When we think of musical duos, different ideas can come to mind. A guitar-and-drum arrangement comes to mind like the White Stripes, Black Keys and Flat Duo Jets to name a few. Singer duos like Simon and Garfunkel and Ike and Tina might also come to mind.
But bass and drum duos, an arrangement where the rhythm section takes charge and spearheads the band’s sound and songwriting is much less heard of.
Meet Lightning Bolt, a rock duo from Providence, Rhode Island made up of bassist Brian Gibson and drummer Brian Chippendale, who have been making a lot of noise in America’s basements, house parties, and clubs for over 20 years.
The duo first met at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1990s and became fast friends. “I remember asking [upperclassmen] who’s the best drummer – like I want to find the best drummer to play with”, recalls bassist Brian Gibson. The name that came up first: Brian Chippendale.
Throughout the 1990s, what would become the Lightning Bolt the musical world has come to know shifted and morphed as musicians came and went. Guitarists and vocalists including Hirsham Bharoocha, another RISD student, of Black Dice would cycle in and out. Amidst the changes, Gibson and Chippendale were always the last two musicians standing, joined by the understanding that playing together just the two of them sounded really, really good.
There was a period when Lightning Bolt as we know it today almost never happened. “Brian and I didn’t have the best relationship. We weren’t getting along very well and I was having many equipment problems. I had this sense that he resented me for not having my shit together with the equipment. I had amps that would just blow up.” The dispute lead to Gibson to quit Lightning Bolt in the late 1990s and venture to New York City where he made money painting murals under artist Sol LeWitt. A year in New York City and now with some additional money, Gibson was faced with the choice. His two options were to stay in New York City and spend his money on “beer and an apartment that costs a lot” or return to Providence, buy some new gear and restart Lightning Bolt with Chippendale. Gibson chose the latter.
Fast forward 20 years and 7 albums and a documentary later and here still stands Lightning Bolt – just as loud and in your face as ever and beloved by their hometown base (at the show, one person shouted welcome home and the crowd erupted in a frenzy of applause and cheering).
Though years of touring and maintaining their footing as one of music’s loudest forces, seeing the duo on stage is Yin and Yang embodied. On one half of the stage is Brian Chippendale. Energetic and with arms flailing in all directions, pounding his drums with the precision and strength of a ‘50s big band drummer. On the other half of the stage is Brian Gibson. Cool and level and often motionless with the exception of a few looks towards the audience. His hands do the talking, turning the sound of his single Sterling MusicMan a sonic onslaught.
To see the two in full frame is something reminiscent of John Entwistle and Keith Moon on stage: two musicians who know their craft inside and out but with two completely different on-stage personalities.
Throughout 20 years of touring and spreading ear damage and sweat cleanses and acid cheer to people in basements, Lightning Bolt have remained a consistent, singular force. Brian and Brian’s in-your-face sound continues with their fifth album, Fantasy Empire, arguably one of the tamer, “cleaner” sounding musical onslaughts and the first of the band’s albums to be released on Thrill Jockey and not Load Records in Rhode Island. Amidst the changes, the twosome continue to deliver what Lightning Bolt fans around the world hoped they would – and more.
Providence, Rhode Island marked the band’s last stop on their month-and-a-half long tour across the United States in support of the album. I was lucky enough to meet up with bassist Brian Gibson backstage at Aurora in Providence to talk about Brian’s musical upbringing, the Who’s influence on his playing, the dynamics (literally and metaphorically) of playing in a bass-and-drum-only ensemble and much more.
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Mike Emiliani (ME): Can you talk a little bit about how you first got into bass playing.
Brian Gibson (BG): My grandfather, when we [Gibson and his brother] were juniors in high school, he offered to buy me and my twin brother whatever instrument we wanted and my twin brother he wanted a drum set. I wasn’t sure at the time. I’m not really sure why I got a bass. I just didn’t like at the time the idea of being a guitarist because guitarists seemed so flashy and I didn’t understand the bass, but it seemed like a magical instrument. It had a lot of power in the band and it’s something most people don’t hear when they hear music but it’s the most important part in a lot of ways.
ME: Why your grandfather? Why did he say I’m going to get you and your brother instruments?
BG: I think because my parents weren’t encouraging us to play music and he was pretty crazy (chuckle) and come to my parent house and say that these kids are nerdy and they need to start getting music into their lives. I think it was almost like a statement they were making to my mother, I think.
ME: That’s a pretty powerful statement.
BG: She was totally behind it. It was something she wouldn’t have done and he knew that. I dunno, it takes guts to make a decision to start playing an instrument when you’re a kid, I think.
ME: You think so?
