Wooden Shjips – the band of ‘non-musicians’ fronting a new wave of American psychedelic rock’n’roll

The beat goes on... and on and on

People are making a fuss about LCD Soundsystem at the moment and, as the band are releasing what is (apparently) going to be their last ever record, quite right too. One of the subplots snaking about though, largely absent from previous rounds of James Murphy interviews, is his age. He’s forty. How, runs the overarching media angle, did a man three years off Nick Clegg manage to pull that off? Now, I’m guessing – and this is a deduction made with somewhat sub-CSI-level beard and grey hairs analysis – that Wooden Shjips, who only started in 2006, are about the same age (more on that in a second). They might sound nothing like Murphy’s punk-funk demigods but they are an alternative guitar band and, if you were to split alternative guitar music of the last decade down the middle (weeding out all that commercialist post-Strokes bollocks as you go), you’d create a broad camp of crossover disco-punk and another of fuzzed-out, grunge-indebted garage. While the spirit of what LCD and The Rapture kicked-off has already come to a stale, MOR conclusion, embodied by the mind-numbing likes of Delphic and Hurts, the second wave (think Crystal Stilts, A Grave With No Name, Best Coast), is still riding a creative high and at the top of the crest is our San Franciscan cover-stars.

Back to the age thing, quickly. If you’re a music-obsessed metropolite in your mid-twenties, think back over all the songs, LPs, live concert DVDs and venues you’ve discovered over the last ten-to-fifteen years. Now triple all that and you have something approaching the catalogue of musical reference-points and revelations in these guys’ heads. Add to this the kind of perspective gained from living through a few psychedelic revivals, C81 and 6, Acid House, Public Enemy, the rise of dance music, Nu Metal, the return of guitar rock… you get the idea. In a fragmentary, post-post-modern time – one in which we’d like music’s emotional content to be a little more complex and subtle than ‘God Save the Queen’ thank-you-very-much – older, more considered musicians make for better songwriters. McLaren’s dead, Lydon should be, and so is the idea that young people make better rock and roll.

I’m hoping to glean some of the Shjips’ wisdom in the tiny strip of backstage smoking area at Bush Hall on Uxbridge Road, a venue known for hosting delicate folksy types and, more recently, bombastic Hoxton-prog kids These New Puritans (who, incidentally, prove that previous point about young musicians). Bush Hall has never witnessed a wall of sound quite so concrete as the one it will hear tonight. The band, passing around Heineken cans, all smoking those organic American Spirit cigarettes favoured by Zen 90s DJs and other My-Body-Is-A-Temple weed smokers, look impossibly relaxed, like they could be at a friend’s BBQ. A dark brown chicken walks around in a coop on the other side of the fence from us, I forget to ask them about it and it goes unexplained.

“Yeah, so with the first version of the band, the idea was to have a bunch of non-musicians play stuff inspired by bands like, Trad Gras Och Stenar, Amon Düül, Electronic Hole and things like that.” Frontman Eric ‘Ripley’ Johnson is delving back to the time he put this operation together. The importance of his musical identity to the band is evident in the similarity of side project ‘Moon Duo’, which he does with his girlfriend and whose debut album, ‘Escape’, blew Loud And Quiet’s collective mind a couple of months back. Wooden Shjips is his brainchild and so he does pretty much all the talking. Omar (on drums) is the next most vocal, occasionally cutting across Ripley with a slightly divergent angle, keyboardist Nash, the “resident stoner”, says little and classically-trained bassist Dusty, the most musically attuned member of a very, very tight band, stays almost completely silent. When I ask him what classical instruments he can play, he says “most of them,” with a nervous laugh. “No drums, I don’t play any drums.” And that’s it.

The band as it is today came-together in a different manner from the meeting-pissed-at-a-Nine Inch Nails-gig kind of story you usually hear. It was conceptualised and orchestrated.

“It was an idea I had,” says Ripley “I wasn’t playing in any bands at the time and so I got some people together… Nash was in that band, he played guitar and wasn’t a guitarist. We never played any shows and it sort of fell apart. It didn’t have any momentum because it takes a lot of energy to put on shows and be in a band and, for non-musicians, it’s not a primary thing in their life.”

Ripley’s “primary thing” was working in IT as a Systems Administrator. Nash was a geologist. Luckily, they stumbled upon two friends, Omar and Dusty who were looking for something beyond their respective careers in Pharmaceuticals and Film post-production and were actually able musicians. Things started working out.

“We released a ten-inch [with Sick Thirst] and then a single, self-released. We actually gave away the first ten-inch for free, just paid for it, it cost like twelve-hundred dollars maybe. There was no cover, just a record in a sleeve. So anyway, JW from Holy Mountain contacted us ‘cause he had got a copy of that.”

