Pleasure Boating

24 March 2012 | 1:33 pm | Staff Writer

More Wooden Shjips More Wooden Shjips

Wooden Shjips had a great time in Australia on their debut tour here, back in 2010. Thanks for asking. “We had a great time, man,” says Omar Ahsanuddin, the drummer for the San Franciscan psych-rock crew. “We got to play [at Golden Plains] at Meredith. That was wonderful, magical, great, and fun. We loved Melbourne, we had an afternoon off to meander round, found some really cool places. We can't wait to come back; this time we get to go to Perth, and it's our first trip out there. We're looking forward to it.”

The band will be returning to Australia on the back of their third LP, West. After first flickering to life as Erik 'Ripley' Johnson's home-recording project (with designs on issuing purposefully-obscure physical artefacts and existing outside the promotional mill of the online era) Wooden Shjips had, even in the six years since, never really gone beyond that: each of their first two records – 2007's Wooden Shjips and 2009's Dos – recorded live to a tape-machine in the band's rehearsal room. “We've always recorded ourselves, playing in our own practice space,” Ahsanuddin says. “[But] we knew as soon as we had finished making [Dos] that the next time we wanted to go into a studio. We knew that that'd create something very different just by its nature; because West was the first time we'd ever been into a studio.”

That studio belonged to Philip Manley, former Trans Am frontman turned producer of Barn Owl, Mi Ami, Psychic Reality, The Alps et al, and a friend of the Wooden Shjips dudes from around-the-town. “Having him there totally changed our own roles in recording,” offers Ahsanuddin. “Because, this time, we didn't have to think of the nuts-and-bolts. You don't have to think about 'did I press record before I played that song?' or 'how can we work these microphones?' or all that stuff – all that other stuff – that comes with trying to engineer yourselves. And, best of all, we didn't have to worry about running out of tape halfway through a take and then having to go and buy some more, which has definitely happened to us before...

“It provided the opportunity to have some genuine constructive feedback in the middle of recording; and to have someone there as a sounding board. Which we've never had before. Previously it's just been the four of us, trying to puzzle it out ourselves. It's nice to have someone there who can, when you're listening back to a take, just say to you 'I think you've got a better one in you' or 'the tempo slowed down in the middle of the song' or 'that take was awesome'. Everything about making this record just felt so different.”

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West's title happily tackles the mythologism of the American West; from its frontierdom to the eternal lure of California, forever pulling Easterners across the country. Wooden Shjips know all about it, each of their members – Johnson, Ahsanuddin, organ player Nash Whalen, and bassist/trumpeter Dusty Jermier – grew up on the Eastern seabord of the US. Ahsanuddin hails from tiny Morganton, North Carolina, and relocated to San Francisco 15 years ago. He and Johnson played in a noise band together, so, when Wooden Shjips were being turned from a recording project with conceptual live line-up into a functional rockband, Ripley rang up his old pal.

“When the band started, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do,” Ahsanuddin recounts, of those beginnings. “We wanted to make primitive rock music that has a good groove, that's simple, that doesn't go over the top on things, but just locks into this primal essence. That's the way we approached it at the beginning, and it's held true: I think it's still the way we approach it now.

“As a band, we try to look for repetition, look for simple ways of doing things. For me, as the drummer, that means not a lot of drum fills at all. I play a really stripped-down drumkit. I don't want a lot of different things I can hit, it's important for me to just lock in on the rhythm and the repetition, and let the guitars and keyboards sort of jump off from that, and hopefully just hit this groove where we can get people dancing.”

Wooden Shjips' repetitious, fuzzy, tranced-out psych-rock comes steeped in Ash Ra Tempel, Spacemen 3, The Doors, and anyone else who ever chased organ-draped space-rock towards the transcendental. In 2007, playing their second-ever show, they scored a support to an obvious spiritual antecedent: the legendary founder of The 13th Floor Elevators (and recent Australian tourist) Roky Erickson. “It was when he'd just started playing again,” Ahsanuddin recalls. “It felt so weird and also just crazy fast: our first show had been at a pizza parlour, and then for our next one we're playing at the Great American Music Hall with Roky Erickson. It was strange and wonderful.”

In their early years, there were many more strange-and-wonderful shows for Wooden Shjips: playing house-parties and art-galleries, or, memorably, in a half-pipe (“there were drunk people sitting up the top of the ramp, and they'd occasionally fall and tumble down into the bottom of the ramp where we were”). But after the release of Dos – effectively the band's breakout set – they were touring more and more, playing at rock clubs at home (“it really sucks playing in bars in the US, because you have to be 21 to get in; we really wish we could play more all-ages shows) and European festivals.

Whilst their record-collector-friendly rep cultivates many a chin-scratcher audience, Wooden Shjips found that, touring in Europe, they'd find far more 'live' crowds. “In San Francisco where we're from, you play a show to a roomful of people with their arms crossed, maybe someone nods their head,” Ahsanuddin says. “Which is why it's so awesome to go on tour and go places where people are really psyched to have a good time and get into the music; where they're going to be way more demonstrative in the way they respond to the music. You go play in Athens and no one's just standing there, they're hanging from the rafters, y'know? When you play in one of the more out-of-the-way places in Europe, people are just excited that a band from San Francisco has come to play.”