Searching for Optimism: An Interview with Wooden Shjips
One of rock's most reluctant bands Wooden Shjips makes a play for Summer Album of the Year with V.
25 May 2018
"I really wasn't sure that we were going to do a new another record after the last one", says Wooden Shjips songwriter Ripley Johnson. It's still morning in Portland, Oregon, in the final hours of winter and Johnson, who splits his time between the aforementioned band and the space rock outfit Moon Duo, is up for all manner of topics. The main one, of course, is the latest Shjips effort, VV. It's being called the quartet's "summer album" and arrives just as schools across the U.S. are being let out and students of all ages are eager to find the soundtrack to their Memorial Day to Labor Day adventures.
Johnson explains that the concept came to him during a 2017 Moon Duo tour. "I wanted to do something more in that classic rock kind of vein. I got in touch with the other guys and made a pitch that wouldn't involve a lot of commitment on everyone's part. That we'd it very quickly. We'd hand everything to the label. We wouldn't have to do a video; we'd do our own photos. It would all be very fast, and we'd make it fun."
The others (Omar Ahsanuddin (drums); Dusty Jermier, bass; Nash Whalen, keyboards) dove in, tracking the basic tracks in Portland and maintain the relatively light vibe Johnson had initially envisioned. "Part of the idea was to do a record that had some kind of optimism," he recalls. "Some kind of balm. It's me trying to digest a lot of stuff that's gone on over the past few years and re-orient my outlook on things without being too depressed."
You live in Portland now, the band was based in San Francisco for many years. Where's the band's true home now?
We're half in Portland, half in San Francisco. Our M.O. has always been kind of weird. We've always been the reluctant band. Touring has always been difficult. People have other things in their lives that they like to do. It's not a fulltime thing, and it's hard to be a part-time band. When recording and touring is over, everybody goes their separate ways, and then we reconvene to do a project. If everyone's up for it.
We work primarily out of Portland because our drummer, Omar, is here. He's the only one who has a kid and that sort of gives him power over everyone. And rightfully so. The great thing about Portland is that there are basements, so we have a basement with a rehearsal studio with all the gear and recording.
You mentioned being a reluctant band from the beginning. Does it make it difficult to keep your momentum?
I think it's harder for the label. I think there's a different approach to releasing records; things move at a different speed than in the past. A band used to be able to put out a record, tour it, then disappear for a couple of years, come back and do the same thing. Now, I think there's an expectation for bands to put out a new record every year and constantly be doing things, constantly being involved in social media. Keeping the name in the public consciousness. That's cool, in a way, but it doesn't really fit with our style. At the end of a cycle, I usually think, "Well, that's probably the last thing we'll do." Then, a little while later, I'll get the itch to do things with those guys again. I guess I'm the one to instigate things because I write the songs.
Does making a Wooden Shjips record or writing Wooden Shjips songs take a lot out of you?
No, it's just the coordinating of schedules. This is why bands break up: because people move in different directions. It's like planets pulling away from a sun slowly over time. It can be a challenge to get everyone into the same orbit. People have to take time off work, travel. Since I'm a full-time musician, it's just a matter of shifting from Moon Duo to Wooden Shjips. I always want to make sure that everyone's enthusiastic. If not everyone's up for it, then it's not really worth doing.
There's a temptation for some bands to saturate the market. There are different mixes from the digital to the vinyl and then vinyl filled with beer-flavored toothpaste. You guys really haven't done that.
We're not lazy, but I think we just have a certain amount of collective energy. So we just do that. A couple of records ago there was a big thing about having bonus tracks. That's how the label would sell the record. iTunes would promote your record if you had an exclusive bonus track just for them. That's extra work, and it doesn't make any sense from an artistic/creative standpoint.
We're album people. We want to make an album. We think about how the songs unfold over the course of that album. We think about A-side vs. B-side. What's a good song to open the second side of the album with? I'm always surprised with bands that put out a lot of material. But maybe that's just how they function. I get that. But I digest things slowly so if a band that I like puts out an album and if by the time I get around to buying it they're putting out a second album it discourages me. "Maybe I should wait for this new one." I can't keep up.
When I was a kid I was huge Pink Floyd fan. There was a limited number of records, and you could just pore over them, get to know them intimately.
When I was growing up most of the things I liked were old. You'd have this huge discography to go through and a lot of times you didn't even know what the discography was. There was the Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock before the Internet. You might find a copy that was five years old, but there'd be a Neil Young biography, the author would talk about his career and then show his discography. I'd say, "Whoa, there's a record here I haven't seen in the bins." Or you'd try to glean information from the records themselves. Who played on which record, where was it recorded?
I think that's a way of experiencing music that's really gone at this point. They have instant access to everything. But, yeah, I'm of the same generation as you. I think maybe some of that comes into play with the time that bands or artists take between making records. You can do the really fast stuff, and maybe some bands have the fire and so many ideas that they want to keep going. But there is something nice when an artist disappears for a few years and comes out with an album, and you can be curious about what has happened in those three years. What new ideas do they have, what direction have they gone in.
I was reading a little bit about your frame of mind as you started writing the material on V.
