Words cannot express how exciting it was to speak with Chip English, drummer for famed band the Lunachicks, about their life and career in music. Not only is Chip one of the most proficient, hard-hitting, and dynamic drummers in punk rock history, but the Lunachicks (the long-standing lineup consisting of Chip, model/singer/creatrix Theo Kogan, musician extraordinaire Gina Volpe, and personal coach Sydney Silver AKA Squid) were/are an all-female band from New York City whose music, on-stage antics, and in-your-face lyrics rocked the world throughout the 90s.
In the band’s own words, “The moment NYC shat them out in 1988, the Lunachicks were on a mission to loudly trounce planet Earth just like their idols The Ramones, Black Sabbath, Kiss, The Clash, Blondie, and Alice Cooper. As teenagers, the Lunachicks made a name for themselves in hallowed local clubs like CBGB and The Limelight, where they caught the attention of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. In 1990, London-based record label Blast First released the Lunachicks’ debut album, Babysitters on Acid, furnished with the perverted love song ‘Makin’ It With Other Species’ and the paean to ’70s sitcom heroine ‘Jan Brady.’ The Lunachicks continue to inspire young women worldwide to follow in their footsteps and challenge convention.”
Tom Tom had the immense pleasure to speak with Chip English about how they first became a drummer and how life has been since departing from The Lunachicks. Don’t forget to check out “Say What You Mean,” the 1999 video for one of The Lunachicks’ most popular songs. English played on the seminal and quintessential Lunachicks albums Jerk of All Trades, Pretty Ugly, and Luxury Problem.
Don’t beat yourself up for taking a break; you will play again!
[Tom Tom] So, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? How did you become interested in music and what inspired you to become a drummer?
[Chip English] Well, when I was growing up [in Pennsylvania], at the end of our street was where all the parades would march down several times a year. So, we would go down every time and whenever a marching band was getting closer, my mother would kind of freak out about how amazing the drums sounded and felt as they got closer… and that’s where I got hooked! You can feel the drums in your heart! It was an intense experience, always. Then, when I was in kindergarten and the teacher would hand out the musical instruments, I wanted the drums so badly, but she would always hand them out to the boys and I’d get stuck with playing some little wooden sticks (that weren’t drumsticks). So, being denied the drums I think made me more determined than ever. Why shouldn’t I get to play the drums?! I couldn’t understand it! I think that things are different these days.
Who do you cite as musical influences?
I guess my biggest influence was Bill Bruford. I guess I’m only naming him because I’m not really the kind of person who reads all the liner notes and knows the names of all the musicians. I just listen…I…just…listen.
Years ago, Neil Peart (OK I guess I am naming another drummer) had a challenge that he put out through Modern Drummer where he wanted drummers to write in about how it felt to be a drummer. Whoever won would get his drum set (I didn’t write in). It turns out the essay he picked was somebody describing their drumming as a “silent religion,” and I think that’s a perfect description of how to be a true musician. You don’t need to walk around with drumsticks sticking out of your back pocket; you don’t need to tell people you’re play the drums; it’s just your “silent religion.”
I was always into music that completely challenged me. I was way into anything with an odd time signature, not that I’ve had a lot of opportunities to use it, but it definitely gives you chops to work off of.
I guess another big influence for me was my drum teacher, from about 9 to 14 years old. I came in saying, “Come on man, teach me some rock!” but he just sat me down and taught me all the basics.
The first half-hour of the drum lesson we would play on practice pads using metal sticks and we would play 4 bars of triplets 200 times: all traditional grip. His drumming style was very much like Buddy Rich’s, and he taught me all kinds of cool stuff, like ten different ways to hit a cymbal, stick shots, hi-hat work, rudiments, etc. To this day, when I watch a Buddy Rich video on YouTube, I see all those cool things he taught me. He taught me how to pick out a cymbal…important! He was a Zildjian guy all the way…blood…and that’s why I am also.
As it turns out, my mother told me just several years ago that he told her I was his best student….Ma!!!! I couldn’t believe I went through my whole drumming career not having that tasty little bit to work with.
Do you still play the drums? If so, how has your playing changed or evolved?
I’ve been doing barn drum solos at the most over the past 7 to 10 years. You see, I’m not really a practice kind of drummer; I’m at my best when I’m driving the bus: my metaphor for playing with a band.
I have a country house, even though I still live in the East Village in New York City. I spend half my time there, and my drums are set up in the barn in the country. Whenever we’d have company over, at some point during the evening, about ten of us would wander up to the barn and they would sit in front of me, and I would just burn out what I call a Barn drum solo. (I also have timbales, which make for great solos.) So that’s about all the playing I’ve done in the last ten years, but thanks to muscle memory, it all comes right back. When I was in the Lunachicks, I guess I can say I was at my peak, and I’m satisfied with knowing that… and besides, I know I will play again…that’s a definite!
