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Artist on Artist: Brian Chippendale of Black Pus and Lightning Bolt talks with Seth Sher of Zath and Psychic Steel

"I like to listen to stuff and then go play. I'll watch the latest Rihanna video and then go play drums."

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Music fans know Brian Chippendale as a guy who's created an astonishing, hyperactive racket from behind a paint-splattered drum kit for almost 20 years now. Comics fans know him as a guy who crowds pages with anxiety-­inducing panels in the series Maggots and Puke Force. From either angle, the dude is a complete weirdo genius. His drumming relies more on intensity and nonstop snare clatter than technical skill or precision—he's compared his playing to his drawing style, where he fills up every possible bit of paper with busy, in-your-face ink. Best known as one half of groundbreaking noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt, Chippendale is currently touring in support of All My Relations (Thrill Jockey), the new LP from his solo project, Black Pus. On this latest album he exhibits some very uncharacteristic moments of self-control—at times he even plays something resembling a straightforward beat.

Interviewing Chippendale for this week's Artist on Artist is drummer Seth Sher, who plays in Chicago thrash revivalists Zath and maintains a solo project of his own, the proggy Psychic Steel. This isn't the first time that Chippendale and Sher have crossed paths: in 2002 Chippendale delivered a CD-R by Sher's old noise-rock band Coughs into the hands of Load Records founder Ben McOsker, which eventually led to the two drummers becoming labelmates and friends. Luca Cimarusti

I know so little about your solo project. I've seen you play twice, I think, and I have that one record you gave me when Ga'an played with you in Providence like two years ago.

Was it an actual LP?

Yeah, it was an LP. I can't remember the name of it. I actually have it on the record player.

There's only two LPs now. I mean, there's a split 12-inch, but the first—there was the first LP on Load, called Primordial Pus.

Oh yeah, that's the one. It's pretty awesome, but I never investigated other stuff. I find myself often just too busy working on my own shit, which I guess sounds kinda selfish. Even people that I really respect, I just never—

I'm such a busy person, it's hard to keep up with anyone!

Yeah, exactly. I find myself getting obsessed with the most ridiculous things that I hated forever—suddenly I'm like, "Why have I listened to Graceland by Paul Simon like 100 times in a row?" It's never my friends' projects. But then when I do finally get to investigate, I realize you have a ton of stuff. Yeah, there's stuff going on. It's kinda weird what I've been obsessed with lately. I feel like I've been listening to—Paul Simon's Graceland isn't really that embarrassing. I've just been listening to Kid Cudi for the last two weeks.

Kid Cudi? I just saw a poster for that recently. I have no idea what that is.

It's a hip-hop guy. I think he's got like three records out and probably some other weird mixtape things, or whatever people put out. But he kinda crosses over a little bit into well-­produced indie-electronica stuff. There's that weird genre where he worked with, like, MGMT and Ratatat. I think I've actually been listening to more stuff without live drummers lately.

No, I have as well. I've been obsessed with techno and weird acid-house stuff.

It's definitely a different scene. It's funny, I just did another interview conversation, but it was kinda long and e-mail style, with this guy Dan Friel, who—

The Parts & Labor dude?

Yeah, Parts & Labor. He has a new record out, also on Thrill Jockey, and we were talking about, "Oh, self-recording," and I was saying how I've started segueing back into a hi-fi studio and he's been doing stuff at home. And the thing we didn't really talk about—but I think the big thing that divides the two—is the recording of the live drums, versus him not using live drums. When you have live drums in your project, it's just an entirely different thing.

In my solo project I play drums, but I essentially sequence everything and play along with it. There's not really much interaction happening between me and the electronics, which I think is a lot different for you because you have prerecorded loops but you're switching them on and off, right, while you're—

Yeah, I've just got a couple Line 6 pedals. They're prerecorded in that I record them right before I play the song, which is cool because—

Like backstage?

No, there's no memory card. Those pedals, you record one and then—

You're recording it before you start, or you're doing it—

Right before I play a song, I'll sort of sing a loop or play an oscillator into a loop, because I have two of these pedals. So the tempo changes, and the subtleties of it, like the notes, kind of change. Everything sort of warbles differently every time I play them. And then I flip them, and when I kick them in, I try not to play along with them so much as play them, with my left foot.

Yeah.

But it's super limiting, for good or for bad. At times I wish I had some prerecorded stuff, but I just haven't gone there yet. I mean, the best idea of course is to just get a band. [Laughter.]

Yeah, have you ever thought about doing that?

A little bit, but I still feel like I have some unexplored stuff, at least with this project. If I do something, I tend to supercommit to it. So I'm scared if I bring in some other people, then there's gonna be some allegiance to them that's gonna get all messed up between Lightning Bolt and them.

You just have to rule like a tyrant.

