Lightning Bolt, highly-influential Crayola-punk noise duo, are returning with their first new recordings in nearly six years. Their seventh album, Fantasy Empire, represents a new chapter for a band that’s been together more than 20 years: it’s their first album for the esteemed Thrill Jockey and their first recorded in a traditional studio. As they tour, performances will increasingly find the guerilla team playing on actual stages instead of the club floors they dominated for years.
First taste, album opener “The Metal East,” represents the band’s cleaner though no less pummeling sound, with quick blasts of Line 6 loops added to their signature bludgeon.
“There’s a little bit in a shift of the goals for these records,” says bassist Brian Gibson. “In the past, our records were very much trying to this authentic document of the experience of recording. . . This one, my mentality was more, ‘I want this to sound like how it sounds to me when we’re playing, and I want it to feel like the way it feels for me when we’re playing,’ which is really intense. I’m standing right in front of my speaker, so I’m just hearing so much that I think a lot of people in the audience don’t even hear.”
Rolling Stone caught up with the Brians to find out how they’re sharpening one of the most unique distortion bursts of a generation.
What have you been up to for the last six years?
Brian Chippendale: I think I’ve put out seven solo records [as Black Pus], in some form. My focus hasn’t shifted so much…. I have a practice space here in a warehouse where I spend almost all of my time, and Gibson comes over and we practice. I’ve been going back there and playing this whole time [laughs]. But maybe more time spent by myself.
Gibson: I’ve been making this video game for the last five years, and that’s just coming to the end now. The game, it’s this really dark, psychedelic, sort of a music game and sort of a racing game. We’re calling it “rhythm violence.” You’re this chrome beetle, and you’re cruising down this really terrifying, psychedelic highway through the cosmos and you’re kind of banging into stuff and interacting with all these musical things and all this cacophonous noise happening that adds up to this sort of rhythmic, pretty intense sonic thing.
Chippendale: [The new music] just wasn’t sounding new, and it wasn’t sounding fresh. We recorded with [longtime producer Dave Auchenbach] and he drags in all this weird archaic, digital equipment over to this warehouse and [we] record in this not-soundproofed mess of a heap of stuff. And it worked for a long time. And it just didn’t seem like it was working anymore. Some of the [last six years] was just us banging our head against the same wall and not getting new results…. We’re like a simple band, and it’s about things working simply. It’s very simple to be like, “Ah, let’s work on it tomorrow, maybe.” So, it was a pile of simple things that got in the way.
There’s a whole false take of this record, correct?
Chippendale: Between 2009 and 2015, there are, I think, three recording sessions with our old guy of versions of a record…. I don’t know if anyone will ever hear them, but there’s definitely like a similar album… in a different kind of fidelity in a closet somewhere.
I don’t know if I would have ever used the word “fidelity” around you guys.
Chippendale: [Laughs] I know. We tried to make this one “hi-fi,” but then some people are like, “Oh, you recorded different? Oh, OK, yeah, maybe I hear it.”
Well, you are sort of becoming more of a traditional band in a lot of ways. You’re playing on stages now.
Chippendale: Yeah. It’s still a complicated thing for us…. When we play on the floor, it’s, like, this amazing experience because it’s the same experience we had back in 1998 or something. It’s 22-year-old kids gathered around us having the time of their lives and we’re, like, super-psyched…. The audience in that circle of floor people is kind of the same audience as it’s ever been. But then there’s all these other people that are just a few rows back that are either older or smaller — it didn’t even cross my mind in the beginning. As audiences got bigger, you just start realizing that there’s always people that just can’t get involved in the experience.
Gibson: I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with the stage, personally. I really enjoy playing on the floor. If you play a show with 500 people, there’s going to be a lot of people disappointed in the back. From my perspective, when we play on the floor, I just see the first four rows of people, having a great time, hearing everything, seeing everything, and to me, the show seemed like it went really well. But there’s vastly more people on the outer ring that didn’t get to see anything and didn’t hear anything.
