Spotlight: Wooden Shjips
Some bands explode our simple binary ways of thinking, collapsing dichotomies and short-circuiting our logic. Take the Bay Area’s Wooden Shjips for example.
Somehow they’re both minimalists and maximalists. Their music is stripped bare, almost sandblasted clean by the blazing sonic textures—burly bass, dizzying clouds of distortion and organ that churns and bubbles like lava—and yet from within that charred emptiness, a whole expanding universe of sound emerges.
Looking outward, the music could be a soundtrack for jet-fueled space exploration or it can just as easily seem to invite turning within and meditative stillness. The band’s third record, the recently released West, with its trippy, echoing psychedelic guitar, is both a reflection on motion or dislocation—an extended riff on new frontiers and the vast unknown.
West, released on Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records, has an aerial image of the Golden Gate Bridge on its cover. And the idea of the West inspired much of the material. The band’s singer and guitarist Ripley Johnson responded to questions from even farther west—from Melbourne, Australia (or east, depending on how you spin it)—where he was on tour with his side project, Moon Duo, before heading to Europe. Johnson, along with the rest of the Shjips, is not originally from the West, so the region has a special pull and symbolism for the band.
“The themes of movement and travel always crop up in our songs,” Johnson says. “Living in California—the American West—driving and road trips are a big part of our lives. And there is a calm, hypnotic effect that comes from the repetition of driving and some music.”
Wooden Shjips, who formed in 2003, make music for a bleary road trip, for sure. “Driving till we can’t see right/ Nothing on our empty minds,” goes one line on the album’s “Crossing.”
Beyond that, Johnson says the Shjips—which currently includes bassist Dusty Jermier, organist Nash Whalen and drummer Omar Ahsanuddin—are honoring the way that the West Coast serves as a kind of beacon for artists and free thinkers. “The West, in general, has a cultural and artistic history that lures all kinds of freaks from around the country, including us,” he says.
This is the band’s first effort recorded in a professional studio.
(They previously recorded their releases in their rehearsal studio.) Johnson says the time constraints and pressure of the studio could have presented a challenge to the band when it came to cultivating their unhurried vibe, but the months that they logged on the road allowed them to quickly find their cosmic core and wrap things up in five or six days.
Even by working in a proper studio, the band retains a rawness with howling, reverberating guitar—unfurling in long swooping curls—understated drumming, and bass and organ that create an ominous lumbering bottom to everything.
When he was starting the band, Johnson says he wanted to put together a group that would play “very primitive, repetitive, improvisational rock and roll.” He succeeded. The seeds for all of this may have come from listening to the familiar greats as a kid.
“My dad had a huge record collection of mostly classic rock,” he says.
“But the most important early influences were probably the Stones, Neil Young and the Dead. I used to have a pretty good stash of bootleg tapes back in the day.”
But Wooden Shjips don’t really make songs that you might sing along with, or strum on the guitar like the music of Johnson’s influences. This is deeply psychedelic music, akin to dub or krautrock in the way the repetitions and patterns pile up and over each other.
A listener is more apt to get lost in the sound than to whistle a tune. “I approach vocals more as an instrument anyway,” says Johnson. “Generally I’m more into sound and rhythm than melody or lyrics.”
To that end, the Shjips are likely to crank the volume up live as a means of intensifying things. It’s simple physics—it has to be loud. Extreme volume is part of the experience.
“I really think you need to move enough air to make it work properly,” says Johnson.
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