Despite the fact that most of what he creates is loud and exciting, Brian Gibson works pretty quietly. Based in Providence Rhode Island since the mid-nineties, Gibson is best known as the base player for the noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt, and lesser known for his work with groups like Black Dice, Wizardzz as well as his animated series / shit-destroying live band Barkley's Barnyard Critters. His most recent project is Thumper, a terrifyingly addictive video game in development for the past 3 years, showing Gibson's continued labor to create new experiences that transcend expectations.

Where are you from?
Burlington, Vermont.
Were you an arty high school kid?
No. I was weird but I wasn’t arty. I didn’t fit in. There were some Goth kids, jocks and the sort of academic superstars and all these other groups. I just wasn’t really a part of any of them. There were a couple of other kids that were like me and we just kind of wore vague button down collared shirts and we were really nondescript. I think I thought I was going to go into biology.
Were you into music?
My grandfather bought me a bass guitar when I was a sophomore in high school. I got really into that and I started playing with my brother who played drums. By my senior year I was playing shows with my brother and going out to some shows. There wasn’t much going on in Burlington that was that great. I was kind of just really excited anytime I got a chance to see any live music. If I was walking down the street and there’s some fusion jazz band playing at a bar or something, I would be like, “That’s crazy… live music… I can’t believe it.” I wasn’t very discriminating in high school.
How did you decide to go to RISD?
I think it just dawned on me. I’m the youngest in my family. All of my older siblings went to Yale. They were all kind of these academic people and I just wasn’t as strong academically as they were. I was realizing that art was just the one thing I really enjoyed doing. I saw that my brother’s friend went to RISD. thought he was a really cool guy. I actually work with him now.
Doing what?
Making videogames.
What did you study when you came to RISD?
Painting, illustration. I wanted to do animation.
What kind of animations were you into?
I guess I liked Ralph Bakshi movies a lot. Do you know this movie Wizards? He did some crazy stuff with live action and animation combined. He did Lord of the Rings. It’s got all this rotoscope stuff so they film people doing stuff, live action and then they drew over it. It’s really trippy.
How did you meet Brian Chippendale?
I met Brian Chippendale in my freshman year. I think I saw him playing at a party. He was playing drums at a party. In a room by himself. Maybe there were two people sitting on the floor.
Was he a really good drummer back then?
Yeah, and I was really interested in finding a good drummer. At that point my opinion was that a really good drummer makes a band really good. I was asking my brother about who played drums and he said Brian was the best drummer in Providence.
Were you seeing like local acts when you moved here?
Yeah. Six Finger Satellite and Hydrogen Terrors were like really a huge thing when I came to Providence. I saw them a couple of times and it was really awesome. I think Providence went through a big transformation after Boredoms came through in like 1994. They played Lupos. It was a really good show. Yoshemi screaming super high pitch she was wailing on the high hat and this guy playing funk guitar and the singer just jumping around. He had a t-shirt on and he was just swinging around in the rafters and stuff. It was just totally insane, really exciting.
When you and Brian started playing, was it immediately called Lightning Bolt?
Yeah. We had a few conversations about what we should be called. The only other name I remember thinking about was Frog and Toad.
If I heard early Lightning Bolt would I recognize it?
Maybe not. It was slower. Brian has always been kind of the same level of drummer but he’s just gotten faster and faster. I didn’t have as much distortion. I wasn’t using all the pedals I’m using now to make it super blown out and distorted so it kind of had this clean feel to it. It was just a little bit like rhythmically funkier than we ended up being.
Did you change your playing around his drumming?
After a while I started to get really into the way he was playing the kick drum. I just started really following it more directly. That to me became sort of a defining quality of Lightning Bolt.
What was your first show?
The first show we played at Car House, which is this coffee shop on RISD campus. We brought in a bunch of TVs with static and put like red cellophane over them so the room had this glow to it.
Did Brian have the mask with microphone at the beginning?
Well, we had Hisham Barocha singing for us in the beginning for the first couple of years.
I didn’t know that. What did it sound like?
Kind of like Can? Japanese chanting sounding stuff. He had a delay pedal and he was singing a bunch of stuff and then swirling it around with his delay pedal. Just being pretty psychedelic.
He was in Blaick Dice? What was Lightning Bolt’s relationship to Black Dice?
Well, I was playing drums with them in the beginning.
I didn’t know that either. They were like a hardcore band at the beginning right?
