Brian Chippendale

Portraits

Brian Chippendale

by Hank Shteamer

Pretty might not be what he’s aiming for. But when Lightning Bolt’s drummer sits behind the kit, people move, and they think. What more could you ask for?When you think of a drummer playing dance beats, you might envision a session pro in the studio, synchronizing his or her limbs with a click track. But since the mid-’90s, one of America’s foremost body-moving percussionists, Brian Chippendale, has thrived in a far less sterile setting: jam-packed DIY shows in lofts and other unconventional spaces. As half of the Providence, Rhode Island, duo Lightning Bolt, Chippendale has perfected a new kind of dance-oriented drumming, one tailored to and informed by the conditions of the modern rock underground.

Watch a clip of a Lightning Bolt show, and you’ll see a roomful of twentysomethings squashed together and throbbing like a single organism in time to thunderous noise-metal riffs furnished by Chippendale and bassist Brian Gibson. In one corner, set up on the floor in front of an enormous amp wall, Chippendale sits, wearing what looks like a colorful patchwork ski mask and firing-range earphones. He pounds on his snare, ride, and bass drum in a spastic ballet, yielding beats that sound like a cross between funk innovator Clyde Stubblefield and a runaway jackhammer. Meanwhile, giddy show-goers slam into his kit from all sides.

“Playing parties and floor shows, having to navigate around crowd members, getting knocked into—it’s allowed me to look at a lot of what we do as less precious,” Chippendale says. “It’s allowed me to do more fluid playing. I have to be liquidy, like a little river or something, because there’s going to be obstacles that appear in my path and I have to drum my way around them or through them and still continue to play the kit.”

The notion of drumming as a cartoonishly frantic struggle squares with Chippendale’s image. During the past decade, Brian has taken on the role of an underground superhero, a stick-flipping dynamo in disguise who travels the world soundtracking an endless series of wild blowouts, while also finding the time to double as a successful visual artist, drawing whimsical yet hyper-detailed comics. But like many musicians who find fame operating in an extreme style, Chippendale wants to prove that there’s more to his work than raw energy.

“I’m ready to step out from behind the noise a little bit,” the Providence-based thirty-nine-year-old drummer tells MD when we speak via phone. He’s particularly excited about his solo project, Black Pus, which released its first widely distributed LP, All My Relations, this past March. Chippendale’s vocals, delivered into a telephone mic that he built into his mask, have been a part of Lightning Bolt for years, but here they take on a more central role. Tracks like “1,000 Years” pair playfully theatrical singing with stripped-down, hard-grooving beats. Black Pus is still far too noisy to be mistaken for pop, but on All My Relations you hear Chippendale exploring his innate love of song.

The Black Pus repertoire springs from the drummer’s regular practice sessions—lengthy, free-form workouts at the kit, with vocals and electronics at the ready. “Every day I sit down and start playing and singing, and some weird new song comes out,” Chippendale says. “It seems like there’s one song in my head every day that needs to be extricated from my psyche. I have to get this song out of me first. That’s the way most of my solo songs are written; it’s just the first thing that comes out when I sit down to practice.”

Chippendale has always taken an intuitive approach to music. He studied saxophone growing up near Philadelphia, but as a drummer he’s entirely self-taught. He formed his first band in the late ’80s with three friends, including a guitarist who knew Hüsker Dü songs and a bassist who could play Metallica lines. Chippendale and the fourth member each wanted to sing, so they drew straws for the privilege; Chippendale lost and ended up on drums.

At first, equipment was an issue. “For the first couple practices, I had one drumstick and an old leather boot,” Brian recalls. Eventually, he upgraded to a Roland electronic kit. “I didn’t even know how to program the brain, so I just made laser sounds.” He eventually saved up and bought a proper kit. “I was pretty instantly able to hold down a straight 4/4 beat. A really exciting moment was when I was able to do a double hit [consecutive 8th notes] on the bass drum. I remember that being this amazing step. When I did that, my bandmate was like, ‘Wow, you just graduated.’”

Chippendale formed Lightning Bolt with Gibson in 1994, when both were attending the Rhode Island School of Design. They soon recruited a guitarist/singer but parted ways with him by the time of their self-titled debut, which consisted mostly of raw live recordings from 1997 and 1998. The duo began touring extensively, avoiding proper stages whenever possible and building up a mythic reputation.

In 2003, Chippendale and Gibson issued Wonderful Rainbow, their third full-length and, arguably, their definitive statement to date. It’s a magical record, an overdriven riff fest that combines the speed and density of thrash metal with childlike whimsy. Here Chippendale established his signature sound, marked by rapid-fire bass drum thuds and scrambling, high-pitched snare work.

Whether he’s navigating a series of fiendish syncopations on “Dracula Mountain” or slamming out a simple backbeat on “Crown of Storms,” Chippendale has an unmistakable voice on the kit. “It has to be something that I can get mentally and physically involved in and feel good in,” he says, describing his main criteria for evaluating a particular pattern. Chippendale developed an unorthodox setup—sans hi-hat or left-side crash cymbal, and with a floor tom to the left of the snare—that helped him navigate the kit efficiently. “Because I was trying to play so fast, I couldn’t get over to the other side of the bass drum,” he explains. “So I’ve got this triangle of drums—floor tom, high tom, snare—right in front of me, and then I never have to leave that area.”

