When Erik “Ripley” Johnson pitched his Wooden Shjips bandmates on recording their first album in five years, he did so gently.
“What I proposed to them was the minimum commitment possible,” Johnson explains. “‘We’ll rehearse two or three weekends and go into the studio for five days. That’s all you have to commit to.’”
The other three Shjips—drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, bassist Dusty Jermier, and keyboardist Nash Whalen—agreed to record quickly, inform no one of the work, hand over a finished album to Thrill Jockey Records, and try to avoid all the timelines and pressure that come with being a pillar of modern psychedelic music.
The result is V, the follow-up to 2013’s Back to Land, which condensed the Shjips’ famously droning psych sound and pushed the band toward more melody, more traditional song forms, and more of Johnson’s voice. V moves further in that direction, but with a much mellower overall vibe. Here, the fuzzed-out noise-rock of the band’s earlier releases is all but gone, and in its place is cosmic American music: strummy acoustic guitars, squirrely electric solos, pillowy keys, laid-back vocals, and echo stretching to the horizon.
For these songs, timing was everything. The Shjips were on tour in Europe on election day in November 2016, reeling from the results. “That night basically killed our tour,” Johnson says. But with another busy band, Moon Duo, to take up his time and attention, it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 when Johnson started to feel the itch to write new songs for the Wooden Shjips.
By then, the anger and shock of the election had receded, but wildfires had erupted near Portland, turning the city’s clear summer skies into an unnerving mix of haze and falling ash. Fueled by new age music and apocalyptic vibes, Johnson set out to write a gang of chilled-out sunshine jams, despite the constant intrusion of the outside world.
“After going through months and months of trying to digest what had happened,” he says, “I was personally determined to find the silver lining, and to try to look at things in a different perspective that wasn’t so grim.” The music, Johnson says, “is a balm against the noise and negativity.”
Don’t be mistaken: V isn’t full of three-minute pop songs. The Shjips still tend to draw things out beyond six or seven minutes, merging the fuzzy propulsion of the Velvet Underground with the spacey roots-rock of Neil Young. Indeed, when all is said and done, V is the band’s comforting classic rock record in a musical world currently overflowing with simmering rage and protest songs.
“We could’ve gone harsher and noisier. We could’ve gotten angry. But that just wasn’t where I was at,” Johnson says. “But it definitely is a reaction to what’s going on in the world and where my mind-set was at the time.”
In an article published last month, Pop Matters called the Wooden Shjips “one of rock’s most reluctant bands”—a mantle Johnson not only agrees with, but embraces. The band hasn’t toured since that late 2016 run, and because its members live in different cities, they don’t see each other often, much less play together. Still, after a dozen years and five albums together, the itch to record with the Shjips keeps coming back to Johnson.
“There’s nothing quite like a band,” he says. “Sometimes you need space and sometimes you miss them and wanna get together and have another go through that album adventure.
“Which can be a grind sometimes,” he continues. “But when you’ve been away from it for a while, it’s nice to get back together and see what you can come up with and see how people changed. We don’t really do it for the money. There’s no fame involved. We just do it because we want to do it, which is a pretty pure way of looking at it.”