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Sometimes If Things Feel Unreal, You Just Have To Roll With It: Ripley Johnson On Wooden Shjips' 'V'

Thursday, 17 May 2018 Written by Graeme Marsh

Photo: Jason Powers

Standing at the helm of a leading contemporary psych band will place considerable strain on your time, but Wooden Shjips’ Ripley Johnson always seems to find room to experiment.

Alongside his wife, Sanae Yamada, and drummer John Jeffrey he also drives Moon Duo, a band he has been immersed in since the Shjips’ last release, ‘Back To Land’, in 2013. And, on top of that, his huge (and ever expanding) record collection demands his attention, leaving spare minutes at a premium.

With Wooden Shjips’ fifth album – the fittingly titled ‘V’ – soon to make an appearance, it is a little staggering that Ripley managed to find time for our questions during preparations for Levitation, the now legendary psychedelic festival held in Austin, Texas. It’s an event he was particularly looking forward to, with Sanae’s new project, Vive la Void, on the bill alongside other Johnson favourites in OM, Dallas Acid and Hidden Ritual.

Head below to read Ripley’s thoughts on the different processes involved with Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo, the LP's artwork, and the battle against existential dread.

With Sanae at close quarters, while the Shjips’ members are split across two locations [Portland and San Francisco], Moon Duo tracks must come thick and fast in comparison?

Actually, no. Sanae plays a big part in crafting those songs. I bring the structure and lyrics, but we work through the feel and textures. There’s so much she brings with the synthesizer sounds, and there are so many directions to go, that it takes more time maybe. One of the different things about working with the Shjips is that it’s a more straightforward rock ensemble. We just start playing the songs and work out a lot of the sounds in the rehearsal and recording process.

Is it difficult to switch between bands when writing new material? How do you know which band is right for which song?

I write specifically for whatever project I’m working on, so if I have an idea that doesn’t fit I just set it aside. I’m usually pretty focused on a particular feel or vibe, and how that relates to the musicians in each band. The people influence the songs quite a bit, as well as whatever happens to be going on in my head at the time.

How does the creative process normally run, then?

I record ideas to my phone all the time. When I’m out and about, I’ll just hum a riff or sing into the phone. Most of the time, I listen back and can’t tell what the hell the idea was. A lot of times I’m just playing the guitar and something comes to me, just appears. I’ll record a bit and then come back to it later and flesh it out. There are a lot of dud ideas that aren’t so great on second listen.

As Moon Duo has been your focus for some time now, what have the other members of the Shjips been up to in the meantime?

People find it hard to believe, but they just go about their lives, doing other regular things. Dusty [Jermier, bass] sometimes plays in an Eno cover band, called Enorchestra, but that’s about it. We turned down the first gig we were ever offered, opening for Six Organs of Admittance, because he was going camping. That’s kind of how we roll, I guess.

Presumably logistics make it hard to bring the band together, but do you meet up with Omar [Ahsanuddin, drums], the other Portland resident, at all? Do you find anyone particularly hard to pin down?

Everyone is hard to pin down! Yes, let’s blame it on logistics. Omar and I sometimes get together to play, but it’s not the same with just the two of us. For every record I make rough demos of all of the songs, with vocals, drums, bass, everything. That way everyone can play along or at least think about them before we get together. Time is tight. But we make the most of it.

I believe I read that ‘Back To Land’ was a completely analog recording – are things the same for ‘V’? What are the benefits of doing things this way?

It is not analog. The recording might be completely digital, actually. Analog is great but we’ll use whatever is at hand. It’s funny, we started out recording to tape, 4-track, then 8-track, because we had the gear in our rehearsal studio. It was cheap. Now digital is obviously cheaper and easier. We recorded this record at Type Foundry in Portland and we almost went to tape, at least with the drums, but we were getting good sounds in Pro Tools. I like to do vocals and a lot of the guitar at home, where I can take my time, get into the zone. So we would have dumped everything to Pro Tools anyway.

Do you have a favourite track among the new collection?

I really like Already Gone. And Staring at the Sun. I wanted to make a summer record. Music you put on on that first sunny, warm day, when you break out the shorts and frisbee and space cakes. I think those songs have that quality.

Regarding Staring at the Sun, I heard it was triggered by last year’s Pacific Northwest wildfires – what other catalysts contributed to the writing process? Is there a specific theme running through the album?

The theme is optimism in the face of existential dread. Things were feeling really fucked up and weird last summer as I was writing. There was the hurricane in Houston, the eclipse, the wildfires, the Trump reality. I just felt really discombobulated and ungrounded. So I used the album as an excuse to bring some light into my life, and hopefully into others’. And instead of trying to make something really grounded, we went for something really floaty, but optimistic and full of light. Sometimes if things feel unreal, you just have to roll with it.

What inspired the album cover?

We wanted the V/peace sign. V for peace, resistance, victory over oppression and fascism. And the natural elements to reflect back to all of the existential dread that we feel. To take comfort in nature, the earth, the cosmic beauty of it all. Jaime Zuverza is the artist. He’s brilliant.

By all accounts you have a sizeable record collection – presumably they help to inspire you, when you actually get time to play them. Do you have any recent acquisitions that have particularly taken your fancy?

I have enough records, surely, but I keep buying because I just love them. Some new loves … Gun Outfit - ‘Out of Range’, Wet Tuna - ‘Livin’ the Die’, Prana Crafter - ‘Bodhi Cheeta’s Choice’, Leslie Winer & Jay Glass Dubs - ‘Ymfees’, Hidden Ritual - ‘Always’. They all inspire me. When a new record gets me excited, it makes me want to write and record songs, to make more records.

What’s around the corner after the Shjips’ album and tour?

Working on some secret stuff! Also, Sanae has her Vive la Void album coming in May, so she’ll be playing shows. And we’ll work on a new Moon Duo record later in the year.

'V' is out on May 25 through Thrill Jockey.

Wooden Shjips Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon September 10 2018 - LONDON Heaven
Tue September 11 2018 - LEEDS Brudenell Social Club
Wed September 12 2018 - GLASGOW Saint Luke's
Thu September 13 2018 - GATESHEAD Sage
Fri September 14 2018 - LIVERPOOL IWF
Sat September 15 2018 - MANCHESTER Gorilla
Sun September 16 2018 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute2 
Mon September 17 2018 - BELFAST Empire Music Hall
Tue September 18 2018 - DUBLIN Whelans

Click here to compare & buy Wooden Shjips Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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