Wooden Shjips' Erik Johnson On His 'Back To Land' Move To Portland


Wooden Shjips guitarist/vocalist Erik "Ripley" Johnson became a resident of Portland, Oregon, just one year ago, but he's become a true convert to the ways of the Rose City.

"It feels so civilized. People let you cross the street and they wave at you," he told MTV Hive, "That's how I like to live. Very little drama in Portland. Maybe at Timbers games, I don't know."

The laid-back mood of the city, not surprisingly, has infiltrated the sound of his psych rock band's fourth album Back to Land. Recorded at Portland's famed Jackpot Studios, the LP is one of the quartet's most patent collections, where even the most uptempo songs feel like they are slowly creeping under your doorway like blue smoke.

Hive spent a little time with Johnson in his Portland home, watching him squash spiders in his basement/practice space, and discussing how his new hometown brought Back to Land to life.

What made you want to move up here to Portland?

My wife and I left San Francisco three years ago to play music, and we couldn't afford to keep a place there while being on the road. Well, we couldn't afford it, anyway, but being on the road all the time, it didn't make any sense to keep an apartment when you're not there. Once we got comfortable with our finances, we decided to get a place of our own, and we wanted to stay on the West Coast.

And this city is quite affordable compared to where you moved from.

When I moved to San Francisco, during the first Internet boom, even just going to rent an apartment there would be lines down the block. Now it's even worse with the new rise of Facebook and Twitter and Google. It's just so surreal now.

I worry about that happening here.

It's funny, six months ago I was thinking about it, and was, like, "It's a great place to have a startup because the real estate's cheap and it's really nice, and it's similar to SF culturally." And then I started reading about more companies moving here and I realized, "Wait a minute, I don't want that to happen here!"


You've said that the new album was inspired by the relocation. How so?  

A big part of it is just having a home. Even though we were staying in one place in Colorado, it wasn't our place and wasn't our stuff. You start to miss those things that are packed away in storage. So, a lot of it was feeling at home for the first time in a long time. And part of it was getting all my records out of storage and starting to listen to all these old records that I don't have on iTunes or on CD. And listening to a lot of classic rock and letting it seep into the music. In the past we kind of avoided a lot of classic rock-ism. We get called a "throwback band" anyway. We have more acoustic guitar on there and there are bluesier riffs that we would have run away from in the past.

What were the records that you were listening to?

Canned Heat. Neil Young, which is always a staple. Creedence. I started getting into J.J. Cale. And going to record stores here, Little Axe down on NE Alberta, and Mississippi Records. Everyday Music...their vinyl room is so random. You can pick up that one Creedence record you didn't have or Lou Reed's solo albums. It fits the Portland vibe.

You also went out to the Oregon coast to work on the new album, right?

Yeah, I went down to Cannon Beach to finish them up and just to be alone. I tend to need to be solitary to work on things. I thrive on that. That's something that I really want to do, the last Moon Duo record I made, my wife went on a meditation retreat for about two weeks and it was great. If I feel a song is coming on, I can just sing stupid lyrics into the open and not worry about anyone hearing them.

I read something about you doing some bird watching with Dusty [Jermier, bassist]...

He's into birding, which I didn't know until earlier in the year. So he brought up his gear. He was really obsessed with finding a wood duck, which apparently is very easy here. We went to this one park and there were a bunch of wood ducks. Totally blew his mind. The first weekend he brought up his binoculars and he had this birding app and we did that for a couple of days.

The next weekend he came back with this parabolic microphone and he has the headphones. And he's walking around my neighborhood with these things. People are giving him dirty looks. He's like Gene Hackman in "The Conversation."

Is it hard to get everyone here to rehearse?

I was worried about it at first but it's been great because our drummer [Omar Ahsanuddin] just moved here. The other guys, we just force them to come up here.

Back to Land is out now on Thrill Jockey.