BG: I dunno, (chuckle). Does it? You know, to buy a bass guitar…I dunno. When I was in third grade i got a trumpet.
ME: Oh really? I got a trombone. You did the concert band thing and all that, too.
BG: It’s like saying ‘I want to be in a rock band’ that means something different. It would have been awkward to tell my family that I wanted to be in a rock band.
ME: Really? Was it a situation where they didn’t see this as something you make money off of?
BG: No it’s fine, it’s just…just not their…I dunno.
ME: Was your grandfather a musical person?
BG: Not particularly. Maybe he was just, you know, maybe he was feeling like we could be what he never was.
ME: Living vicariously through you guys?
BG: Something like that.
ME: Interesting. So now you have the bass and your brother has the drums. How did you start jumping into the instrument? What were those early albums, or players or sounds, that really, I guess, kept you with the instrument?
BG: When I started, I was listening to the Who all the time. My brothers would listen to Led Zeppelin and we would have this competition [between Led Zeppelin and the Who] and we would always argue about who was better. I was strongly in the Who camp and they were strongly in the Zeppelin camp. And John Entwistle was an awesome bass player and he doesn’t play bass in a very typical way.
ME: No, not at all.
BG: He plays it like a lead instrument – and has a lot of treble in his sound. You know, does tricky stuff but it’s all tasteful.
ME: And subtle, too.
BG: Yes, and subtle. So that was a good thing for me to be listening to early on. And just the Who in general gave me this desire to be in a wild band. I liked the wildness of them, smashing their instruments and turning their stuff all the way up and playing with a lot of feedback and Keith Moon breaking everything. To me that was such an iconic way to be in a band it just captured the essence of what being in a band is all about for me.
ME: It’s interesting you said that because even looking at you and Brian downstairs, watching your hands play looked very John Entwistle-y. You see the old footage of him playing and it’s very quick motions like this [and Keith Moon doing Keith Moon things on the drums and I look at the two of you and, even in the 5 or so minutes we’ve been talking, your brother and drums – bass and drum duo, Entwistle and Moon – bass and drum duo – yourself and Brian – bass and drum duo, and there’s this pattern, as I see it, [there’s this interesting pattern of bass and drum duos unfurling in your life.
BG: Yea it was never planned. I never saw Lightning Bolt coming at that time. But yea, the Who were a big influence.
I dunno, when I watch John Entwistle, I don’t exactly know what his techniques are, I don’t totally understand what he’s doing. Watching a bass player is always tough because it’s tough to decipher what’s going on. You just see quick motions and you can’t really slow it down. Like, I play with all 4 of these fingers [shows pinky, index, ring and middle fingers] but I don’t know maybe Entwistle is doing that too – short little triplets and quadruplets and stuff.
ME: He did a bass guitar instructional video back in the 80s or 90s he’s explaining his technique and it seemed very of the same mindset kind of ‘I’m not sure what exactly I’m doing I just do these things and sound comes out” and it zooms in on his hands and he breaks down the typewriter technique where he’ll play very close up on the neck and almost do what half of two handed tapping looks like instead of deliberately tapping, he’ll just hit it [striking the edge of chair, typewriter technique style]
BG: Sort of get harmonics out of it?
ME: Yea something like that.
But he would get those overtones to come out and Townshend commented that when you really listen to what he’s doing in the bigger context of the band, we’d have to get horn players and vocalists to really match the contributions he was making just with his technique.
He [always] seemed to use two fingers, three fingers, pops – pull it up from underneath. You’re absolutely right – he knew what he could do with the instrument. You got to check out the video. He seems like he’s uncomfortable explaining what it is he does. He doesn’t look like…
BG: He struck me like he was kind of an introvert, too. Like someone who doesn’t blab a lot about what he’s doing he’s just good at it and good at it for a long time. But and all of his techniques are really personal.
BG: Yea he probably just taught himself. Yea, some people are trained and then they learn from someone else who articulate certain fundamentals. He’s probably just like ‘yea this is how I wound up playing.’
ME: Exactly, right.
There was also something I read about that he didn’t like the idea of being a bass player in the traditional sense. He wanted to be a bass guitarist – an extension of guitar playing – flashy, but at the same time, none was doing that stuff. Nothing fuzzed out or crazy like that and here he comes stone faced, fingers flying and none knows what to make of it. He was an interesting guy like that, I suppose. But again, just seeing the times I’ve seen you guys live on YouTube and downstairs just now, I can see those parallels very much. Especially from yourself, there’s not a lot of flying around on stage…
BG: Yea, his performance. My performance is very similar to his performance.
ME: Very in the moment. Let your hands to the talking.