Chippendale’s ability to merge machinelike precision with a very human kind of chaos sparked interest from various high-profile eccentrics, and the drummer would go on to appear in the Boredoms’ 77 Boadrum performance in Brooklyn in 2007, and on records by the Flaming Lips, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and Björk. Working with Björk inspired Brian to pay more attention to tuning. “I was so used to playing loud stuff,” he says. “With Björk, I went in with my kit and played this stuff that [used] a way wider vocabulary of loudness to softness. And my drums sounded like a snare drum and three wet socks. I realized there was just no note! Playing with her made me want to add a little bit more notes.”

Given his range of experiences, it’s hardly a shock to find that Chippendale draws inspiration from all across the aesthetic spectrum. One of his first major influences was Charlie Ondras, former drummer for the veteran NYC noise-rock trio Unsane, who worked with that band from its 1988 founding until his untimely death in 1992. “I saw them play with him, and he was like a wind-up Energizer bunny,” Chippendale recalls. “The set would start, and he would just start pounding on the bass drum: bap-bap-bap-bap-bap. That hit me really hard, and I definitely adopted doing that.”

Chippendale later gravitated toward first-wave free-jazz drummers such as Rashied Ali and Milford Graves. “There’s just these waves of rolls,” Brian says of Ali’s playing on John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. “I really like the way he rolls and crescendos and crashes. It’s so not rock, in a way; there’s a level of fluidity that feels like nature.”

On a practical level, though, it’s often contemporary pop that finds its way most directly into Chippendale’s playing. “I’ll be sitting there watching a Rihanna song on YouTube,” the drummer says. “I’m not watching, like, math-rock stuff and thinking, Wow, that’s really complicated. It’s more like simplistic groove stuff that usually gets me excited to go play drums.”

And it’s those same basic grooves that sometimes trip Chippendale up. When asked what about his playing he hopes to improve, he cites an unlikely technique. “There’s a new Lightning Bolt song that’s kind of like a blues beat [sings simple shuffle pattern], and I constantly obliterate it—I think because I try to play it too fast. It’s so stupid, and it’s probably what the majority of drummers know exactly how to do, but I’m so shitty at it. I’ll end up just filling in [the spaces] because it’s easier. After drumming for twenty-something years, I want to learn blues beats!”

But that desire goes hand in hand with a drive to move listeners in new ways. “I just want to be able to work out some rad dance beats,” Chippendale says. “Clean, interesting, maybe more pop beats.” For a drummer who’s devoted so much of his life to honing a frenetic style, that sounds like an admirable goal.

Tools Of The Trade

Brian Chippendale setup

Chippendale plays a Pearl Export kit of unknown date with a 22″ bass drum, two 12″ toms, and a 16″ floor tom, along with a ’70s-era Ludwig 5×14 Supraphonic snare. He currently favors a 22″ Zildjian A Custom Ping ride and an 18″ Sabian AA Rocktagon. Chippendale’s preferred heads are Remos, including a Clear Pinstripe bass drum batter, a Coated Emperor snare batter, and Coated Ambassador tom batters. He uses a DW 9000 bass drum pedal, a DW throne, and Zildjian Absolute Rock sticks.

 


5 Key Chippendale Performances


“Assassins”
Lightning Bolt, Wonderful Rainbow (2003)
This track lays out the core elements of the Brian Chippendale style: a jackhammer bass drum pulse offset by scrambling snare cracks. Throughout the piece, Chippendale builds tension by omitting the snare and then adding it back, homing in on Brian Gibson’s bass riffs like an angry wasp.

“Mega Ghost”
Lightning Bolt, Hypermagic Mountain (2005)
The unaccompanied drum intro here, a frenzied, accent-riddled dance beat gone haywire, demonstrates Chippendale’s ability to flirt with utter chaos while maintaining a strong sense of groove. During the chorus, the drummer unites with Gibson to form a single blunt instrument: a cartoon-metal battering ram that rattles your skull and mashes on your pleasure buttons.

“Rotator”
Lightning Bolt, Ride the Skies (2001)
In this early-period Lightning Bolt endurance test, Chippendale takes on the role of a drum machine stuck in the “on” position. Underneath Gibson’s warped-beyond-recognition bass, he pounds out a series of snare-kick patterns that sound at once robotic and supremely funky. Bonus: The stop-time passage in the middle features a rare example of Chippendale playing hi-hat.

“Dracula Mountain”
Lightning Bolt, Wonderful Rainbow (2003)
Chippendale has an aesthetic that’s more punk than prog, but he doesn’t shy away from mathy rhythmic obstacle courses, as heard in this live Lightning Bolt favorite. The accents of the central riff mutate and slide with each successive repetition, falling later and later in the bar. It’s a tricky pattern, yet as is often the case with the Gibson/Chippendale tandem, they loop it enough to make it feel like a mantra. Later in the song Chippendale indulges in bite-size blast-beat freak-outs and a party-rocking shimmy—his version of a ’50s-style backbeat.

“1,000 Years”
Black Pus, All My Relations (2013)
Chippendale plays the role of merry troubadour in this standout from his first widely released solo LP, layering a singsongy vocal pattern over a sloshy swing beat—a ringer for Fab Moretti’s intro to the Strokes’ “Last Nite” (and, by extension, Hunt Sales’ beat on Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”). The drums play an accompanying role; contrasting the maximal aesthetic he favors in Lightning Bolt, Chippendale lays back here, letting his voice take center stage.