It’s a virtual Shjip Trip, in which “psychedelia” gets redefined—then, at our request, defined—by California’s headiest export. This is the best part of that trip, kids… freakin’ out!
BY RON HART
San Francisco always enjoyed the very best psychedelic music scene in the entire world back in the Summer of Love. And beneath the sensationalism of the likes of the Dead, Big Brother, the Jefferson Airplane, hell, even Sly and the Family Stone back then, there lay a bedrock of heavy hitting groups like Blue Cheer, the Charlatans, It’s A Beautiful Day and The Flamin’ Groovies who really offered an alternate view of the whole psych movement.
Today, groups like Blues Control, Om, Earthless and Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound have assumed the mantle of keeping the acid-washed dreams of sonic existentialism alive for the youthful masses in the Bay Area region of the embattled Golden State. And leading the charge is Wooden Shjips, a four-piece consisting of drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, bassist Dusty Jermier, organ player Nash Whalen and frontman/guitarist Erik “Ripley” Johnson. Together, they bring together a burly, effects-damaged guitar attack. They will take you back to heavy psych’s glory days with the steady, drone-like repetition of such classic minimalist composers as Terry Riley and Steve Reich, creating an exciting new level of West Coast psych-rock that should help rattle the establishment for the next generation.
Wooden Shjips’ second album for Thrill Jockey, Back to Land, was released this spring and is one of the best albums of the year thus far. BLURT recently inquired with the band as to what its own private definition of the term “psychedelic” means. We provided them with a list of what is or is not “psych” in the members’ collective wheelhouse, which included such topics as Tame Impala, Pink Floyd in the ‘80s, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, King Tubby, The Monkees’ Head, iconic film Zabriskie Point, underground cartoonist Ralph Bakshi and Jimmy Page’s soundtrack to Lucifer Rising, among several others.
In the end, it was Mr. Whalen who spoke for his mates, opting for an entirely different approach to the subject, and submitting what their publicist called “one of the most personal statements anyone from the group has ever made.” Here is what he had to say…
When music, art and film were first called “psychedelic,” I think people believed there were some unifying attributes, like weird sounds, or bright colors or non-linear story lines. And superficially, that might be true. But like beauty, anything deemed psychedelic is based on a very personal perception. It’s all about embracing the experience of opening up your mind to new and unknown emotional, physical and spiritual responses.
In the summer after high school, three friends and I went backpacking on the Long Trail in Vermont. We really didn’t bring anything with us; a boom box, beer and some hot dogs. When we got to the campsite by a pond a few miles in, we set up the tent in light rain. We cracked some beers, turned on the music and started a fire to cook our dinner, watching the western skies for a break in the clouds.
We never saw that break. Once it was dark, the rain picked up in intensity and quickly drowned out our fire. We were left with no option but to retreat to the tent. The four of us lay there in complete darkness. A cassette of the Doors made it on the boom box, Morrison Hotel on one side, and The Soft Parade on the other, turned up enough to hear over the rain pelting the tent.
By the time we got to “The Soft Parade,” the last song on the tape, we were all in another place. As the songs were pretty much the only thing we could sense, the music and the lyrics painted all sorts of pictures in our minds. Jim Morrison started saying: “this is the best part of the trip,” but none of us were feeling that way. The cocoon of the tent had become claustrophobic; the driving music was making us all anxious.
We burst out into the night air looking for the calm that no longer existed in our heads. There was starlight visible through the thinning clouds and a slight glow to the fog coming off the pond. We hadn’t even realized that the storm had passed. The Doors had taken us far away from the woods of Vermont; we were so far off in our own universe that we almost didn’t believe anything else existed anymore until we saw it with
our own eyes.
When something like that happens to you, then you can call it “psych.”