Ripley Johnson has carved out a niche in psychedelic drone and motorik repetition, helming Wooden Shjips, the long-running experiment in lysergic primitivism, and Moon Duo, likewise mind-expanding but slanted towards electronics. But a lifelong affection for classic rock and country and a newly reawakened appreciation for the seasons led him recently to form the new Rose City Band. A mostly solo endeavor despite the name, Rose City Band’s sophomore lp, Summerlong, employs lap steel and mandolin as well as the usual rock band instruments to create a warm, buoyant, sunny Saturday morning vibe.
We spoke to Johnson about his new project, inspired by his love of rock heroes like Neil Young and Van Morrison and country stars like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and way that a summer day dream turned to song can morph into something ambiguous and melancholy if you finish it in winter. Johnson admits that he didn’t want to promote the Rose City Band album—didn’t really want to talk about it at all and didn’t originally put it out under his own name—but nonetheless talks generously and engagingly about his influences and intentions for this fascinating project. words / j kelly
Aquarium Drunkard: Rose City band uses country instruments like lap steel and mandolin instead of the instrumental ones we’re used to hearing in your other bands, Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo. Can you tell me about your connection to this kind of music? How long you’ve been interested in it and which bands?
Ripley Johnson: Yeah. I think in some ways for me, this is sort of going back to the music that I grew up with.
AD: Where did you grow up?
RIPLEY JOHNSON: I grew up in Connecticut. You’re in New Hampshire?
AD: Yep. Right next door.
Ripley Johnson: I spent a lot of time there. I grew up in the 1980s listening to a lot of classic and also the records that my parents had and that my friends’ parents had. So, it was a lot of Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Van Morrison.
When I became a teenager, I just got really into music. Just kind of got obsessed with that kind of stuff. I got into heavier stuff later, when I went off to college and got a little more angry. My bands, in my 20s and in college and then leading up into Wooden Shjips — that was in my early to mid-30s when that started — had evolved beyond some of that stuff. Everything was heavier.
Then I think I just reached the point where I listened to a lot of stuff that’s more laid back, more country. I love country music. The classic Johnny Cash. Merle Haggard. It’s like my comfort food. It’s the stuff that I listen to at home and what nourishes me in a lot of ways, now that I’m no longer young and going out to clubs a lot. I still listen to heavy music sometimes, but more and more I listen to more calming music. Especially because of the times we live in, I just keep going back to this stuff that’s more comforting and nourishing in that way. Music from my youth that have always been with me and were a huge influence on me, on how I think about music. So, the Rose City Band is just not refracting that through other bands. It’s just more straight from me. That’s kind of it.
AD: But these instruments, especially lap steel, are not easy to play. Have you always played lap steel and mandolin?
Ripley Johnson: No, and I can’t really play them. I’m a big proponent of just making sounds, just doing it. So, I just bought a lap steel and decided to play it. I know the sounds that I like that come from the lap steel. There are things that I can’t do, obviously. But I tend to like really simple lap steel stuff. And so, I just used these instruments in the ways that I can and try to make it work.
It’s like singing. I’m not actually a very good singer, but I can hit certain notes. I just work with what I have. I consider it a strength in a way because I think if I had too many skills and was too much of a virtuoso I any way, I think it’s kind of dangerous.
AD: In the earliest iteration of Wooden Shjips, weren’t you the only one who had played your instrument previously?
Ripley Johnson: That’s right. It was all non-musicians. I’m a big Stooges fan and I’m a big Velvet Underground fan, and I like that committed element. I was inspired a lot by Träd, Gräs och Stenar when their stuff got reissued in the early aughts. I heard them, and it really inspired me. I started getting into more minimalist stuff that I hadn’t heard before, like Henry Flynt or Angus MacClise, drummer for the Velvet Underground. I still really embrace that repetition and primitive element in music. And again, I’m a big Neil Young fan, so I love the fact that he would record things in one take. The band hardly knows how the chords go. But roll the tape, let’s go. It’s about energy and just a feeling, you know, more than anything.
AD: This is all you, I take it, this record? There’s nobody else on it?
Ripley Johnson: My friend John [Jeffrey] plays drums on it, he also plays drums for Moon Duo.
AD: Can you tell me about the headspace you were in when you started working on this project? What was going on in your life and the way you were thinking about music that made you want to try this?
