Ripley Of Wooden Shjips Interviewed

Wooden Shjips’ new album is having an exclusive full playback at the Cosmic & E Beat night, Kings Cross, London on Saturday Night

Wooden Shjips were formed in 2006 by the guitarist Ripley, whose original vision was to work with non-musicians to create a primitive psychedelic sound, inspired by various members of the Velvet Underground as well as the Swedish jam band Träd, Gräs & Stenar/Pärson Sound. (The extra ‘j’ in the name is a goofy tribute to these late 60s Swedish groups.)

Ripley, real name Erik Johnson, was given his nickname by a childhood friend who was in the habit of renaming everyone he knew. It’s only a matter of timing that he isn’t called Ripshift 99 or Don Reflay – earlier nicknames.

He divides his time between Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo, the band he has with his wife, Sanae Yamada. (He formed the latter after wondering what Suicide would have sounded like if they had played guitars instead of synths.) But Wooden Shjips are back now with their second album for Thrill Jockey, Back To Land. Ahead of the full album playback at this weekend, we decided to catch up with Ripley for a chat about beard science and why babies love psych.

How are you doing?

Ripley: I’m doing great.

I was supposed to be interviewing Marshall Jefferson, the Godfather of House Music, this morning but he didn’t answer his phone, so I’m toying with the idea of asking you his questions…

R: [laughs] That would be great but I don’t know anything about house music.

Fair enough. I want to get the beard stuff out of the way first. Up until a month ago I had a fine beard, even if I say so myself. But I had to shave it off. In North East London where I live there are too many Captain Shitbeards knocking about. They look like Edwardian naval town rent boys on skateboards. The statement topiary beard is the new fashion thing.

R: So you went for the moustache? You realise that all these guys are going to be wearing moustaches in six months’ time… then you’ll have to grow your beard back.

That’s what I’m holding out for… I’m guessing it would take more than a hipster fad to make you shave off your fine chin-mane?

R: Well, yeah. That would be annoying if I felt I had to shave my beard off. We do actually have fashion beards in Oregon, where I moved to a year ago. Portland is loaded with people wearing fashion beards. Lots of people dressed like lumberjacks, with the flannel shirts and the knit caps.

At least in Portland there’s a chance they could actually be a lumberjack. No one in Hackney is an actual fucking lumberjack.

R: Yeah, this is how actual people dress in the countryside. I don’t really have a problem with the long beards cropping up. I’m pro-beard so I wish that more normal people would have beards. Again, you see some good beards out in the countryside as well.

I was beginning to feel like people expected me to have opinions on farmers markets, to talk about microbrewery beer, to ride a fixed gear bike, to keep a blog and to buy Vampire Weekend albums.

R: Well, those things… First of all, vegetables without chemicals: that just sounds tasty to me; a well made beer… awesome. But… a bike with only one gear? That really doesn’t make any sense to me. Why not have a few gears and then you can go uphill much easier… I have actually thought about shaving my beard just because it makes me look ten years older. And my beard is very grey…

You have the distinguished badgerification effect. Well, when you first shave, you have really smooth skin, like baby’s skin, it’s amazing.

R: Does your head feel really small because of all the stuff that’s missing?

I don’t know what I felt like when I got rid of it. Slightly sexy and about 5% taller as well but all the side effects of shaving wear off really quickly. Have you got any good beard science for the hirsute Quietus reader?

R: Well, I don’t trim my beard so it’s hard for me to say. I trim my moustache. I don’t want to be the guy whose moustache goes down over his mouth to his chin, but other than that, if you want a big beard, just don’t shave. It’s real easy.

So it’s been a year since you moved to Portland Oregon. How has the first year been and has it had any kind of effect on you musically and socially?

R: It’s been great. We haven’t been there for the full year because we travel a lot. But it’s certainly had an impact on me psychologically. I was living in Colorado but not in a house that was mine, so all my things were in storage. So when I moved to Oregon I unpacked and that was a big thing. Most of all it just started to feel like home really quickly and we hadn’t had a home for two years. So that and being able to get out all my old records was great. A lot of the stuff that I hadn’t heard for a long time like all my classic rock and Neil Young and stuff like that, I don’t have all that on CD or my phone. So a lot of what I was doing was digging out a lot of old jazz, country and classic rock records. So that influenced the writing of the new album. I wrote all of it in February at home.

Having a large record collection is God’s way of telling you not to move house too often.

R: Exactly. Vinyl is very heavy.

Other than influences on your music, how is it living there?

R: Well, it’s very peaceful and relaxing. They have amazing record shops. One of the things I like about Portland is that it kind of reminds me of San Francisco 15 years ago; they actually have small shops that would never stay in business in SF. You can apparently open a shop and sell anything you want in Portland. It’s because the property is that cheap. People sell vintage stereo equipment or junk furniture; where in San Francisco everything’s vintage but fancy. So I like the neighbourhood things like bookstores.

Above and beyond the people in various places, do you find that architecture and landscape influence the music that you write?

R: I think environment influences me but not as much architecture. Around Portland we have a lot of old forests, so hiking round old forests, the streams, walks by the coast… calms me, which I like. It’s more laid back. That influences the music and influences how I think. Back To Land is the most relaxed or laid back album Wooden Shjips have made. I think the song writing has changed slowly. I think this album there are more song elements than in the past. There are more parts… there are choruses, whereas in the past we had songs that were just two chords, for example. Loosely speaking this has to do with what’s going on in my life at the time. For this album we’ve gravitated back to our classic rock roots. I don’t mean the roots of the band but more the music we grew up listening to, so our parents’ records and the music we heard on the radio growing up in the States… Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, all that stuff. In the past if I wrote a riff that sounded a little bit too much like the Stones, I would then get away from it. When you’re in a rock band like Wooden Shjips you get tagged with the retro or throwback label and people say, ‘It’s been done before.’ Which you know, doesn’t personally bother me but we’ve tended to avoid that tag in the past but with this one we just didn’t care. I don’t care. I listen to old stuff, I listen to new stuff. It’s the first time we’ve used an acoustic guitar, and that’s how the album was written. I love the first four or five Rod Stewart albums. I love that sound. So I’ve been playing with those different textures in the studio instead of trying to stick to the pure live sound.

