[MUSIC: Interview] Wooden Shjips
Wooden Shjips is a band that essentially works in variations on a single idea, albeit an intoxicating one. Their music is archly stylised psych-rock in the vein of acts like Suicide or the Doors, and each track is an endlessly spinning two-chord loom on which euphoric texture and detail is spun from guitar, organ and reverbed vocals. A careless listener might dismiss this music as an exercise in compressing some pronounced influences into an ostentatious faux-psychedelia, but its purpose is simpler and purer than that.
“A lot of it is about trying to create some sort of trance-like state,” says Nash Whalen, the band’s organist. “The repetitive and minimal nature of the music is kind of a primitive thing that I think we all have from generations ago. We’re trying to give people a new way to try to look at the world. Sometimes when you just sit back and let the music take you over, it opens up your mind in a different way, and allows you to make new connections that you can’t [make] when everything’s so distracting.”
The San Franciscan band’s most recent album may be their best. Where previous efforts, recorded cheaply in basements and living rooms, felt claustrophobic and dense in their extended, inward-looking, treble-heavy jams, West sounds huge and panoramic. Its evocation of blistering blue skies and wide-open spaces seems strangely adventurous for the band, despite shorter song lengths and slicker production than fans might be used to. “The record is called West as a tribute to the western US,” says Whalen. “The west just holds this mystique; there are endless opportunities out here. We all grew up in different parts of the country and migrated out here, just as thousands or millions of other people have.”
Riffing on the idea of the west coast as some kind of opportunistic mecca, the band whittled the over-arching theme down to the ageless American mythos of a manifest destiny. “Manifest destiny is the concept that God wanted the Americans to occupy the whole continent from coast to coast, to make it a unified country, [the concept] that it was ours for the taking,” he explains. “It set many people off to find their fortunes after struggling on the eastern half of the country for so many years.” It also serves as a neat device that draws connections between the fading ideals of the American Dream and the psychedelic gnosis that appears to be the goal of the music itself.
The only real issue with being too easily pegged as a one-trick pony is that it can be difficult for Wooden Shjips to connect with people in a live setting. Nash is philosophical about the appeal of his band’s music, and notes that although some people may not get it, there’s more than one way to appreciate Wooden Shjips in a live context. “We like to think of ourselves as rock music, and also just as music you can move to and dance to, if you can get that far within yourself,” he says. “Here in San Francisco in the ‘60s, The Grateful Dead and the other bands of that day would go and play these dance halls to play a rock show, and everyone would be dancing because they wouldn’t know any better. That was definitely one of the ideas when we first started playing – to try and be a dance band.
“There’s also plenty of times when people are standing there really still, and they have this smile on their face, or are even looking really serious,” he continues. “You recognise them after the show, and they just tell you how amazed they were by it. You don’t all have to be dancing to enjoy it. It can happen internally as well.”
What: West is out now on Thrill Jockey, through Fuse Music
More: Wooden Shjips’ guitarist Ripley Johnson also plays in Moon Duo, who are playing at Oxford Art Factory on Thursday September 29, and at Sound Summit in Newcastle on Friday September 30.