Wooden Shjips’ new album Back to Land is out this week and Willow Colios went to meet main man Ripley Johnson to discuss his earliest musical memories, whether Portlandia is true to life and why Shjips has a J in it.
I meet Ripley Johnson in a pub, The Lexington on Pentonville Road, on a noisy Monday night. Someone has put Sonic Youth’s Goo on the jukebox and I adjust my recording device so that it picks up the talking rather than the strains of Kool Thing et al. in the background. Ripley asks about the compact little machine (don’t worry this isn’t a geeky FX pedals and guitar kit interview) and I say I managed to record Van Morrison’s set at last year’s Green Man Festival on it. So we start chatting about Van Morrison of whom Ripley turns out to be a big fan…
Ripley Johnson: Up through Veedon Fleece they’re all like perfect albums, His Band & The Street Choir, Moondance, St Dominics Preview, Tupelo Honey up through Veeedon Fleece, all classic albums. In fact, he’s the only, I’ve had this conversation with people – Artists Who’ve Made Multiple Perfect Albums in a Row – and there are very few if you really think about it. But I think him and Rod Stewart actually, surprisingly I think the first four Rod Stewart albums are all fantastic classic albums. For a solo artist that’s pretty amazing.
Louder Than War: What was the first music you remember hearing?
I remember being really young and I have a really vivid memory of driving in the family station wagon around Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we used to go to my aunt’s house, it’s really cold and like some AM station is on and I remember hearing really bad, cheesy pop hits like Dione Warwick; Deja Vu I think is the song. Ripley sings “Deja Vu, could you be the man that I once knew”. That’s one of the earliest. And then of course when I was in like 4th grade I would buy all kinds of records, and I had really cheesy 80s records like Journey and Billy Squire and I think I had a Cheap Trick 45 and I had a Queen album. All kinds of really random things, back when we used to just go to a record store and just buy something based on what the cover looked like, you know.
And where were you growing up at the time?
Connecticut, which is not a good place to grow up really. It’s OK, but it’s a shitty state generally.
Was there any kind of scene there or any bands when you were a teenager?
No, I think there might have been some kind of scene in Newhaven, but when I was a teenager we didn’t really pay any attention to anything outside of the classic rock realm. We’d just get stoned and listen to classic rock. Neil Young, The Stones, The Who, you know all the typical stuff. We’d just get our hands on any intoxicant we could and we’d go out in the woods and smoke cigarettes and chew, and get out of our heads and listen to music on a boombox. There were no shows involved (laughs).
You mention Neil Young, you covered Vampire Blues on your Volume 2 record, is Neil Young’s On The Beach a particular favourite?
Yeah, I think it’s his best album. I think Neil Young’s one of those people that’s really hard to pick a favourite because he’s had such a long career. Especially if you’ve been following him for a little while you can have these periods if he’s a favourite of yours, like he is of mine, certain albums will mean more at certain times. So overall, On The Beach and then Ragged Glory’s one of my favourite albums of his, particularly when driving like on road trips, it’s absolutely my favourite album to listen to on the open highway, driving through a desert or something. Just every song is a groovy highway song.
You’ve got two groups with Moon Duo as well as Wooden Shjips, do you see yourself as a band leader, like Neil Young leads Crazy Horse?
In my most vain moments I think I do (laughs). But it’s not really the same. I do appreciate that about him. I know that some of the problems he’s had with other people were his witching gears, unexpectedly for some people. Notoriously for Crosby, Stills and Nash where he’ll just leave them. Just get on a plane and be like ‘I’m leaving’. But I think one of the cool things about his career is that he did play with so many different bands and his albums do have the different sort of flavours. But no, my name isn’t on the albums, it isn’t really the same approach.
What’s the dynamic live or in the studio? How does that play out between you and the other guys?
Everyone just brings their own style to their instrument. Like with Wooden Shjips, even when we do covers of songs it just ends up sounding like a Wooden Shjips song. Which is actually awesome, like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, whatever they play it’s always gonna sound like Crazy Horse, for better or worse it sounds like them. Some people may say it’s a limitation, but I like that and I think we have that going with Wooden Shjhips. With Moon Duo we play with different textures more and different feelings and maybe we’re a little more exploratory when it comes to that, but that’s probably cos we’re two people, we can be a little bit more nimble.
You mention the Wooden Shjips style, I noticed the track Home from the West LP, that’s almost in the Crazy Horse ball park.
Yeah that seeped in there. I think for this new album we’ve gone more in a classic rock, you could say traditional American Rock direction in a lot of ways. In the past it’s something that we’ve avoided, except for that track. There’s an odd track here and there that sort of sneaks in. For the new album that’s something we embraced, but that one snuck in on West.
West was kind of thematic, it had a loose concept. Does the new album Back to Land have a concept around it as well?
It does in retrospect. I tend to write songs really quickly when we’re working on a project. I’ll write ten songs or whatever and that’ll be the album. When I look back and think about what it means there tends to be some sort of common thread, at least with the last couple of records.
