A Trip With Wooden Shjips: Ripley Johnson on the Power of Repetition

A Wooden Shjips song can be "psychedelic" in the original sense: It can alter one's state of mind. The band's sleek rock workouts repeat in a way reminiscent of the Velvet Underground, or even Philip Glass: They are long, lush, undulating landscapes of sound whose cumulative effect is deeply hypnotic. A fuzzy guitar figure recycles into infinity, inducing a trance-like state. Singer and guitarist Ripley Johnson sing-talks distantly, almost unintelligibly, over the blare; occasionally an organ or guitar solo appears over the uniform landscape. The listener feels disoriented, disassociated, a little elated.

Perhaps this kind of music doesn't sound like a recipe for great commercial success. But Wooden Shjips have done remarkably well since their early days as an S.F. rock band in which every member played an instrument on which he wasn't trained. The band's last album, West, sold more than 20,000 copies, and has helped elevate the profile of Wooden Shjips worldwide, especially in Europe. Even a decent career in psych-rock, however, does not a posh living make: After spending two years touring with his wife as the electronic outfit Moon Duo — still his full-time pursuit — Johnson recently settled for good in Portland. We caught him in his basement there to talk about the power of repetitive music, the useful inscrutability of his (and Mick Jagger's) lyrics, and Wooden Shjips' excellent, even-more-approachable new album, Back to Land, which Chicago label Thrill Jockey recently released. What follows are the edited, compressed highlights of what Johnson told us.

1. I spent some time trying to figure out what it is about music that I really respond to. There are some things that are so good, and they hit you in such a specific way, and that [trance-like repetition] is just one of the elements for me. It's just a primal thing. It's the heartbeat, it's trying to get back to some sort of womb-like state, where you're in some suspended place where you can not think about things for a little while and just get lost in the music.

Wooden Shjips, with captain/frontman Ripley Johnson at left.
Anna Ignatenko
Wooden Shjips, with captain/frontman Ripley Johnson at left.

2. I still identify that we're an S.F. band in some ways, but when I go back to visit the city sometimes I feel like I hardly know it. It's like seeing an old friend or an ex-girlfriend or something. You feel like, 'Wow, they've changed so much.' But part of that's obviously me changing as well.

3. The loose theme that I noticed [on the new album] was this coming-home sort of feeling. Back to Land — obviously being more grounded, and feeling back in a comfortable place, which has to do with me moving into a house here in Portland and feeling at home, getting all my stuff out of boxes.

4. It's weird to just try to pick a place to live. You can't just live where you're used to living. I mean, if we had our way, we would've just moved back to San Francisco to live. We couldn't really afford, it so... We love Portland, and it's a lot cheaper.

5. A lot of [the album's direction] was sort of a looking back, back beyond when the band started, to a lot of original influences in my life musically. Before, I think we may have avoided some of those influences. We're talking about classic rock, mostly. A lot of '70s stuff, '60s stuff. Things like Neil Young, and the Stones and Creedence. At some point you run away from things from your childhood, and then at some point you come back to them. Especially with music, because I think a lot of what you enjoy about music is formed probably pretty early on.

6. We weren't trying to be obscure musically [by initially playing instruments we didn't know]. There was a self-deprecating approach, yes. Part of that comes from being in bands that no one cares about for years. When you're young, you're tough, you can take that, and you play shows for no one and you don't care, or you drink enough that it doesn't matter. You're just having fun. If you've been in bands long enough, you expect to be ignored. You expect that there probably aren't that many people out there into the same exact things that you're into, and the specific things that you're trying to do. But the funny thing about what happened with us is that, you know, the Internet. It used to be that it was really hard to reach people who were into very niche things, and now it's almost too easy.

7. We play bigger shows in Europe, certainly. Mostly. But in the U.S., it's just really different because the U.S. is such a massive country. In Europe you have a lot of cities, and it's easy to get around for the most part. It's hard for us to do it here. In Europe, and I don't know as much in the States, I think there's a desire for rock music. People want to hear real people playing real music, as Prince said once.

8. I grew up a big Stones fan, and I could never understand what Mick Jagger was saying on some of my favorite Stones albums. Like Exile on Main Street, I still don't know what he's saying on half the songs. Sometimes I'll be reading something, and a lyric will be revealed to me, and I'll be like, "Oh my God," 'cause I don't try to go and figure out what he's saying, because I don't really care. To me, the voice is just another instrument, and I'm more interested in rhythm and texture and sound.

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