A Spacey Conversation With Spacey Psych-Rock Giants Wooden Shjips

Sanae Yamada

The first time I listened to Wooden Shjips — the “j” is silent – it seemed like the closest I would ever come to experiencing the mix of fear and exhilaration felt by those who attended Altamont. The San Francisco band’s drone-saturated psych-rock was both sinister and sexy, balancing non-stop Krautrock rhythms and mind-shredding noise with a relentless power. It’s how I always imagined the dark side of the ’60s feeling like.

While Wooden Shjips were never stars, they did achieve a certain level of notoriety in the late ’00s and early ’10s that’s rare for pysch bands. Most of the time, these groups don’t travel far beyond the circles populated by heavily bearded record collectors. But albums like 2009’s Dos, 2011’s West, and 2013’s Back To Land crossed over to middle-of-the-road indie fans, in part because the interstellar guitar-and-organ freakouts were always leavened with wall-to-wall grooves.

In recent years, the group receded as frontman Ripley Johnson focused on his other band, Moon Duo. But now Wooden Shjips have finally returned with their first album in five years, V., which finds the band basically picking up where it left off, affecting a sinister lumber on tracks like “Already Gone” and “Ride On” that’s also surprisingly limber.

I recently tracked down the band’s bassist Dusty Jermier, who discussed the album’s creation, which involved wildfires, a solar eclipse (a possible inspiration for the first track, “Eclipse”), and the overall mysticism of the West Coast. His take on V. was appropriately … spacey.

What prompted you to get back into the studio and make a record?

My recollection is Ripley said, “Do you want to make an album again? Let’s go in and at least see what happens and if something comes out of it, let’s release it.” The idea was to have fun, I guess.

At any point did you ever doubt that Wooden Shjips would return?

We get offers for shows and things like that, but we’re spread out with Nash and me in San Francisco and Omar and Ripley up in Portland. We did a tour of Europe in 2016 and a few other shows here and there, but we haven’t really been all that active.

I don’t know, I can’t remember the question, what was that?

Did you ever think the band was finished?

Yeah, I don’t know, can’t really say. I never necessarily thought it would be over, it just slowed down a lot. That’s really what’s happened.

Do you feel like that separation has made it easier to be a band, because you all have your space, or is it harder now to come together?

When we were all living in San Francisco, we could all ride our bikes to the practice space and just jam for the fun of it, three or four times a week, sometimes even more. Now, it takes a lot more of an effort. So now when we get together, it’s more focused, like, “okay, we’re gonna get together and we’re gonna jam this out for three or four days in a row.” It’s a lot less spontaneous, but then on the other hand it’s a little more focused. For this album, from my recollection, it was a couple months of weekends of jamming out tunes that Ripley brought in, and then we went into the studio for about a week.

I’ve always associated Wooden Shjips with this sinister, “dark side of the ’60s” vibe. Where does that come from? Is that something you’re conscious of as you’re making the music?

I play bass, and I think about things while we’re playing, but of lot of that…I don’t know much I can speak to that. For me, a lot of it is just locking with the drums, and creating a vibe, and that is what that is. But it’s not all depressing. It’s got a lot of sides to it.

I would never call your music depressing. I would liken it to the Hell’s Angels. It feels evil, but it’s a glamorous, sexy evil.

Oh my god. Jeepers.

Is it true that there were wildfires in the area when you were making this record?

Yeah! All over the area. The sky was red. The sunsets were way before the sun was setting. There was this sometimes sweet smell in the air, and sometimes just a smokey smell, and your eyes would water and you would cough. You also didn’t know how far these fires were gonna go. They were threatening a lot of people in the area.

Did that influence the album?

Yeah, it set a mood, certainly. And then there was this other thing that was really cool — I don’t remember how it all fit in time-wise — but that whole eclipse thing. People up here in Portland area were just going… I mean, across the nation people were going nuts about it, but this is one of places people were coming to because the path of totality was so close to Portland. It was about 100 miles away, something like that. But still, this is the place people were congregating before they would then try to get to the path of totality during the eclipse. We weren’t recording during the eclipse but that whole thing did coincide while were were jamming out the songs. It all influenced the mood.

Another spirit Wooden Shjips conjures is a spooky mysticism that I associate with Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. There’s a reason why that part of the country seems to spawn so many crazy cults. Was that a draw for you in moving out there?

I came out here to play rock and roll. I came out here also to be with my friends. A lot of us moved here from the midwest. It’s a place where people go to go do their own thing in a lot of ways. That’s certainly true here in the Portland area and also San Francisco and probably a lot of the west coast cities. There’s people from all over that are coming here to do their thing, whatever it might be. For some people it’s circus acrobats and music, for some people it’s dance. There’s people for all kinds of other things. All the Burning Man stuff and all that is pretty cool.

V. is out now on Thrill Jockey. Get it here.