[FRIDAY PLAYLIST] Remembering Fort Thunder, Providence's '90s Radical Art and Music Space

For some reason, people fail to acknowledge the importance of the city of Providence, Rhode Island on music, art, design, and culture at large. Less we forget that Rhode Island School of Design has the most impressive creative alumni in the country: Artists Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker, and Ryan Trecartin, designers Mary Katranzou and Eckhaus Latta, director Gus Van Zandt, animator Seth McFarland, and so many more all studied their vocations here. But nevertheless, much of the city’s creatives leave for other cities once they get their degrees: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, wherever. But there was a time that Providence was the most important city in the country for avant-garde music and radical art. That time was Fort Thunder.

Fort Thunder was a radical art and music space established in the late 1997 by artists and musicians Brian Chippendale (Lightning Bolt, Black Pus, Mindflayer, etc.) and Mat Brinkman (Mindflayer, Forcefield, etc.) in a former textile factory in the Olneyville district of the city. Though the venue closed in 2001, it was legendary in its short life span for shining light on a diverse array of fiercely individualistic and radical artists and musicians.

The music could largely be classified as noise rock, but all the bands were still measurably different. They were noisy, to be certain, and tended to work in a rock format, but all had unique approaches to the aural assault. Lightning Bolt, perhaps the most known of all the bands to emerge from the scene, used the fury of Chippendale’s drums and a heavily effected and distorted bass from Brian Gibson to punish the listener. Perhaps most impressive about the duo is that as brutal as they could be, there is a defined pattern to their sound, almost having as much to do with the spasms of early Boredoms as the mathematical approach of early King Crimson. Playing in the middle of a crowd, there are still few things on earth as thrilling as a Lightning Bolt concert. Perhaps that is why the band is still playing and enjoying an immense cult following today (their last record Fantasy Empire came out last year from Thrill Jockey Records).

The other band to get pseudo-famous was Black Dice. Originally formed by Hisham Bharoocha, Sebastian Blanck, Eric Copeland, and Bjorn Copeland in 1997, Black Dice was actually something of a screamo-reminding noise punk unit, vastly different from the band that they eventually come. The band was eventually signed by DFA and they released Beaches and Canyons. The record is made up of swirling and kaleidoscopic psychedelic electro-pop, and quite beautiful really. Blanck and Bharoocha eventually left and were replaced by Aaron Warren. The band still records today, and Eric enjoys quite a successful solo career as well.

Forcefield, led by Brinkman, were arguably the Fort Thunder house band cum art collective cum spiritual guides. Brinkman, along with Jim Drain, Ara Peterson, and Leif Goldberg, applied a conceptual approach to psychedelic stereotypes. They self-designed their own multi-colored seizure-inducing outfits, while using various light structures and set props to create a total experience. Sometimes the band used pure drawn out noise. Other times they used a degraded acid house beat and just looped it forever. The point was total agitation, making the viewer as uncomfortable as possible. This approach garnered the band an appearance at the 2002 Whitney Biennial, believe it or not.

And there was of course lots more music and much of it was released by Ben McOsker’s excellent Providence label Load Records. John Dwyer, who is now Pitchfork famous for his band The Oh Sees, originally played in a noise rock duo called Pink and Brown as well as noise garage band The Coachwhips at his Providence hometown venue (yes, Fort Thunder). Dissonant post-punk bands Six Finger Satellite and Arab on Radar made the warehouse their home. And less we forget, Fort Thunder became a base for American noise, hosting early shows by Prurient, Wolf Eyes, and so many more.

The musicians who played Fort Thunder were almost unanimously artists that played music and not musicians who painted, but don’t quote me on that. Despite his being preposterously good at drums, for instance, Chippendale has had an illustrious career in illustration, and his graphic novel Ninja has become a cult favorite. His partner in ear-splitting, Brian Gibson, works on video games in his time away from the band. Brinkman works in illustration and fine art. Hisham Bharoocha, who played in Black Dice and Lightning Bolt and has a solo music project called Soft Circle, is massively successful as a photographer and a painter. He has exhibited at Deitch Projects and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and his maximalist style is nothing less than delight for the eyeballs.

When is someone going to do a documentary on this space? Should I start a Kickstarter? Do it myself? That’s what the Fort Thunder crew would have done.