It's not often that a cult American musician returns to Wellington to play less than 12 months after his last appearance. But then guitarist and singer Ripley Johnson doesn't fit neatly into any category.
Johnson is best known as the co-founder of San Francisco four-piece Wooden Shjips. (The "j" is silent, so the band's name sounds the same as the Crosby, Stills and Nash song.) Wooden Shjips began as "an experiment in primitive and minimalist rock", but from 2006 its sound has been more likened to the dark and trippy outings of The Velvet Underground, The Doors and Soft Machine in the 60s, electro pioneers Suicide in the 70s and British shoegazers Loop in the 90s.
Wooden Shjips performed in Wellington in April last year, but on Saturday Johnson's back in another guise as one half of Moon Duo with musician Sanae Yamada. There are some similarities to Johnson's other band – especially comparisons to Suicide. Some critics have also described the duo's sound as "stoner rock dance music". But Johnson says it is rare for him to begin writing a song without some idea whether it will be for Wooden Shjips or Moon Duo.
"Sometimes I'll have a certain idea that I want to work on or a direction where I want to go and it changes overnight because of inspiration or the people that I'm working with. That usually determines things, so working with Shjips it's three other people. They bring a lot to the table.
"But usually I focus on the project at hand and then I work on new stuff for that. I don't usually have a bunch of songs lying around unrecorded."
Moon Duo's second album, Circles, released last year, ended up on several best albums of 2012 lists including The Sydney Morning Herald. The album's creation included a stint wintering in an isolated part of the Rocky Mountains. Johnson says they weren't cut off from civilisation, but could keep to themselves to concentrate on making music.
"A lot of people go up there for skiing, so we were close to a ski area and there was a town we could drive to. People go up and ski a couple of weeks a year, but the rest of the time they are not there," he says.
"You could walk to a neighbour's house and we weren't in a cabin up a trail.
"But there was no-one around, so there was this feeling of isolation."
Johnson says one reason for going to the Rockies was practical.
"We could be really loud". In San Francisco or New York, they'd be stuck in a dark, sound-proof rehearsal space and wouldn't see any daylight.
"I was thinking 'it's going to be great. Sunshine, fresh air and loud music'. But when you get there you realise that it's so quiet that you don't want to disturb that quiet. I actually wrote most of the album on acoustic guitar, which I hadn't done in a while."
The ideas and inspiration for Circles also came from outside music. It included Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay of the same name about the different kinds of circles in nature. But Johnson stresses he and Yamada didn't produce a concept album. "Usually when I'm writing songs there will be something that's on my mind, something that I'm really into. Sanae and I are big readers and very much into film. Like right now we're watching a huge documentary on the West and some old Italian westerns. You can get into a certain mindset and it can seep into your conscience.
"At the time I was writing the album I was alone in the mountains and reading Emerson. I was in nature and not talking to anyone ... so that fed into the lyrics a little bit."
Johnson says there is some crossover between fans of Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo, but he doesn't expect fans of either band to necessarily like both or one over the other. "With Moon Duo we wanted to be more open. We're two people. We can do whatever we want. It's not four people having to agree on something.
"It's actually a continuation of what happened when I started Shjips. I had some sort of epiphany where I reached a point in my life where I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
"Before that I didn't know – and I didn't know that I didn't know."
Moon Duo play Bodega, Wellington on March 2.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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