Repetition, Repetition, Repetition: Moon Duo Interview

Ben Graham talks to Ripley Johnson about Moon Duo, Wooden Shjips and the three R's

"Are you really in Bermuda?" Ripley Johnson’s soft Californian accent asks me down the line. It’s easy to imagine Johnson – main man behind Wooden Shjips, leading lights of the current garage-psych, neo-kraut, drone-rock revival- getting regular, late night calls from somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. From the other-dimensional resting place of lost airplanes and maritime vessels, with whispered messages from drowned pilots in the small hours, abducted sailors trapped on alien worlds and some distant echo of Glen Miller, jamming on Jupiter these past sixty years, inspiring his hazy, hallucinated, out there muse.

But no. In this case it’s just a mundane Monday night in Brighton, and early afternoon for Ripley in San Francisco, where his phone is playing tricks on him. I’m calling to talk about Moon Duo, the band Ripley started last year with his partner (in life, as well as in art), Sanae Yamada; a project that’s already produced two singles, an EP (all in highly limited editions on obscure underground labels, natch), and now an album, Escape, consisting of four long pieces in which a tight, minimalist rhythmic chassis of drum machine and keyboards supports Ripley’s extended guitar wig-outs, exercises in texture, tone and sustain for the most part as opposed to any kind of flash, masturbatory technique. The results are blurred, hypnotic, enervating and highly psychedelic, influenced by two-piece avant-rock antecedents Silver Apples and Suicide, as well as a heavy helping of Velvet Underground. And, superficially at least, they also sound extremely similar to Wooden Shjips, which perhaps isn’t that surprising, although Moon Duo’s tighter, more streamlined sound has been winning over many as yet unconvinced by the Shjips themselves. But it’s inevitable that, at this stage at least, Moon Duo are going to be seen as a side project to the more established group; inevitable, too, that our conversation should end up being as much about Wooden Shjips as Moon Duo, and the ways in which Ripley sees the two bands progressing. "I’m hoping that I can balance the two, so that people in the bands don’t get upset as far as where the resources are going," he says, "but as far as the way people perceive it, I don’t have a problem with the idea of a side project myself."

How did you and Sanae first start making music together?

Ripley Johnson: The impetus was really to have more of a slimmed down band, to be able to go on the road with just sort of a lighter load, you know. To be more flexible and to try to travel as much as possible, to play a lot of shows. Because economically it’s difficult to take an entire band on the road, that was one of the things. And the other was just having more ideas than we could use with the Wooden Shjips, my other band.

But Wooden Shjips seem to be touring all the time as well.

RJ: Yeah, we tour a fair amount. We do a lot in Europe, but we don’t do so much in the US. Because some of the guys in the band, one of the guys has a new baby, and people have jobs and things like that, so a lot of it hinges on whether people can get vacation time and get away from the family and that kind of thing. I don’t have any ties personally, so… We’re planning to do a lot more touring in the US as well as Europe.

With Moon Duo, the drum machine seems very central to the sound, as though you’ve got that simple, primitive machine beat that you can then improvise around. Is it a conscious choice to work within those limitations?

RJ: The limitations are there but it actually fits really well with what I’m drawn to anyway. With the Wooden Shjips we do very repetitive beats and things like that as well, so… Yeah, a lot of it is built around repetition, rhythmic repetition especially.

What sort of drum machine do you use?

RJ: On the road we use a sampler and just sample beats and play them back that way, but at home I have a couple of different things. One I think is maybe one of the first stand alone drum machines, a Rhythm Ace? And then I have an old Thomas organ, like a home organ? It has some really fantastic beats on it. But a lot of it’s not useable because it’s polkas and foxtrots. But we also just sample percussion and use those samples to make a pattern.

When you’re coming up with ideas, how do you differentiate between material for Wooden Shjips and for Moon Duo? Given that the basic principle is pretty similar, do you ever play a riff or come up with an idea and think, ah, that’s more of a Shjips thing, or do you think, ah no, that one’s gonna be something for Moon Duo? Does it ever work that way?

RJ: Yeah, it does a little bit. Generally it’s more, if we decide to do a record for someone, either of the bands, then I’ll just work on writing songs. And then there may be a song that seems particularly apt for one of the projects, and then I might put that aside. But to me, as someone who is a songwriter, I guess it doesn’t really matter which band does it. The approach will be different, because it’s different people that you’re working with, but the songs themselves are like… I feel like we could do a whole cover record of Frankie Valli songs and it would end up sounding like either Wooden Shjips or Moon Duo, depending on who was recording it!

I suppose the difference as well is that then Moon Duo will be a bit more minimal, whereas with Wooden Shjips you’re going to have more other people adding their input and adding other instruments and layers.

RJ: Yeah, exactly, especially in live situations. With the Moon Duo stuff we’re just getting our footing, as a relatively new band. So we’re looking forward to going on the road where we can dial everything in, playing every night. But certainly, playing with four people, I guess it’s more dynamic, there’s different people adding energy, and that matters, and that shows. And the Moon Duo stuff, more of the burden is on fewer people, so I’m curious myself as to whether it makes the shows more static, more similar every night, or whether it means that things can become drastically different really quickly. When you have one other person holding the other, all the weight… it’ll be interesting to see, actually.

Have you always liked repetitive, minimalist music?

