Throwaway Style: An Interview With Ripley Johnson of Wooden Shjips

Throwaway Style, Interviews, Local Music
Martin Douglas
Photo by Eleonora Collini

Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, every Thursday on the KEXP Blog.

Wooden Shjips, like a good number of psychedelic-leaning bands worth their weight in acid, have carved quite a path out of turning repetition into something hypnotic. The band, fronted by Portland resident Ripley Johnson, is guided by recurring musical motifs cycling a trail for Johnson’s far-reaching, exploratory guitar work to stretch its legs over.

On earlier records such as the classic Vol. 1, the band’s mastery of mesmerism is so enveloping that even a bum note or a missed tap of the hi-hat became a revelatory shift in musicianship. Although the texture on their new album V. is less abrasive and cloudy, the trance of the music is still augmented by fleeting flourishes; the saxophones blaring through the end of opener “Eclipse,” bongos borrowed in the mix of “Golden River,” the woozy touch of organ on “Staring at the Sun.”

There is a calm which permeates through the record, an evenhandedness. Not to say any Wooden Shjips record sprints to where it needs to be; if anything the band's earlier work is executed at a marathon runner's pace. But almost as a counterbalance to the dark, stressful summer of 2017 — the period in which the album was written — the music on the album contains a lightness only hinted on latter-day Shjips releases. Closer “Ride On” is a glacial ballad, an outlier of the Wooden Shjips catalog; the guitars buzz and coat everything with a river’s current of electricity. Listening to the synth in the background is like watching a single cloud float in the baby blue sky.

V. continues the more laconic side of Wooden Shjips which began on Back to Land, but while their 2013 album was mostly about the comfort of being in a place called home, the band’s most recent work is mostly about the staying grounded — at peace, at home — while the world is quite literally on fire. On an afternoon thankfully not heavy with smoke earlier this month, KEXP caught up with Johnson on the phone to chat about the new album and the circumstances surrounding its conception.


KEXP: You guys recently played Levitation, right? How was it?

Ripley Johnson: It was great. Have you been before?

I went a while ago. I think it was 2012 when it was still Austin Psych Fest.

Every time we go there's just, you know, a different kind of format. So this year there were multiple venues, kind of like South By Southwest style. It sounds cool, but the last time I was there they did it on this ranch, by a river, and it was all outside and sort of self-contained. I thought that was a lot of fun, but they had problems with the weather one year.

Yeah, I heard about that.

They had flash flood warnings.

Yeah, I think one of those years I wanted to go. I can't remember if it was the time when there was good weather or bad weather. But yeah, one of those years I wanted to go and couldn't make it.

Yeah, they canceled the whole thing the night before, and then the weather turned out to not be so bad, but it was the county or something that shut it down.

That's a bummer.

They took a year off, and this was the first year back.

What do you usually do when you're at festivals? Do you go check out bands? Do you hang out in the back? What's that like?

It depends on how much time I have and what the festival is like. I like to go check out bands, but a lot of festivals we just go in and play and then we leave. But this one we were there for the whole weekend, and we weren't on tour so we had a lot more freedom.

Did you check out any sets?

I was at the Sacred Bones showcase, where Vive la Void played. That's Sanae [Yamada, Johnson’s partner in Moon Duo]'s project. And Föllakzoid, and I DJ'd [the showcase]. So I went to that. The thing with the set-up that they have there is, like, it's kind of hard to hop from one venue to another, you know. It's kind of more like you're going to a club show. That's pretty much what it was like. I didn't see a whole lot beyond that. I saw Acid Mothers Temple. I went to that, of course. I saw Dan Deacon one night.

That sounds dope. Tell me about your headspace writing the songs for V. There was a lot going on last summer with the forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, and, of course, the social and political unrest going on in the world. It would be interesting to hear where your mind was at when you were writing the songs.

