When singer and guitarist Ripley Johnson first assembled the Wooden Shjips in 2003, it was as an experiment designed to test if instinct could win out over skill. That first incarnation consisted of players with little experience (aside from Ripley) as musicians. Johnson hoped that by utilizing this cast of musical illiterates he could tap rock’s primal mainline.
The project didn’t produce the desired outcome, and by 2006, Johnson and holdover Nash Whalen, who switched from guitar to keys, had joined forces with the rhythm section of Dusty Jermier (bass) and Omar Ahsanuddin (drums). Wooden Shjips 2.0 has proven much more successful. Over the course of a string of singles and a couple full-lengths the San Franciscan band has shown themselves capable of lysergic rock of the highest potency. Working with a palette of drone, groove, distortion and keyboard swirl, the Shjips are in the psych strain of Spacemen 3 and Loop, while also incorporating everything from Suicide to the 13th Floor Elevators into their heady fog.
With West, the band’s forthcoming third album, the band has come into its own. The production work of Phil Manley has done wonders for the band, and the studio-recorded album makes their previous efforts now sound pale by comparison. With the improved fidelity, the trails of guitar and keys have been thrown in sharp relief, while the bass and drums rumble and crack underneath. Beginning with the cold rush of guitar fuzz of “Black Smoke Rise,” the album plunges headlong down an intoxicating path, each of the subsequent six songs more vivid than the last. West is certainly a peak for the band, but I suspect there are yet higher planes in the band’s future.
I got Whalen on the phone to discuss the spelling of the band’s name and its new album, among other things.
Let’s get the dumb question out of the way first. Explain the “j.”
Nash Whalen: There’s several different reasons for it, one of them being that we wanted it to look Swedish. There were Swedish psych bands from the ’60s and ’70s that we were really into and we wanted to pay tribute to them. Then “Wooden Shjips” was a Jefferson Airplane song—and Crosby, Stills and Nash did it too—so it’s a California psychedelic song as well and putting the “j” in bridged those two influences. Practically, the “j” is nice because it makes the name unique and less likely that someone else has it and easy to find on Google. And it confuses people and makes them notice the name and go, “What’s up with that ‘j?’ Is it silent? Do I say ‘shi-jips?’ Or do I just say ‘ships?’”
What were the Swedish bands that you were paying tribute to?
NW: Trad Gras, Parson Sound and that whole scene.
Why the title West? Is there something specific about the album that you think evokes that part of the country?
NW: None of us were born on the West Coast, but we’ve all been living out here for the last 15 or 20 years. When we were growing up in different parts of the country, all of us had the experience of watching cowboy movies and seeing the TV shows filmed in LA, and there’s always cultural references to the West and the romanticism of what the West is. Also, the Western United States is really diverse geographically and culturally so it makes a good concept to dive into. Some of the songs have Western themes to them or a Western feel, and we hadn’t really thought too hard about album names before, so we tried to take it a step further.
Do you see the current psych thing going on in San Francisco as being part of the greater musical lineage of the city?
NW: It’s hard to trace the roots all the way back, but there is something about the musical history of San Francisco that makes it easy to come here and make psych music because it is part of the fabric of the history. It’s not like us or any of the other bands were like, “It’s time for more psych music from San Francisco,” but there’s something about the environment that lends itself to it.
Or perhaps the city naturally attracts those sorts of people?
NW: Yeah, I grew up in Vermont and I was acutely aware of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. That whole scene made an impression on me as a kid, so it doesn’t surprise me that later on I started playing psychedelic music. But maybe if I moved to North Dakota, I would have still played a similar kind of music. It’s hard to judge.
Given the start of the band, does Ripley still call all the shots or has it become more collaborative?
NW: It’s collaborative on some levels, but he still calls the shots on other levels. When we have a new song, he’s coming in with the song structure and the lyrics. When the four of us play it together, it definitely goes in its own direction. In general, he starts the concept of the song, but what we develop as a band is usually far removed from what he brings to us. It’s collaborative in the way that we develop the music together.
I know one of the goals of the band when you started was to tap into rock’s primitivism. Given that you are more accomplished players now, are there specific things you do to try to retain that or tap into it?