Ripley Johnson: I’d been threatening to do a country rock record for a while. I talked about it forever. People wanted me to stop talking about it. I reached a point where I thought, I need to do this. And this isn’t actually country rock. But it is to me, in some way. It is what it is.
It was summer, and we live in Oregon now, so we’re back in the seasons. For 20 years or so, I lived in California where there aren’t really seasons. And the summers here are just so glorious and I really respond to that, having grown up in New England. I wanted to make a summer record.
I view music in a very utilitarian sort of way. There are certain records that are like medicine. I use them.
There are some records where it’s like, in New England, those early summer, late spring, you wake up the sun’s already up. It’s starting to warm up. It’s Saturday morning or whatever, and there are those records that you put on…when you’re having a barbeque or go to the beach or whatever. There’s a type of record that’s country rock-ish, upbeat. I don’t know how to describe it, but there are a lot of them.
AD: Can you name one of them that you put on in those circumstances?
Ripley Johnson: One of my favorites is the Relatively Clean Rivers record, which is DIY country rock, a little bit psychedelic. The Basement Tapes is one for me. A lot of Van Morrison records. Tupelo Honey. Moon Dance. That kind of vibe. I just love that stuff and growing up in my formative teenage years, we lived in the woods. That was where we went where we could be free and do whatever we wanted. Bring a boombox.
AD: You’re not talking about Greenwich, CT or Bridgeport or New Haven.
Ripley Johnson: No, Connecticut is weird in that way. There are pockets. I hated it, growing up. But New Hampshire is like that. You can go out in the woods.
AD: Yeah, and I think because it’s so nasty in the winter, when it does finally get warm, it’s especially sweet. Something to celebrate. I’m kind of wishing that would happen now, because it’s been a really long cold spring.
RIPLEY JOHNSON: is it cold there?
AD: It hasn’t gone above 50 all month. And usually you get a couple of days in March and April where it’s warm and you get a taste of what summer’s going to be like. And all the bugs come out…We haven’t had that. Anyway, so you wanted to make a record like that?
Ripley Johnson: Yeah. It’s such a hard thing to describe, but I think I achieved what I wanted to. And then my idea was that I would make one every summer. Sanae [Yamada] was out of town. She was working on a play in New York. And so, I said, great, I’ll make one in August and …but for some reason I didn’t finish it and then I ended up going out on tour and decided to finish it in December.
AD: That’s what I heard that you were making a summer record, but you actually did a lot of the work on it in the winter.
Ripley Johnson: Yeah. Usually I never like to connect to lyrics until the very last minute. So I made the recording with scratch tracks and added lyrics in the winter. The album has a summer/winter vibe to me. Which actually I’m kind of happy about.
AD: You think too much summer would be a bad thing?
Ripley Johnson: Having a melancholy quality mixed in, I think, is kind of nice.
AD: I like records that are hard to pin down in terms of mood. They’re happy and sad at the same time.
I understand that you originally released Rose City Band without drawing a lot of attention to yourself as the main guy behind it. Why?
Ripley Johnson: With any band or project you put a name on, as soon as you release a record, then everything you do after that is seen as in reference to that. You only have one moment to come out with something fresh.
I didn’t want to do any press, didn’t want to talk about it at all. It felt so personal to me. I just wanted to enjoy it for what it was. But I still was proud of it, so I wanted to release it. I just wanted people to react to it without it being attached to me and to things I’d done in the past. But of course, then no one knows about it. If you don’t do press and you self-release it it’s really hard to get it out there. I knew that eventually I would have to do something. I was on the record as producer.
Also, I was reading about Stanley Kubrick, it was either Kubrick or Altman, I can’t remember which one. I had this thought about movie directors. You do a movie, and then when it’s done you move on, and you can do a completely new movie in a completely different genre. You sort of start fresh. With music, you really get put in your little box as soon as you do something, and it’s really hard even from within the band itself to do something fresh and new that isn’t building upon what you did last time.
AD: Sure. Did it work? Did you feel liberated and able to do something completely new?
Ripley Johnson: With the Rose City Band thing, it was new. I enjoyed that. I trying to relish that for a while. But I thought…I started thinking about albums differently, as if they were movies, at least to myself and I thought about the last Moon Duo record we did. Which we said, let’s just forget everything we’ve done and do something different.