When I started playing with those guys it was the first time they had been in a band and they didn’t really know what they wanted to do. There were some vague goals but were were really just screwing around. I actually think the whole hardcore thing was just kind of funny for Bjorne and those guys. It was not totally in character. We wanted to do something crazy as friends and I think being able to pull off anything would have been really satisfying.
Was Fort Thunder happening at this point already?
Yeah. They must have all started around ’95. I moved in ‘97. I was only there for like a year. I actually got really bummed out when I was living there.
Why?
Because I was broke and Brian and I were having a really rough relationship at that point. I was going through my equipment, just blowing it up over and over again and having to buy speakers and buy cabinets. I just didn’t have that much money. I was working serving coffee to people on College Hill and just felt totally stuck. I mean, Fort Thunder was a cool place but...
What was your kind of participation?
I did some comics in Paper Rodeo for Barkely’s Barnyard Critters, but I wasn’t really a big participant. I was kind of a little bit of an outsider there. Barkley’s Barnyard Critters kind of came out of me wanting to do something with a bunch of friends that I had that were outside that Fort Thunder group.
How exactly did Barkley’s Barnyard Critters start?
Me and a bunch of my friends were just really drunk at a party and I was doing the Barkley voice. I was kind of acting like McGruff, telling everyone not to do drugs. It was just some weird, retarded party scenario where the next day everyone was like, oh, it was really funny when you were being that dog.
Did you have a mask at that point?
No, I was just telling people I was a dog. I just was doing the dog voice. At some point later Joe Bradley and Warren Bennett, two of my friends wanted to start a band called Barkley’s Dog House Blues Band. A band with animals- something really stupid that would be fun. Everybody in the band kind of came up with their own personas that they were going to be. Warren had this really perfect character for the vulture that he could do a voice for.. Everybody knew exactly what he was supposed to be. That band came together totally perfectly I can’t remember how we actually ended up setting up our first show.
My Ipod got trampled at your last show at Puffers. Were you guys shit destroyers from the beginning when you guys played?
Not really. We’ve always wanted to this really theatrical thing, not rowdy, screwing things up, making a mess. But we’d never practiced enough never quite put together the crazy drama that we wanted for the show, so we just be animals having a good time. That’s why shit gets destroyed.
How did it become a cartoon?
I started drawing that stuff when I was in New York around 2000. I got to this point where I wanted to make an animation and put together stories with those characters. Like, “This is what Barkley would look like... This is what Brockton would look like…” The way I drew everything wasn’t really endorsed by anyone else in the band. I just really wanted to do more with them.
Did you do all the voices yourself?
Initially I was getting everybody who played the characters to do their voices. For all the YouTube stuff I’m doing now I do all the voices because it’s easier.
I want to get back to Lightining Bolt. When I looked up you on Wikipedia there was some very specific things about the stringing of your bass.
When I started playing with Brian, I was just playing bass and it was really fun. But when we listened back to the recordings it just sounded like it didn’t have that much dynamic range particularly with the pitch. It was all just like low and it was hard to hear melodies. So I added a Banjo string.
Why a Banjo string?
Banjo strings are longer so it fits on the bass. I just wanted to add something that was accessible, had a really high range. Otherwise just bass to me is just too limiting. I like being stripped down and limited as a band and not having a lot of options, but I just didn’t like how gray everything sounded without having that sort of crisp, bright, high note in there. Later I got a Whammy Pedal too. Sometimes I’ll use the whammy pedal and the banjo string to get a super high pitch.
I feel like when I listen to the new albums that there is always a desire for some kind of sonic discovery.
Well it would be really hard to release an album where I felt like we were doing the same thing that we did before. I always feel like everything that I make artistically is always a bit improvisational and it’s always kind of iterative. I’m always trying to find something better. I never really feel like anything’s arrived. At the begininning of Lightning Bolt I was trying to just find some kind of music that I could play that would complement Brian in the right way. But he’s still changing so it’s kind of a moving target.
Your shows are have a really particular live energy. I always thought Lightning Bolt mosh pits are different to other mosh pits.
I think if there is one thing that Brian and I share in terms of what Lightning Bolt is, it’s that we both have this anxiety almost every second of the show about people getting bored. I think that always made the shows more exciting because at any given time if something wasn’t working, we just had to stop playing it right then and and there and just start playing something else. Or just change it into something else to get it to work. I think both of us just really feel it when people aren’t responding to what we’re doing and it’s a horrible feeling and we work really hard to change that when it happens.
