Destined: Wooden Shjips
Wooden Shjips - "Shrinking Moon for You"
Most bands don’t actively embrace the prospect of becoming a little-known and/or heard footnote in the annals of rock history. And while not exactly celebrating that prospect, guitarist Ripley Johnson of San Francisco-based psych rockers Wooden Shjips was at least prepared for that possibility when readying his band’s self-released debut 10".
“If the response were indifference, the records would still be out there,” offers Johnson via email. “I've been greatly inspired by private press and obscure independently-released albums. The fact that they may have collected dust for decades, undiscovered, only adds to their resonance for me. I knew the 10" would reach an audience eventually (even if it was record geeks, like myself), but I was expecting a period of obscurity.”
So much for that idea.
Offered gratis to anyone who contacted the band, the first pressing of Wooden Shjips’ initial slab of wax disappeared pretty quickly back in 2005, firmly establishing the nascent group on the radar of the truly tuned in. Mating the classically dark and ominous textures of early Velvet Underground sides with more modern practitioners of that same aesthetic (like Spacemen 3), the quick and overwhelmingly positive response the band received foiled Johnson’s back-up plan of foisting their record on the public by “leaving copies on park benches, in libraries, [and] thrift stores.”
Though it might have seemed like the band emerged fully formed, Johnson had been kicking around the Wooden Shjips idea for a few years with less than stellar results. Initial attempts at a solid line-up didn’t last past a few rehearsals. His original goal was to gather some non-musician friends “in order to play improvised, minimalist -- primitivist, really -- rock. I had a manifesto somewhere but I've lost it. I know it included limiting songs to one chord -- unless a change was absolutely necessary!” When interpersonal tensions and a lack of direction caused the original line-ups to implode, Johnson took a break before resurrecting the Wooden Shjips’ name with a (mostly) new crew of musicians.
Taking an obvious cue from the minimal protean riffing of the “Sister Ray,” the newly invigorated Wooden Shjips (featuring percussionist Omar Ahsanuddin, bassist/trumpeter Dusty Jermier, and organist Nash Whalen) set about crafting a set of powerful jams that achieved the mantric through minimal repetition and off-kilter sounds. Built around grimy guitars and searing leads matched against near-motorik drums and steadily tapped keys, the band readied the three tracks that would comprise their debut 10".
While the band’s music sounds tightly wound at times, the tunes themselves are loosely constructed, based around improvisations that can change and shift according to the mood. “Generally they start with a riff, or bass line, or beat, and are built around that. The compositions, as such, are very skeletal,” says Johnson. “For example, a song may really consist of just a bass line and some lyrics. Everything else may be interchangeable. We jam a lot, though, so that may factor into the compositional process more and more going forward. I love to improvise. If I knew the language, I'd have a jazz band on the side.”
Dominated by the druggy thud of the A-side’s “Shrinking Moon for You,” the three songs on their debut evidenced a band that could not only hit the Reed/Cale/Morrison/Tucker mainline straight on, but also channel vintage Texas screamers like the 13th Floor Elevators (as on the organ-laced “Death’s Not Your Friend”) as well as the far more Faust-like experimental textures that emerged with the backwards vocal snippets and drone figures of “Space Clothes.”
And while the distorted timbres and buried instrumentation yield scraping drones that just as easily point to bands like New Zealand’s The Dead C., Johnson and company quickly point back to famed New York rock minimalists as the starting point for the band’s music. When asked about the reconciliation of spiritual, elongated tones and pounding backbeats, the guitarist simply offers: “It's been done already, by the Velvets most famously. This is just our take on it. Plus it just feels so right: repetition, drone, simplicity -- that is life, the sound of the nervous system, the sound of the universe.”
With a three-song 10" pressed up and ready to go, the band opted not to go the expected route of sending out copies to shops and distributors in the vain hope of sales. Instead, they simply gave them away. For an up-and-coming band, giving tracks away isn’t a revolutionary idea, as in our point-and-click society thousands of groups toss free mp3s out into the ether hoping to develop a profile. But Wooden Shjips’ tactic not only allowed the band to make more personal connections to new fans, but also to give them a real, tangible artifact that wouldn’t simply sink to the bottom of an iTunes playlist.
For Johnson, however, the move was also more pragmatic than anything else. “The motivation was a big box of records that weren't going to sell themselves,” he says simply. “It seemed like the best way to get them out into the world, without having to do any self-promotion. Selling anything makes me uncomfortable, and there was no intention to make any money anyway.”
Though the band wasn’t expecting much of an initial response, the record vanished quickly on the strength of some overwhelmingly positive reviews (including an unexpected one from Rolling Stone scribe David Fricke). “Once we got a few positive reviews online, requests started coming in from all over, and that was really cool. It was an experiment with very positive results for us,” says Johnson.
Wooden Shjips’ most recent effort surfaced in 2006 in the form of a 7" on Sick Thirst, dropping two more dirt-caked gems of lo-fi psych simplicity. Pairing the raw garage of “Dance, California” with the sky-high ruminations of “Clouds Over Earthquake” and its transcendent guitars and distantly echoed vocals, the band’s latest record offered more variations on the palette so effortlessly mapped with their debut.
As of this writing, Wooden Shjips are hard at work on their debut full-length, recording the whole of it on an old 8-track that bassist Jermier rescued from certain doom. With a release hopefully planned for the summer on the Holy Mountain label (along with a couple of other 7"s on Sub Pop and Pollymaggoo that should see the light sometime before that), Wooden Shjips have found any trace of pending obscurity sorely lacking. The reason for that seems pretty obvious – though there’s no real shortage of modern psych bands noodling away at the conscious periphery, the Shjips have gone back and tapped into a more foreboding application of mind-expansion that few groups seem willing to channel. As endlessly listenable as their handful of songs may be, there are not-so-subtle hints of a malevolent undercurrent that are every bit as enticing as the good time vibes espoused by a lot of their contemporaries.
With only a few gigs scheduled outside of their hometown (including some at the upcoming South by Southwest festival), it remains to be seen how far the band will expand their geographic reach in 2007. But even with the prospect of folks having to lay out a few bucks for any subsequent releases, building on the already fervent word of mouth shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
By Michael Crumsho