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A Quietus Interview

Manifest Destiny: Wooden Shjips Interviewed
Julian Marszalek , August 18th, 2011 08:28

Julian Marszalek talks to Ripley Johnson about recording Wooden Shjips new LP with Sonic Boom, and the pull of the American West

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As the lights flash and blink with an ever-increasing intensity to coalesce with the relentless hypno-monotony of the music they're accompanying, the senses begin to yield to uncoordinated helplessness. The drones are swirling into an infinite vortex that only serves to disorientate the giddy surroundings framing what's going on. As Wooden Shjips take full flight into as-yet-undiscovered dimensions of time and space, guitarist Ripley Johnson, his face framed by flowing locks of greying hair and an extended beard and with a pair of Wayfarers perched on his nose, begins to coax unholy howls from his instrument. As the noise reaches its zenith, his right hand moves to his sunglasses. As he removes them, his nose and eyes go with them and where once was a face is now a gateway to the never-ending reaches of the cosmos.

Actually, The Quietus' meeting with Ripley Johnson isn't anything like that. Well, certainly not the bit about his visage but the music produced by San Franciscan psychedelic overlords Wooden Shjips does possess the ability to transport whoever stands in its way to the outer reaches of the known universe. And indeed, beyond.

The band's new album, West, is easily their most accomplished yet. Having left behind a trail of limited edition 7” singles, compilations and albums, the quartet's ongoing quest to fry the mind via the ears has reached new heights thanks to a surrendering of power to engineer Phil Manley and time spent in a studio more sophisticated than what they're normally used to. The result is a fuller, richer sound and one that's likely to pick up new converts while satisfying the band's long-standing disciples.

Ripley Johnson and The Quietus are sharing a pot of tea in a West End café. Dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, Johnson belies his psychedelic image. Focussed and determined and as the sole full-time musician in Wooden Shjips, Johnson divides his time between his main band and side-project, Moon Duo. Constantly on the musical move, Johnson's prodigious output ensures that his mind-expanding journey shows no signs of abating any time soon.

You're really spoiling us this year, aren't you? We've had Moon Duo's Mazes and now Wooden Shjips' West is about to drop.

Ripley Johnson: Yeah! I started doing music full time about a year ago. The thing with the Moon Duo stuff is that the Shjips guys are doing other things working jobs and that kind of stuff. I can still do music. Before, it was a matter of getting everybody into a room to make a record and that takes time. The Shjips aren't really that prolific.

So is it logistics that dictates what becomes Moon Duo and Wooden Shjips material?

RJ: Yeah. Any of the Moon Duo stuff could have been Wooden Shjips material if the others had been available. I mean, I don't sit around writing songs all the time with a big notebook full of songs. I more project based or like an art project or something. I think about what the record is going to sound like or what studio we're going to go into. Being a record geek I appreciate them in their whole. The record should be a statement of some kind or a view or capturing a moment in a band's life and everything ties into that: the artwork, the lyrics, the songs, the way that it's recorded. You know, if you appreciate artists like Neil Young or The Stones or bands that have been around for a long time, you know that their albums will tell a little story. I find that fascinating and that's the way I approach things.

In our modern day scenario of off-the-peg culture, instant downloads and playlists, do find that you're approach to making music is swimming against the tide?

RJ: Not really because I think there are still people out there that appreciate albums. I'm not sure that people have changed; it's the technology. You'll still hear great stuff on the radio and that's great but then you have the whole Led Zeppelin approach where if you wanted to hear 'Stairway To Heaven' over again then you'd have to buy the album because they didn't put out singles. I try to ignore history because in time, things are judged differently and you can't try to play to a moment. That's what pop bands do; they try to go for what's hot now and they'll try to make a sound that people like now but the best pop artists are always one step ahead. And if they're lucky then people will like it when it's and if they're unlucky then people will like it in ten years.

It can be argued that there's a benefit to both.

RJ: Sure but it's a balancing act that very few people can pull off. David Bowie did and he's on the cutting edge and he's got people following him. That's very rare. But you do wonder how music would have turned out if Lou Reed had been popular with The Velvet Underground in the 60s or if Iggy Pop had been popular in the 70s.

To these ears, West is your most fully realised work and it sounds massive. Is that the sound that you've been striving for and how did you achieve it?

RJ: It's not something we've been striving for. I mean, in the past we've done everything ourselves; it was very hands-on and do-it-yourself and so we had limitations and we just worked with those limitations and that was all part of the creative process. It's fun! But going into a studio is very hard and we had to do things very quickly and it's hard to let go of that control. I don't know what's going on in a studio; I don't know how things are supposed to sound but I know what I like. See, a lot of engineers will do things in a proper way but that's what they're supposed to do – that's why they're engineers. Whereas a lot of the things that I really like are done in a clearly improper way. So it's a struggle to let go a little bit and have an engineer with so much input. But Phil Manley who is a friend of ours knew what he was doing and he knew where we were coming from.

You got Sonic Boom to master the album. That's something of a dream pairing, certainly from where I'm sitting.

RJ: Yeah! He did some remixes for Moon Duo and during that process he'd mentioned that he also did mastering so when we were ready to master I thought of him immediately. And this goes back to wanting to tweak things in an improper way. His emails are like beat poems. He has this jive talk that's amazing and you get the essence of what he's saying but you can't really nail it down. He was describing his mastering set up and it sounded like a Dr Seuss story! You know, he's like, 'I've got some twiddlers and gezazzers and do-woppers' and the way he talked made it sound amazing! Most mastering is about smoothing things out and making sure they don't sound way off but having did a smooth production we said, 'Let's give it to Sonic Boom so he can fuck it up a bit!'

The main theme of the album is the mythology and romance of the American West and the concept of Manifest Destiny. Is the concept better than the reality or is it vice-versa?

RJ: I've been trying to wrap my mind around this and as I said, my work is very project based so I guess this comes out of my subconscious and things that are on my mind and this theme sort of came out of this. But to answer your question, I think it's both. I think the reality is amazing. I grew up in the East Coast which is very staid and kind of parochial. The idea of the West, even when you were a kid and taught the history of the United States, has always been, 'Go West, young man!' and 'You must forge forth and conquer this land!' and the mentality has always been to explore and that's part of the American culture. Like going into space or going into the moon; it's 'Let's conquer the next frontier!'

Then of course you tie that into The Beats and the 60s and for me, California was just calling to me. I love it out there and for me the reality is as good as the myth and part of that is that you create your own reality there. That's what it is; it's like a blank canvas. You know, Hollywood was nothing until people arrived there. The same with Las Vegas. So the idea is that you go and reinvent yourself.

Wooden Shjips - Black Smoke Rise from Thrill Jockey Records on Vimeo.

I think that applies to the music. It's not accident that the whole psychedelic scene in the 60s centred around San Francisco and LA and it was like lighting kindling. It was just crying out for that to happen and people were ready for that. It was always full of people like that who were willing to try alternative lifestyles and you can get away with that in the West.

The rest of the United States looks at the West with bemusement as if it's some crazy uncle: 'Oh, it's San Francisco again doing that crazy stuff with the environment and gay right! What are you gonna do next?' But it's progressive because things that happen there tend to lead the country. People laugh at it but it does tend to lead on civil rights and the environment.

Wooden Shjips' West is released on August 15 on Thrill Jockey Records