Yeah, I'm kinda ready for that. Lightning Bolt's just been this democracy for so long, and the solo stuff has been a lot of reacting to a two-­person democracy—there's this sort of senatorial paralysis that can happen.

I definitely started doing a solo project because I just got so tired of—

You're just like, "Why is it taking us a month to write a song? I can write a song in five minutes."

[Laughs.] "How 'bout I just write it?"

"How 'bout I just write it and I just play it all?" And then it's done.

And then they're like, "Well, y'know, I wanna add this part that's representative of, like, my part of the band," and you're like, "Fuck that."

I tried to pull that stuff with Brian Gibson in Lightning Bolt, but then he just plays 40,000 times better than I can on bass and puts me in my place.

That's also the problem with me. I have no training in music theory or anything like that, and I'm often trying to explain things to bandmates, like, "No, you should do this, and it's like the B." And then they're like, "B? That doesn't make any sense in the circle of fifths." And I'm like, "Well, I don't know what it is, but that note, it's like—here, just let me play it." And then I play it and then they take it, and they do the same thing infinitely better than I can.

Right. But it's good, because you've got to communicate. I definitely don't think that not having any training should stop you from showing a trained person what to do with their instrument.

Yeah.

Because even a person that's super-good, if you have it in perspective, you can add—sometimes people who are really good have a hard time with simplicity.

I have the opposite problem, where I'm not that good but I have trouble making anything simple.

Your stuff's pretty complicated, historically!

I don't know why I lean that way, but—

You're a prog monster!

I know, I just listen to too much Magma and jazz fusion.

You gotta go with it till you just can't go any further, I guess.

I'm trying! I've been trying recently to make my solo stuff simpler, using a lot more four-to-the-floor kicks and trying to inspire some kind of dance mania. It rarely happens because everybody just stands there looking at me play the drums, which is kinda why I don't wanna play the drums anymore—I'm composing these pieces that I think are really awesome on their own, and then I play drums over them and people are only focusing on the drums.

You can get some maniacal singer who actually isn't allowed to sing that much but just—like the Can style, just get a cheerleader up there.

That's exactly what I've been thinking about, like, "What other person would I want in the band?" And I'm like, "I think a singer." I'm really inspired by a lot of African music—Fela Kuti and Afro-funk and. . . . Actually, one of the people that works at the Reader, Philip Montoro, turned me on to this band called Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. On the surface it's really dancey and really fun, but when you really listen to it, there are so many dense insane polyrhythms happening.

You should send me a link or that name or something, I wanna check that out.

For sure. They have an amazing video—it's all marionettes that are made to look like the band members, and they're performing the song. But the reason I thought about having a singer is because I think of things like Fela Kuti where there's just these songs that sort of evolve and meander over a really long time, and the thing that holds them together is the vocals. Just having somebody that's not sitting behind a drum set—like, engaging an audience.

Yeah, yeah, I agree. I think that a duo of drumming and singing would be a really sweet thing.

Obviously you're an incredibly physical, athletic drummer. I almost think that stuff transcends the drums themselves. Do you consider yourself a drummer, or do you consider the sort of energy you're putting out more important than the drumming itself?

I think that probably the energy is still more important. I've played a lot over the years and have had many people come and tell me I'm a great drummer and all this stuff. But I still don't feel like a great drummer. I learn slowly, if at all, sometimes.

I feel ya.

And I expand my vocabulary very slowly. There's a lot of drumming things that I cannot do—and I don't care to do, in a way.

Yeah.

And then other times I surprise myself, like if I change up. Because I think that drummers are also defined by their sets, like the way they have their drum sets. I played a more traditional set for a little while—with a hi-hat, and drums in the right spots, and maybe more well-tuned drums. And I was like, "Oh my God, I can play all these, like, drum beats." [Laughter.] Things that seemed a little more complicated or interesting. 'Cause I went—I actually went on this crazy trip. I went to the United Arab Emirates for a week.

I just read about that.

Which was awesome. And I played drums. We went and played drums for four days together, just with a group of people—

Was it the Ruins drummer?

Yeah, Ruins' drummer, and then Yoshimi, one of the Boredoms. This guy Kevin Shea from New York. He has a really—I don't wanna say funny, but he has a weird, really interesting style. Really fast and it's sort of fluttery. And then this guy Jim Black, who's amazing. We were either playing solo or doing, like, duos or trios—up to all ten of us playing together. And none of them were, like, studio guys to the point where all they are is technique.

They're not pure technicians, they still have their own styles.

I could feel my limitations as a drummer amongst some of these people. And also my strong points, which sometimes are endurance and energy and—I mean, I might be kidding myself, but in my own parameters I think I can listen fairly well to stuff and be aware of what I'm doing and what's going on. I consider myself a musician and I consider myself, like, an energy provider—

Energy provider! I like that.

Energy abuser! I love playing drums and they're my go-to thing, but I'm not a student of the drums by any means.

