9:05 AM CDT, October 24, 2013
To hear Ripley Johnson tell it, he had to travel across the country before he could make his band Wooden Shjips a reality seven years ago in San Francisco.
"As a kid, I told my mom I'd be a truck driver when I grew up so I could leave Connecticut," Johnson says of his upbringing. "It's a pretty buttoned-down kind of place, and I had dreams about getting out West. When I finally got here (to attend college in Santa Cruz, Calif., and then moving up the coast to San Francisco), it was the opposite of what I'd always known. You could have a dog inside a restaurant, people would walk around barefoot, the drugs were out in the open, and cops overlooked a lot of stuff. People could get freaky and weird in public. That just didn't happen back East."
Johnson made music to suit the mood, informed by a period of intense listening that occurred after he dropped out of performing in rock bands for a few years.
"There was a concept before Wooden Shjips existed," he says. "I had stopped playing music previously because the bands I was in were playing shows no one was going to. It became hard and depressing. I started listening to music more, and came to the realization that what I like is this mix of primal, primitive rock — the Seeds, Question Mark and the Mysterians — mixed with minimalism. The Velvets had this crossover with free jazz. I loved that Lou Reed 'ostrich' guitar sound, the feedback solos. I formulated what I really love about music through listening: repetitive beats with feedback, no drum fills, no wandering bass guitar. That was the blueprint."
Johnson started out solo, recording and self-releasing the music on-line, before assembling a band. "I wanted to start with no musicians, inspired by (the Velvet Underground's untutored drummers) Mo Tucker and Angus MacLise. The first thing you learn are the cliches. You walk into Guitar Center, and you hear guys playing cliches. Those are hard to unlearn. I figured if I find non-musicians, it would be easier not to have them play cliches. I could teach them two chords."
The first version of the band fell apart after two years, and then Johnson settled on the current lineup: Dusty Jermier on bass, Nash Whalen on organ and Omar Ahsanuddin on drums. They know more than two chords, but their approach hews to Johnson's original vision: dark, droning psychedelia that creates a world unto itself. The band's self-contained approach extends to its attitude toward the business side of music. Basically, no one much cares about it.
"Everyone has things they do in their lives that take precedence over doing this," Johnson says. "We don't do this full time. We don't make decisions based on money. When offers came in to tour or release records, there often wasn't time or interest to do that. That's why I started my other band (Moon Duo) with my wife (Sanae Yamadawith), so that we can strip it down, travel light, and say yes to any opportunity to play live. That was great for Wooden Shjips, because it protected the band to do all the idiosyncratic things we do."
The quartet's latest release, "Back to Land," released on Chicago-based Thrill Jockey Records, is more spacious and song-oriented than its predecessors, with a warmer, more bucolic tone. Once again, the sound is a product of the geography that inspired it. A few years ago, Johnson relocated to Colorado for two years, then found a home in Portland, Ore.
"I bought an acoustic guitar while in Colorado," he says. "Living at 10,000 feet — the silence is so imposing, so peaceful, you don't want to disturb it. You don't want to hear loud electric guitar up on the mountain. Then we found a place in Portland, which is a very lush, green, mellow town. So all of that played into my state of mind when I was writing songs for this record. Also the idea of being home again. We bought a house, and I got to unpack all my records that had been in storage for two years. I pulled out all these old records and got into that '70s classic rock sound. We wanted to sound modern and current on our past records, even though we're tagged as 'retro.' With this record, I made a conscious decision: 'I like this type of music, this is who I am.' So why not have some acoustic guitar on there and open up the sound? When we started it was more about sound, texture, rhythm, and that's still primary. But I'm starting to write what you could call 'songs.' "
Still, "Back to Land" retains the otherworldly atmosphere that has been part of Wooden Shjips' sound from the beginning. "It's a personal thing. There are albums that don't get associated with psychedelic music that I consider psychedelic. It transcends genre. Psychedelia is a signifier. It transports you, takes you to another place, makes you feel things that aren't of the everyday. That's the mood we like to create."
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
When: 9:30 p.m. Nov. 8
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.
Tickets: $14; emptybottle.com
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