Having put out another single – the excellent ‘Loose Lips’ with Sub Pop – they set-about producing two albums and two “compilations of hard-to-find tracks” within three years for Holy Mountain, a label responsible for releasing the earth-shaking likes of Om and Six Organs of Admittance. Phenomenally prolific, “vinyl oriented” and by its nature self-mythologizing, this process has made Wooden Shjips seem as if they’ve been around for longer than they really have – commentators tend to point out that they sound as if they simultaneously predate and inherit the sound of their influences, folks like The Grateful Dead and Suicide. They’ve (perhaps deliberately) turned themselves into something of a modern classic and, though they share sonic turf with California’s burgeoning no-fi scene, they have none of the throw-away, ADHD qualities that come part and parcel with that younger generation; Wavves, No Age and the other satellites of LA’s The Smell.

“We don’t know any of them, not that particular scene,” says Ripley “but I think, and I don’t want to speak too generally about this sort of thing, but I think some people are going for a spontaneity and amateurishness there, which has a kind of vibrancy to it. Another thing I would say is that a lot of those no-fi sort of bands come from a pop perspective – a lot of times I hear pop songs underneath all the noise. Well, we’re not really about pop at all; we’re more about the repetition and the trance and the drone. We’ll have a song in there somewhere but as little as possible – Heheheh! The song kind of comes second to the feel and the rhythm.”

Not in dispute – or at least not until Governor Schwarzenegger implements his plan of sending LA to the moon – is the geographical turf they share with these bands and with fifty-odd years worth of mind-bendingly good rock music. Having each come from separate, rural areas of the US, the band settled in America’s most populous sub-national entity in the mid-nineties, specifically in the Bay Area of San Francisco, aka Birthplace of Western Psychedelia. While there’s too much going on in their eyes, and in the minute details of their outfit, for them to be a cliché, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who couldn’t guess, first time, what city they lived in. Plaid shirts covering low-key T-Shirts, loose jeans, hair either long, straggled and paired with a moustache/beard combo (plus small glasses for Dusty) or curling wildly upwards, they look like they sound: freaky and cosmic. Through the limited lens of someone who’s never been to the US, there’s a contradiction between their kraut-ish, improvisational and stoner-rock approach and previous comments they’ve made that separate them from hippy-type jam bands. If you want an example of what they might mean, check-out self-confessed pizza obsessives and disgustingly positive ‘Ham-Jam’ band Still Flyin’, who last year tried their hardest to ruin Secret Garden Party and who might possibly be the Worst Band In The World. Anyway, as it turns out, the whole psychedelia-hippy-Golden State subculture matrix is a little more complicated than it looks in Scooby Doo.

“Really?” asks Ripley (he can’t remember any anti-hippy comments). “I don’t mind hippies, though there’s a certain type of hippy that can be very, very annoying. I don’t even know what a hippy is anymore, really. There’s these sort of neo-hippies in San Francisco, they tend to be like urban, well-to-do, older hippies that can be somewhat annoying but huh – I’m not sure hippies even really exist,” he ponders “other than those people who are sort of yuppified hippies, yeah exactly, driving around in their fancy Volvo Station Wagons with the Greenpeace sticker on it.”

“I think in the US, when The Grateful Dead were still touring a lot and they would come to town, it would create this massive scene because all the Dead Heads would come out of the woodwork. Thousands of people who follow them would show up and they were just incredibly annoying when they would follow them…”

“…Congregating,” Omar chips-in disdainfully.

“There were good things about them,” counters Ripley “but they would take over a city and a lot of them were just drug addicts, sort of free-loader type people and the jam band scene has kind of grown out of that vacuum. I find it incredibly annoying myself but I mean, once The Dead went away, that sort of mellowed-out a little bit, it’s not so much in your face.”

Well, thank God for the death of Jerry Garcia, a tragedy that roughly coincided with Ships’ arrival in the city and which sparked an explosion of creativity.

“Yeah, for a long time when we first moved there,” says Omar “there was a lot going on, a lot of independent venues and stores and then a lot of them closed down, partly because of the Internet perhaps, but then recently the pace has been picking up again. San Francisco is associated with that Sixties thing but that was long ago, it’s not a day-to-day thing now.”

Back to the present, though, and the “Bay Area Bubble”, as Omar puts it, is still a haven for ideologically left-wing art types, tramps and anyone who’d rather get stoned than get with the program. So, what is it about the place that’s inspired such a huge and consistently brilliant musical output?

“California’s a little more like a country, it’s so vast and there’s such a variety of stunning natural environments, the mountains, the desert… so that part of it is really magical,” says Ripley. “San Francisco itself is one of, in fact the most progressive city in the United States, so much so that right wing talk show people who rally against gays and liberals and all that stuff call them ‘Berkley Democrats’ or ‘San Francisco Democrats’. It’s a stigma on the Right to be from San Francisco, it’s almost like being French – Heheh! The city is very progressive, so people are very open, like there are a lot of homeless people because people in San Francisco don’t generally think it should be a crime to be homeless. There’s all sorts of things that go on that are progressive, everything from needle exchanges to food-not-bombs in the park, healthcare for all employees…”

“Domestic partner benefits,” adds Omar.