Was there a moment where it was like, “OK, this is not working out?” Like a waterfall of people landing on your gear?
Chippendale: Those shows, I was actually like, “This is working better than ever.” I remember this one show, I think it was  in L.A. at the really, really fancy Knitting Factory in L.A. Which was so funny because we walk in there and they’re like, “We have a $15 million PA.” And we’re like, “That’s cool, man — we’ll play over there in the corner” and not go through it.
And that show was packed; don’t know how many people. By the end I had a kickdrum, a snare drum, and maybe a cymbal. Here was a kid wrapped around the snare drum stand, holding it in place, and there were a heap of bodies over the bass drum that kind of had it in place. I had been pushed up so that my back had been smushed up against the speakers, so there was, like, no more places for me to go. And the show had to end because at some point, Brian holds up his bass and someone had ripped the cord out of his bass and with the cable came like a whole bunch of the innards of his bass. And they were just hanging. And we were like, “We’re done, thanks!” But it never crossed my mind, even then, that, “This isn’t working.”
It was maybe a few years later when the shows expanded, maybe that was 350 people or something, when we were going and playing for 1,000 people at a festival, or even more, 5,000 people at a festival. It was like A) Some of these places just wouldn’t let us play on the floor. Just like, “You’re not playing or you’re playing on stage,” that kind of thing, just for litigation or whatever. But there was this point where we could have been like, “We’re only going to play small clubs, we’re only going to play for 250 people or less,” but I guess we sold out. These people want to fly us to Barcelona and give us all this money. I don’t know [laughs].
And it was kind of a revelation ’cause it was like, “Oh, yeah, right — we’re actually pretty good musically. We’re not just an antics band. We’re not a kick drum, blast-beats, wall-of-bass-noise band” — which we are on the floor sometimes because everything else goes out the window.
Bands grow, audiences grow — you have to grow with them.
Chippendale: For one thing, there’s a band out there breaking out on the floor, somewhere, probably in your town or something. Those shows exist, and if you missed it, you missed it. It’s been 20 years. I wish I could be 20 years old forever…. I guess I kind of have, though.
So was Primavera the turning point for you?
Chippendale: That might have been one of the earliest, where it was like, “There’s just no way.” And I think ATP had a lot to do with it — playing after Sonic Youth and there was like 1,500 people in the room and I gotta get everyone to sit down? And then, you might as well be on stage, if everyone’s just crossed-legged and sitting.
And this might be it, too: Maybe I started talking to more girls. Usually it’d be me talking to a bunch of guys and they’d be like, “That was so amazing, dude!” Then I started talking to more women who just were like, “You know what? The back of your show is just ladies who can’t see anything and it sounds like mud.”
What did that Primavera performance feel like for you?
Gibson: I don’t know how to say this. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t feel “warm” to me; it doesn’t give me a good feeling. There’s just something very weird about it, being the focal point. There’s a part of me, there’s a part of everyone, that kind of enjoys that sort of thing, but it’s not a part of me that I have a lot of respect for.
What is was like for you to see Muse cover your song?
Chippendale: Well, you know, I never saw Muse cover my song. I think I heard it somewhere. Later on, someone was like, “Muse are one of the biggest bands in the world.” I didn’t know that. There’s actually a few things around that which have stuck with me. I read some interview where they were like, “Oh yeah, this band Lightning Bolt, they’re this crazy band that lives in Boston and plays shows in abandoned art galleries.” And I was like, “What the fuck is an abandoned art gallery?” I had never even heard of that. The idea that you would go into a room and there would be, like, art hanging on the walls that an art gallery just up and left, it really just cracked me up.
Gibson: I didn’t know much about them when I first heard about that, and I slowly over time realized that they were a really huge band. I guess, in that way, it was an honor for them to be playing a Lightning Bolt song [laughs]. I guess I was a little perplexed by what they saw in it and why they wanted to play it in front of all those people.
Chippendale: Whenever musicians celebrate something you’ve done, it’s awesome.