Published Dec 09, 2013Wooden Shjips started life as Ripley Johnson's one-man psychedelic project before evolving into a proper band. Their fourth full-length, Back to Land, further strips away the clutter to create pulsing, minimalist slabs of psych-rock. "When you break outside of that pattern or groove," says drummer Omar Ahsanuddin, "small changes start to sound really big."
Going into the studio, did you have a game plan for what you wanted to achieve with this album?
Ahsanuddin: We have a general approach that holds true for most of our recordings. I personally don't have a real serious game plan of where we're going with things. This record in particular, we weren't rehearsing these songs for a really long time. There was an element of we're just going to have to feel what we get on tape. There have been previous records where there were songs that we recorded where were playing those songs live for six or seven months. What I think happens is that when you have a song — especially live — it sort of evolves from where it was initially born with the band. These songs on this last record are sort of the opposite of that. The recording captures where these songs were early in their life. Some of the songs on West we'd been playing for a few months.
Did you notice them changing at all on the tour you just finished?
It was a short tour, but I can see some of them evolving a little bit. It was our first time playing these songs live and also our first shows in a year. It's hard to say what was the song evolving and what was us, I don't want to say getting back into the groove, because I feel that we're in the groove, but coming back together as a live band after a long hiatus. It's not bad — you get a freshness to things when you haven't been playing for that long. I think it will probably happen as we get out more, especially some dynamics that you don't necessarily capture in the studio.
The new album feels a bit more laid-back than West. Was that a product of the way in which the songs were recorded?
Some of it is the recording approach and the nature of technical aspects of recording. I don't think we approached them with a relaxed feel. It wasn't a preconceived thing we were trying to do, it might just be the way that some people are hearing it. We had a sort of relatively newish batch of songs and recorded them on tape rather quickly so it will be interesting to see in six months or a year whether they still resemble what's on the record. The other thing I've always thought is that we come through as more of a rock band live. Some of the songs that seem like they're in the psychedelic category actually come out more rocking live with the stripped down rhythm section that's pursuing minimal, in the pocket beats and rhythms. That builds up for the other instruments to jump off of. The recording process doesn't really lend itself to capturing the full volume going for broke band. That's the contrast people get to see if they see us live.
You mention minimalist rhythms — as a drummer do you feel limited by that or did you consciously create that aesthetic for Wooden Shjips?
We do that on purpose. That's thought out and something we're attempting to do. It's not limiting to me. It's actually the opposite. Dusty [Jermier, bass player] and I had been in bands before with a more traditional rhythm section. I feel like it didn't suit me that well, I wasn't that great at it. I found that when I stripped back the amount of drums that I had, going from four to two... and when I'd do "classic" drum fills they weren't really adding anything to the song. You just do them because it's time. Sometimes I realized they weren't going anywhere in the middle of them, which makes the end of it that much harder. Personally, what happens to me when we strip it back and focus in on the pulse is that it sort of takes you to a different place. I'm focusing in much more on what I'm doing than I did before. If you just have this one pulse that you're trying to stay with it and maintain it, that's much harder to do. It suits me better than traditional rhythm sections do.
It seems like if you were to miss a beat or a note, it would all come crashing down. There's no way to hide the mistake.
Yeah. With minimalism and repetition, small changes sound really big. People that do that kind of thing like Neu!, when you break outside of that pattern or groove, small changes start to sound really big. From a drummer's perspective, when people lock into these minimalist patterns and you do something like a cymbal crash or change dynamic, moving the volume around, all that stuff kicks way harder because it breaks that pattern. I think that's also one of the things... in the recording process there's a couple songs where we use an acoustic guitar in the recording and there's a bit of a departure there. But I think the change in sound has less to do with the acoustic guitar and, and more when you have a minimal approach, small changes start to sound really big. That's one of the things where I think, you make a small change like adding an acoustic guitar, which isn't an earth shattering adjustment, and it comes through on tape much different. Those ideas are interesting, the way that sounds or changes translate can have a bigger impact then they actually do. But you're totally right — if you miss a beat, it sounds like the train coming off the tracks. You can see it, people stop bopping their heads.
During the break between West and Back to Land, Ripley moved to Portland, OR.
Yeah. I actually live in Portland now too. I moved at the end of January.
Did that coincide with Ripley's move or was it a coincidence?
It was a coincidence. He moved about six months earlier in the year. We're not that coordinated.
What prompted you to move there?
That was a life decision. My wife had lived here years ago when she was in school and always really liked it and we'd been in San Francisco for a while, thinking about where to make a change to. This was a natural place. We have a group of friends here and a community.
With band members spread over different cities, is it a challenge to get together to write and rehearse?
I find that it's different. Ripley moved out of San Francisco several years ago, to Colorado. It's different from when you're a band that gets together once or twice a week to where you don't have that anymore. Getting together becomes a very literal rehearsal and not just jamming with the band. You have to be more focused with what you want to accomplish and have more goals: be thinking about what it is you're getting ready for, be it a tour or recording or whatever. You lose that time when you're not trying to do anything or make anything happen and just playing and exploring without any pressure. You lose that and whatever it brings. We're used to it now, but it's different than when you're in a regular band. It's not necessarily a bad thing but it's definitely different. The songs for Back to Land were us working on them for six weeks or so, but then the recording captures a certain freshness of a song so it's different than when you're playing them a lot. It takes some logistical hurdles, but nothing insurmountable.