Yeah, that was actually kind of a huge influence on what we were doing and especially when I was writing. Initially, I wanted to do something. I was on tour with Moon Duo, and I really just got the hankering to do another Wooden Shjips record, and I wanted to do something that was fast and light and seemed like a summer record, but there was just so much going on. It was weighing so heavily on everything.

When we started to do it and I was home in Portland writing these songs, and like you said, there were the forest fires and all this ash. Just this feeling of Armageddon a little bit. That filtered into the songs. And I think, for me, it was like I was just trying to find some perspective that wasn't so depressing and so gloomy. So the focus around trying to create something a little lighter that was maybe something of a balm, you know, a sonic balm. As things got worse or difficult, and it seemed like, for the past year, at least in my circle of friends and where we work, a lot of us were all struggling with a lot of negativity and just feeling down about everything.

Creating out of relief, sort of. I totally understand that feeling.

One of the things that I looked to eventually, after months of just sort of shock and — after the election, especially — when things were just so defeated. I think I took refuge in the fact that a lot of the music that I was originally inspired by when I was younger came from a period in U.S. history that was actually darker, which is hard to believe and in the moment you don't want to think about, necessarily. A lot of people didn't want to talk about what was happening in the 60's and 70's.

You know, we tend to focus on, at least in my circle, we focus on art — creating art and music and social movements that came out of that. The actual reality on the ground. The reality that people are living with at the time in the U.S. was pretty bleak, actually, but all this beautiful stuff came out of it. So I was looking to that for some sort of inspiration.

So you said a minute ago that you had the hankering to write a Wooden Shjips record. Do your albums come out of that feeling? “You know, I need to do this. I need to write another Wooden Shjips record, or I need to write another Moon Duo record.” Is that how you usually approach writing an album?

Sort of, yeah. I mean, especially for the Shjips stuff because half of us live in Portland and half in San Francisco. So we're not in regular contact, we're not getting together to play all the time. It's not a regular thing like it used to be, so it takes a little initiative or some kind of spark to get people interested in doing something. Or even just asking, like, “Hey, you know, does anyone want to make a record?” Because otherwise we could easily just not.

A lot of the process — for us anyway, and for me personally, and for all the projects I've been involved with — comes down to just initiative and sustaining some sort of creative energy. It's easier to just not do that. It's easier to just not make a record because we're not really a working band. It really just comes down to that. But it had been a while since we'd made a record, and, for me, I just kind of missed that process and that family, I guess you could say. Because a band is such a unique relationship, and it's more like getting together with old friends to do something.

How does the musical process work for the band? Do you record demos personally and then present them to the band and go from there? Or do the other band members bring in ideas and you kind of work from there? Is it all the same? Is it kind of a mixture of those two?

I've always made demos of the songs, and then we take it from there. But especially now, because we're physically separated, we rely on that a lot. Actually, the pitch I made to the guys was, “Let's make an album really quickly. Let's do something that doesn't require — you know, won't drag out forever.” And people don't have to take a big amount of time off from work. We'll rehearse a few weekends, and we'll go into the studio for five days, and we'll just knock it out very fast. That part of the process moved quickly.

So, yeah, I mean, I picked demos for all of the songs, but usually, you know, we have drums, bass, guitar, keyboard and scratch vocals and sort of have a sense of how it is supposed to go and then we rehearse in which of us to defend our security record It's pretty much straightforward.

How was the process of recording this album? Was it any different than the last couple of albums where the band has been separated?

Well, I think it's just quicker and easier. I think there's just a sense of... Well, actually, part of the process was we decided we didn't want to tell the label or anyone that we were making the record. So, there was no expectation. There was no pressure. There wasn't a deadline. And, so, it just went very easily, and we recorded in Portland again, like the last record, and worked in the studio.

But I think every time you go in, you learn a bit more about the process. What works and what doesn't. Our first couple records we recorded ourselves in a rehearsal space, so this is the third record that we've actually used a professional studio. So it's a learning curve. Every time you begin the process you learn what works and what doesn't and what makes things easier. Usually, for us, it makes things as easy as possible. Pretty much do it pretty quickly. Sort of that Neil Young method of recording. We don't worry about cleaning up imperfections or anything like that. We just keep it pretty loose.