BG: When I showed up at RISD in ’93 or ’94, immediately I wanted to start a band and it was pretty exciting because I don’t think there were that many weird musicians in Burlington, Vermont. It seemed like a lot of the people I could play with there wanted to do covers and stuff like that.
ME: You’re from Vermont originally?
BG: Yea, from Burlington, Vermont.
And when I showed up at RISD, I saw kids getting dropped off by their parents to college and they had drum sets and everyone had amps and stuff so it was really excited about meeting other musicians to play with.
And I remember I knew some older people, upperclassmen, who I knew through my older brother I remember asking them who’s the best drummer – like I want to find the best drummer to play with. I always had this opinion that a great band, like, you can’t really be a great band without a great drummer.
ME: Yes, there are so many variations on that saying. It starts from the ground up.
BG: Yea, I wanted to start a band and I just wanted to start it right and play with someone who was really good at drums. I wanted to find someone who was awesome and my friend Dare, who was a friend of my older brother from Burlington was like you should play with this guy Brian Chippendale, he’s like the best drummer in Providence.
And, yea, at one point I remember going to this party at RISD where upstairs you could hear this earthquake happening, this rumble, and I went up into this room and there were two people in the room sort of sitting on the floor by the walls with their hands over their ears and Chippendale was just like playing this crazy tribal drum solo.
BG: Yea, I don’t remember if that was the first told him that I wanted to play but…I had seen him around just playing drums and he didn’t even seem like he was playing with anybody, he was just playing drums a lot and he would play, there was a student center at RISD at the time where it was like a practice space for the students and I’d go down there sometimes and I’d hear this earthquake happening and at some point..right now, I can’t remember the moment when I asked him to play, but I think I had interacted with him a few times and we’d made a plan to get together and jam and we did.
Actually initially, we played with a bunch of people. We played with like 4 or 5 people in a room. And the first time we played, there was this guitarist who was really good but he kind of, I don’t even remember being able to hear myself in the room. The guitarist was…
ME: He was just so much louder?
BG: Yea. And, we just played with a whole lot of other people but it just whittled down to the two of us after a while.
ME: Just because they kind of dropped off or lost interest or the two of you were…?
BG: I was into playing with Brian I wasn’t that into playing with other people and it seemed like Brian wasn’t into playing with other people either. So we both just ended up playing just the two of us. I think both of us were really picky about who we wanted to play with. When I played with him I was making a lot of percussive noise and a single 15” speaker and a Hartke amp and I would just turn it up all the way and the way that amp distorted it would just sound like an earthquake also.
ME: So you’ve got two massive sounds.
BG: Yea, we were just making thunderous sounds and it wasn’t melodic. Not very melodic at all in the beginning. Mostly because melodies you couldn’t even hear because he was almost as loud as he is now. Maybe he’s gotten a little bit louder as he’s gotten stronger over the years, but yea, if you can imagine playing next to him with a single 15” speaker you just can’t hear it. It’s adding some kind of ambiance.
ME: It’s adding that extra extra low there’s now just a room of low.
BG: But I still just thought he was a really interesting drummer (chuckle). It was hard for me to compete with him but it was more interesting to me. I wanted from the time I got to RISD I wanted to do something totally different and interesting and not, just be in a rock band, so that was fun.
ME: So when did the two of you put the name Lightning Bolt to this ensemble and do you remember some of the first shows, because I imagine you played out in Providence more than anywhere else. Who were some of the people you played with?15:40
BG: We had actually, early on, played with Hisham, who’s a vocalist. We went through a lot of changes in the early years. We had a number of guitarists we were jamming with over the years and then a little while – this is still ’94, ’95 – we had this vocalist Hisham who played drums in Black Dice.
He kind of chanted over us. We played with him for a little while but, once again, Brian and I decided that it would be more fun just the two of us. Hisham left for a few months to go on vacation or do something. I can’t remember what he was doing. But Brian and I just started playing just the two of us for a while and we decided we liked that better and Brian started singing and, actually, in the beginning we were both singing.
ME: Really? Just without any of the masks or distorted vocals or were you both singing to microphones as you played?
BG: We were both singing to microphones as we played. I’m not sure if Brian had started using the telephone thing yet.
ME: How did that come about?
BG: I don’t know. I can’t remember exactly when he started doing that or why. You have to ask him (chuckle).
ME: I’ll be sure to (chuckle).
BG: It just appeared at some point.
ME: Right, but the thing is that I can’t think of anything else that works better with the entire package. I don’t think Lightning Bolt if it were a band like Death From Above 1979 where the drummer has a microphone to his face singing as he plays. I don’t think the ambiance of the whole project would have been the same if there wasn’t a mask and a fuzzed out microphone.
