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Q&A: Lightning Bolt Talk ‘Fantasy Empire,’ Working With Battles and Bjork

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Providence duo Lightning Bolt have sustained a brain-melting career in so-called “noise” rock for an unfathomably long time. For two decades running, bassist Brian Gibson and drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale have foisted their unique racket on the bleeding ears of metalheads and indie-rockers alike. Gibson manipulates his bass until it sounds as thick and churning as a mutanoid guitar and Chippendale pummels his drums into a quick, scattering thrash with only the kick and unusually tight snare surfacing from the mix, and with this formula they released a succession of hilariously titled full-lengths such as Wonderful Rainbow (2003) and Hypermagic Mountain (2005).

The two Brians’ Thrill Jockey debut, Fantasy Empire, is out today and already garnering some of their most positive accolades in a decade; rightfully so, for the album’s big improvements in melody and fidelity. Chippendale spoke to SPIN over the phone about the band’s first time recording digitally and the unusual subject of his lyrics and singing.

So Fantasy Empire was your first time doing this in the studio?
It’s not the first time in the studio; like, Wonderful Rainbow was recorded in two studios in 2002. [And 2001’s] Ride the Skies was even in the studio, but this is the first time we’ve ever recorded digitally in a studio. And it’s also the first time we’ve ever worked specifically with the people that run the studio. We kind of had gear that would go around with us and we would use a weird pile of archaic machinery to capture us. As soon as they had ProTools, we’d still be using all this weird crap and not using ProTools. We finally embraced the ProTools.

Then this is the first time you’re working with a studio and not rebelling against it?
Totally. We were like, “Wow, this place is designed to do something really cool and we never even realized that before.” 

What are some of the differences that it made possible on this album?
Well, we did separate takes, which we’ve never done before. I’m playing through headphones which we’ve never done before, so that gave us just not having bleeds come through everything all the time so fixing things or overdubbing things is a lot easier.

You’ve mentioned that dumb little errors can fuck up an entire mix on the fly in your original process?
I remember most of [2005’s] Hypermagic Mountain was recorded live to two-track in our practice studio, so we played “Megaghost” like 20 times and it wasn’t because we were playing it bad, we were playing it great but we were just trying to get the mix right. It was frustrating but it was just what we would do. It made sense to play where the song was written, it just sounds exactly the way it should when you’re in the room. I remember going and listening to a bunch of takes and going, ‘Uh, I can’t hear the kick drum’. And being like, ‘Okay, we’ll play it again,’ it was just a funny process.

Do you think you held out for years because you wanted to keep that live aspect in there?
We were a band that had the power of the live performance and we just wanted to document our playing and we wanted…the funny thing was the idea that we could somehow keep it honest by not doing very many overdubs or embracing technology. I mean all recording is a lie so it’s funny to make rules about it.

When you worked with Björk on Volta, was that in a digital capacity or did you send analog stuff for her to use?
I went to the studio and recorded drums live with her there so that was the studio. 

Did that experience affect the way that you felt about doing it live?
It didn’t cross over into mine. I think I was so shocked that I was in a room with Björk the whole time that I came out of that experience with one idea, and that was “Holy shit, I just worked with Björk.” That affecting anything else in the way I did things didn’t happen. One thing I did do — we’d been to [the studio] Machines with Magnets years ago, but we brought our old engineer and we hadn’t really worked with the two guys that run it.

So a couple of years ago, they were working on the last album that Battles put out, Gloss Drop, and they invited a bunch of guest vocalists on that one and they actually had me come in and do vocals over a track which didn’t make the final cut, but was really fun. That experience actually affected me because I was way more adamant I think than the other Brian [Gibson, bassist]. I was very focused on how things should be [in the studio] but something like that would happen and I was just like, “Wait a minute, my whole life here is wrong, this is not fun.”

I wanted to ask you about vocals: Are you writing lyrics that actually make sense or more looking for syllables that fit the rhythm?
It’s syllables to the rhythm. You hear various singers talk about this kind of thing where they’ll do a song, and then as they write a song maybe somebody has a melody in their head or something, but it gets jammed out. Some of the songs I’m singing along and occasionally I’ll come up with a little vocal thing outside of practice that I bring in. You kind of like look for a sound that has an emotional impact or something, the letters just make sense with the sounds but then other people update after that and do a more cohesive thing, and I, for the most part, know I leave them in a raw state.

The main reason I do that is because I’m still drumming and singing and I just don’t want to prioritize the lyrics over the beat, the beat of the drums. I’m still not really interested in getting that stuff right. I do have lyrics for some of the songs, like “Horsepower” and “Runaway Train” have a specific set of lyrics, and when we play them live I’ll probably hit like a third of those or something but for the most part, I’m just going for sound and some sort of emotional effect. That’s the focus.

Are any Lightning Bolt records “about” anything, or have a theme?
They do. Like “Horsepower” kind of has an environmental theme going on. I can’t remember because I haven’t heard it for months — you’ll hear it eventually. So “Horsepower” has environmental overtones and then “Runaway Train” is roughly a story about an egocentric character that is just about being obsessed with yourself and no one else. The song “Snow White” has lyrics too but they’re just sort of playing around with words, the lyrics are like, “Whistle while you work, whistle while you…” and it just goes down the line of all these different things that you whistle while you do.

Do you get a lot of fans asking what the lyrics are?
I do, and the funny thing is when I was writing up the liner notes I was like, “I want to put the lyrics in.” I had lyrics for “Horsepower” and “Runaway Train” and some for “Snow White,” those vocals were sung live when we played the song and some of them came out correctly and then the rest… for other songs I’m trying to translate what the hell I’m saying, decoding my own lyrics. I just don’t even know, I have no idea what I’m saying. Now, in retrospect, not only did I write stuff on the lyrics sheet that I’m kind of embarrassed about, but it actually doesn’t even sound like what I was saying.