Right. It's a very different thing. I feel like when I play, it's extremely cathartic and can be really transcendent. But I definitely don't necessarily think of myself as a drummer, for a lot of the same reasons that you were saying—there are so many drummers that know what the hell they're doing. And then there's lots of drummers that are really incredible and, y'know, I admire them, but I don't necessarily consider them musicians, if that makes sense.

Yeah, they're technicians.

They know how to play lots of things; they know how to conserve their energy.

Yeah, that's a big one! [Laughs.]

Yeah, conserving energy, that's always been a big thing of mine. Especially doing Zath.

And they know how to play genres of music too—drummers that can play beats within genres quickly, like, "Play this kind of beat. Now play that kind of beat."

I definitely feel like I've gotten better at that, but I still think I'm playing the type of drums that I know how to do, which is a very limited bag of tricks that I happen to have gotten really good at because I like to do it. If a real technician saw me play, they'd wonder why I did most of the things that I was doing and could probably tell me lots of different ways that I could do the same thing in a more efficient, more controlled way.

But, y'know, there's something—that's why we're artists. 'Cause we're broken.

I'm an artist! I'm not a drummer.

There's this huge sliding scale of technician versus artist versus almost, like, craftsperson. Sometimes I feel like bands that, I don't know, sound like the Rolling Stones or something, they're almost like craftspeople—they're working within a genre and making a thing that relates to the things that came before it, but not trying to push in a new direction.

Yeah, that's a weird thing. I've never felt compelled to really learn other people's songs or learn somebody else's style.

I like to listen to stuff and then go play—like, listen to something really removed and then I'll play drums and try to filter some inkling of that foreign substance through my playing. Like, I'll watch the latest Rihanna video and then go play drums.

And attempt to play drums like the beats in the Rihanna song?

Yeah, kind of—try to play them or use that as just a starting position.

Just a jump-off point. "I wanna see what it sounds like if I try to do something like this."

Yeah, pretty much. But it's anything that you hear that inspires you, where you're just, "Oh my God I gotta go play," like, "I heard a beat and I have to start with that." And then completely shed it, but just start with that.

Yeah, a lot of times I'll do something like that and play for a while and feel like I've really accomplished something, and then the next time I sit down at the drums I have, like, no idea what I did the last time. There's this burst of inspiration and then—

One of the other drummers I played with on this trip to the Emirates was this guy Morten Olsen—he was in this band called MoHa! Have you ever heard of them?

Nope.

You should check it out. They're a duo from Norway, or they were—he's living in Berlin now. It's superfast precision and kind of Locusty at times. He's amazing. It's really ferocious but then it just breaks down, where it feels like controlled pouring of glass or something, between him and the guy playing guitar.

Yeah.

It's pretty wild, some of the MoHa! stuff.

I should check it out. When I was listening to the new record and thinking about Lightning Bolt, I was thinking about how you seem to have this knack for writing . . . I don't know if "anthem" is the right word? The vocal melodies and the melodies of the bass in Lightning Bolt just have this simple, catchy quality to them. People are obviously drawn to that and drawn to the energy of it, but then it always has this grossness, this kind of nasty underlying sound, and I was wondering if you felt like that at all.

I definitely hear the anthem thing. I like catchy lyrics—I mean, not lyrics, but vocal lines and stuff. I'm utterly impressed by the Police, like old Sting hooks. I like that stuff a lot. And for Lightning Bolt—it's funny 'cause it sneaks into some songs. Brian Gibson kinda shies away from it; I almost think he's embarrassed by that stuff. And I maybe push it a little more, and he tries to get away from it because there's a cheesiness factor to the anthem kind of stuff. I've heard people say, like, "Chippendale's Playground Chants" or something to describe some of the songs I sing. But I'm into that. I think that part of it is—I'm just making shit up—with the physicality of what I'm doing, it's like conjuring up your own cheering section. I don't wanna tie it into some world of sports, but it's just, like, conjuring up a way of singing that gets you psyched to continue the drumming.

That's interesting.

And also just remembering—it's easier to remember a catchy phrase.

It's pop music, because you write a catchy line, you write a hook, it's four bars long, it's really simple, and anybody can sing along to it and get into it.

And you can remember it when it's time to play the song! There are definitely some songs that I try to play—and it's specifically solo stuff—where I just can't remember. I practice it a couple times, and then I go to play the show and I just can't remember the melody anymore. Maybe because the solo stuff isn't reinforced by whatever the other Brian's playing.

It's relying 100 percent on you remembering it. And if you can't, then, well, maybe something's wrong.

It's funny because I haven't even fully explored that stuff—I still just try to use it when it makes sense, but . . .

It has this really jovial quality, but then it'll have these nasty bass sounds that feel—

That's funny, because that little jovial quality is the quality that keeps some of my friends from listening to what I do—they're just like, "I like this stuff except for the goddamn singing."

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