Interview with Ripley Johnson (Wooden Shjips / Moon Duo)
With Moon Duo currently touring Europe and new Wooden Shjips album & live dates announced, this is the perfect time to chat to psych rock's guitar hero Ripley Johnson.
San Francisco's Wooden Shjips are one of the leading bands responsible for the resurgent popularity of psychedelic music in the 2000's. Alongside other names such as Black Angels and Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Wooden Shjips helped to bring psych rock to a new generation of "head music" fans - and Ripley Johnson's guitar playing, drenched in fuzzy tones and delays, has always been a crucial element of their trip.
Since 2009, Ripley also plays in Moon Duo - originally a side project that took a life on its own and is today almost as revered as Ripley's original band, in the psych scene.
With new Wooden Shjips live dates and album just announced ('Staring at the Sun', out on 25th May. Pre-Order on Bandcamp) and currently touring with Moon Duo in Europe, this was the perfect opportunity to catch up with Ripley - who has his own Airline Signature 59 3P model.
MOON DUO STARTED AS A "SIDE PROJECT" BUT SEEMS MORE LIKE A "SECOND PROPER BAND" FOR YOU NOW... WERE YOU SURPRISED BY THIS? DID YOU EVER THINK MOON DUO WOULD DO THIS WELL?
I never think anything is going to do well because we never have any control over that part. I always just try to make each project as good as possible and hope someone likes it. Recently I've been devoting more time to Moon Duo than anything else, mostly because we tour a lot, so it’s been my main gig. That said, 2018 will be more about the Wooden Shjips stuff.
"PSYCH" HAS BECOME QUITE POPULAR NOW, THANKS TO BANDS SUCH AS MOON DUO, WOODEN SHJIPS, BLACK ANGELS...DID YOU EVER FEEL PART OF A "SCENE" WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED WOODEN SHJIPS, OR WERE YOU GUYS OUT OWN YOUR OWN, BACK THEN IN SAN FRANCISCO?
I wasn’t aware of a psych scene, but there was lots of cool bands around. I knew Comets on Fire, and I imagine their success inspired other bands. It was cool to see their music get so much attention. “Psych” music at the time was more of an underground thing. The Terrastock festivals and Arthur Magazine were important and probably galvanized people (certainly myself). But without the reach of the internet it likely would have stayed more underground, more local, more marginal.
WHAT WERE YOUR MAIN INFLUENCES WHEN YOU STARTED PLAYING GUITAR?
Neil Young, Keith Richards, and Mick Taylor, were the big ones. Keith for everything, Neil and Mick for their lead work. They have very different styles, but I always felt they were speaking to me very directly through their playing. I heard it as more conversational and idiosyncratic. Less reliant on licks and cliches. A little later it was Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Ron Ashton, Jerry Garcia.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO THE AIRLINE 59 3P?
My first decent guitar was a ’68 Telecaster with a Bigsby that I found cheap in high school, and my formative playing was on that. It was stolen from my house in college and I couldn’t afford to replace it. I went through a variety of vintage guitars after that, all with Bigsbys. I was big on SG’s for a while, but they are kind of delicate (I always wanted the 3-pickup custom that Sister Rosetta Tharpe played). So a few things drew me to the Airline: the Bigsby, the 3 pickups, the look, the price, the bolt-on neck. I wanted something indestructible, non-precious, tour-ready, cheap. Luckily for me it sounded and played great too.
WHAT'S YOUR CURRENT LIVE SETUP RIGHT NOW (FX, AMPS...)?
In the US, I use my ’68 Fender Twin Reverb when possible. If renting, I get a '65-reissue because they’re available nearly everywhere. My first amp was a ’70’s Fender Quad Reverb, which I still have, but it’s just too big and heavy to lug around.
I’ve been tweaking my pedal board lately but right now it is: TC Electronics PolyTune 2 > Teese Real McCoy Custom wah > Earthquaker Devices Gray Channel > MXR Phase 95 > Strymon Brigadier delay > Klon Centaur > Ditto Looper X2.
Plus I have the built-in “Transwarp Drive” on my custom Airline. I use it for a boost, or, if the Gray Channel is engaged, to add a little more dirt.
HOW WAS IT TO WORK WITH SONIC BOOM? HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO DO THAT NEW 12" COVERING SUICIDE & STOOGES?
It was great. It started with BBC6 radio asking us to cover an Iggy song for his 70th birthday (he has a BBC6 radio show), so we started playing No Fun in our set. And we started playing Jukebox Babe because our FOH engineer was singing it obsessively in the van. We had a few days off from tour in Lisbon and we knew Pete (Kember, aka Sonic Boom) was setting up a studio nearby, so we booked a session. We’d hung out before, so we figured we’d just see how it went, play it loose. A funny thing: I didn’t bring my guitar, thought I’d play whatever was in the studio. Well none of them were really working for me, so we had to go to Pete’s house and grab his Airline!
WHAT YOUR FUTURE PLANS FOR MOON DUO AFTER THIS EUROPEAN TOUR?
We have big plans for Wooden Shjips. Plenty of touring. Moon Duo will take a break for a little while but will probably make a new record at some point.
Listen to the Wooden Shjips new single:
Moon Duo Tour Dates:
Jan 31 La Belle Angele Edinburgh, United Kingdom Feb 01 The White Hotel Salford, United Kingdom Feb 02 District Liverpool, Uk Feb 03 Brudenell Community Room Leeds, United Kingdom Feb 04 XOYO London, United Kingdom Feb 07 Zorlu Istanbul, Turkey Feb 09 Braga, Portugal Feb 10 Salão Brazil, Coimbra, Portugal Feb 11 TEXAS BAR, Barreiros (Leiria), Portugal Feb 12 Music Box, Barreiro, Portugal