That rules.
I see a lot of bands where it just seems like they’re not thinking about that at all. They’re just playing their songs and they’re not really paying attention to what the energy in the room is. I mean that’s totally fine, but for us a live show should be this certain level of interaction with the audience. If it’s not there then it’s just like failure. I’m surprised that it’s more rare than it is. It seems like it’s actually a really rare thing.
How did you get involved with video games?
A friend of mine was the art director at Harmonics. I saw him in a restaurant and I just straight up asked him if he had any work because I needed a job. He was familiar with stuff I had done before and let me just learn the tools that they were using there. I did a good job so they hired me.
You worked on Guitar Hero, right?
Yeah, but I didn’t have a huge contribution. I was doing effects and and lighting, things like that. It did get me thinking about that genre of games. Like, Thumper is a really stripped down version of that type of genre.
How did Thumper start?
Well, at Harmonix I didn’t even really know the program I was working with that well so I just kind of arbitrarily asking different codecs harmonics if they wanted to work on this game with me. This guy, Mark, was kind of interested in it. I suggested we just start working on this game on the side, treat it kind of like a band. Something we do on the weekends for fun. We don’t even really think of it as something that we’re doing for financial gain or anything like that. It was just making something cool, which is the way bands are a lot of the time. But it’s not often like that with games.
How long have you been working on it now?
We’ve been making it for years actually. We, well, Mark, had to build an engine.
What’s an engine for video games?
To build a game, you need to build the tools that you’re going to use to build the game. Nowadays you can actually just buy engines where people already built the tools that you’re going to use to build your game. A lot of those engines that are out there not are really powerful now but Mark and I were just really interested in building a world from the ground up and having the structure of the world embedded in the game mechanics itself.
OK.
It’s a little hard to describe. Initially I was kind of into this idea of having a game editor that worked a lot like the way Fruity Loops works as a music editor. Have you ever used Fruity Loops?
I’ve haven’t but my friends have. I hear it’s really easy and fun to use.
Yeah. It’s just like a music sequencer where you have a grid and you can sort of place things along the grid. I thought it would be cool to make a world just like a grid where you could define everything that’s happening along this path that you’re moving along- all the contours, bends, game play, interactions, everything. We had to build our own engine to get that.
What’s the learning curve been like for you?
Well, video games are very, very scientific. It’s a really empirical process where you think you know what you want but then when you see it you realize that it doesn’t work and but this other thing that you didn’t expect works better.
Do you guys have a desired experience in mind for the person that’s playing the game?
I’ve had this vague notion that it should be really fast. It should have this really simple interaction that’s really powerful. I just want it to be viscerally powerful and simple. How to achieve that has kind of evolved.
There are characters too, right?
I think with a videogame, if you’re going to motivate people to go on this journey, you need to give them some kind of arbitrary motivations and enemies. When I started working on this I was getting Matt Brinkman to help me. He actually drew the first design for Thumper, the actual bug. He came up with the name Crackhead. He had a big list of names but we thought Crackhead was really funny.
What’s Crackhead?
Crackhead is sort of a metaphor.We want the game to be super addictive. As you’re in the game the character gets more and more just freaked out and cracked out and frazzled and fucked up. Hopefully that’s kind of what the player’s experiencing as they’re getting more and more addicted to the videogame and are progressing through it and it just gets harder and it just kind of fucks you up.
What was it about video games that got you interested?
I have all these friends that are painters and comic book artists and sculptors and things like that. It’s just nice to work on something where you’re not competing with anybody that you know. I don’t know anybody who’s working on videogames. When you talk about it with people that’s always interesting to them because it’s kind of rare. There’s lot of really amazing video games out there but I do feel like videogame culture is a little bit dry. It just has a lot of room for new things and interesting things and different things.
There isn’t really an independent video game culture?
Well it’s such hard work to make a videogame. People try to have these game jams and make a game over the weekend. But making a good game takes years. It’s not like with a band where you can put something together and in two weeks and potentially put on a show. Or painting where you just make a painting in a day and then have a show and show it.
It’s not like art.
A good game isn’t the same as good art. It actually has to function well as a game which is a very specific thing. It’s kind of like plugging into your desires in this really specific way to motivate you to achieve them.