Wooden Shjips’ West, released in September on Thrill Jockey, is a sprawling, fuzzy psychedelic jam fest that adds a laid-back California vibe to the Krautrock formula. If front man Ripley Johnson, with his deadpan vocals and droney guitar solos, has a midwest counterpart, it may be Jonathan van Herik of Disappears. Van Herik’s spooky, minimal lead lends Disappears its hypnotic, airy texture. Disappears’ new album, Pre Language—their first full-length with drummer Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth—will be released on Kranky in March. Wooden Shjips play the Empty Bottle on 11/5. —Luca Cimarusti
Jonathan van Herik: You guys are on Thrill Jockey. How’d that happen?
Ripley Johnson: We recorded the record with Phil Manley from Trans Am and the Fucking Champs. We were considering a self-release, but he had so many good things to say about Thrill Jockey that we ended up pursuing that. It worked out really well.
I’m a big fan of both of your bands. I love Moon Duo, too. I saw you guys play the Empty Bottle maybe a year ago. It can be tough keeping the energy up onstage, I would think, with just the drum machine. But you guys didn’t seem to have a problem with that.
Yeah, the drummer does add energy—actually just having more people onstage adds energy. But there’s something about consistent programmed beats that allow you to sort of float over it. It’s a more tempered performance for sure, but it does allow a certain amount of freedom. We also were inspired by a lot of different bands that have been duos. So it wasn’t a creative challenge.
What are some of those bands? I hear so many influences in both your bands.
I think the obvious ones would be Suicide, Silver Apples, Royal Trux—even though they play with a full band.
Your tones are pretty similar to some of Spacemen 3’s stuff. Was that an influence?
After the first Wooden Shjips record came out, we got a lot of comparisons to Spacemen 3—and, especially in Europe, comparisons to Loop. They’re contemporaries of Spacemen 3. That was eye opening for us, because those weren’t bands that we were really into.
I love when that happens.
It’s excellent. We got a lot of Doors [comparisons] too. We weren’t big Doors fans, but I went out and bought the first Doors album, and I was like, “Wow, that first Doors record is pretty good.”
It seems like there’s something really cool going on, like a collective consciousness thing when people tell you, “Oh, you sound like this”—and then you check it out and it kinda does.
When you dig, you find a band like Spacemen 3. And when you look at some of their early stuff—they were doing 13th Floor Elevator covers and MC5 and Red Krayola—those are all the same bands I was into. They’re a little older, but the influences are the same. What do you guys get compared to?
A lot of Spacemen 3, a little bit of Sonic Youth—but I think it’s because Steve Shelley’s from Sonic Youth. He joined the band in January.
Do you guys sound more like Sonic Youth now? Did that influence the band at all?
I don’t think it made it sound more like Sonic Youth, but he definitely did influence the band. He’s really active in songwriting and arranging, and he has a lot of good opinions and taste. We just finished a new record. Listening to it, I can’t believe some of it is, like, weird dance music. It’s cool.
With Wooden Shjips’ stuff, dance has always been an influence—not dance music but the idea of rock ‘n’ roll as a dance music. Originally it was dance music. But people have sort of forgotten that, or don’t focus on it as much. We get a lot of criticism for having the same beat for the whole song, or having things that are very repetitive. It’s funny, because in dance music no one ever gets criticized for that. It’s kind of the point.
Repeating something is like rereading your favorite book. Things come out of the woodwork. It does something to your mind, the way you’re perceiving. It’s kind of a half-baked point, but . . .
No, I agree 100 percent. One of the guys in Faust was talking about recording with Tony Conrad, how they did those songs that were just one chord, one beat for 20 minutes or something—and how difficult it was! And there’s one song where there’s a cymbal crash, like 15 minutes into the song, and it becomes this momentous event because nothing else is happening in the song. You’re in this little trance, and all of a sudden there’s this crash. It’s like an explosion.
We really are trying to do that, too—just having the self-restraint to not do something. I love how that’s affected our songwriting. Like you said, one little guitar jab, or one crash, becomes the release if you’re just playing one chord. Not to knock us Americans but man, playing in Europe, it’s a lot easier to get people moving with rock music.
It’s easy to generalize, but I found that people love rock ‘n’ roll in Spain. They like a lot of garage stuff. Anything that has guitars, they’ll move to. They get so excited. It’s great.
Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect the name of the band Spacemen 3.