Wooden Shjips: Optimistic psych

by Halee Hastad

Smoke and ash hung as a thick haze over Portland as fires burned up and down the West Coast. Anticipation for the famed eclipse of last August was all around as summer slowly but surely dwindled to an end. There was a lingering sense of dread. And this isn’t to mention anything that was happening in politics.

Ripley Johnson was there, in Portland, writing and sensing all around him. He was focusing more uplifting thoughts. Say, for instance, how our many complex histories have lead us to where we are today, or how many positive changes have come from hard times.

Johnson is the songwriter, guitarist and vocalist for Wooden Shjips, alongside Dusty Jermier (bass), Nash Whalen (keyboard), and Omar Ahsanuddin (drums). The band began in the Bay Area on a primitive intention as a group of mostly non-musicians interested in making music.

“I was growing tired of working with musicians,” Johnson said. “I thought, well, I’ll put together a band of people who just want to play.”

This lineup, somewhat altered from the original, has been together since 2005, with Johnson and Ahsanuddin currently living in Portland and Jermier and Whalen still in California. They don’t tour frivolously, or practice as often as other experimental rock bands of their caliber. Wooden Shjips is not a group of young men crashing on couches and chugging beers. They are grown men with lives separate of their music, yet what they are able to create when they do come together is outstanding.

Think The Velvet Underground meets Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in a plant-shrouded Japanese meditation garden just before sundown.

That album Johnson was working on last August, V, via Thrill Jockey, will be released May 25 and reflects something different from that dread all around him. It’s a summer record. Light, airy and clean.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘this is not the end of the world but it is terrible’,” he said. “I was looking for an optimistic perspective in music.”

As he finished the writing and demos, the band came together as a whole for a month or so. They rehearsed for a few weekends then produced the record over a total of five days. The goal was to make it simple, straightforward. And this uncomplicated process reflects in the music of V, the title of which is representative as a symbol of peace (two fingers being held up create a V shape), and also as their fifth album. Simple, clever, and a sign that continues to hold strong through the smoke and haze, through war and tumult, through all of our times of dread, as a symbol of resistance and hope.

Wooden Shjips will play The Shakedown on Saturday, April 14. Follow their Facebook page or visit www.woodenshjips.com.