Thursday, December 17, 2009
2009 IRT BAND OF THE YEAR: WOODEN SHJIPS
WOODEN SHJIPS ON THE WATER, VERY FREE
The Return of San Francisco’s Modern Day Psyche Rock Heroes
San Francisco has always enjoyed the very best psychedelic music scene in the entire world back in the Summer of Love. And beneath the sensationalism of the likes of the Dead, Big Brother, the Jefferson Airplane, hell, even Sly and the Family Stone back then, there lay a bedrock of heavy hitting groups like Blue Cheer, It’s A Beautiful Day and The Flamin’ Groovies who really offered a darker and heavier view of the whole psyche movement.
Today, groups like Blues Control, Om, Earthless and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound have since taken the place of of keeping the acid-washed dreams of sonic existentialism alive for the youthful masses in the Bay Area region of the embattled Golden State. And leading the charge is Wooden Shjips, a four-piece consisting of drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, bassist Dusty Jermier, organ player Nash Whalen (no relation to IRT contributor Tom Whalen, although they might be cousins on a cosmic level) and frontman/guitarist Erik "Ripley" Johnson. Together, they bring together a burly, effects-damaged guitar attack that will take you back to heavy psyche's AOR glory days with the steady, drone-like repetition of such classic minimalist composers as Terry Riley and Steve Reich to create an exciting new level of West Coast psyche rock to help rattle the establishment for the next generation.
Wooden Shjips’ second album, Dos, was released by Holy Mountain this spring and is one of the best albums of the year thus far. IRT had the pleasure of speaking with Nash about the Shjips’ triumphant voyage through the high seas of the American underground.
Make sure you check out the Free Music Archive for some amazing free live MP3s of the Shjips doing their thing at the 2009 Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, Spain and at the 2008 ATP Festival at Kutsher's Resort in Monticello, NY.
IRT: How did you guys initially come up with the concept of Wooden Shjips?
Nash: The band was Ripley’s idea. He wanted to make music he wanted to hear: improvised primitive music that you can dance to. So he started these loose jam sessions with some non-musician friends, including me. Sometimes we switched instruments, but in general Ripley and I were playing guitar and we had a few different people playing bass and drums. We kept that going for a year or more, but it eventually fell apart without any shows or proper recordings. After Ripley recruited Dusty on bass and Omar on drums, I started playing keyboards and we began working out songs to play live and record.
IRT: Your band name--how did you come to add that j in Shjips and is the name more of a knock or homage to the San Francisco of yesteryear?
Nash: When the name came about, we were playing with a friend who, like Ripley, has Swedish roots. And Ripley was listening to a lot of Trad, Gras och Stenar. So the idea was to come up with a name that paid homage to psych rock of both SF and Sweden. We thought adding the “J” did that.
IRT: How would you describe the San Francisco music scene today in comparison to the city’s previous sonic renaissances in ‘67 during the summer of love and in the late 80s/early 90s in the heyday of Faith No More and Primus?
Nash: The music scene here today could be in trouble. The State is trying to close down the all-age shows at some venues and a longtime practice space just closed, but people try to work around those obstacles. There are still good places to play and everyone is real supportive, but it is easy to imagine it used to be better for bands. But there are a lot of great ones… some we’ve played with include Sic Alps, Hank IV, Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound, Thee Oh Sees, Ascended Master, Sleepy Sun, Om and Howlin’ Rain.
IRT: I hear as much Steve Reich and the Monks in your sound as I do Iron Butterfly and Sir Lord Baltimore. However, where do you yourself feel the root of your sound lies in your own words?
Nash: For me, I just think of a “Sister Ray” kind of vibe when I am playing. It is such a great song, because it goes on for so long and evolves in an amazing way, with vocals and guitar parts dropping in and out, while the drums never change that much. Even though there is like an hour and a half worth of “Sister Ray” on The Quine Tapes, it never gets boring, as it remains raw and rocking and loose and dynamic throughout. Of course, now that you mention Iron Butterfly, the "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" on the church organ in The Simpsons could be were it all comes from for me…
IRT: For Dos, was there anything you did different in terms of recording techniques than you did for the first album and Volume 1?
