“I’m currently rewatching ‘Lost’,” the artist and musician Brian Chippendale told me over the phone during a recent conversation. The reference to the popular television show isn’t completely out of nowhere. The interlocking layers of time and ensemble cast of characters is essential to the massive and complex narrative of “Puke Force,” the web comic that is now being put together as a collection, with some added material, for publisher Drawn & Quarterly with a release date set for this fall.
In certain circles, Chippendale may be best known as a member of Fort Thunder, the Rhode Island-based warehouse-slash-collective whose work was featured in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and the focus of a retrospective at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art in 2006. Since then, Chippendale has exhibited his work in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere. His work in comics, visual art, and music all share a similar scratchy and intensely detailed aesthetic.
In addition to “Puke Force,” Chippendale continues to stay busy with Lightning Bolt, the brutally relentless music project that has been the main source of his creative output since they started over two decades ago. “Fantasy Empire,” their new album, came out on March 24.
In our interview, Chippendale told me that he has been spending his mornings trying to finish the book before Lightning Bolt has to go on tour, and it hasn’t been easy to find a conclusion to the story. “For me, ending a comic is like driving a car through deep snow,” he said. “It just keeps sliding around, and you’re trying to stay on the road, but it’s really hard. Everything I draw I see these little doors open up, little paths I can go down.” Our conversation follows below.
The artwork, the comics, the music — do you see connections between all of it? Or do you see them as completely separate practices?
I see some connections and some differences. They’re kind of different muscles in a way. Music is so different than visual art. With music it’s so immediate, when you’re playing. There’s something that arrives fully formed. Comics and artwork, you making one mark, where with music you’re weirdly making a ton of marks at the time. So they’re different in that way. Drumming is very physical. I was actually just sitting here drawing right now, and it’s so not physical, crunched over a desk and focusing on minute details. It’s very different. With the artwork I’ve been making I try to find a middle ground, where it can have some of the quickness of music making, but still have the detailed focus on drawing comics. The thing that connects them all is that they’re things to get lost in. If you’re working on a world in comics, or you’re messing around with paint and stuff, or drumming, it’s about focus and making and having a profound enough experience where you’re in there, not thinking about other stuff.
You mentioned getting lost in the work. Do you gravitate toward either drawing or fine art or music depending on your mood? Like, for example, if you’re feeling angry about something do you immediately want to bang the drums?
A little bit. At least at this point, for me, I’m finishing up this book and I’m trying to connect all these loose straws, so I have to be really stable. It’s been really hard over the last couple of years, really, because I’ve been leaving and coming back because of the music. The way “Puke Force” started was almost the opposite, off the cuff and not giving a shit. It was more immediate in the beginning. But I think music can suit every need. I do a lot of drumming by myself, and then with Lightning Bolt, and it tends to take over my mood. For me, it’s habitual stuff. It’s almost times of the day — evening rolls around and it’s time to drum, and in the morning I do most of the drawing.
You mentioned “Puke Force.” Was there the intention from the beginning that this would be compiled into something larger?
I think I like to pretend every time I start a new thing that it’s scattered and doesn’t have an end goal. But, you know, it doesn’t take that long until you start making little connections, and the whole thing can be viewed as a larger piece. But at first I was doing “Puke Force” in between working on another book, “If ’n Oof.” So it was a reaction to having this big story that I was working through in my head, trying to solve problems for “If ’n Oof.” The “Puke Force” stuff was kind of a fun, off-the-side thing that I did. It’s actually annoying sometimes. I start a lot of things like that. I start them casual and it’s total escapism and fun, but then you get 40 or 50 pages in and suddenly, not that it becomes a burden, there is more weight to it. You realize you can go deeper with all this stuff. It’s fulfilling to me as a storyteller that I can go deeper, but it’s also a curse because it looses the total lightheartedness or the origins.
Is there a reluctance to find the ending with something like “Puke Force,” that maybe a conclusion will strip it off its lightheartedness?
Probably so. It’s funny, I really want to get to this ending of “Puke Force.” But also, I don’t really see it as an ending. It’s a climax in this set of episodes. It’s going to feel like an ending, unless I just run out of time and don’t even get there [laughs]. I have a hard time with endings in comic form, because if you enjoy the characters and enjoy working on it, there is really no ending. When you end, it ends. But “Puke Force” is also a bit of a sequel to this book called “Ninja” I did a while ago, and borrows some of the characters and settings from that. So I know there is no ending to “Puke Force” because there was no ending last time [laughs]. It keeps on truckin.’
I want to transition to Lightning Bolt. The project has been around for a long time, almost two decades. Are you approaching it differently than you were back then? How do you keep it fresh?
Sometimes I think we’re not treating it any differently than we were 20 years ago. I think everything I do, in a way, it draws from the same source, and it’s always drawn from the same source, but what it does is document where I’m at, a documentation of aging and changing concerns, and ideas, and lifestyles, and friend networks — everything that changes, as you get older. I apply the same process I always have to that. So while I treat it the same, Lightning Bolt has evolved over the years, subtly and slowly. But there was never any overt change. In a way, when we play, it’s almost timeless for us. It doesn’t feel any different than it ever did. I mean, I’m sure it is. If we were to watch a video of a practice from way, way back, there are probably some remarkable differences. I know my relationship with Brian [Gibson, bassist] has developed. But all in all, these different practices feel timeless to me.