BG: Yea, he really needs that freedom of motion. I think it’s a necessity that he has that mask more than anything else. But it’s also stylish. It’s got a style to it and it gives us a visual identity, but I think he’s, I dunno, a little embarrassed about being a masked costume band like is it kind of Slipknot-y or something like that?
ME: I think you’re a ways away from Slipknot.
BG: I know, but I think there’s a bit of an association with being kind of like a carnival act.
ME: Sure, I can understand why. There are 2 of you versus 26 of them. You got the numbers working for you.
Was there ever a time when the two of you thought Lightning Bolt wasn’t going to work?
BG: I mean I never thought it worked. It never seemed to work for me. I mean, it was always a struggle to be heard or to come out clear or to sound like I thought it should sound. I was always amazed that people liked it but people always liked it way more than I expected people to. Especially in the early days.
I was just struggling. It was just a search and it still is kind of a search. I had quit the band in ’99 or ’00 because I didn’t think it would work. I mean Brian and I didn’t have the best relationship. We weren’t getting along very well and I was having many equipment problems. I had this sense that he resented me for not having my shit together with the equipment. I had amps that would just blow up. My speakers would blow up every month, my amps would fry. I felt that he was pretty demanding about that stuff.
BG: You know, and I was totally broke and I was just like I can’t do this anymore and I moved to New York for a year but then I made a bunch of money while I was in New York painting murals for this famous artist Sol LeWitt. I made like 10,000 dollars and thought ‘Oh, I could stay in New York and blow all this money on beer and an apartment that costs a lot or I could just buy a crazy bass rig and move back to Providence and try to do that band again.
And I just decided that after I made that money to buy a really fancy bass rig and move back to Providence and go back on tour and record and then we recorded Ride the Skies (Load Records, 2001) and things got a lot better for us because I think that record brought out some of the playing I was doing that what we had done before. Some of the details, and the melodies and the textures were a lot more interesting I think just because I got better equipment but that record was just well received. When we toured a lot of people came to our shows.
ME: Do you remember what you were using before and what kept blowing up and what you ended up purchasing?
BG: I initially had a Hartke 3500, a 350 watt amp, and I had an 18” sub and a 4×10 and the Hartke was frying all the time and the speakers were frying all the time and then when I came back, I got an Ampeg SVT Pro 4 and that’s like 1200 watts…
ME: Yep, that’ll do it.
BG: …and then I got two subs and two 4×10 so I kind of doubled the size of the rig because there were just more speakers I could hear myself over Brian and less prone to blowing stuff. I mean, I still blew stuff a lot. It took me another 5 years to learn how not to blow up speakers all the time which was by getting super powerful amps.
Now, I have two 3,000 watt amps. Weirdly the more power you have the better it is for your speakers because what’s really bad for your speakers is going into the red. It’s not really watts necessarily.
ME: It’s just how you’re overdriving the speaker and for how long.
BG: Yeah, being in the red causes it to clip and these square wave signals that burn your coil.
It’s a weird thing with speakers. I had always thought I needed to get an amp that wasn’t too many watts and speakers that could handle a ton of watts and that would solve the problem. But even a really powerful speaker if I was cranking an amp into the red, I’d still blow it and it was really confusing for me.
Over the years, I’ve learned the discipline of matching the speaker watts to the amp watts and just having a super powerful amp. So you can get as loud as you need to get and you’re still in the green.
I used to go far into the red and just blow up a speaker in like a week.
ME: When I Google a picture of Brian Gibson or Lightning Bolt, I see what looks like a MusicMan [Stingray]. The one with all the neon stickers on it and all that. Two things. What happened to that bass and was that the bass with the banjo string and two, what was the rationale behind the banjo string?
BG: The banjo strings almost never break and I don’t know why. I play them as hard as I play a bass string. And they never break. They’re just a solid wire.
Yea, I’m looking at that thinking that string must pop off after a few minutes of playing but apparently not.
No it’s super strong. I’ll have them on for years and play tours with them and they don’t break. If they break it’s because they become uncoiled or something but they don’t really snap.
ME: So what prompted you to first use a banjo string? Was the high G or the high C not enough? It was a 5 string right?
BG: Initially it was a 4 string and I had a banjo string on top that was an octave higher than – I went EDG and then the octave up from the G. I did that for the first few records, Ride the Skies and Wonderful Rainbow and Hypermagic Mountain just use a 4 string and then after that I got a 5 string. I don’t really use the 5 string that much but I just got used to having access to that [the banjo string]. The 5 string is actually just 3 bass strings, the A, D and G strings, tuned not to A, D and G and then there are the two banjo strings.
