Interview Wooden Shjips: ‘We’re Still Exploring Different Things’

Four albums to the good, San Francisco’s most esteemed psych travellers don’t show any sign of stopping.

Wooden Shjips

have always prided themselves on an outsider status. They don’t particularly care about success, and their intense hypnotic drones have always appealed to an ear with an acquired taste. However, over the years they’ve earned a cult-like following because of their reputation as psych rock eccentrics.
So when they announced their new album ‘Back To The Land’, with a tongue-in-cheek trailer complete with foggy footage and the declaration that the “WOODEN SHJIPS ARE BACK IN ACTION”, as well as the promise of “SIX CLASSIC HITS. PLUS TWO OTHER SONGS, it felt entirely appropriate and very amusing.

“I found some hilarious TV ads from the ’70s mostly for Rolling Stones records, but there’s also a really good ‘Funkadelic’ one.” Ripley Johnson, Wooden Shjips’ frontman explains fondly. “They all have this hilarious movie voice saying these ridiculous things about the album and then at the end it says: ‘Available soon at your local record store’ or ‘Available on Columbia Record and Tapes’ - they’re hilarious, so we just wanted to do something that was quite funny and light-hearted.’

The trailer ‘There are all these emotions from being really upbeat to totally despondent.’ couldn’t have better achieved this. Ripley’s sitting in his rehearsal space in the basement of his house in Portland. Behind him are various posters, speakers and other equipment that the bearded psych rock sorcerer sitting before them wields to make mind-altering noise. This space has been priceless for the band, as Ripley announces. “One of the great benefits of living in Portland is that almost all the houses here have basements. A lot of bands here record in basements so we rehearse here, but we recorded in Jackpot studio which is a local studio. Half of us wanted to record here and half of us didn’t. I like the process of doing it ourselves, but we’re still exploring different things. Maybe the next one we’ll do here.”

‘Back To The Land’ is firmly rooted to Portland. It is the first Wooden Shjips album to be conjured up outside of San Francisco, due to Ripley Johnson and Omar Ahsanuddin relocating to Oregon. Talking about his new hometown, Ripley is full of praise. “Yeah, it’s great. We’ve been here for about a year and it’s cool, I really like it here. It’s really mellow, a lot mellower than San Francisco. It’s a pretty small city.

“People used to ask me about San Francisco a lot and the influence of the city on the music, and I never really had a good answer. But after moving, it actually gives a pretty perspective on how the environment can affect the process and sound of the band.” He says thoughtfully. “We did this album and I wrote most of it last winter or last spring. I was just hunkered down here in the winter and gets pretty dark and grey here like England, but it was a pretty mellow environment so I think that really seeped into the songs.”

Another perhaps less apparent reason for Wooden Shjips’ new direction of lush rock songs is the obstacle of moving house. “Part of it was because we’d just moved last August and we had a lot of our stuff in storage, because we were living temporarily in Colorado and we had just got our stuff out of storage including all of our records.” He says. “We were listening to a lot of old stuff that we didn’t have digital versions of - you know, old vinyl - like old classic rock like Neil Young, Canned Heat, Johnny Hooker. So that definitely had an influence on the record.”

Ripley then goes on to explain to us why he decided to embrace these influences for this album. “In the past we’ve avoided that stuff as far as any sort of over influence on the music; even though that’s the music we all grew up listening to, because that’s what our parents listened to. For this record, I actually made a conscious decision to just let that influence come into the music and to not avoid it. Mostly, it comes in the form of adding an acoustic guitar to some tracks and things like that.” He pauses and then declares. “I guess that’s a natural or common thing to go through after you have released a few records to sort of look back at some point and re-digest some of these influences and take them on in some kind of musical way.”

The corny saying may run: “Sometimes we need to go backwards before we can move forwards”. But it’s completely true in Wooden Shjips’ case, as embracing the past has led to the completion of their most accessible work to date. After the success of their last album ‘West’ compared to their earlier releases, did they ever feel that they consciously had to evolve once again and release something that would yet again appeal to more people, though?

“Not really, for this band, we feel immune from pressure.” Ripley says in a blasé fashion, before voicing his disinterest at some of the responsibilities of being in a band. “From the beginning, we’ve always been limited in how much we really pursue the band and how much we can really make a career out of it, so the whole business side or aspect we don’t really participate in. The pressure comes after when we have to promote it, and they say ‘You have to do a video for this, we want you to do that and we want you to do this!’”

It’s apparent that Ripley’s sole focus is the music and not the other parts of the package that come along with being in a band. It’s only two years since Wooden Shjips released their last album and during that gap his side project Moon Duo have released ‘Circles’ on Sacred Bones, as well as embarking on an extensive touring schedule. It sounds like a whole lot of hard work and surely it’s a nightmare to assign time between these two endeavours.

“Luckily, it’s really easy because the label dictates a schedule. The first record we did ourselves. It was great but we did have to pay for it, which sucks, but you do everything on your own terms, there’s no PR bullshit,’ he says gleefully, before continuing. “With a proper label though, you have a schedule that you stick to so everything is planned up until every next summer. I know exactly what time I have off, so it easy for me to schedule. I am looking forward to writing a new Moon Duo record in January or February and just jam it out in the basement.”

Ironically, ‘Back To The Land’ could be something of a breakthrough album for Wooden Shjips. It is melodious, cosy and instantly appealing, like a slightly amped up and trippy sibling of Kurt Vile and Cass McCombs’ classical sound.

“It’s funny because there’s always a struggle going from having no idea what you are going to do, to having some idea, going through rehearsal thinking ‘Do we really know what we are doing here?’ and going into the studio. There are all these emotions from being really upbeat and confident to being totally despondent, especially during the mixing process that is a real struggle for us. It is really nice after it has been mastered to go away for a while and come back and hear it again and assess it.” Ripley states, before concluding “It’s probably our best sounding record, so I’m really happy with it overall.”

The humorous announcement, “WOODEN SHJIPS ARE BACK IN ACTION” couldn’t ring more true. It’s great to have them back.

Wooden Shjips’ ‘Back To Land’ is out 11th November on Thrill Jockey.

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