AD: I love that record. It was very different from the others, and I thought it was the best one so far.
Ripley Johnson: Thank you. I think that it helps. It’s a little frightening because you’re like…as a band, especially when it becomes what you do for money, it’s such a tricky thing. And you do get feedback from fans and from everything.
AD: People do want something that’s not exactly the same as the record, but if you go too far you lose them.
Ripley Johnson: You’d think so. Some people do and some people don’t.
AD: There some bands where you go, oh yeah, another record. Do I need it? I’ve got five others and it’ll be the same. Even if you like the others.
Ripley Johnson: There’s something cool about that as well. Like every Ramones record sounds the same.
AD: But there could not be enough Ramones records.
Still, I do hear some your psychedelia and drone and repetition in amidst the cosmic country. Do you see this project sort of fitting into the rest of your work or is it wholly its own thing?
Ripley Johnson: Usually when I’m working on songs and stuff, I set things aside, and that’s part of where this album comes from. When I’m just writing and not thinking about it too much, I’ll come up with something I really like that would never work for one of the bands I’m already in. This allowed me to indulge anything that I want to do. But it’s still me. And there are things that I started sneaking onto the Wooden Shjips records that maybe are not typical. Starting with the West record. There was a song called “Home” that was a little different, and then on the last two records, there are a couple of songs on those records that could be Rose City Band songs to me. It would just be done in a different way.
AD: I really like “Only Lonely” which I think this is what you’re talking about when you talk about the winter/summer idea. It’s got a downbeat title, but the music is so sunny and warm. What can you tell me about writing that song?
Ripley Johnson: I think it’s just like what you said. That’s one of those things that I would play on my guitar. I would play along with it and when deciding to develop it into a song, I had the melody and worked on the instrumentation of it, and then when I was doing the lyrics, it was December.
I’m very affected by seasons. I realized that since moving back to Oregon. The whole time I was living in California, I would say, I can’t believe I grew up in Connecticut because I hate the winter. I had this idea that I hated winter. And then we moved to Colorado briefly. We lived in the mountains really high up. But it was sunny all the time. It was either snowing or sunny. And I realized I love winter. I love the snow and I love the sun in the winter, that crispness and the cold. I don’t mind that. It’s the slush and the dirt and that greyness in New England. But the snow and the cold, I don’t mind. But the seasons affect me a lot. In the summer, I wake up early, ready to go. That’s just my natural pattern. So yeah, when the winter comes, I feel that melancholy thing and that just crept into the lyrics.
AD: “Real Long Gone,” has almost a road-house, two-step, Western Swing vibe to it. Who are some of the country guitar players who maybe fed into that kind of sound?
Ripley Johnson: I’m a big fan of the Bakersfield sound. The Buckaroos. Don Rich, who played with Buck Owens and Buck Owens himself. Also Clarence White, Jerry Reed, they’re the whizzes, but I’m not really…I’m usually not focused on that kind of stuff.
AD: Right because it’s a really technical, skilled way to play.
Ripley Johnson: It can be. I think a lot of that country picking, the electric stuff, it comes directly from the old time stuff. A lot of the instrumental Buckaroos stuff you hear are fiddle tunes that they’ve adapted. It’s interesting to trace the history of that. I love bluegrass, but I’m not a huge bluegrass person.
I like the primitive country stuff. I love the Doc Watson Family record where it’s him and his in-laws and his whole family. I think they were recorded just in their house, and everyone takes their turn singing a song. I love that primitive element, and I love those songs and the melodies. I’ve never been into the jazz progressive rock element of bluegrass and country. I admire it. It’s great. But for me it’s more of a feel.
But yeah, I’m still big into that Bakersfield stuff. When I lived in California, we used to go see Merle Haggard all the time. Merle and Buck. Buck didn’t tour that much. But we would go to Bakersfield and the Crystal Palace and hang out and have dinner and watch people line dance. It’s super fun. But there’s a lot of that in California. The country singers, like Willie, would play at the casinos. They rarely came through San Francisco, but you would always go to Reno or you could go to down in the central valley and stuff and catch them at a country fair or a casino somewhere. We used to do those road trips all the time.
I never got into the new country thing.
AD: It’s problematic.
