Experiences as Inspiration; An Interview with Nash Whalen of Wooden Shjips

With the current political turmoil in the US, there’s the cliche that dark times can make for great music. And yet history has shown that there is an energy that can be channeled from that. Psychedelic rockers Wooden Shjips have definitely channeled that on their latest album V.. Sonically it captures what the music in the 60s was trying to convey to not only put people in the proper headspace, but also mobilize them to action. Even down to the album artwork. There’s the iconic “peace” sign hand, which has carried the double meaning of both peace and resistance. And it’s set against a striking mix of colors and imagery that, according to keyboardist Nash Whalen, ties everything together.

“Jaime Zuverza, who is an artist from Texas, designed it. I honestly can’t remember the entire process, whether he had heard the music beforehand or if we just told him what we had in mind, but I think it fits it perfectly. It captures the energy and themes that we were trying to convey in the music.”

The band has now released their fifth full length album, simply titled V.. It’s been five years since their last album Back to Land, as compared to the two-year gap between previous records. Some of that time gap can be attributed to distance between members that wasn’t there in the past. The band started in San Francisco and now two members live in Portland, Oregon and the other two still live in San Francisco. It requires a fair amount of planning for writing and rehearsing. However, Nash says once they were all in the same room, it didn’t feel like there was any “lost time” to make up for.

“I feel like we were all pretty energized and ready to bring in new energy and new ideas. We’re trying to make music that’s timeless anyway so we don’t worry about how long we go in between each release. But when we got together, we were all excited to play together. It really came down to trying to capture where we were in that moment. When we were all in SF we would play a few times a week and now we’re able to go back to those experiences as inspiration and try to build on it.“

Despite the band attempting to make, as the band put it, a “summer record,” V. was recorded in Portland in the midst of a pretty intense fire season. “When we were recording there was still some lingering smoke in the air and there were these sunsets with ashes falling from the sky. We just tried to channel some of that excitement and mystery of the world around us into the music. I try not to over think it. However, it’s interesting how your perspective changes over the course of a few months. When I first heard it I felt that it had a different feel than what we’ve done before, much more mellow and spacious and less intense. But it’s also really trippy; there’s a lot going on at once. And at the same time I thought we did exactly what we set out to do.”

The music that Wooden Shjips make is interesting enough on record that if the band simply recreated the music on stage it would be great. However, Nash says that as easy as that would be to do, it’s just not in their nature. “When we play live, we always bring a little more intensity to the songs. A great example from the new record is the song ‘Ride On,’ which is pretty mellow, much more subdued. When we play it live we bring a lot more energy to the song and it just explodes. We like to have the song represent the energy we feel at the moment. Our live performances are different from show to show, because we’re doing a lot of improvising. We keep the songs in the same general feeling but every night there’s different energy and different stuff comes out. It’s always a different experience each time.”

In the decade (and change) that Wooden Shjips have been together, they’ve definitely raised the bar for modern psychadelic rock. Some of it can be certainly be attributed to guitarist/vocalist Ripley Johnson bringing innovative ideas to the table. But what the rest of the band is able bring in and build on it is what makes it click. As Nash puts it, the goal is for it to be an enjoyable process for everyone involved, band and audience alike. “The songs Ripley comes up with are fun to play. It’s pretty easy for all of us to get into our roles in the band and build on what we’ve done previously. For me, one of the things we’ve always tried to do is make this music that resonates with people. And the songs are easy for us to get into that mode and bring whatever elements are needed and become these grooves that people will want to either dance to or just zone out to.”

Photo: Sofia Ahhsanuddin

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