Ripley again: “The gay marriage thing. Whenever someone runs for Mayor, they’re both on the Left, you know, and whichever one’s a little more to the Right, they’re cast as like ‘The Evil Pro-Business One’. Gavin Newsom, who’s the mayor now, that’s how he was cast in his election but then he was the one that tried to legalise gay marriage in San Francisco and that set off this huge movement in the United States. Basically, San Francisco tries to create its own little utopia, which makes it a great place to live. It’s just a different reality and then you go out in to the rest of The States and it’s completely different. None of us grew up there, we all just ended up there. It’s one of those cities where half the people are from somewhere else, people sort of gravitate towards there who grew up and were interested in arts and music. It attracts people who are kind of freaks, you know, you can go there and be comfortable, you can be gay or a freaky artist, you can have crazy hair and you’re not going to get beat up, people aren’t gonna give a shit. Also, it’s not a strivers’ city. People go to New York to ‘make it’, people go to LA to ‘make it’. No one goes to San Francisco to ‘make it’!” they laugh. “They just go there to do their art, do their thing and be freaky.”

“They’ve been to those other places and tried to ‘make it’ and then they’ve given up and come here,” suggests Nash.

“Or they’ve been to those places,” says Ripley “and then they don’t like it ‘cause it’s not fast enough, it’s not a big media hub. It’s got a reputation as being kinda mellow and when you go there, because it’s quite an expensive city now, it’s been gentrified and whatever, if people are going to do something, they have to really try and so the things that go on are cool because people are working really hard to make them happen.”

“Yeah,” the rest agree.

Effortless though they might seem both on and off stage, they can certainly be counted amongst the progressive crowd, working hard at ‘making stuff happen’. A clue as to the modernity of their brain-damaged driving rock, is the difficulty one finds in pinning it down, despite its clear resonances with past rock stalwarts and obscure gems. It does and it doesn’t sound like The Stooges, it does and doesn’t sound like Silver Apples and so on for Mary Chain, Comets on Fire, Neu!, XTRMNTR-era Primal Scream, July, Suicide and endless others, each likeness falling just short of what Wooden Shjips really are. This uniqueness stems from an ingenious bringing-together of wah-riddled psych wig-outs, garage fuzz and punk’s stripped-to-the-bone simplicity, all brought in line with a krautrock-like sense of self-discipline and repetition.

“I think in the history of rock music,” offers Ripley by way of explanation “there’s very primitive rock and roll, then the sixties happened and things got a little more exploratory and then I think maybe cocaine ruined everything. People just started showing off and it got into this weird territory where it wasn’t rocking any more and you couldn’t dance to it. Punk kind of brought it back to a straight-on kind of thing but they kept the songs really short and they were against guitar solos, you know. so…” he trails off as if he’s talking about a party he’s been kicked-out of. Fitting in with neither the indulgent fret-wanking guitar crowd nor the three-minute, glue-addled noiseniks, they threw a party of their own.

This middle way between over-simplicity and over-indulgence “was a conscious choice from the very beginning, with the very first band,” says Ripley “because when you have musicians who can’t play instruments, you have to play, well, we played one chord songs. The idea of repetition and trance we’re very conscious of, but we’re approaching from a rock perspective because we’re all rock‘n’rollers. It’s very reductive. When you hear some stuff where the drummers just don’t stop, like constantly playing fills and there are all these other things happening… we purposefully got rid of that because in a way we just found it more powerful.”

“The Silver Apples comparison is flattering,” says Omar. “I’ve found that playing basic and repetitive rhythms has made me much more present and focused in the moment, much more than when I used to try and play drum fills, which I was never very good at, anyway.”

“You know, if people complain about our music,” picks up Ripley “they’re like ‘it’s the same thing over and over again’, but they would never hear an electronic or dance record and say ‘well, the beat just goes on and on’ because that’s the point. Well, I think originally with rock‘n’roll, that was the point, people played rock‘n’roll as dance music and the rhythms are what it’s all about.”

This devotion to repetition in the rhythm section might put some punters off, although that’s hard to imagine when the basslines are as breathtaking as on ‘For So Long’ and ‘Fallin’, to name but two. At the show later, combined with between-song field-recordings, treated samples of Steve Reich’s ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ and a confluence of disco ball and projector lights in the right hand corner of the ceiling, it works to it’s usual time-distorting, trance-inducing effect; pasted over with free keyboard and guitar improvisations.

“I feel like I never play the same thing live because I only started playing keyboards when we got the four of us together,” says Nash. “I don’t know how to do fancy things but I know what a cool sound is so if it sounds awesome I’ll just go with it for a while, then next time I won’t remember what I played so there’s a lot of improvisation.”

“I listen to a lot of jazz,” adds Ripley “and to me, improvisation can be a very pure way of communicating an emotion because it’s not literal. There’s little to get in the way of the message, and to a degree it requires that the listener meet you half way.”

Music that’s intelligent and danceable? Well, with any luck that LCD Soundsystem reference doesn’t seem quite so tenuous now. Here’s hoping that Wooden Shjips turn into the massively influential crossover success they deserve to be; it’ll make the next five years sound a lot better.