To say that no band sounds like Wooden Shjips would sure sound like a cliché if it weren’t so true. Rooted in psychedelic music with a penchant for Neil Young/Crazy Horse distorted guitar sounds, their music is a trippy and entrancing invite for something completely different. It’s no wonder that their cover of Neil Young’s “Vampire Blues” sounds more like an original song than a cover version.
However, what really sets them apart is that there is a juxtaposition of complete minimilism and repetition through these influences (which are often more rooted in pop than experimentation). Their songs can frequently have a groove based around the same chord, or same two chords – with the keyboards and guitar sounds so spacey that you feel completely transported.
Formed in San Francisco, Wooden Shjips began self-releasing singles in 2006. The following year, Wooden Shjips released their first, eponymous album through the Holy Mountain label. Their second album, Dos, was released in 2009 following the release of Vol. 1, a collection of early singles.
This year, Wooden Shjips released their 3rd proper album, West, on Thrill Jockey Records. It’s (in my opinion) one of the best albums of the year and an LP that perfectly sums up the band’s sound… only this time the band recorded at a proper studio (their previous albums had been mostly self-recorded), so with this one, you’re sonically getting the whole package.
The overall theme of the album, as its title suggests, is about the mythology of the American West. The music never spells out to you what you’re supposed to hear, it instead seems to invite you to interpret it for yourself and choose where you want to be led to.
Interviewed here is drummer Omar Ahsanuddin.
(See below for details on Wooden Shjips’ show next tuesday here in Montreal. Oh, and p.s. : Also noteworthy is guitarist Ripley Johnson’s other band, Moon Duo. If you dig Wooden Shjips, check ’em out!)
TBM: I have to say, “West” may be my favourite album of yours. I also find it to be probably your most accessible. Did you go in recording wanting to make something more accessible this time around?
O.A.: Not really… if listeners find West to be more accessible than other recordings it’s not due to any conscious effort on our part. Relative to our previous recordings, West is a higher fidelity recording since we worked in a studio, which was definitely something we were trying to achieve for the record.
There is the feel when listening to the record that this may be a concept album. The song titles and themes explored definitely seemed unified. What is it you were trying to say with this album?
As a California band we all draw inspiration from living in this part of the country and I think that’s what is meant to come through on the record. So while we don’t think of West a concept album, the vastness and beauty of the American West is a theme of the album.
How was it like recording for the first time in a real studio, as opposed to the total DIY approach you had on previous releases?
Going into Lucky Cat studio with Phil Manley was a great experience. For me, working with Phil was the most important change from the DIY approach. Having a trusted person who can offer opinions and ideas throughout the recording process is quite helpful. It’s nice to have someone who can help us figure out how to get great sounds on tape as well as having someone who can tell us that we need to do another take. Going into the studio also erased some the of the technical limitations of the DIY approach: we had a wider selection of microphones and a room that sounds much more alive than our rehearsal space, where we have done most of our recording. Mentally, working with an engineer also frees the band from thinking about the technical details and allows us to focus on the actual performances.
I’m curious as to how the songwriting process works within the band. With a minimalist approach towards the songs and such an importance placed in the overall sound, how does a song typically come together?
It’s a bit varied… sometimes the process starts with rough recording or in a rehearsal. A song may come together very quickly from there: the groove appears and people feel happy with their parts. Sometimes there is a search for the groove… the rhythm section’s approach, in general, is that “less is more”, and simple parts create a pulse that can get people dancing.
With the album titled “West” and the style of music you play, one often feels when listening to your music that we’re taken on a journey of some sorts. What is it about this mythology of the West that interests you?
The feeling of a journey is part of the Western mythology from which we take inspiration. We have a few very long songs with repetitive rhythms that allow the listener to be transported.
The track “Home” sounds like Wooden Shjips tipping their hat to Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Were they a big influence in your overall sound?
We are all fans of Neil Young & Crazy Horse and they are certainly an influence for me. I recall thinking of Crazy Horse in terms of the loose, rocking feel of “Home” when we were recording it.
There’s an immense control in chaos in your recordings. How do you translate this in your live shows?
The live show has the same elements as the recordings but they exist more in the context of a rock band and less a traditional psychedelic band. So some songs that have a mellower feel on a recording may sound more rocking at the live show, but all of the same pieces are there: the simple rhythms that serve as a foundation for the keys and the guitar to explore and eventually come back home to.
Wooden Shjips plays La Sala Rossa (4848 Boulevard Saint-Laurent) tuesday, November 8 with Birds Of Avalon and The High Dials supporting. Tickets are 13$ in advance and can be purchased through www.blueskiesturnblack.com or are 15$ at the door.