Wooden Shjips' WEST is their first foray in the world of studio recording. To expound upon the band's newfound experience is keyboardist Nash Whalen, who sounds relieved to no longer be concerned with watching the recording levels on the VU meters whilst playing during a recording session.
Just saw the video for Black Smoke Rise, what's the story with that Coke bottle?
That was a decision of the director; we weren't involved in the shoot or anything.
I like how the Coke bottle takes on a life of its own, kind of like the pop can in the Gods Must Be Crazy.
Ha ha, yeah!
Tell us a little about the Incubate 2011Festival. You guys did something with slide installations by Wineke Gartz.
She's a Dutch artist who we met on our first tour and we have become friends with her and she really likes our music and has always used it in installations where she sets up these video installations in a room where she has the video projecting from weird angles and different places in a room that create an environment with the video and will have different music playing in time and stuff. I had never seen one of installations so she sent me DVDs that she made and it looked really cool. So for this festival we set up to play inside of one of her installations and she has video all around us, and she mixed some of the video live while we are playing. Then we did another part of the show, that we had never tried before with an improv set where we responded to the images that she projected.
Wow, like a Dutch Exploding Plastic Inevitable!
Yeah! Heh heh!
Really cool. So tell us about the album West, on Thrill Jockey.
Yeah, we're really excited about this record. We recorded it over the winter here in San Francisco and Thrill Jockey is putting it out and it was our first time working in a real studio where we worked with Phil Manley and he just did an excellent job of capturing all the sounds we wanted to capture. That was always our struggle before, when recorded it ourselves and we never had the right mics, and it was always in our practice space, so there would be a lot of bleeding between the amps and various things that muddied up the sound a bit. So we really wanted to go into a studio and get a cleaner sounding record that captured all the sounds that we were thinking for once.
And being that this was your first time with a producer, how was it having someone help arrange everything? Making it clean and giving it that…sheen?
Yeah, well, I still don't know if clean is the right word for it! Ha, but you know [Manley] was capturing the sounds that we were making, something better than we could ever do, and he just made it easy for us. Because before, doing it by yourself, you're always watching the levels on the machine as you're playing, making sure they're alright. Your focus isn't on the music 100 percent. But you know, for the most part it took away that burden of having to think about the recording aspect of it. When you can just play the music, that allows us to concentrate on playing our parts and creating the sound we wanted to create, and Phil did the rest. He made it real easy for us.
How did you hook up with producer Phil Manley?
We've known him for a few years. He used to play with the Fucking Champs and they shared a practice space with us, so in the years since then he has done sound for us for a few or our shows here in the city. When we were looking to record he was like “I'm working at this studio and I have the time if you guys are interested.” We knew that he knew what we sounded like and what we wanted to sound like so it was real easy to cut this album and work with him.
What studio(s) did you used to record the album?
We recorded in a studio called Lucky Cat.
Stupid question but is West a reference to San Francisco's geographical location?
Pretty much, yeah! (Laughs.) But it is also referring to the greater west as well, you know? About a year ago, our guitarist Ripley moved to Colorado and when we were talking about the record, the west seemed to tie together all of our geographical locations at this point. But it also asks what the west is, with these areas of vastness and lots of opportunities, people are always coming to the west to find their own dreams. A very personal journey.
What brought you to record “Rising” with the backwards tracking?
That was something that came about when we were in the studio. Phil Manley definitely had a big influence on that. Just because we had never worked in a studio before, we asked 'what about backwards stuff?' And he's like, ‘Oh, that’s easy!’ And he hooked us up with that, heh heh!
So with the emergence of Ripley's Moon Duo band, is there any type of inner competition?
No, I don't think so. With Ripley I think it’s about the availability, where he has to figure out how much time he can give to each band. So he's trying to line things up so that a block of time is for Moon Duo and a block of time is for Wooden Shjips. But that's about it, though. Just working with the rest of us in the band about what our availabilities are, and going from there.
Everyone is always hounding you guys for the coolest psych records, new and old but I got to ask the question: what's the coolest record you have heard recently that no one is talking about, but should be?
That's a hard question for me to answer. I haven't bought much music this year and I can't say that I listened to much music this year. One thing I did buy was a CD by Bill Dixon and he's like a free jazz trumpeter. That is one thing I have listened to this year that's really cool.
A CD, huh? Everyone talks about you guys upholding the virtues of all things vinyl!
Well, if I could find it! But I don't think it came out on vinyl. I usually buy much more vinyl than CDs but there are CDs in my collection!
(Laughs.) I'm trying to get rid of this mass collection of CDs I have been casually accumulating since they first came out. These days I keep them hidden away in a wardrobe. By comparison, I feel they are just lacking in that visceral appeal that the LP has.
Yeah I know. I have tons of CDs boxed up that I don't even look at, so I'm in that same boat. But I leave a few lying around that I can grab for the car.
Yeah, they're good too if you don't have one of those fancy iPod hook ups
Yeah, I don't own an iPod so I don't have any experience using them. I used to only record my records on to tapes and be able to travel around with but they don't have [tape players] in cars anymore!
And if you ever find a tape player in a vehicle then it's probably broken! So what band comparisons are sick to death of and tired of hearing about in the press?
The one that we have never understood that much is the Doors, it seems to have dissipated a bit with time but people still bring it up.
Yeah, what is that about? You guys don't sound like Manzerak, Morrison and company at all.
Yeah, it must have been some song where Ripley's voice sounded like the Doors. Maybe it had to do with the organ at some point. I'm not sure. But it was one of those bands that people labeled us that we really never understood, I still see it popping up, it hasn't gone away! It's always hard from separating everything else you have ever heard in your life and separating it from what you are doing now. You know, there are always songs that will remind you of something, and you will ask someone about it, and they will say “I don't get that.” But it does that for you, and you happen to be a music writer, and you put that out there and that makes more people make that connection even if they would have made it naturally.