A change of scene, a change of style.
Wooden Shjips are almost the quintessential San Francisco band, sounding as if Haight-Ashbury had been rolled up into a pipe, smoked and then sprinkled across their rehearsal room. Yet recently Ripley Johnson took an unprecedented step – he moved to Portland, Oregon.
“I moved out of San Francisco a couple of years ago, then I was in Colorado. I was staying at a family place and it wasn’t really home, so we needed to find a place to settle down and ended up in Portland,” he explains. “I mean, Portland is a lot quieter than San Francisco and it’s a lot mellower, it’s more of a suburban kind of feel. There’s a lot of small houses, a lot of nature around there. It’s generally laid back. It’s a little more of an underground feel, which is nice.”
Freed from the constraints of the West Coast, Wooden Shjips seem to be thriving in one of America’s creative hotspots. New album ‘Band To Land’ is one of their focused, immediate, and delightfully intense offerings with rays of sunshine permeating their black, psychedelic sludge.
As Johnson explains, being able to settle down led to being able to fully explore his record collection once more. “Having moved into a home for the first time in a couple of years one of the biggest most exciting things for us was to actually unpack all of our records” he explains. “I was just sitting around listening to a lot of my old records: a lot of it is classic rock, Neil Young… I think that really seeped into the songwriting”.
Continuing, the guitarist places ‘Back To Land’ as a return to the group’s primary points of inspiration. “This idea of letting the songs be what they are - I think that’s part of where the title comes from. ‘Back To Land’ is back to the roots of the music which influenced us when we were really young. Letting that come through in the music instead of just avoiding it”.
Amongst the surprises on ‘Back To Land’ is the sound of Wooden Shjips – that most electric of live experiences – experimenting with pastoral, acoustic sounds. “There’s some acoustic guitar on this album, a couple of songs that are a little more downbeat. For me, it was more of a conscious decision to let that happen and see where it took us. To me, that’s where this album sort of differs from the stuff we’ve done before” he explains. “I’ve never been like a big acoustic guitar player in general, I’ve never had a nice one. I bought one on eBay last year, it’s actually not very nice either but it’s better than anything I’ve ever had. It cost $300”.
Retaining the long, psych-drones which inspired their dogged cult following, ‘Back To Land’ also finds Wooden Shjips exploring more familiar sonic realms. “One of the things I like about classic rock – and a lot of rock in general – but that production style where you just sort of throw everything in there” Ripley Johnson says. “Acoustic and electric, you just play with those textures and forget about the idea of having everything sound like the idea of sounding like a live band. The Stones or The Faces, where you have saxophone, drums and electric guitar and piano and acoustic and everything will be at the same sort of level. It doesn’t really make any logical sense but it just sounds good and thick. It’s more like that, again just harking back to an old rock and roll sound.”
A rippling, lysergic live experience, Wooden Shjips are to follow the release of their new album with a full headline tour. A transcendent, overpowering live experience, their raw, ragged, quicksilver sound is almost at odds with the refined, gilded sound which adorns ‘Back To Land’. Yet to Ripley Johnson, the two are conjoined, overlapping – a Venn diagram of outlandish, West Coast psychedelia. “I’m off two minds: I like the live stuff and I like playing live, but there’s also something – to me – in making a record, the process of it. To me, it’s the ultimate statement, for better or worse, that’s what lives on, hopefully. It’s like two sides of the same coin.”
Words: Robin Murray
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'Back To Land' is out now. Wooden Shjips have confirmed the following shows:
9 Brighton Audio
10 London Scala
11 Leeds Brudenell Social Club
12 Glasgow SWG3
13 Belfast Menagerie
14 Dublin Grand Social
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