When most people are looking to seriously launch a new project of any kind–a business, a team, a band–they aim to snag the best, most experienced, most reliable talent around. But guitarist/vocalist Erik "Ripley" Johnson took an entirely different tack when putting together Wooden Shjips in the early 2000s. Inspired by the Velvet Underground's use of untrained drummers Angus MacLise and Maureen Tucker, Johnson aimed to populate his new group with people who had zero experience making music.
"The first thing you learn are the clichés," Johnson told the Chicago Tribune last October, around the time of Wooden Shjips' latest foray into uptempo, charming, spaced-out psychedelic rock, Back to Land. "You walk into Guitar Center, and you hear guys playing clichés. Those are hard to unlearn. I figured if I find non-musicians, it would be easier not to have them play clichés. I could teach them two chords."
The experiment didn't work. After a short time together, without an album or concert to their name, Wooden Shjips' original lineup collapsed. Still, when Johnson rebooted the San Francisco-rooted (now partially Portland, Oregon-based) act in 2006, he kept Nash Whalen. Raised on classic rock, Grateful Dead and, later, grunge, Whalen played the guitar in the first Shjips incarnation and mans the keyboard in the second. The 42-year-old's abilities with those instruments were the results of fortuitous hand-me-downs from relatives, but he had never really played music before the band came along.
"[The initial experience] was definitely uncomfortable at times, but I always felt like if I knew what I was doing, then I would be able to do it," Whalen says. Playing through the group's written and rehearsed catalog onstage posed few problems.
"But when you're starting to learn new songs and write songs, that's where it's been the biggest challenge for me," he says. "I'll hear something in my head but not have the knowledge of how to reproduce it in any way, so I'll really struggle at times, just trying to find what sounds are being inspired by the other band members' playing."
For Wooden Shjips' second go-around, Johnson brought in two experienced musicians–bassist Dusty Jermier and drummer Omar Ahsanuddin–but the group's aesthetic fundamentals continue to stand askew. With their simple, repetitive patterns and a minimalist approach, the band have been stylistically compared to the Velvet Underground, Crazy Horse and the Stooges by the press, and Whalen openly acknowledges the likelihood that Shjips have been seriously inspired by them all.
When writing songs together, the four-piece will often jam for 20 or 30 minutes or longer, repeatedly playing the same tune so they can concentrate on different segments. Then they talk about what they did and did not like. When band members want a portion altered or emphasized, they discuss the "essence" of that part's idea versus a precise note change. "It takes away from the pressure of trying to re-create something that probably can't be re-created exactly," Whalen says. "If you can capture that essence again, then that's what'll make the song good and get into its groove."
Even though Wooden Shjips have experienced bumps along the way, they have grown into a band with four full-lengths and heaps of shows under their belt. "We spent a lot of time the first couple of years learning how to play together and how we were going to make our songs sound," Whalen says. "At this point, we're just at a really good place where we can jump in and play with one another really well."
Wooden Shjips perform with Dahga Bloom and Cat Signs at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Sun., 8 p.m. $12. All ages.