When I was writing those songs, there was a feeling in the air, at least in our household, and around Portland that was almost apocalyptic. There were a lot of environmental things that were happening that were really scary. Hurricane Harvey in Houston, there were these fires going on right outside of Portland in the Gorge. The Gorge is a pretty popular hiking spot. It was on fire. There was ash falling on the town. And there was all the political stuff that was going on. It was an odd, dark time in the middle of the summer, which is usually our really happy fun time here in Portland. I was feeling that.
It's a strange time. There are many nuances to the conversations we're all having at the moment. Sometimes you feel like saying, "Right on!" and other times, you find yourself saying, "That might be a bit too extreme."
After the election, there was a state of shock among people I knew. Wooden Shjips was on tour in Europe. The election ruined the vibe of our tour. We said, "This can't actually be happening." That persisted for a really long time. For months. For myself, I tried to find a perspective that made sense from which I could move forward. I think that people are just more engaged politically right now. I think, collectively, we went through this huge shift. It was shocking. Now people are trying to change things. They were feeling pretty comfortable with the cultural atmosphere within the United States and maybe now they're trying to address some of those things.
There is something about being abroad during shifts like that. I was in Europe on 9/11 and for months after and I really had to examine myself and what I believed in the wake of that.
One of the things that actually helped me was to look at history and think about times when people had to go through this kind of stuff and what they did. I looked to the late '60s and Vietnam and Richard Nixon. So many things came out of that period that I love: When you look at what was actually going on, at that time, it was terrifying. But it's inspiring to look at it and say, "Look at all the good things that came out of this period." Our culture was pretty fucked up, but we got through it.
As you're writing songs that are intended to respond to that or try to find a path out of that, were you more cautious about what you were writing?
No. I usually just write and then analyze it afterward. In this process, where I have to do interviews and explain myself, I learn a lot from talking it out. When I look at the songs, I see a reflection of my life at the time I was writing them. Some of the songs refer directly to what was going on at the time, but it's not a case where I address it directly. I just want to write something good and think about what it means after that.
It strikes me, listening to your work, that this a band where you really have to fall into the music together.
There are certain grooves that I think are our natural grooves and other ones that we have to learn. Some things don't work. There are things we put to the side. It just isn't going to happen. We get into the room, and we bang it out. Then we go into a studio and try to relax enough so that the music sounds like we're relaxed. That's tough to do. We're not super pro and recording requires effort, rehearsal. I think we're pretty aware of our limitations. We're not a very slick band, but there are areas where we're comfortable.
How long did it take you to find your voice once you started writing songs?
We started the original incarnation of this band in the early aughts. I was in my 30s. So I spent my college years, my 20s, playing music and not really knowing what I was doing. I was probably going in a bunch of different directions. When I decided to do the Wooden Shjips stuff, when I had the idea for it, it was pretty clear to me. I had an epiphany at some point. It was more about what I didn't want to do. It narrowed everything down to something very specific. That focus was pretty easy to find.
I don't read reviews of my records anymore, but around that time, I read one that started, "Does anyone really need another Wooden Shjips record?" [laughs] Fair enough, probably not. But does the world need five records by The Seeds? I do. I don't know if the world does. I think we've changed slowly over time and that's been the part where I've been exploring different ideas. I know what my core interest is as a musician and a songwriter and from there I know where to go. I know we're not going to do a reggae song but I listen to dub and reggae and maybe an element from that can come in. We can use an effect or a subtle feeling. When you're young, you want to cram all your interests and everything you love into something, and it's hard to find that core voice. It takes work.
Do you feel like there was an element of time that allowed Wooden Shjips to thrive? Like you arrived at the right moment?
Absolutely. When I was younger, a lot of stuff that I liked was bands that were considered underground, stuff most people didn't know about. Now, everybody can find everything. I think that if we started the band now, it might be easier to reach people. But you have to stand out in some way. It's hard to get anyone's attention. I think we came around at just the right time. People had just started blogging about music. [When] we released our first music, people wrote some favorable things, and that was the beginning. If we had done that five years earlier, I'm convinced that the record would have gone nowhere.
How much do you have to deal with purists? I think of heavy metal bands where, if there's the use of one harmony or a certain type of vocal, that's it, the audience can't hang with it.
Metal is like dance music. There are these specific genres with rules, and once you step outside of that, it's no longer that genre. In dance music, it's a certain bpm. Metal is interesting because it seems like if you play within the rules, the fan base is really dedicated. Both of my bands have started with rules: "We're going to do this, and we're not going to do any of this other stuff." I think in Wooden Shjips we had a manifesto: No drum fills, no more than three chords. We were the only ones who knew them so we could break them very easily. I don't think Omar recorded a drum fill until our last record and that might have been me that recorded it! [laughs]
It should be about breaking the rules and it becomes about conforming.
You have to wear a metal band's t-shirt to be in a metal band. This is the good thing about psychedelic music: It's not actually a genre. If you said, "Psychedelic rock," you could maybe make a case for that being a genre. But, even within that, there are so many different styles: The jangly Byrds-ian stuff, the garage stuff, the Black Angels drones, there's hip-hop that's trippy and psychedelic. There's pop that's like that. It's not a genre, so that's the great thing. You can kind of do whatever you want.