaker and one version in the right speaker. There is a little bit of a studio trick happening.
Is that a new thing for you?
We did that on the last record, too. It was something I had qualms about. But in regard to the last record, people said, “This sounds so much like how it sounds when you play live.” I realized that when you make a record, you are trying to create the illusion of the live experience. We’ve always wanted to be super-authentic about the performance in the past. A lot of our earlier records are “the take.” There are no overdubs and there’s nothing changed about it. But the last two records, there’s been a little bit of an effort to try and make it so it really conveys the energy that the songs are meant to convey and that it has the attitude that the live show has. Even if it means doing the stereo effect on the bass, but that’s basically it. We will do retakes of the vocals.
Do you use your live rig in the studio or pare it down?
I pare it down. I go through my pedals, amp, and directly into the board from there. Fantasy Empire was no amp—just the pedals into the board. This one, it sounds different from Fantasy Empire, because I am going through the amp now. It’s a pretty crazy sounding solid-state amp. I think this record sounds a little more aggressive because of that. It sounds more like what I sound like live.
Aboard the Brusov Ship, a multi-use arts and culture space in Moscow, Lightning Bolt strikes a blow for freedom of expression with this thunderous and chaotic version of “Colossus,” from their 2009 album, Earthly Delights.