Concert preview: Lightning Bolt tries not to strike the same place twice

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Lightning Bolt bassist Brian Gibson is careful not to repeat himself.

This is true both in interviews — in an early April phone conversation the musician weighed his words carefully, at one point following a pregnant pause by saying, “I’m trying to think if there’s anything I can say here that would be new” — and in the band’s music, which has evolved steadily over the course of the noise-rock duo’s nearly two-decade existence.

“I think when we play together we're always searching for something we haven't heard before, and the pool gets smaller and smaller the more we play and the more we release. Now it's like we really have to go pretty deep to say, ‘Hey, this is something new; this is something we haven’t done before,’” said Gibson, who joins drummer/singer Brian Chippendale for a concert at Double Happiness on Thursday, April 16. “I know a lot of people might think our records all sound the same, but I think every song introduces something unique, or some twist. We hold ourselves to a high standard in that regard.”

Fantasy Empire, Lightning Bolt’s recently released Thrill Jockey debut, finds the Providence, Rhode Island-based duo making its biggest sonic departure to date, leaving behind its preferred method of recording (past albums were tracked live in a variety of dingy practice spaces, lending the records “a more desperate feel,” according to Gibson) in favor of the comparatively scrubbed-up confines of the Rhode Island recording studio Machines With Magnets.

“Early on we did try to record using some of the techniques we've used on other records in the past … and we weren't satisfied with the results,” Gibson said. “I think at this stage we wanted to hear a different side of us, and it took us a little while to come to the conclusion that, ‘Hey, maybe we should try recording in the studio.’ It was something we’d avoided and figured we'd never do — for various reasons — but it became pretty clear to us that it might be the boldest, most shocking sonic direction we could take.”

The increased fidelity eases some of the congestion in the band’s sonic squall, like rush hour traffic gradually giving way to open roads, and highlights the long-developed interplay between the two musicians. Chippendale, whom Gibson described as the duo’s engine, still has a way of making his drum kit rumble like an eerily choreographed herd of Clydesdales, but Gibson matches this intensity lockstep on ferocious cuts like “Horsepower,” a brawler that finds the two trading punches like a pair of heavyweight prize fighters standing toe-to-toe at center ring.

“I think we both wrestle with each other about volume, and sometimes it's not clear who's making the other play louder,” Gibson said. “When I started playing with Brian he was creating this rumble that could fill a room by itself, and there were times when we played where I was hanging on for survival. I only had this small speaker, and I could barely make any sound above him. Now I can compete with him — and this goes back 15 years — but that changed the dynamic and the character of the music.”

While Fantasy Empire marks Lightning Bolt’s debut studio recording, it’s not the first time the players have dabbled with making music in a more professional setting.

“We have gone into studios in the past, but it was never comfortable for us. Brian needs to have a lot of volume behind him to motivate him to play [because] what he's doing is so physical and requires this adrenaline rush, and I think it's harder to do that in a context where you're wearing headphones,” Gibson said. “This time we were more open to it, I think, and there was a curiosity about what could happen if we … had a little more patience for the process.”

It certainly helps that the band has increasingly opened its sound to outsiders. While the duo built its reputation on chaotic live shows where it placed its gear in the middle of the audience and played encircled by a flailing mass of humanity — “If we had a really crowded show there was this phenomenon of Brian's drums drifting away like they were in some kind of undertow,” Gibson said — the musicians have set up in a more traditional onstage formation in recent years.

“And when you play on the stage you have all these sound people who are helping you go through the PA and mixing you and all these things. You have to surrender yourself a little bit to other people's decisions in that situation,” the bassist said. “We're really slowly learning how to let other people get involved in our sound.”

Even so, Lightning Bolt’s music still hinges on the relationship between longtime running mates Gibson and Chippendale (the bassist said the two have an even better personal and professional understanding these days than in the band’s earliest years), and that ability to consistently find fresh inspiration in the shopworn bass-drums pairing.

“I think I've had many years in the past where I was like, ‘There's nothing left. We've done it all, and I should change directions and do something else,’” Gibson said. “But whenever we come back together and start playing, new things happen. Then there will be this whole other way of thinking about [the music], and it just keeps right on going.”

Natalja Kent photos

Double Happiness

8 p.m. Thursday, April 16

482 S. Front St., Brewery District