Psych rockers make for Western lands on exploratory new LP
Shjips Ahoy - Wooden Shjips Interview

It’s fair to say that ‘West’ marks something of a departure for Wooden Shjips. For a band once shrewdly (if a little unkindly) dubbed ‘the underground Status Quo’, a new release was unlikely to herald a foray into post-blubstep, wistful deckshoegaze or whatever else this month’s designated envelope pushers are up to. On their own terms though, the Shjips are breaking serious new ground here.

Fans of their mesmeric, whacked-out psyche/garage/kraut hybrid will not be disappointed; the stoic minimalism, churning grooves and cascading, exploratory solos remain intact. On ‘West’ however, they come in altogether more succinct and focused packages. There’s a tentative move towards more song-like arrangements, increased fidelity to the recordings and an over-arching concept; six pieces thematically united, albeit loosely, by the American West.

For East Coast-born bandleader Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson the West has always held something of a fascination. Not solely for its location but intriguing - as it is for many Americans - for its culture, mythology and folklore. For its breathtaking landscapes, its magnetism and the subsequent rootlessness of the people that gravitate towards it. “In the US,” he explains, “the things that you’re taught - especially when you don’t live there - you have this really romantic idea of the West as this vast country where people go to really reinvent themselves and stake their claim. That was kind of what I was doing when I got out of High School [and moved to San Francisco]. I was enthralled by the Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, the music of LA and San Francisco and the sunshine.”

Ripley and the band are dedicated fans of the great outdoors as well, regularly taking road trips and camping out in California around Lake Tahoe or Yosemite and giving them a rich palette of imagery to draw on.

“There’s such a range of geography it does have that sort of epic feel. If you’re going camping for the weekend you feel like you’re driving through this vast landscape. It gives you this sense of awe, this existentialist type feeling where you’re just this small person driving through this massive landscape. And the sense of its history is just ingrained through our culture and through movies and photographs; you feel almost like you’re in a movie, it’s like ‘I feel like I’ve been here before’ because you’ve seen some of these places, they’re so iconic. And they’re used in our culture as these symbols of American - I was gonna say ‘exceptionalism’ - but of American spirit like adventure and expansion.”

Whatever the inspiration, it’s a remarkably good fit. Where previous releases have conjured images of smoky, basement jams or druggy, monochrome art flicks, ‘West’ sounds and feels wide screen, elemental and remarkably vivid.

Lifting the vocals in the final mix - attributed more to the presence of a studio engineer than any determined effort to push their sound on - nevertheless ramps up the intensity and drama. As the vocal on ‘Lazy Bones’ falls away with the line “Staring at the sun, it’s staring back at me”, the track begins to pulse and throb as if to writhe and flail, baking alive in the scorching heat. Elsewhere, ‘Crossing’ and ‘Black Smoke Rise’ evoke blasted night rides through hostile desert environments and when Ripley’s guitar solo cuts through in ‘Crossing’ it’s like forked lightning splitting pitch-black skies.

“There’s room for us to progress and try different things,” says Ripley. “It’s OK if some people don’t like it as much as the other stuff, maybe some people like it more, you just have to take that chance. Hopefully people will stick it out with you in the end.”

‘West’ is indeed both a bold departure and an indication that Wooden Shjips have many more exotic destinations yet to explore.

Words by Jim Brackpool

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