Ripley Johnson: Even the stuff that other people like. Oh yeah, you should check out this new Kenny Chesney. No.
AD: The politics of it bothers me.
On your record, I think my favorite is “Floating Out,” which isn’t country at all. It’ s full-blown psychedelic. How about you? Do you have a favorite sound or track?
Ripley Johnson: I like the last two tracks a lot. Mostly I like the way they link together. When I was in my high school band, we used to do a lot of Velvet Underground songs. On Live ’69, they do a “Sweet Bonnie Brown” and “It’s Just Too Much” medley, and we would play that. We also did a “What Goes On” into “Beginning to See the Light,” and we had a complicated key change section. I’ve always loved stuff like that.
I also think that even though I’m happy with the record and I don’t mind that there’s a melancholy aspect to it, but the end, I think, actually, those two songs are the summer stuff to me. Like that song “Redwood Tree” that Van Morrison has. It captures this upbeat, summer feeling to me. I like the way the record ends. If everything’s upbeat, it doesn’t really work. But that’s still, for me personally, that’s the feeling I was trying to hit. I don’t know if it always translates, but to me it does on that section, I hit it.
AD: Cool. I guess that in normal times, right now you’d be trying to figure how to do this stuff with a band and take it on the road. But you’re probably not doing that? What are you doing to get the album out there, given the lock down?
Ripley Johnson: Not a lot. We were on tour in Europe, and we had to cut out tour short. We were going to finish that tour and I was going to come back here and had been talking to a couple of people here about playing in the band. I was really looking forward to that.
AD: It’s a shame, because you could imagine it being really fun live.
Ripley Johnson: Yeah and part of the idea for me, as someone who is getting older, and occasionally grumbles about having to tour, even though I love it, I had this idea that it would be great to have a bar band. That’s the other inspiriation. A band that could just go down and play at the local bar and play a couple of sets on a Friday night, real casual. I was looking forward to putting together a band of local musicians and just doing a lot of local shows and not worrying about touring so much, but now, I’m not doing that much. I’m not a big fan of the Zoom concert.
AD: I’ve been watching a lot of those, because it’s better than nothing.
Ripley Johnson: That’s exactly it. That how it feels.
AD: But a lot of music is really communication either between band members who are listening to each other and responding or between the audience and the artist. There just isn’t any of that. It’s just kind of dead.
Ripley Johnson: Right, so I’m not doing that much.
AD: How are you doing? How are you feeling given all that’s going on?
Ripley Johnson: I’m pretty good, actually. I’ve been writing a lot. Our weather has been pretty good here. There can be stretches of rain, but we’ve had a lot of sun since we’ve been back. We have a yard, so I feel really lucky. We’re going a little stir crazy.
AD: I think we all are. Have you heard any good music lately?
Ripley Johnson: I got the new Jackie Lynn. And the new Six Organs, which I like. I just heard something new called Tan Cologne. They’re from New Mexico.
AD: I’ve heard the name. I haven’t really checked it out.
Ripley Johnson: I know nothing about it. Someone sent it to me, but it sounded really cool. I feel really bad for people who are putting out records. I don’t feel bad for myself because it’s not out yet. I will feel bad for myself. The new Jackie Lynn came out and I’m such a big fan of Circuit Des Yeux and Bitchin Bajas and Cave, and you hear this record, and it’s kind of a party record, and you can imagine it being really awesome live, and what do you do? It must kill album sales. Not being able to tour.
AD: Yeah, and I think eventually we’re going to run out of records if people can’t even be together long enough to record.
Ripley Johnson: I wonder. It’s going to kill some bands. There are bands that are never going to get back together.
AD: I think about all the restaurants that have closed and a lot of them are never coming back. Are we not going to have restaurants anymore? Are we not going to have theater? Are we not going to have live music? It’s bizarre.
Ripley Johnson: I think people are going to be so excited to go out when they’re allowed to go back out. Whoever can make it through will do really well. I think some things will survive and some new things will come out, but I think on the deeper level, some of these big corporations like Live Nation are going to buy up more clubs and control more of the scene.
AD: Oh. I hope not. I was hoping they would wither on the vine, and we could get back to small stuff.
Ripley Johnson: Maybe they’ll go bankrupt.
AD: Fun to think about that.
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