Psychedelic rock isn't just for hippies and "Dead" heads, at least not any more. San Francisco's Wooden Shjips' build on traditions traced back to The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young and the Grateful Dead, but are continuing to refine their own unique niche within the genre. The band underwent a bit of a change in the last couple of years, splitting off to reside in two different spots on the West Coast and this change has affected their music in a subtle, but noticable way. Back to Land, their newest L.P., comes out November 12, 2013 on Thrill Jockey records and, while it still holds their signature "out of this world" sound, they've evolved to bring the space between heaven and earth -- and the gap between psych rock and classic rock -- a little bit closer.
The band was in Portland, where lead singer and guitarist Ripley Johnson now resides, gearing up for a U.S. and European tour when I chatted with Nash Whalen about all things space rock. Whalen plays keyboards in the band, Dusty Jermier is on bass, and Omar Ahsanuddin is on drums. Whalen assured me they still think of themselves as a San Francisco band and there is no denying the city's rich musical influence on their sound. I'd argue that the shift in distance and accompanying time spent apart has been beneficial to Wooden Shjips' music, introducing acoustic guitars and more expansive elements into the tracks on Back to Land.
When they all lived in San Francisco, the band would spend weeks jamming together on a new song. The latest album, however, necessarily involved a more economical approach, with band members converging in Portland to write on weekends and then spending a couple weeks there recording. Whalen said, "We didn't play any of these songs together before we started the recording process. We would practice them and play them, but on our other albums we had at least a few songs we would play live and work on for months -- if not longer -- before we ever tried to sit down and record them. This time, over the winter, we all gathered in Portland and Dusty and I would come up a few weekends every month and we'd start working on the songs... To me that was one of the main differences, we didn't have any feedback from the audience and practice of performing them live. We were still exploring a lot when we got into the studio. The first album we recorded on 8 tracks and then the second one we did 16 and on this record we did 24 tracks. Every record had more tracks to use and more space to see what we could put in there... So that's one of the things that gives the album a different flavor, we had more space to experiment."
photo: Anna Ignatenko
Back to Land is both the album title and its opening track. Whalen's interpretation describes the overall feeling of the record pretty well. "It's like looking back to the land... I went on a whale watching trip to the Farallon Islands and when you're coming back, going through the Golden Gate, the land gets bigger and bigger... That's the way I think of it. You're kinda out on the ocean still looking in." The song "Back to Land" starts open and airy, heavy on reverb with Johnson's vocals breezing by like the wind -- a boat barely discernible. A few minutes in, the drums, keys, and electric guitar come into focus like a horizon. It's a slow build, but one that speaks to Whalen's experience of the land coming into view. The album consistently unleashes bigger moments slowly, giving the impression of peaks and landmarks becoming visible on the approach.
The album's first single, "These Shadows," is a kind of "easy listening" version of the Wooden Shjips' usual build, with dizzying guitar reverb, vague vocals and a steady beat. It's a nice combination of warm sounds and expansive electric guitar parts. The Shjips really work toward finding that sweet spot where everything clicks and the music transcends consciousness. It's not about narrative, which allows in a certain amount of emotion. Vocals are always buried in the mix, creating the nagging feeling that you are missing what's being said, but also acknowledging that the voice is just an instrument for chanting, using unknown words or vocal vibrations to activate the body and get outside of the head. In fact, Whalen confessed, "there are songs we've been playing for six or seven years that I still don't know the lyrics to." The jam becomes all about the meditative.
It's music for listeners who are looking for a different kind of "high," one that comes from sound. One of the things that makes Wooden Shjips so incredibly accessible is the music's repetitive nature, the listener feels at home just a couple songs into the album. It's comfortable and welcoming, like coming home to a horizon you know so well after a day out on the Bay.