Published in Inpress (Melb), February 2010
There’s a bad moon rising tonight my friends, an eerie glow cast over a scene of desolate nothingness – four lone figures stand amongst the dunes, and a repetitive, low drone that gathers everything up to it’s bosom, clutching you close and not letting you go, lulls you into an odd sense of security with it’s dull, booming monotony. Lightning slashes the darkened sky, fuzz and crackle and ending with a pop, rubbed through a Big Muff and turned in on itself, a lone voice echoes across the fills and bass replaces oxygen until you can’t breath naught but regurgitated noise...echo and buzz and repeat.
“When you listen to that it seems easy and you think, ‘These guys are just jamming out and they’re probably really stoned’, but there’s a certain responsibility,” muses Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson about the music of Wooden Shjips, music mired in the psychedelic 60s wrought for a more modern time. “Creating something that is that long and has a cohesive sound is actually kind of stressful.” Indeed, although as any musician who’s ever dabbled with psychedelia knows, the music that comes out does so balancing on the knife’s edge. “We do have a system of learning and exploring as we go, but we don’t necessarily have control over what it’s going to sound like,” Johnson concurs. “We have a little bit of control, but it’s a process and we end up at the other end of the tunnel with a complete record.”
This is something Wooden Shjips have done twice – Wooden Shjips in 2007 and Dos late last year. Prior to ’07, the band had released the Shrinking Moon For You 10”, plus a couple of singles and the odd 7”, a hodge podge of music patched together to mark the progress of a band over a five or six year period, born of the ashes of something else, since left behind, discarded like so much refuse. “This version of the band has been together since 2006,” Johnson explains, referencing himself, drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, bassist Dusty Jermier and keysman Nash Whalen. “Before that, the original idea was to have a band of non-musicians…that was probably in 2003.”
Like the music of Wooden Shjips, there doesn’t seem to be much rational behind such ideas as forming bands with non-musicians for members…but also much like the music of Wooden Shjips, there’s always more than meets the eye. “Yeah, that was kind of an experiment,” Johnson says languidly. “I had an idea for the sound, and the band, and what it required was having people in the band who would play very simple, so we’d play very repetitive things for a very long period of time. The idea was that anyone can play rock n’ roll, so it was kind of an experiment in that sense…but it kind of imploded and so after a break I picked it up again with Nash and Omar and Dusty – they were game.”
An aural kaleidoscope of sonic colour, burns your eyes, don’t it? Your head is the two-by-four, guitars as nails, the bass is a hammer, repetition, repetition, repetition…over and over thumping through your head, hypnotising; occasional flashes of bright light, and more fuzz. (Insane laughter). The deep, repetitive drone that never ends. Brings a smile to the lips and a tear to the eye, really.
“Repetition is everything, to me,” tells Johnson. “That’s the point. Originally we had a sort of manifesto, and part of that was to make dance music. A lot of people don’t necessarily pick up on that but we’re actually trying to be a dance band.” I didn’t pick up on that. “We’re not funky and we ‘re not disco, but we’re rock n’ roll. And people used to dance to rock n’ roll, although they don’t really anymore. We’re just trying to bring it back a bit…in the 50s and 60s, people danced to rock n’ roll, then in the 70s arena rock came along and people just kinda stood in a daze instead.”
There are no pop sounds involved in Wooden Shjips, by the way, particularly not on Dos. It’s not about pop, in terms of hooks and melody, this is rock n’ roll that’s been pushed arse first through a malfunctioning meat-grinder. But you can dance to it. “I don’t like pop music at all,” thinks Johnson. “The dance stuff goes more with the rhythms, it goes back to Bo Diddley or Link Wray – if there are any pop bits in there, that’s great, but they’re certainly not intentional.” Dos seems to be, overall, more intentional than the band’s debut – more thoughtful, less loose ends flapping behind, getting caught in the cogs and creating that delightful tearing sound, but no matter. We can take it any way.
“Every album, I think, is just about trying to create what, well, to get onto wax, what we’re doing now,” Johnson imparts. “Dos is a record of where we’re at, at the moment, I mean, there was no grand plan about it. The first record, we sorta scrambled to get it done because we had never made a full record before. So this one, we were all very comfortable with each other’s playing. It was a different experience, but there wasn’t really any different goal for it I don’t think.” Wooden Shjips strike me as being like a feather on the wind, wending their way through life content to take on any tangent which presents itself, wrangling it to their every whim, stomping on their own brand of terra.
“In the middle of the process, it’s really hard to tell where everything is going,” Johnson says, talking about the music the band are writing now – capturing a record of what they’re up to…what are they up to? “I like to think of this as our Physical Graffiti or our Exile On Main Street because it’s all over the place and a little looser…so, we’ll see.”
The last time we took acid, it sounded like that. When I fell asleep on the train, that’s what it sounded like too. Flashing colours and sub aural bumps and grinds, think of the 60s running through your hair and punk rock knocking on your back door, Gil Scott-Heron dancing on your grave while BB King lights up a fat cigar and ashes on your face as you float upside down in the brown, murky pool smiling at the sun. Except it’s the moon, and it’s shrinking, getting smaller and smaller as your smile gets broader and broader – shrinking moon for you my friends, and not a bad one at all.
Samuel J. Fell