Nash: I don’t think we did anything differently for Dos. We recorded it in our practice space using the same tape machine and microphones as the first album, with Ripley and Dusty again in charge of the recording and mixing. Some songs were built up from the bass and drums and others were recorded live. Volume 1 is a collection of singles mostly recorded on a 4-track and therefore all of those sound a bit different than the proper albums.
IRT: Your sound is very analog...what kinds of gear do you use to capture that vintage flavor?
Nash: We record on an old Tascam 80-8 8-track that Dusty keeps going. Actually, I think he has a couple of them that he uses for parts, but that machine is a big part of the sound in our recordings. Most of our gear is old; we play through these 70’s tube amps and use various analog effects that Dusty keeps going too…
IRT: Being from San Francisco, did you ever grow to appreciate the Grateful Dead? If so, what is your favorite Dead era?
Nash: Actually, none of us grew up in SF, and by the time we started moving here the Grateful Dead were pretty much in their final days. But I saw them many times, mostly shows in the Northeast in the 80’s, and I did manage to see one California Dead Show in Oakland in 1990… I was in college and went with a few kids that had grown up in the Bay Area and although they were into rap and metal, they loved going to Dead shows. It was part of their culture, like going to the county fair would be for other people. My favorite Dead era has to be anytime in their first 10 years, especially the Pigpen years. The band spent so much of that time trying to find their direction and wrote a lot of great songs that didn’t sound as inspired in the later years after they played them hundreds of times. And Pigpen added an element of soul they never seemed to have again.
IRT: Your mayor, Gavin Newsom, is running for Calif. Governor. Do you think he has a good shot at winning in your opinion?
Nash: I have no idea if he can win... California elections never make sense to me. He certainly hasn’t done much to improve SF, but I do respect him for pushing the gay marriage issue.
IRT: What was the last gem you picked up at Amoeba...
Nash: It seems like that last few times I was in Amoeba I didn’t do much searching, like when I went there recently to see Steve Earle play. But one purchase I remember well was a few years ago when I ran into Ripley in there and he told me to get Randy Holden’s “Population II”. That is a gem.
IRT: What is your honest opinion on the new psychedelic movement in America?
Nash: I think it is great that there are a lot of bands playing psychedelic music. Part of the experience for me is listening to music that stimulates my senses in unexpected ways, opening up new ideas and feelings inside. We have played a few psych-themed fests and the one thing that strikes me is how much diversity there is in the music: loud and soft, electric and acoustic, simple and complex. Of course there are bands that don’t resonate with me, but I don’t expect our music to resonate with everyone either… But the fact that there are all these bands exploring the psychedelic sounds means more people can experience their own enlightening moments. So the more, the better.
IRT: How do you guys generally discover music? Chance theory at the record shop? Recommendations?
Nash: For me, it is often based on recommendations from friends and one of the greatest resources is Ripley. He is a music historian. He reads a lot about these obscure bands from all over the world and then goes out looking for the music. Well, at least I think they are obscure until I hear him talking at length with other people about some scene somewhere 30 years ago that I never knew existed. Certainly Ripley isn’t afraid to buy something based on the cover either. That’s why he bought The Shaggs at a thrift store.
IRT: You guys toured Europe in 2009. What countries were you most excited about going to and why?
Nash: It was 3rd time on the continent and we were definitely excited about all the places we got to go: Spain, France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Germany and a few others in between. They were all great, but I was definitely most exctied for our trip around the Baltic. I can't believe I went to Estonia!
Wooden Shjips live in Islington Mill, Manchester, England 8/20/09:
Wooden Shjips live at Green Man Festival in Brecon Beacons, Wales:
Wooden Shjips live in Berlin 6/9/09: