LOOTING THE BINS WITH WOODEN SHJIPS

Browsing America’s
record stores with musicians – famous and infamous.

 

By ANDY TENNILLE

 

“A lot of people have said we sound just like The Doors,
which is really kinda funny because I just bought my first Doors album this
year.”

 

Ripley Johnson shrugs innocently while standing amid the
Used Rock section at Amoeba Music, a poster of the Lizard King looming
ominously over his shoulder. Since making their debut with the release of the
10” Shrinking Moon for You in early
2006, San Francisco’s newest psychedelic shamen Wooden Shjips have drawn
comparisons to the fuzzy drone of Spaceman 3, Hawkwind and Loop, the distorted
minimalism of Japanese psych-rockers High Rise and yes, the haunting organ and
intoned vocals of Morrison and The Doors.

 

So if critics’ comparisons are off base, whom would Johnson
claim as the Shjips’ biggest influences?

 

“We’re really into stretching out a groove and going for the
hypnotic elements of that and then piling on the guitars,” the guitarist
explains, picking up a copy of White
Light, White Heat
. “One of the big influences on me was this bootleg record
of the Velvet Underground called Sweet
Sister Ray
. It had four versions of the band doing ‘Sister Ray’ over two
LPs, so you had a single song on each side of the records. A friend’s brother
had the vinyl and I got a tape of it and just wore it out. To me, it was like
everything I loved about rock music was distilled into a single song – all the
distortion, the lo-fi feeling of the recording and the incessant beat. It had a
huge influence on me. There was nothing else like it.”

 

Since playing their first show at the Café du Nord a little
over a year and a half ago, the Shjips have played hyped showcases at South By
Southwest and CMJ, played Britain’s
All Tomorrow’s Parties in May and issued their much-anticipated, self-titled
debut on Holy Mountain Records. While their past releases have been relegated to
limited-edition vinyl pressings, the new album is available on CD and iTunes.
But don’t expect Johnson and his Shjip-mates to abandon their affinity for wax.

 

“To me, records are like artifacts. It’s almost like an art
object. When I discover a record that’s hard to find or pressed in a limited
edition, it just seems special to me,” Johnson says. “There’s this one Link
Wray record I’ve been looking for for a while. It’s got a yellow cover and a
picture of Link Wray holding his guitar. From what I’ve heard of his stuff,
it’s probably his dirtiest sounds, his rawest record. There’s a lot of raw
distortion that gives it that torn speaker sound. You can get it on CD, but I’m
holding out for it on vinyl. I’ve seen it on eBay and been tempted to buy it,
but I prefer to find things. It comes from growing up before the Internet when
you had to hunt things down. That’s part of the experience for me. I enjoy the
hunt for obscure things.”

 

Johnson’s hunt for record store rarities today is focused on
Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s East West
Live,
an album comprising four versions of “East West,” the spine-tingling
last track on Butterfield’s 1966 album of the same name.

 

“It’s four different live versions that are all really
stretched out. They’re supposed to be killer jams,” Johnson says, flipping
through Butterfield’s catalog in the store’s blues section before giving up the
chase empty-handed. “I wouldn’t say I’m a huge blues aficionado. I like most of
the basics – Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Willie Dixon, Hound Dog
Taylor. I’m mostly into the electric stuff, but I just started listening to
Junior Kimbrough. He’s hard to find on CD, much less on vinyl.”

 

Like so many musicians of his generation reared on classic
rock radio, Johnson’s appreciation of the blues wasn’t a direct discovery but
an implicit recommendation from the bands that caught his ear early on.

 

“The first big record for me and my friends was Tattoo You by the Rolling Stones. I
remember buying it on vinyl at
Merle’s Record Rack in Wallingford, CT,” he remembers with a nostalgic smile.
“That was really my first full-on rock ‘n roll experience, and I bought all
their albums after that. Then I read about how the Stones had learned how to
play by listening to old blues records, so I decided I needed to buy some
Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry so that I could learn how to play guitar like
those guys did. The great thing about those records is all those songs have
virtually the same chord progressions, so once you figured that out, everything
is just in a different key. It made it really easy to play along with the
records and figure out what they were doing. That’s basically how I learned how
to play the guitar.”

 

With so much time spent crafting their own music, the road
is where most touring musicians have time to listen to old favorites or get
caught up on the latest, greatest releases, and Johnson is no different. With a
road trip to Portland on the horizon, he’s keen to delve into some thematic
music for the drive.

 

“I don’t own any Kraftwerk, but I thought Autobahn would be the perfect soundtrack
for a road trip,” Johnson says, pulling the band’s 1974 classic from the
stacks. “I read a book a while ago by Julian Cope called Krautrocksampler.’
It’s very opinionated, but it’s the kind of book that makes you rush out and
buy the albums he talks about. I like German Krautrock – it’s been pretty big
in my life.”

 

Talk of Johnson’s musical influences would not be complete
without mentioning Roky Erickson. The king of American garage-psych, Erickson
has experienced a rebirth of late with the 2005 release of a documentary on his
tumultuous life and a rejuvenated touring schedule. Last February, Wooden
Shjips opened for Erickson at the gilded Great American Music Hall as a part of
Noise Pop 2007, San Francisco’s more intimate version of South By Southwest.

 

“That was amazing, because I’m a huge Roky Erickson fan,”
Johnson gushes. “I didn’t really know what to expect because I’d followed his
story for so long. Every once in a while, I’d read an interview where someone
went to visit him and he had 20 TVs in his apartment on, all tuned to different
channels. But all of that was forgotten when he climbed on that stage at the
Great American. He’s such an incredible musician and his band is so supportive
of him. I was a big 13th Floor Elevators fan and just fell in love
with his songwriting and his voice. He sings with such commitment. It doesn’t
really matter if he’s singing about zombies or vampires – Roky Erickson is a
legend.”

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