Tuesday, September 14, 2010
WHO’S LEFT ALIVE? / EVE OF DESTRUCTION
If the streets of San Francisco could play today, maybe they would make a sound not unlike the Wooden Shjips. The primitive sounds of this musical experiment, led by bearded cult figure Ripley Johnson seems to have captured the soul of southern Californian counter-culture from the 60’s and rolled it up with the sounds of select garage and kosmische influences up to the turn of the century.
The music leaves you less with the expectation of groundbreaking pop and rather lifts the listener to transcend the trappings of musical hipsterdom, getting back to that instinct for rhythm and melody built into us all. The post-millennium apocalypse that never happened – well, almost in September 2001 – left the fading America with not much left to do but look back to old times for inspiration. This resulted in bands whose sounds were more indebted to previous generations than representations of their own. This musical escapism reached its zenith with Wooden Shjips who effortlessly capture the essence of rock’n’roll in their bone-shaking rhythm and trance inducing vocal melodies.
Talking by phone to Dusty Jermier, bass player and sometimes trumpeter for the dirge-hypnotic sounds of the San Francisco soul-collective, is not unlike a summary shake-down of the decade that will be remembered more for global conflict and social upheaval than united movement towards a collective experience of the future. Joining the band around 2005 after receiving a 10 inch record the then bandless Ripley was giving away, Dusty was drawn to the music. “I really liked that song Death’s Not Your Friend, I still do,” he explains, “What I liked about this band is that it was very primitive, I had to play one-note essentially for like ten minutes. And that is a challenge, in a way, that I like.” The three other members provide essential rhythm and drone to guide Ripleys soaring guitar lines and delayed vocals, “It’s very meditative, it’s trance inducing, especially if your playing with the drummer, whom I’ve known for a long time too, just playing together and locking together and just drifting away off into the ether is a really nice getaway.”
The name of the band may be more than a passing reference to the song of (almost) the same name composed by David Crosby and Stephen Stills (of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame), and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane. The apocalyptic climate of the times the song was composed in – the height of the Vietnam War – links its point of origin to the post nine-eleven America in which the band Wooden Shjips was born. Dusty neither confirms nor denies my theory over the bands name and quickly shifts attention to the idea around the bands inception. Ripley, the bands longest serving member and front-man originally conceived the band to be comprised solely of non-musicians although Dusty is quick to point out this may not be the right term exactly: “It’s sort of unfair to say about anyone that they are a non-musician. The original intention of the band was to have people with a fresh mind.” After the original line-up failed to surface onto the Bay Area live scene a change was needed in order to get the live band rolling. “I think what he found is non-musicians don’t really want to play music.” Dusty continues, “so it didn’t really hold together so well.” After evolving the line-up to include more steady members – non-musicians are non-musicians for a reason, just as musicians are musicians you see – Dusty, Nash (organ) and Omar (drums) rounded out the line-up, Nash being the only member to stick with Ripley through from the original project.
Now three LP’s in, the band seem only to be gathering speed as they continue to refine their sound both on and off the stage. The bands most recent album, last years Dos, marks the bands most consistent performance yet. The lead track Motorcycle wastes no time in setting out the bands intentions. An earlier single Dance, California is self explanatory. The Psychedelic / Trance / Garage genre label that the band boasts on its Myspace page are all that you need to know about the bands musical predispositions and Dusty explains further that for him personally it is more the smoky haze of American counter-culture that has continued to pique his interest in the transcendent potential of this particular lifestyle choice over mining obscure bands for ideas. “I’m not as aware of music culture as a person might have guessed. In my personal life I play music, read books and I’m a technician.”
If the band have contemporaries its more in the sense of community they feel playing with like-minded bands. Dusty recalls a show with The Oh Sees – who recently beat the Shjips to visit our long highways, touring late last year – at San Francisco’s Eagle Tavern as being a recent favourite. It’s a mid-sized club he compares to Thee Parkside, where Ripley has curated the ‘Frisco Freakout’ festival the past two years. Described as a psychedelic dance party it has featured bands such as Heavy Hills, Crystal Antlers, Greg Ashley and Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound as well as the Wooden Shjips themselves. Another festival the Wooden Shjips played at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur is described by Dusty as “beautiful and dreamy”, with people on blankets “watching the stars through the tree tops” while Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Gang Gang Dance, Dungen, Kurt Vile, Vietnam and Farmer Dave Scher played to the people on the lawn.
When asked about the ‘psych’ tag that seems to be applied to most everything musical these days he responds somewhat philosophically: “What is Psych? A lot of what I hear sounds like rock-n-roll to me.” He continues: “One of the most ‘psych’ bands I ever heard was called Down River here in San Francisco in 1996 or so.” Remembering their album ‘Horse Thieves Proxy’ he goes on to note “that was pretty great but not as mind altering as seeing them live.” He then checks himself, concluding “’Psych’ does not necessarily mean “mind altering”… I hope I’m always open to changing the way I see things.”
With local label Mistletone likening the band to Japanese rock-terrorist underground-noise heads Les Rallizes Denudes – a pretty exciting comparison – all we can hope for is that the levels on the mixers VU meters stay in the red while the band blasts away the cobwebs of the last forty years of rock’n’roll.
– Giles Simon
And at the National, do you want to dance?