Around these parts, Ripley Johnson doesn’t need an introduction. The psychedelic classic-rock of Wooden Shjips persistently blow our minds. Jeff has gone on record to say Johnson is his favorite guitarist. If his hypnotic guitar lines and follicle growth is reminiscent of that of a cult leader, it’s safe to say we’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid for a long time. After moving headlong into the San Francisco Bay for their Thrill Jockey debut West, Back to Land is exactly as its title suggests; a grounded effort with earth tones swirling into the kaleidoscope of colors the band has already cast.
I had the opportunity to reach out to Johnson a couple days before the death of Lou Reed, where we chatted about gradually easing into more accessible sonic territory, Portlandia, and why Donuts is the greatest psychedelic record of the 21st Century. Back to Land is available now. Get your mushrooms ready. — Douglas Martin
Are you still living in Colorado?
I moved to Portland, Oregon, about a year ago. Our drummer, Omar [Ahsanuddin], just moved up here as well, so we’re now evenly split between Portland and San Francisco.
What made you want to move to Portland? I’m holding out hope that it was the Christmas episode of Portlandia that clinched it.
That wasn’t it, though Portlandia was encouraging. We missed the west coast but couldn’t afford San Francisco. I actually like living here a bit more. It’s much more relaxed, easier to get into the woods, and we can play music in our basement. Plus, there’s the wacky side that’s celebrated in Portlandia. I love all of that stuff.
Toward the beginning of Wooden Shjips, you said one of your primary influences was the Velvet Underground. What have been your influences as the band has evolved?
The primary influences are still the same, things like VU, Pärson Sound, Angus MacLise, but for this latest record we were inspired by a lot more traditional classic rock. Bands we grew up on, like Creedence [Clearwater Revival], Crazy Horse, the Allman Brothers. I also got into JJ Cale recently. The approach to recording the album was influenced by that more laid-back kind of sound.
I feel like you guys have always had that classic-rock sound. I remember the first time I heard Wooden Shjips, I described you guys as “Crazy Horse on the Autobahn.” Were you one of those guys who grew up with classic rock, like with your dad playing Neil Young on the radio or anything like that? What was your listening like in your early years?
My dad had the most random but huge record collection –which he never played. It ran the length of the living room. It’s like he bought it all at once at an estate sale in 1978. There was everything from Dan Fogelberg to ? and the Mysterians to Diana Ross. A lot of bad 70’s AM stuff to weed through, but a lot of great classics. I got into Neil Young, Creedence, the Stones, plus he had a good collection of 50’s rock ‘n’ roll comps.
Also toward the beginning, you wanted a band of untrained musicians. Has that initial aesthetic changed at all since Wooden Shjips have been around for a number of years?
Well, that changed early on. The original line-up, of just non-musicians, was untenable because of practical considerations. No one wanted to play shows or pay for rehearsal space or learn how to tune their instruments, so we just ran out of gas. That’s why only Nash [Whalen] remains from that original band.
A lot of the time, I feel Wooden Shjips explores trance music in a traditional rock band format. Does beat music influence you at all? Do you siphon influences from beat-driven genres like rap or techno? Do you listen to those types of music?
I listen to some music like that. I like Looping State of Mind by The Field. Is that techno? I really like Shabazz Palaces. One of our original goals was to bring dance back to rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s very difficult for people to dance in front of a band, in a rock club. It’s not the right context somehow. But it is traditionally a type of dance music. That was its primary function.
Because I’m a black guy, I get into a lot of discussions with people about the rhythm — or the “blackness” — of rock ‘n roll being sucked out of the genre, and that rhythm has left rock music and ingrained itself into other genres, but personally, I find there’s a lot of rock ‘n roll out there that’s focused on rhythm and at least trying to provoke people to dance. Do you have any theories or feelings as to why rock music moved away from being danceable, or why it’s tough for people to dance in front of a rock band?
It would take a whole book to explore that topic. My best quick guess is that in the 60’s mainstream rock became more serious, more political, more about expressing oneself, and less about “Let’s do the twist.” It’s almost like the music had served this one purpose (in some ways setting the table for the 60’s), but then grew beyond that, became more intellectual. But it’s also a reflection of the audience, the times. Jazz went through some wild changes during the same period. Also: cocaine.
There’s a great anecdote in a Velvet Underground interview about how outside the cities the band would play these teen dance halls. They would do 25-minute versions of “Sister Ray” or “Follow the Leader” just so the kids could dance. So in the city they were avant-garde, in the small towns they were a teen dance band.
As for why people don’t dance in rock clubs, I think it’s a combination of socialization and environment. When you walk into a church or library, you whisper. If you walk into a club and there’s an open dance floor, disco ball, and DJ in the corner, those are cues that it is acceptable to dance around. When there’s a band on a stage, the expectation is that they are going to perform for you, and there’s a gulf between the stage/performer and audience. I’ve noticed that when a band plays on floor there’s always a different vibe. We always try to transform the space a bit with lights, usually video projections, to transport people a bit, make them forget where they are.