You've been doing this a long time, so I imagine that you have a pretty solid idea of what a Wooden Shjips song will sound like, but do you ever come across an influence or something that makes you think: “Hmm, I want to try writing something kind of like that and spin something like this in my own way?”

Yeah, usually it's more like elements, like there's an element of sound that I think it would be interesting to introduce into that microcosm. That's one of the benefits I have of working on a couple of different projects is that I can indulge different impulses and still retain some sort of core sound identity of the band. I wanted to do something light. You know, ultimately, something that was just psychically and spiritually and sonically kind of lighter elements just because that's what I was feeling, and that's what I felt like I needed at the time. And, so, I think a lot of the guitar sounds and a lot of the keyboard stuff is incorporating sort of lighter sounds. We used some synthesizers on this one. There's some synth on the older records, but they tend to be more organ-based, which, you know, is a very thick kind of vibe. So, yeah, sonically we were playing around with lighter elements and a lighter feel.

I did an interview with you a few years back for another website, and you said you weren't particularly a lyric-focused songwriter, but on this album, your writing is really, really evocative. Do you feel as though what has been going on and the circumstances surrounding what was going on with you recording the album had something to do with you writing the lyrics of these songs?

I think that just in my own head there was a lot that I was trying to digest, and I guess that always comes out in the songs. Sometimes that comes out more clear, and other times not. You know, there's some very literal things in the songs, like talking about the ash in the sky and the rain washing that ash out of the sky in Portland, and I'm just sitting on my porch in summer. It's just the nicest time of the year, and you're used to having these beautiful summer days, and there's just this haze, and you can feel it in your lungs. The [Columbia River] Gorge is burning, which is sort of the gem of the area, and everything was just so literally falling apart. I think that just came out in the lyrics because it was just there staring me in the face. And the things that I was feeling were just so universal. So it was maybe less personal and a more universal-type feeling that comes across a little more clearly in the songs.

I can definitely understand that. Especially the lyric about the ash, "it's snowing ash" because as soon as I heard that lyric it took me back to last summer where I'm standing outside and ashes are falling from the sky like snow, and the sky is this weird hazy color like you described. As soon as I heard your lyric that's exactly what it took me to.

Many of the songs on your album, like you said, they have this calm, peaceful, serene feeling. I was wondering if that was sort of a way to counterbalance the chaos that was going on surrounding the circumstances of recording and such?

Yeah, to me, definitely. It was a way of treating my own, sort of, psychic wounds with the music and then hopefully that translates to other people being able to have that same experience.

For me, I use music in a very utilitarian way. You know, there's certain music I listen to in the morning. There's certain music I listen to later in the day, and if I'm in a bad mood there's certain music I can put on. So to me, it serves a real, real function, and I think it was just more obvious when we were making this record, that it was uber specific to that because of the stuff that was going on. And it was a direct reaction versus something more abstract or just trying to, you know, create some vibe or something. So, yeah, I mean, to me it's magnificent. Music is like medicine, and we most definitely were trying to create something that had some uplifting human energy to it.

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Live and Loud: This Week's Recommended Shows
(If You're Not Already Going to Sasquatch or Folklife)

May 24: David Byrne at Paramount Theatre

May 25: Arc Iris and the Spider Ferns at Central Saloon

May 26: Wooden Shjips, Prana Crafter, and Black Whales at The Crocodile

May 26: Dear Nora, Nicholas Krgrovich, and Your Heart Breaks at the Timbre Room

May 27: Das EFX, Ambush, Edibles, Soul the Interrogator, and Bari Bux at The Crocodile

May 28: Power Trip, Sheer Mag, Fury, and Red Death at Neumos

May 29: Proofs, Item Finder, Apples with Moya at Sunset Tavern

May 30: Gun Outfit, Nicholas Merz, Gretchen Grimm, and Dog Sister at Barboza

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