One of the tracks on the album that really stood out for me was ‘Everybody Knows’ and I was surprised at how melancholic it is in a way.

R: It is. My wife thought it was pretty sad and she wanted to have a discussion with me after she heard it. [laughs] But I didn’t think of it that way when I was writing it and recording it. I’ve never really done a song like that before, it just kind of came out of nowhere. It is melancholy. I think years of listening to country music has finally seeped into the Wooden Shjips. I listen to a lot of mellow stuff and a lot of heartbreak songs but I’ve never felt any need to express that before now. And it worked… it just came out of the left field.

So if West was about the mythical west in the grand American narratives, what is the theme, if there is one, of Back To Land?

R: The theme, if there is one, is going back to the roots or back to the past, back to home. It’s always great to make an album and then decide what it was afterwards thinking, ‘What the hell was I coming up with here?’

Tell me about your awakening to The Rock. What was the first time you watched a band and thought, ‘This is for me.’

R: The first time I can remember was walking in on a friend’s brother’s band rehearsal. This was in Connecticut when I was 12. I didn’t know what an amplifier was. You would see Rolling Stones videos on MTV and their guitars aren’t even plugged into anything, it’s just a load of people dancing round. My parents got me a guitar but I didn’t know you needed an amp… I don’t think they knew either. I eventually figured out a way to plug it into my boom box. But my first real gig was The Cars. The Cars with Wang Chung in support.

Wow! That’s a good one. ‘Dance Hall Days’!

R: Don’t forget ‘Everybody Wang Chung Tonight’.

What an oversight. I love that song by The Cars, ‘My Best Friend’s Girlfriend’… that song is amazing.

R: The Cars’ first album (ST 1978) is all hits. Or at least it was in the States. ‘Just What I Needed’, ‘Moving In Stereo’

Were you in any notable bands – for whatever reason – before Wooden Shjips?

R: No. I was in a couple of totally ignored bands which only played to friends.

I remember, at an ATP a few years ago or something like that, there was this buzz going round. And people were saying, ‘Have you heard this Wooden Shjips album? It sounds like the Doors mixed with Suicide.’ I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that sounds crazy…’ So what was it about Wooden Shjips that you got right?

R: I was in a couple of bands in college and Omar, the drummer in Wooden Shjips was in that band as well. And we’d basically get really drunk and never have conversations about anything. We were kind of terrible. We were loud, which was cool but that was it. We were into Blue Cheer and The Stooges; we would hurt people when we played. I got tired of it; no one giving a shit. I took some time off [playing rock] and just listened to music. I got really into free jazz. Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, The Blue Humans… The Blue Humans are like a hybrid, some people would call them no wave but I’d call them free jazz with guitars. So I was getting into all this free music and I thought that it was amazing because it was wide open. Part of the reason I got into it was because of Iggy Pop, reading I Want More, his memoir of sorts. So that sort of stuff got me into writing again and also listening to a lot of minimalist classical stuff, Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Angus MacLise… that whole circle. Getting into John Cale’s experimental stuff, like the Table Of The Elements box set (now available as New York In The 1960s). I started making all of these connections between things that I liked in music. I liked loud guitars, I liked free play and I liked repetition. There was this Velvet Underground bootleg that I had which was my favourite thing in all the world. It was two pieces of vinyl with four versions of ‘Sister Ray’ which was called Sweet Sister Ray. I had it on cassette, just flipping it over and over. This droning, repetitive, primitive stuff but with this freak-out Lou Reed guitar. And that is what I liked. That’s where the Wooden Shjips came from.

Were you into the German stuff as well?

R: I got into that later. I think part of it was that it became easier to find the records. I had the Krautrock Sampler which I found in Tower Records. I don’t know why he [Julian Cope] doesn’t repress it. It’s amazing. I don’t agree with half of what he says but the way it is written is amazing.

It’s the enthusiasm… Do you feel like there is less space between Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo than there used to be?

R: They’re not the same thing but my song writing is going in one direction and I don’t worry about whether I’m writing a song for one project or the other. It’s not a conceptual thing. I think live there are similarities but the albums sound quite different.

Have you had any interesting insights into what you think psychedelic music is for; above and beyond sound tracking teenagers getting high or whatever.

R: Well, I think it’s about getting you outside of your normal space and transporting you away from it. And the profound things I hear from people reflect that. Someone told us, “My son has disabilities and it’s difficult for us to raise him, I put on your record and it eases my pain.” And you think, “Wow”, if you hear something like that. We’ve had two people say something… one of them sent us a video actually. One of Moon Duo’s songs, ‘High Over Blue’ is a side long track, and he had a baby that just would not stop crying and when he puts this record on out of the blue the baby stops crying and when it ends the baby starts crying again. He made us this video of it. He said, “You saved my life!”

E Beat & Cosmic is a free to enter monthly night playing cosmic synth, krautrock, Afrobeat, funk and space rock at The King Charles One near Kings Cross. This Saturday’s session starts at eight pm, goes on til late and features a full playback of Back To Land

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