Lightning Bolt

at the Fireside Bowl, July 7

When you find something that makes your heart stop for a second and your face get hot and your brain go no way, something that’s the absolute tits, there’s a schism: Do I share this or do I keep it to myself? Holding back means it’s yours and yours alone, but what fun is being a know-it-all if you don’t get to blab? Spilling the beans, however, means accepting joint custody of what speaks to you, and if that friend’s enthusiasm rivals yours she’s inevitably going to tell someone else who’ll tell someone else. Pretty soon it seems like the whole world can relate, and that’s kind of heartbreaking.

Bragging about discovery is a source of great pride for some people. They knew that so-and-so would be the next big thing, which, to anyone who cares, means cool points. And when it’s a writer chalking a tally next to I Told You So, the original fans throw temper tantrums because, oh great, now their scene’s been exposed and will soon be thrown into the mill alongside all the other next-big-things. The band becomes a mainstream trendsetter (Andrew W.K., the White Stripes, Jimmy Eat World) and no one knows how long they can ride the wave before enthusiasm shifts en masse and they’re spit out onto the sand. A group in this position could ride it out like No Doubt; more likely they’ll end up like 4 Non Blondes.

There are people who make art because they want to and there are people who can’t do anything but. Lightning Bolt fall into the latter category. Drummer and artist Brian Chippendale, the mangy dog of the duo, looks like he cuts his own hair without a mirror and randomly selects his wardrobe from the trash. His rough-edged comics depict chaotic fragments of life in make-believe lands–kingdoms where the little guy puts up an admirable fight before inevitably “failing”–and he helps maintain a homemade screen-printing press in order to circulate his drawings. In The Power of Salad, a film documenting Lightning Bolt’s 2001 summer tour, he says that he drums the way he draws, “covering every bit of space with a beat.” His bandmate, bassist Brian Gibson, has constructed a monument to wattage with a tottering wall of amps, and in the film he says that after years of tinkering he’s finally rigged up his gear so that anything played through it sounds good. Maybe that’s true, but even with only three strings on his bass it’s hard to tell he’s the only one plugged in; he produces such beautifully complicated parts that it sounds like he grafted a few of Cliff Burton’s fingers to his own.

Together they play agonizing anthems, Chippendale panting, chiding, or screaming bloody murder from behind a handmade mask with a built-in telephone mouthpiece-turned-microphone, pounding out complicated patterns in dots and dashes, and Gibson calmly, deliberately responding with severe melodic blasts. Chippendale’s the megalomaniacal front man, attempting to pulverize his kit, and Gibson’s the glue, methodically, mesmerically holding the songs together. One lakeside scene in The Power of Salad perfectly sums up their personalities and why they function so well in the band: Chippendale stands near the shore, skipping rocks like a kid with ADD, while Gibson, knee-deep in the water, placidly surveys the scenery.

Gibson takes his homemade PA on tour and Chippendale pounds so hard he doesn’t need to be miked. Thus a self-contained unit, Lightning Bolt can play anywhere they like, and usually that means attics, living rooms, lofts, kitchens, tiny shithole bars in the middle of nowhere, and the occasional hipster club, always in a remote corner of the floor, never on the stage. They time their setup so as to start right after the previous band finishes, leaving those who initially scrambled to the front bewildered and left behind in what is now the back. It’s fairly democratic but oddly Darwinian, as everyone packs together in rings so tight the show feels like a giant group hug. How much you enjoy Lightning Bolt is directly proportionate to how close you get to being stabbed by a splinter from one of Chippendale’s drumsticks or brained by one of Gibson’s wobbly amps.

In The Power of Salad every face in every crowd bears the same hurts-so-good expression. People dance or thrash or crowd surf or roll around on the floor or make out or meditate because they can’t help it. At the Fireside Bowl last Sunday there was plenty of uniform headbanging, some fist pumping, and a bit of pogoing, but no full-on freak-outs. While that could just be symptomatic of a local scene that doesn’t take too kindly to dancing, it could also be that Lightning Bolt is striking but their fans are fizzling out.

They were admittedly a little late for their surprise attack, and it was sad to see them miss a cue that had until then been so key to the experience. Maybe they’ve raised the bar so high that anything less seems like a failure. They’re constantly trying to push themselves as hard as possible, but a person can go only so far before entropy kicks in. The Fireside wasn’t exactly packed, but it didn’t feel as intimate as past shows, even the one the night before. They weren’t on the bill last Saturday at the Abbey Pub, and they played only half as long as at the Fireside, but the show felt more inspired. It gave the audience the impression they were in on the secret, which made all the difference.

Prior to the recent Ride the Skies (Load), the album that gave Lightning Bolt their clout, their barely audible no-fi recordings hadn’t done the live shows justice. In a way the band’s self-defeatist, touring–which they seem to hate–to satisfy their growing fan base, but refusing to get onstage. Chippendale said in a 2001 magazine interview that he’s “interested in staying small and doing things that a huge amount of people just aren’t going to be that interested in.” In The Power of Salad Gibson echoes the sentiment: “I don’t like big crowds. I definitely don’t like being the center of attention in a big crowd.”

Too bad for them, because a little over a year ago the press picked the band up by the scruff and hasn’t set them down since. While they’re not as radio friendly and haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as other do-it-yourselfers who now have a money machine driving them (OK Go, the Get Up Kids), they’re surrounded by just as much hype. Though it’s partially because of what Lightning Bolt do, the media hounding is also due to where they’re from.

In 1995 Chippendale and three friends rented a gigantic old unheated jewelry warehouse in a gritty part of Providence, Rhode Island, where they could make as much noise as they wanted. They called it Fort Thunder. The inside of the place started out white, the space easily navigable. Fort Thunder hosted live music (Lightning Bolt became one of the several house bands) and wrestling events, and sometimes a combination of the two. The walls started filling up with drawings, then projects made at the Rhode Island School of Design–which many inhabitants and hangers-on attended–and then just any ol’ thing that would stick. Existing walls became landscapes of toys, trash, and art, and new ones were erected out of detritus. By the time I visited in 1999, somewhere around 11 people were living there, as were cats, bats, rats, and bunnies. The place was half disgusting and half inspiring, but wholly impressive. Other people thought so too, and they wrote about it in newspapers and magazines across the country.

Inevitably, Providence caught wind of Fort Thunder. Until early 2001 the building’s owner tried to keep city officials out of the way. After all, his tenants paid their rent with nary a complaint about the crumbling state of the building. But then some strip mall developers decided that very spot would make an excellent parking lot, and it was a done deal. Sure, there was some protest and a lot of letter writing–Spin even ran a story about it on-line–but when efforts to save the place fell flat the disassembly was very hush-hush, allowing Fort Thunder a quiet, dignified death and its inhabitants a chance to sever themselves from the building without a lot of hullabaloo. Everyone moved out last fall, and two months ago the building was leveled.

Lightning Bolt went on tour in the midst of the confusion, not knowing if Chippendale would have a home to return to. That combination of stoicism, hopelessness, and bravery is an obvious component of their music. They create the way they live, conscious that the act of observing something inevitably changes it. When enough people poke and prod a specimen, it either adapts to its surroundings or runs for the hills. On the road for the next month, Lightning Bolt have done both.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.