ME: How did you come up with that?
BG: Just playing. We would play and listen to our recordings and I just had this sense that we sounded a little grey like there could be more dynamic range in the frequencies. I wanted us to sound like a real, full band and when you listen to a full band there are guitar leads and stuff happening. There are bass lines happening. There’s a whole range of things that are happening and if you’re just playing bass alone you just don’t have access to what a full band does. I wanted to be like a whole band in one instrument.
ME: It’s interesting you said that because it’s bringing back the John Entwistle comparison.
BG: All the overtones?
ME: Yea, just the way he played and was able to fill space.
BG: I mean he never did the banjo string thing. He was so bright. His sound was so bright. Yea, like the note in Pinball Wizard I always thought that was a guitar.
ME: Have you ever heard the isolated bass version of Baba O’Riley?
BG: I don’t think I’ve heard that one.
ME: It came up on YouTube a while ago and got a million something hits like that.
BG: I’ve heard the ‘We Won’t Get Fooled Again’ one.
ME: Yea, that’s another good one. To hear the isolated bass track and the original one back and forth really highlights he [Entwistle] throws in there. He’s hitting the root notes to Townshend’s chords but there are so many quick touches and nuances and tapped notes in between. He’s hitting his marks but the amount of things that’s going on in between those chord tones is so extensive and you completely understand how Townshend was always blown away by the extra sounds that Entwistle contributed – both in the front and back.
BG: Yea, it’s an amazing band. They’re all incredible musicians. Keith Moon was the same way. Both Keith Moon and John Entwistle are just magical. These guys that had their own ways of playing was really unhinged.
ME: Oh absolutely.
BG: It’s so structural. They probably play their songs a little differently each time. But it’s always these little improvisational flourishes.
ME: Have you played in other bands?
BG: Lightning Bolt was kind of it. I played drums a lot in other bands but I’ve never played bass with other people but that was that.
I mean, it’s an interesting instrument in the context of a full band. I’ve kind of lost some interest in being a bass player-bass player. I don’t know. I’ve gone down this road of this instrument being the band, you know. It’s not just a bass. It’s hard to go back when you’ve taken it to that level.
ME: I completely understand. All those tricks and special hooks now have to take a backseat to the rest of the band.
BG: The stuff with the banjo strings, the pedals and the way I’m hooking all this stuff up is it’s own world. It’s cool. I feel like I’m venturing off into some unexplored territory which is what I like to do.
ME: Sure. And it’s interesting to say the least – and damn entertaining.
Good, thanks. That’s what it’s supposed to be.
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BG: I’m using the Ashly and the dry rack PA. and I use the crossover in the Ashley. I have 2 subs down here. My lows into one of these power amps – this 2500 power amp one. I used to have 2 of these 3600 but one blew on tour. So, the low goes into this power amp and into these 2 subs. The his go into this power amp and one side of the power amp does these 8 10s and theother side does these two 15s.
I used to split it up so the Peavey did my his and the ashley did my lows. So I had a tube hi end and a solid state low end or subs. Lately I’ve decided that the Ashley sounds more aggressive and awesome.
ME: What are you using for bass and effects for this tour?
The bass overdrive itself is too bassy and the super overdrive by itself is too hi. But together they both sound really awesome. It’s really thick.
The octave pedal almost makes it sound too huge sounding. It almost adds this extra layer of bass that’s super powerful. If I go up on the whammy then it’s like this really tight, thick sound. So theres all these combinations of pedals that get really interesting sounds. By themselves they all kind of suck but together they make something cool.
ME: And the bass? It looked like a StingRay from before.
BG: It’s the cheaper one. My old Stingray got stolen recently from my car down behind the mall. So I wanted to get another Ernie Ball MusicMan and then I was shopping and then there was this Sterling line that was like half price and made in Indonesia and it’s probably a little cheaper.
ME: The Epiphone to Gibson equivalent?
Yea, so I figure try and see what happens when I play this thing. Some people said it sounded more aggressive which I thought sounded interesting. I don’t know if I can tell the difference.
Some of the knobs have fallen off already. It does seem that some things are a little more cheaply made but the sound itself is very Ernie Ball. There’s an Ernie Ball sound that’s super aggressive and crazy. It’s got all this hi end that I usually don’t hear in other basses. Every bass sounds totally different but some of them are more rolled off on the top, almost more soft sounding. They’re meant to sit back.
But to that Entwistle thing they have almost like a lead quality there’s all this sparkle aggressiveness about them.
1 This interview is a transcription from an audio recording and has been edited for grammar and continuity.