Ripley Johnson, guitarist and creative force behind psychedelic drone band Wooden Shjips, is relaxing in his house just outside of Boulder, Colarado in the Rocky Mountains. Johnson and his girlfriend moved to the remote location after spending most of his adult life on the west coast. “I grew up in Connecticut, and I hated it,” Johnson says. “I didn’t like the culture, but then I went to Santa Cruz to go to school, and it felt like paradise – people walking around not wearing shoes, that sort of stuff.” Johnson is actutely aware of Boulder’s predominant claim to fame in the entertainment world: as the location for the ’70s sitcom Mork and Mindy. “You can go to the actual house they used,” Johnson laughs. “I haven’t been there yet, but I really want to.”
Johnson is bringing Wooden Shjips back to Australia for the second time, and a year after touring with his other main project, Moon Duo. “When I’m working on a particular project is defined because I’m working with particular people,” Johnson says, by way of explaining what distinguishes a Moon Duo record from a Wooden Shjips record. “Everyone who playing has different input, but the songs are all my songs – although I may have different ideas about where a song is going sonically, if that makes sense,” Johnson says.
For Wooden Shjips’ latest record, West, Johnson took his artistic inspiration from the mythology of the American West, a by-product of Johnson’s own travels across America. “There’s a loose concept behind it, but it’s not like a rock opera,” Johnson says. “I was moving from San Francisco to Colorado, it was like moving west to the old west. It got me thinking about my time in San Francisco, and the whole psychology of the west,” he says.
Johnson isn’t a prolific writer as such, preferring to direct his songwriting activity toward particular projects. “I’m very project focused – I don’t write songs every day. While I don’t think I have necessarily have a homogenous vision, the songs do tend to have a cohesion, because they’re all written around the same time and the same things tend to be going through my head,” Johnson says. At the heart of any Wooden Shjips track tends to be a regular beat that Johnson and his band mates explore and exploit. “I used to write starting with just a drum beat – I used to begin with the rhythms of the city as I went to work. I usually hear something in my head and go with that,” Johnson says.
For West Johnson approached former Spaceman 3 member Sonic Boom to master the record. Johnson had met Sonic Boom previously at a festival in England. “We did a split 7”, which had an outtake of a Spaceman 3 track on one side, and a cover of one of his songs on the other side,” Johnson says. “We were playing this festival, and he was playing a solo set. His synthesiser broke just before the show, and he asked us to back him up for his set – so we had 10 minutes’ notice before we went on stage to play with him,” Johnson laughs.
Wooden Shjips is a band born to thrive and evolve in a live environment, with the band’s song structures conducive to live exploration and expansion. “It’s fairly elastic,” Johnson muses. “One of the things about touring is that it can become very repetitive. There are lots of expectations that you’re dealing with. The promoters will want you to play a certain type of set, and the audience will have its own expectations about what it wants to hear,” he says. In deciding where a live show will go, Johnson says Wooden Shjips will size up where the audience is prepared to go. “We do stretch it out a fair amount, but it really depends on the audience. Sometimes they’re up for it, but other times all they want to do is just drink beer and get drunk,” Johnson says.
Wooden Shjips is touring Australia at the same time as Crosby, Stills and Nash, whose classic track Wooden Ships was the inspiration behind Wooden Shjips’ name (Johnson apparently added the ‘j’ in the hope of achieving a name that sounded Swedish). Johnson wasn’t aware of the of the serendipitous coincidence of tours, and is bemused at the prospect of meeting the legendary David Crosby. “We haven’t met him before,” Johnson laughs. “It’d be really great if he came along. I really love his solo record, If Only I Could Remember My Name. It’s really spacey.”
Back on more immediate geographical and American cultural matters, and Johnson says he hopes to stay in Colorado a bit longer to immerse himself in the Rocky Mountains culture. “We’re about 10,000 feet up the mountains where we live,” he remarks. “There’s nothing around here, and it’s about a two hour drive into Boulder. I don’t think it’s something we’d do forever, but we’re enjoying the isolation at the moment.”
BY PATRICK EMERY
WOODEN SHJIPS play The Corner Hotel on Wednesday March 28 with very special guests. Tickets are on sale now through the venue. West is out now through Fuse Music.