Incidentally, I was just reading about live TV audiences and how apparently people have been so conditioned from watching years of sitcoms, that they automatically laugh boisterously at even the lamest jokes. Laugh tracks are no longer needed.
What about Shabazz Palaces piques your interest?
I like the abstract elements in it, the psychedelic elements. Plus, they don’t really sound like anyone else. I saw them play live at a festival in Helsinki and it really blew me away.
I’m generally not lyrically focused, regardless of the genre. I’m more into sound and rhythm. A lot of rap is too macho for me, too much about power. I like more oblique stuff. This just occurred to me also: I tend to like groups that mostly create their own music, or have a signature sound, like PE, Cypress Hill, Tribe, the Wu-Tang stuff.
You’ve been able to transform psychedelia into something unlike anything going right now. What do you think about today’s psych music?
I think there’s a lot of great psych rock going on now. There’s more interest in it these days. But usually the most interesting stuff is still very underground. As far as the broader idea of psychedelic music, it’s penetrated every genre, which is kind of amazing. I think Donuts by J Dilla is probably the greatest psych record of the last 10 years.
I have my own ideas as to why this is true, but I’d love for you to elaborate with yours.
I think it has a lot to do with technology and the rise of hip-hop, and, as always, drugs. The production in hip-hop, and the technology that enabled it, really started pushing the boundaries in the late 80’s and 90’s. The Bomb Squad productions for Public Enemy and Ice Cube are just crazy. Nothing can touch It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. I imagine that the increased potency of weed had some influence in the early 90’s. Obviously, there are the Dre productions, which are maybe more stoned than psychedelic. But that was so huge and mainstream. The first pop single that I flagged as having a psych element was Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”, which has that baby cooing hook. That’s just really weird and a very psychedelic touch for a radio hit.
But at the root is the technology that enables anyone to create the music, anywhere. The suits aren’t getting in the way. You can be a Brian Wilson without a million dollar studio or an orchestra (Dilla is a perfect example). You can sample and manipulate anything. Also with the internet there’s access to such a wide variety of music. Your primary influences could be John Fahey and Zamrock and DJ Screw. It doesn’t have to make sense in any greater context, it just has to be good.
When I listen to the early Wooden Shjips records, they were so hypnotic that I could notice any bum note or missed cue. How important was it to you to capture the sound of a live band on those recordings?
It’s not that important. We were recording ourselves, so just working within our limitations. To me, as a music fan, a record stands on its own. It doesn’t matter how it came to be. But we don’t worry about missed notes. I don’t believe in missed notes. I like improvisational music, I like when music is reaching for something. I like when people play beyond their own ability.
I don’t want that to sound like an insult at all. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things about guitar music; that margin of human error. It kind of snaps you into place, like, “Oh shit, I was in a daze for so long, I almost forgot this music was being played by people and not queued up on a machine!” That’s one of the many reasons why Donuts is such a revelation; because Dilla has such an uncanny sense of rhythm, it’s hard to not feel that human feeling of the music, even though it was made entirely with samples and a beat machine.
I know a lot of people, myself included, who consider you one of the best guitarists in music right now. When you’re playing one of your eleven-minute songs and you’re soloing into oblivion, are you thinking about where to go next or is it all intuition?
Wow, thanks! I try to not think too much when I’m improvising. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard. Ideally, you just feel where it’s going and let it loose. But often there’s muscle memory or thoughts that get in the way. The most interesting solos, as a player, have an effortless feel and are somewhat surprising, going somewhere you don’t expect.
Back to Land has a few songs that recall early rock ‘n roll. Was there a conscious decision to write songs with that kind of accessibility?
When I was writing the songs I had just moved into a house and unpacked all my records, which were in storage for two years. So I was listening to a lot of old stuff, it was winter in Oregon, I was settling in. The only conscious decision was to not avoid the classic rock elements that were creeping into the songs. That’s why there’s a bit of acoustic guitar on the album. In the past I think we’ve tried to avoid those elements.
Why do you think you’ve avoided playing with acoustic guitar in the past?
For one thing, I never had an acoustic that was very playable until I was in Colorado. It was actually Matt Valentine that sent me a link to a guitar on eBay. I had picked his brain about guitars when we played with MV & EE. But mostly I had just been more interested in electric sounds. In the past, I never got really into acoustic music, unless it was Neil Young or Dylan. Or bluegrass, old time music. Or country blues. Or country. OK, I guess that’s not true but I certainly never tried to play anything like that.
How can you tell which songs go to Wooden Shjips and which ones go to Moon Duo?
I just write songs specifically for one project or the other. I think there’s only been one or two instances where I set a song aside for the other group, maybe because I wrote a bass guitar line I really liked or something like that.
Does the title Back to Land have any sort of thematic significance?
Generally, it refers to feeling at home — at land, grounded. That’s where I was at when writing the songs.
Does that have to do with moving to Oregon and being in a new home? What gave you that sense of feeling grounded?
Yeah, just as I mentioned above. We were staying with family in Colorado so most of our stuff was in storage for two years. And we were touring a lot so getting our own place was a really big change, finally feeling like you have a home.