NW: When the band first started, I was playing in it with a few other people and none of us were musicians at all. Once that iteration fell apart, Ripley brought in Dusty on bass and Homer on drums. Both of those guys were able to keep a beat and play whatever note you asked them to. They were much more accomplished and had played in bands, so when they first started playing in Wooden Shjips, the idea was for them to just keep it simple. As it turns out, it’s much easier for an accomplished drummer to keep a steady simple beat than for someone who doesn’t know how to play the drums. I think that’s a big part of it: the way they can hold the the beat and the groove together.
When we are working on new things, Dusty is still thinking about a really simple bassline to play. He can play any bassline in the world, but it’s hard to play just one or two notes and keep it going for a long time. It’s his technical abilities that enable him to keep it simple and in the groove. I know there’s plenty of bass players who would be really bored or uninterested in playing a really simple bassline, but Dusty takes pleasure in it because he recognizes how difficult it is to keep it the same way for so long. And that’s what ends up driving the music.
For me, I wasn’t playing keyboards before this band, so when we first started I was like, “Where is G and where’s C?” I’ve gotten past that and I know how to play notes and chords now, so for me a lot of it is remembering that we are playing simple music, and just because I know how to do some kind of fill now doesn’t mean that it belongs in the song. It’s easy for us to do as a band because we’re all into the idea.
I was wondering if you guys had any sort of philosophy behind drone? I remember asking Sonic Boom about this and he said that it has a spiritual connotation for him, like a mantra. Do you have similar haughty ideas about it or is it just what you dig doing?
NW: I think so, but it’s not something we necessarily discuss as a band too often. It’s kind of unsaid. I think we all recognize what it is, but don’t waste time discussing it or trying to analyze it in any kind of way. It’s just what feels good. There’s a lot of feeling that goes into it and it’s something I recognize when we play. If I’m in a bad mood, it will start to sound a little more evil.
Even as a listener, if you listen to the same thing played over and over again, it starts to sound differently.
NW: We’ve never used loops when we play or record. Omar and Dusty can probably play the same thing over and over again without it changing too much, but I don’t think I can. With all of us together it changes a little bit here and there and that dynamic helps to keep the music interesting. We could loop a lot of it, but it wouldn’t be as interesting. Even though it’s repeating, it’s not exactly the same thing repeating. Whatever those changes may be makes it fun and interesting for the listener.
After listening to the new album for awhile then going back and listening to the self-titled record, that first album seems sparse by comparison. Do you attribute the fuller sound to working in a studio or is it more about the development of the band?
NW: It’s a little bit of both. I listened to a few songs off the self-titled album recently, and just comparing them to how we play them live now, we probably can’t play them that sparsely anymore because we’ve evolved into something different. But when we were doing that first record, we were using an eight-track so there wasn’t a lot of space for many overdubs. On West, we were using a 16-track so the drums got more tracks and the guitars got more tracks and that helps to build up the sound. So it’s kind of a combination of the two.
Even though you’ve stepped things up a bit with this record by going into a studio and having a bigger label (Thrill Jockey) than you’ve worked with in the past, I get the impression that the approach is still fairly relaxed. It doesn’t seem like you’re rushing to put records out just to have records out.
NW: We just want to work steady at it. We released a record every other year and put out compilations in between. We want to keep making music and playing shows, but we started this band when we were in our mid-30s, so it wasn’t like we were young kids with the idea that this would be the only thing we’d be doing for the rest of our lives. Because we have real lives and families and such, there is only so much effort we can put into it, but we do want to be putting effort into it all the time. It’s been easier for us to find a balance having other things going on in our lives. If we were 20 years younger, maybe we’d just tour all the time—I don’t know what we would do! But because it’s more paced, it makes the band stronger. Since it’s not the only thing in our lives, it keeps it in perspective.
Yeah, I think there was an article in Loud and Quiet that focused on the fact that you were a bit older, and they painted it as being advantageous just because you’ve had more time to absorb more music. Do you see it that way?
NW: Yeah, I totally do. The difference between when you are 20 and when you are in your mid-30s is you have more knowledge. Your perspective changes because you are coming at things with more experience. For most people, when they are in their mid-30s is the time when they give up the rock & roll lifestyle and get a regular job and not play music anymore. But for us, it was when we decided to go out there and play rock and see how it goes.