A while ago I took my drums completely apart and cleaned all the grime and booze off. Once, when cleaning up the drums between tours, I found a petrified jelly donut that someone must have thrown at us during the “Donuts” song. Good aim! They got it right through the mic hole!
Was there ever a moment you felt like you finally “clicked” as a drummer/performer? I find it personally difficult to claim myself as a musician, so I wonder how you learned to channel your confidence into music?
Definitely not “a moment.” In fact, I find the natural progression of learning an instrument is that maybe your humble at first, because you really don’t know anything, and then once you know a little bit, all of a sudden you’re like, “Hey, I’m better than my idol”…then as you learn more, you learn how much you don’t know. You’ve got to put in your 10,000 hours, or is it 100,000 hours? Just mega amounts of hours, so no, there was definitely not “a moment” when it clicked that I was a drummer.
Anyway, I’ve always been bothered by the fact that I’ve never been completely at ease on stage…but maybe you’re not supposed to be. See, I’ve always written parts for myself that were right on the edge of chaos if they weren’t executed PERFECTLY, so that always kept me from just sitting back and getting too comfortable. Also, when we would play CBGBs, or even the Warped Tour, there’d be drummers all around the side of the stage just watching and commenting on my every move. Don’t get me wrong, it was in a good way, but that kind of scrutiny all the time can keep you a little uneasy.
Lunachicks was a singular band throughout the 90s, melding metal, punk, and rock with a sense of humor about yourselves. Also, the albums on which you play are considered the seminal era for the band. How did you become involved with the Lunachicks and what led to your departure?
I actually joined The Lunachicks way back in, I don’t know, maybe the late ’80s. I was also in about three other bands at the time and was spreading myself a little thin, so I had to back out of The Lunachicks only to find a couple of months later that they were blowing it up. I would see them in a lot of music magazines and hear a lot of buzz about how well they were doing, so I definitely felt that I made the wrong decision. Then, sometime around ’94 when Becky Wreck was in the band, they needed somebody to fill-in for her for a European tour, so they asked me if I would do it, and of course I said YES! While we were on that tour, there was an incident that happened at a club in Brighton England…it involved a two way mirror in the dressing room which led to us pretty much trashing the place.
As I remember, I was the one who started it, and after that they asked me to be the permanent drummer. Details of the incident are in an upcoming book, so you’ll just have to get the book, HA!
My departure from the band…well, like any relationship there can be 1,000 reasons for going separate ways and we had been touring for a good eight months out of the year for about six years, so things just [got] a little sour. But oddly enough, right when I left the band, we found out that the Go-Gos were coming through town; we had just toured with them recently and really had a blast. They’re so funny and cool! So I called up Gina (my guitarist) and asked her if she was going…so we all just went together. Maybe it was weird for them, I don’t know, but I didn’t feel that I wanted them out of my life, so I just chose to stay in touch and be friends. I always thought we got along pretty well–better than most bands–and maybe they all have different memories of how good things were, but I don’t know, I just remember a lot of laughing.
You are now a carpenter with McClosky Carpentry that specializes in modern rustics and custom classics using reclaimed wood and salvaged metals. I’ve looked at a few pieces online and you do really beautiful work. Was this always a passion of yours? When did you decide to go into business?
I’ve been building things my whole life: tree houses, snake cages, etc. If I found an old piece of plywood and some 2 x 4s, I’d try to make something, like a ridiculous pool table or go-kart or something.
When we would get home from tour we all had jobs that we would do in the time that we were home. Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t have mansions and buckets of money. I was doing model-making, but would often get asked to make bookshelves, loft beds, and things like that for people, so I started doing a lot more carpentry. After the band broke up, I made a go of it with McCloskey Carpentry and put in several solid years with my own company. And yes, I put out a lot of good pieces, but in the end it’s not Rockstar money.
I guess I just took one big long break, not from drumming, but from touring and rehearsals.
I can’t say carpentry was a “passion.” It was just something I really, really liked doing. I can say motorcycles were and are a passion. I still have my 1969 BSA Victor Special and a 1972 Suzuki TS 185 two-stroke dirt bike. But yes, drums have always been a constant passion.
Do you have any warm-up rituals or habits that you adhere to, in order to get “in the zone” before a show?
If we had a gig in New York City, I would try to stay mentally focused all day and not be distracted by anything. In my kitchen in the East Village I ha[d] these barstools, and I would sit on one and warm up on the other. My favorite song to warm up to [was] “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters, so I would just play sixteenths throughout the whole song and then really go at it for the amazing drum fills in the chorus of the song. But on tour, before I go on stage, I do something I call helicopters where I plant my feet in a good stance and take my right arm and swing it about 10 times forward and about 10 times backwards over my head and alongside my body, and then I would do the same for my left arm. It really looks like I’m throwing my shoulders out of the sockets, but it seems to really work for getting me warmed up very fast. I think it’s a specific warm up for my style of playing because besides being a hard hitter, I keep my cymbals up very high. I wouldn’t say everyone should do it.