RJ: I’ve been drawn to it, but I think it took a while for me to really focus in on what was important to me. To sort of strip everything back, and… I took some time where I didn’t play music at all. Because I was sort of tired of the work aspect of it, the inter-personal stuff, so I just took time off and just focussed on my love of music. I’m not really a record collector, but certainly a seeker of sounds, and I actually got really into free jazz, something that before I’d never really gotten into, and I have these phases where, y’know, I’ll get really into country music, and so I had this free jazz period and I got really into that and, y’know, the whole improvisation, group improvisation and the trancey aspect, although in jazz the rhythm tends to be a little more fluid… there’s just something about the freedom, and the way it flows, that was attractive to me. So then around the same time I got into a lot of the minimalist classical stuff, like Terry Riley. Somehow between listening to those, getting into those two different types of music around the same time, it just sort of hit me that the improvisational aspect and the free aspect of some of the out jazz stuff, combined with the minimalist repetition rhythmically, was exactly what I liked about, y’know, the Velvet Underground stuff, where they would play like, Sister Ray for 20 minutes, where you have Lou Reed doing his best Albert Ayler on guitar, and Mo Tucker just playing the same beat over and over again. And it just took me a while to really understand what appealed to me in the music that really spoke to me. And I guess that’s the best explanation that I can come up with.

Were you ever into techno; house music and repetitive dance music?

RJ: No. I’ve never been into that and I’ve never found a real good entry point into that music in order to understand it. I’ve been into some hip-hop, but not the dance and the trance stuff. But y’know, I’ve thought about it a lot, because one of the goals when we started Wooden Shjips was to be sort of a dance band, and that repetition and the groove, it’s very common in dance music and you would never read a review of a dance record where they said oh, well the beat just keeps going on and on, it’s the same thing, because that’s sort of the point, you know? But we get that all the time, and it’s a criticism sometimes. But I also have a thing for old-time rock n’ roll, you know, oldie stuff, the early rock n’ roll stuff where they would play at dances, and that was sort of the point of the music, that the band would play so people could dance.

I think that Shjips and Moon Duo are both great dance music. And yeah, there was that point, maybe in the late sixties, with experimental music when people started sitting down on the floor at concerts and stopped dancing. It was as though if you took it seriously, you didn’t dance, that dancing was somehow frivolous.

RJ: I try to find interesting venues because the way venues are- what they’ve become in the modern age- it’s really about, you go up and you play a show while people drink. I like playing shows outside, or in art galleries or things like that, just because it’s something different. It gets old after a while, when you’re in a band and everything is about playing at a bar, you know. It’s all about this drinking culture, which has its place, and can be really fun, but it creates an atmosphere where people aren’t necessarily that comfortable in the audience, either. It’s not a dance atmosphere, you know. You go to a dance club and people go to dance, and they have this expectation that they’re going to dance, and it’s a very relaxed atmosphere. Whereas a rock club, or a bar, before you even get in there you’re already working against this preconceived notion of what’s gonna happen.

And even if they’re not drinking, people are squashed together staring at the stage, and they focus on just watching you rather than doing their thing and getting into the music. It’s as though you’re a spectacle rather than something they can use.

RJ: Yeah. But you know, alcohol is good for loosening people up, so it’s a mixed bag.

But then again, that’s what a lot of people like about electronic dance music; that you aren’t looking to the band on stage, you’re just dancing to these long, repetitive pieces. So it’s interesting that you never managed to find the appeal of that yourself, given that in some ways it seems to reflect a lot of what you’ve been talking about.

RJ: Yeah, it’s the repetition that appeals to me, and certain elements, but not the sounds. I think I’m just too much of a rocker! I like the sound of guitars, and some of the stuff is just a little too electronic for me. But it’s certainly something that we’ve explored a little bit with Moon Duo, and we expect to continue to explore. A lot of it’s learning the technology, because we don’t have that background. But we plan on exploring that a little bit more. I would love the idea of playing at a dance club and having people dance, and like you said not staring at the stage but being… it just seems more communal, it’s more about being amongst the other people who are there and having a good time. We’d love to play a gig like that, so maybe some day.

Who are your favourite guitarists? Particularly in terms of those who influenced your own playing?

RJ: Erm, I would say… Neil Young, for sure. Um… it’s a tricky question. Neil Young, Lou Reed, the Velvets stuff… Carlos Santana, oddly enough! I’m a big Santana fan. A lot of the sixties stuff; I like Quicksilver, John Cipollina… Blue Cheer, y’know, Leigh Stephens, he had some really great sort of atonal, really amazing riffs. Sonny Sharrock, in a jazz bag. Yeah, that’s a pretty good list, I think.

How do you see Moon Duo, or indeed Wooden Shjips, developing in the future; do you see them branching further off in different directions from each other and becoming more separate entities, or is it just, see how it goes, play it by ear?

RJ: I often get general ideas in my head and then it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way, but it’s usually based around what’s the next record going to be like, or what am I feeling like, or what does it feel like what direction the band is going in. And I think that right now, with Moon Duo our next record might be our drone rock record. To speak sort of generally! And then like you said, we might go more into the dance kind of stuff. Not super-dancey, but a little more into that, working around more beats and stuff like that. But I think our next one’s gonna be our Sonic Youth type drone rock record. And then with Shjips, I don’t know what the next record’s gonna sound like, but in my head it’s sort of like, maybe we would move towards more of a Crazy Horse sort of style. I mean, not that it would necessarily even sound different from what we had done before. These are just things in my head, the way that I think about it. Because I’m actually moving to Colorado, so there’ll be this physical difference too, and I guess I’ll think of the Shjips as being the California band, and the Moon Duo being… we were originally just gonna be on the road most of the time, so…

So that’ll be interesting, how a different landscape affects your head, and your writing as well.

RJ: Yeah.

Moon Duo begin their UK tour in Brighton tonight. For a all dates, visit their Myspace.

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