RIPLEY JOHNSON IS A BUSY MAN, RECENTLY RELEASING NEW NEW ALBUMS WITH WOODEN SHJIPS AND MOON DUO. HE TAKES THE TIME TO EXPLAIN TO CHRIS FAMILTON WHERE THE LATTER FITS INTO THE WORLD OF DRONING PSYCHEDELIC ROCK.
Establishing yourself outside a band where you have gained a loyal following can be a tough task. There are the perils of not being as good as the group or it being seen as a side-project – a folly when the office is closed for the holidays. Johnson has spent the last five years as lead guitarist with San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips before adding Moon Duo to his discography in 2009. A duo with Sanae Yamada, the pair work in similar hypnotic psych territory to Wooden Shjips but take a minimal approach based around guitar, keyboards and drum samplers resulting in repetition and dissonance. Mazes is their second full length and Johnson is keen to stress how seriously he takes Moon Duo as an ongoing musical concern. “It’s all equally important for me. I don’t see it as a side project and I hope to add more projects as I can make the time. I actually spend more time working and touring with Moon Duo at this point, though Wooden Shjips is probably better known. Moon Duo was simply a desire to make more music. Wooden Shjips is not a full time band, so I had a lot of musical ideas and energy to channel into Moon Duo. We also wanted to tour more often.”
There are a number of obvious influences that combine to form the sound of the pair’s music. Bands like Suicide, Neu and Hawkwind are embedded in the fabric of the music and though Johnson acknowledges those acts he is also quick to point out that himself and Yamada draw from a wide and varied musical world. “Those are all bands we love but there are so many others. We listen to so much different music, we’re like sponges. But there is a strong personal element to the music that we are bound by. We don’t try to sound like anyone else. I think we just may have similar sensibilities as the bands mentioned.”
The new album Mazes has a very widescreen and open sound, not something one would expect from a duo. Johnson doesn’t see the number of personal as a limitation, instead he approaches the songs with an open mind to all possibilities. “We were going for a big rock sound, despite being a duo. I’m very much into layering. The Rolling Stones’ Jimmy Miller-produced albums were a big touchstone (Sticky Fingers, Exile, etc…), though obviously we don’t sound like them. We recorded a lot of guitar tracks. The next one will likely go in a different direction.”
By allowing themselves the freedom to add those layers to the studio recordings they created a challenge of replicating the sound live. The solution was to restrict the songs to their bare essentials and build noise around them. “We don’t try to recreate the recordings though we do play the songs. It’s a more electric, living sound. We build drum patterns using a sampler, then perform with keyboard and guitar, with live looping for some parts. It’s fairly stripped down but we can make a surprising amount of noise with just two people. And of course our songs are very minimal to begin with. That’s an important part of our musical sensibility. We certainly feed off the audience’s energy as much as possible. Some crowds are more reserved so we have to look within a bit more, but that’s just a different type of interaction. We are more on the knife’s edge with Moon Duo. There is less support than with a quartet. It keeps us sharp though.”
Though Moon Duo create tightly wound, driving music they also present it in a visceral and organic way. If Wooden Shjips is the sound of getting out of your mind then Moon Duo is the sound of journeying inside it. “We recognize that things are not as they appear on the surface and the music is a reflection of that,” states Johnson.
this interview was first published in The Drum Media