On this one I just moved to Portland Oregon and moved into a house. I’d been living out of boxes for the last two years. So to actually unpack everything and to set up a home for the first time in a few years was really different and comforting and so Back to Land was sort of back to home, back to the ground, back to earth, a more grounded sort of feeling. And that comes through in the songs, they’re a little more laid-back and they do hearken back to those original influences musically.
And there’s more acoustic guitar on the new record as well.
Yeah, I’m not sure we used any acoustic guitars last time, this might be the first time we’ve used acoustic. It’s certainly more prominent and it’s an element we felt more comfortable pushing whereas in the past we may have avoided it just because you get tagged with the throwback retro kind of thing. Not that we made a big deal about it, it’s just I think we generally tended to not move in that direction, but I think we’re at the point where we feel comfortable doing that kind of stuff. If we knew a pedal steel player there might have been pedal steel on the album, but maybe for the next one.
You mentioned your move to Portland. Have you seen the series Portlandia? Is it a real approximation of what it’s like to live there?
I think people who are from Portland would probably say no and I think they generally hate the show, but to me it’s just like that. Maybe it’s just as a newbie, but I walk around and I see people who look like characters from that show. I mean they cast local people in it and right near my house there’s a park and people play bike polo. (I start laughing, Ripley continues)… I’m sure it’s fun, I’m sure it’s a fun sport. And you see people on really tall bikes, and men wearing kilts, Utilakilts they call them. So you see lots of that, just different kinda stuff. But a lot of the things they poke fun of are really great about Portland, like great restaurants with locally sourced food that’s delicious, and craft beers, and they take their coffee really seriously. People can take it too far but it’s great if you live there cos you can enjoy all this wonderful stuff.
Portland has become a bit of an Indie Rock hub with people like Stephen Malkmus relocating there. Has it become quite a scene, is that fair to say?
People tell me that. Steve Malkmus I don’t think lives there anymore. I don’t think we’ve been there long enough to really get a sense. There’s some good clubs there and they get a lot of touring bands, which is great for a small city. I think a lot of the scenes there are underground and a lot of them are happening in house parties. A lot of the noise scene happens in house parties which is great. People can rehearse in their own homes, there are a lot of family homes there, not apartments, so people can rent a house, rehearse in the basement and have a party in the living room, and that’s really awesome for experimental music and more underground stuff, but we’re still trying to get a sense of what’s going on there.
Are you aware of Dead Moon and their history?
Oh yeah, Dead Moon and The Wipers, I mean it’s pretty awesome. We haven’t seen Fred and Toody walking around or anything. We’re hoping to. I think they’re in Clackamas or something, I’m not sure they’re in Portland proper. They’re nearby, they used to have a music store I don’t know if they still do, but that’s something we need to track down.
I noticed a bit of The Stooges’ ‘No Fun’ on one of your old tracks, Losing Time. Ron Asheton or James Williamson, who’s your favourite Stooges guitarist?
I’m a Ron Asheton guy, all the way. I just love him. Even when James Williamson came in he switched to bass and played killer bass. I love both but I’m definitely a Ron guy.
Do you have a favourite Stooges record?
I think my favourite is the first one although Fun House is brilliant. I think I like the thinness of the first one, there’s something about it that’s so odd that I really like and it’s so dry, it sounds like Iggy’s just singing right into the tape. Fun House is a great live sound and I also love Kill City, which is an odd one that people don’t seem to like as much, but it’s all good, all The Stooges stuff is great.
What are the strangest and best places you’ve been on tour?
We played in Milton Keynes in a ski resort or indoor ski slope , that was really strange. We played in Ukraine this weekend with Moon Duo, that was odd but great. Usually the far-flung places tend to be really interesting. The Wooden Shjips had an amazing show in Estonia out in the countryside, this insane party. Things like that are usually really interesting.
Was this part of a plan? Did you ever think ‘one day I’ll play a gig in Estonia’ and you made it happen?
I thought this would be a random project where I’d make a couple of records and then no one would hear of it and that would be it and it would be more for a recording project. The touring stuff just sort of happens. That’s one of the reasons Moon Duo started cos the Wooden Shjips guys … we cant tour all the time. When you’re in bands that no one pays attention too then you’re finally in a band and people are like ‘We want you to come and play’ it’s difficult to say no. The reason i started the second band was so I could start saying yes and keep having these opportunities.
Is there anywhere you’d like to play that you haven’t yet?
We haven’t played in Iceland yet so that’s probably the big one right now. And South America, we are planning some shows in South America next spring. That’s the goal….with Moon Duo.
Last of all a really really mundane question, you’ve probably been asked a million times, what’s the J in Wooden Shjips for?
OK, the J was to make the band seem like it was Swedish.
Misdirection for lazy journalists?
When we made the first record, or when we first started playing anyway, we played for two years and didn’t do any shows or do anything so it didn’t really matter, but it turned out good for googling, it’s easier to Google the band if you know there’s a J in there!
Back to Land by Wooden Shjips is out now on Thrill Jockey.