Tom Tom is turning ten this year. Looking back, what advice would you give yourself ten years ago? Alternatively, what do you feel has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the past decade?
I’d say…don’t beat yourself up for taking a break, you will play again!
Many women and girls look up to the Lunachicks as an influence for having the courage to begin playing music themselves. How does it feel to be looked at as such an inspiration to a generation?
First, I’d like to address that I feel you don’t need courage to start playing an instrument. Courage doesn’t apply, at least to me. It’s just something that you need to do. Again, it’s your silent religion.
As far as the fans, yes, it’s a fantastic feeling to know that we’ve been a part of our fans lives. The response at the shows and the fan mail we would get, it was always fantastic. And you have to remember we were touring back before there were all the internet trolls like there are now, although I would find it very funny to hear some people go off on us negatively. What could they say? I mean come on, we would deface our “own” posters, [which was] always funny…
I think Theo’s lyrics are some of the most politically intelligent lyrics out there. While a lot of times it was bathroom humor, other times she would write empowering things for the fans, and she was writing pro-transgender lyrics long before everyone else. (OK there was also Bowie, The Kinks, TRex, and Rod Stewart.) But it was always a humbling moment when a questioning gay or transgender kid would write us fan mail…you knew that you were making a strengthening change in that fan’s life, and we all personally wrote back to every single letter. There were letters from girls that were being mistreated by their boyfriends who, after hearing our songs and Theo’s lyrics, would take a stand and stop the abuse…[[it’s a beautiful thing.
Once, while I was waiting to go on stage, this guy came up to me and basically told me how he didn’t think he wanted to live anymore. I was preoccupied with going on stage and had to do a double take when I realized what he was actually saying. I quickly tried to give him some words of encouragement and went on stage. I thought about him for some time. He finally he wrote me a letter saying that I completely turned him around and he was looking at things differently. I still have the letter.
What was one of your most memorable moments performing on stage?
Oh, where do I begin? You see, the most memorable moments weren’t necessarily musical moments because we played so much. Every set was memorable, but as for best times on stage, I think one of my favorites that made me laugh so hard that I almost lost my breath was when Theo was doing some kind of a running man dance, kicking her legs up really high behind her, and her big honkin’ shoe heel got caught up in the hem of her skirt and she just went down!!! I almost had to stop playing from laughing.
Another time, I’m back there driving the bus (drumming), and I look up just in time to see Theo doing that Irish dance where your hands are at your side and you’re just kicking your feet like crazy; I’m cracking myself up thinking about it now.
Actually, our very last show that we did in Washington, DC (2004?)…that was pretty memorable because we hadn’t played together in a while and the set was so tight. All I remember is that the whole place was shouting our lyrics back at us so loud that I couldn’t hear anything! It was great!!! Again, thanks to muscle memory.
Another one of my favorite things was when once in a while you’d get some loudmouth heckler saying something stupid, and Theo would stop the show and tell him to come up to the front of the stage so he could say it into the mic for everybody to hear… and of course, the guy would come up to the stage, and when he got close enough, she’d thump him on the head with her mic and all you’d hear was this big thump through the monitors…the whole place would crack up and he’d look like an idiot…it worked every time.
You now identify as he/him. Would you like to speak to your journey in aligning with your identity?
Well, gay from birth, or more likely trans from birth. I have never actually come out to anyone. I’m more of a just “figure it out for yourself” kind of person.
I don’t correct people with the pronouns “he, she, they”… and yes, that’s had its awkward moments, but I’ve never felt an obligation to describe myself or define myself to anyone. I don’t expect it from anybody, and I don’t feel I owe people any explanation. So, I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve always stayed private. There’s no flag waving, sign carrying, marching, group meeting thing going on here, and to tell you the truth, it’s really worked for me. I’ve always been celebrated for who I am…again, apparently it’s working for me.
On an end note, I think I spent the whole interview telling stories and not necessarily talking about drumming or my theories for practicing.
See, I spent the first third of my drumming life with lessons, practicing all the time, and the luxury of having a drum set in my bedroom, so I would play constantly. And then I moved to New York City and didn’t have the luxury of having a drum set at the ready. I just joined as many bands as I could, and even when I was with four and five bands, I would still audition for other bands. That was my practice and that’s how I kept my chops up…and playing with different bands keeps you constantly developing new chops and constantly writing new parts…that’s what has kept me going for years.
Interview by Angela Sells
Photos by Katrina del Mar; Chip English