A history of the west with Ripley Johnson of Wooden Shjips

Vincent Girimonte

Wooden Shjips

Photo by Anna Ignatenko

Wooden Shjips released West in 2011 as a San Francisco band. On November 12th, they’ll release Back to Land as a band of the West. Ripley Johnson, guitarist, singer and songwriter, moved to Portland last year with wife Sanae Yamada after a couple years on the move as Moon Duo. Drummer Omar Ahsanuddin followed after a stint in LA while Dusty Jermier and Nash Whalen continue to brave the boutique jungles of San Francisco.

And yet with the band seemingly displaced, Back to Land, Wooden Shjips’ sixth album, exudes warm and familiar comfort. Fans shouldn’t fear a departure from the thick psychedelic on which Wooden Shjips built their reputation, but welcome an album of a mellower disposition—perhaps playing with classic rock as much as Krautrock this time around, and just a slight adjustment in their original ingredients.

On an exceedingly sunny autumn afternoon in Portland, I met Ripley for a beer and a pleasantly broad conversation on America’s cultural geography and the meaning of the West, 2013. And Lou Reed, of course.

Where are you from?

Ripley: Connecticut is where I grew up. I went to college in Santa Cruz, CA.

Ah, a Banana Slug.

Well, technically. I think they had one team when I was there—like an ultimate Frisbee team.

What originally drew you out west?

I was going to school in Massachusetts and hated it. A friend from Vermont who was out in Santa Cruz told me, “It's great out here. Come out.”

Seems like the West as a theme runs through a lot of your music.

Place, for sure. Part of that is being outsider. I have an appreciation for it because I hated the East Coast.

I'm going to Massachusetts for Christmas.

That's cool. Wicked.

What should I be afraid of?

Well, if the Red Sox lose the World Series people will probably be in a bad mood for a couple of months. New England is fun to visit. One of the great things about the East Coast is the history; I think it's just more present, more visible, the Boston area especially. Have you been there?

I've been to Vermont, which I hear is not very like Massachusetts.

Vermonters look down on people from Massachusetts. Vermonters might look down on everyone. Small states with big attitude.

They were really proud of everything in Vermont—syrup, cheese, ice cream. They had really good cheese, though.

Great cheddar.

I think the history of the West is mostly about water and how we've engineered it.

A lot of it is about resources. To me, a lot of it is about reinvention. The West is where everyone went if they couldn't get it together back East, where everything was already established, or they were just looking for a clean break. You could start fresh from nothing, which is really interesting because I think that kind of persists today.

Was there something you imagined yourself doing when you first moved out West?

It was about freedom for me. All the things you read about the West growing up, the literature, the arts, the music, paint this picture of freedom and rebellion. And it is the most progressive part of the U.S., and so when you're young and you wanna let your freak flag fly, and you're living in a button downed conservative type of state… Connecticut is a Democratic state but it's super anal and stifling kind of, culturally.

I'm thinking of that Senator from Connecticut— Dodd. Wall Street guy.

And Lieberman.

Oh yeah. Did you associate the West coast with the type of music you wanted to make?

I grew up listening to classic rock—-that was the music that was around our house. All of that music I associate in some way to the West Coast because there's no evidence of it left on the East Coast, culturally. All of that freewheeling, drugs, sex, and rock n' roll. You don't see that on the East Coast. You imagine it on the West Coast and I think you still see it. I took the greyhound bus for 69 dollars, three days, and got off in San Francisco. Saw people walking barefoot and being freaky. It's night and day. Things have changed now, though. The Red Sox guys all have beards. Culturally I think the US has loosened up a lot.

I hope that's true. I feel like Portland is a bubble. A good bubble, though.

That's exactly how I felt when I lived in San Francisco.

This album, Back to Land, feels more mellow, more laid-back than some of your previous work. Is that Portland in the album?

That is Portland in the album. Well, it's not necessarily Portland; it's me being in Portland. We were living in Colorado with family. We left San Francisco to do music full-time, put everything in storage for a few years. We finally decided on Portland as a place to live — moved into a house, unpacked everything, got out the old records and started feeling reeaalllly comfortable. In the winter here, especially, you hunker down, you turn up the heat. It's such a great feeling, and I think that definitely came through in the songwriting.

Have any of your bandmates moved up to Portland?

Our drummer (Omar Ahsanuddin) just moved up in January. He was in LA because his wife was doing a doctorate program or something. He didn't like it all. Hated it. The other two guys are still in San Francisco.

You couldn't convert the other two to move up here?

I'm trying. Whenever I move I always try to get everyone to move with me. They come up here for rehearsals and stuff, and I think they really like it. I just don't they're going to move because we moved.

I was trying to come with a Lou Reed themed interview, like timing it to the length of “Sister Ray.” I read that you're a fan. What's your first memory of the guy?

I think the first time I saw Lou Reed was on TV. I don't know what he was promoting, but I was really young and it was the 80s. I think he may have had a video on MTV for one of his solo albums. I remember being intrigued by him even though I had no idea who he was.

When I first met my wife, actually, one of the things that I thought was really interesting about her was that she was really into Lou Reed. I'd never met a girl that said, “Yeah, I'm really into Lou Reed.” It's like, why? I'm into Lou Reed but I wouldn't expect anyone else to be. It wasn't “I'm in really into the Velvet Underground.” It was, “I just got this solo bootleg.”

He gets in people and stays with them forever.

I like the solo albums even though a lot of them are really bad. I just like having them.

I've been listening to Coney Island Baby a lot.

What about Mistrial? Or Growing Up in Public?

Haven't listened to those in awhile.

They're pretty bad. He's a great author, someone who's had such an impact on you that you want to just read his later stuff, or listen to the stuff, just to figure out what's going on in his head.

He's kind of like Dylan. In the Dylan autobiography, he talks about making a record in the 80s with Daniel Lanois. He just doesn't have any idea about how to pick a band — he admits it. He doesn't know how to pick a band, doesn't know what sound he's going for. It's almost like he got lucky in the 60s by meeting certain musicians and certain producers who just helped him make these records. But it sounds like he doesn't have much of a clue and the 80s sort of bare that out with some really bad sounding records—but with some really good songs.

But Lou's albums seem like the same. He had this bass player Fernando for a while, this five-string bass player kind of guy. It's like, this doesn't make any sense. You can't listen to the Velvet Underground and listen to this album and think they're the same guy. I don't think he necessarily changed the way he thought about music… maybe it was a “Fuck you.” He seems also like the kind of guy who's just difficult on purpose. Maybe he had grudge albums.

You digging any bands from Portland?

We don't go out that often when we're here because every night in a rock club for two months, you get home and you don't want to go anywhere near it. We saw King Khan and the Shrines, they're not from here. They played with a band called Hell Shovel. They were really awesome. They're garagey, kind of like 13th Floor Elevators, or something. Garagey but taking a bunch of acid. But from here, I saw White Fang. Have you seen these guys?

Yeah.

I couldn't believe it. These guys should have their own show. Their singer reminds me of the guy from Eastbound and Down. He had a hockey shirt on. He had a mustache and mullet of some kind and was telling jokes in between songs that were just killing me. I couldn't believe it. I don't know if I was stoned or what.

They have one song called “Unchain Your Brain” that's honestly one of the most inspirational songs I've ever heard.

I need to see them again. They're making something happen. That's one thing about a town like this: nothing's going to stop you. It's not like you're struggling pay rent in Manhattan, or something like that. If you got some time on your hands, you can make something happen.

Wooden Shjips' Back To Land is out now on Thrill Jockey.

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