Wooden Shjips guitarist and singer Ripley Johnson assembled Moon Duo (with keyboardist Sanae Yanada and samples pried from a bunch of primitive drum machines) to channel even more powerful drones and tones from the forbidden zone of rock ‘n’ roll. Moon Duo will play the Echo on Tuesday. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
Is the ‘J’ in ‘Wooden Shjips’ from a typo on the back of a Crosby, Stills and Nash live record? Or is it because people should always have a ‘J’ in the middle of listening to those records?
Ripley Johnson (guitar): Absolutely not! Those are both really funny. A ‘J’ in the middle? No one ever said that before!
What is your favorite place to visit in Morocco?
My favorite place to visit there is Fez. Fez is a medieval walled city—about a million people inside the walls. Completely nuts. There is a modern part outside it, but the old part is massive. And you literally can’t drive a car into it. So everything goes in on donkey carts or people’s backs. I highly recommend it. I’ve only been once and I stayed in a—like a guest house. These old houses they restore. They’re fantastic. It’s such a closed society. You never see people’s houses. It’s just a door, and walls everywhere. But if you get beyond the door—if you can—there’s fantastic courtyards in these houses, and they’re quite beautiful.
What’s the most isolated you ever felt on planet Earth? Out in the Moroccan desert?
The most isolated I ever felt was in Joshua Tree walking around there. Until a plane flies over. You can feel like you’re the last person on earth and you see a place in the sky and brings you back.
What effect does that environment have on you?
It gives you a sense of how small you really are. I’m into that whole existential experience. I’m not a thrill-seeker. Some people jump out of airplanes to feel alive. Being in places like that makes me feel alive and causes me to think about the big picture.
Wayne McGuire wrote that the drone in the Velvet Underground’s music is an expression of a kind of existential ‘death drive.’ Is there a connection between that music and the experience of isolation?
What I find interesting about the Velvet Underground—lemme go off on a tangent! In New York, the Velvet Underground are considered this art-rock band. And I could see how you might think the songs are this kind of ritualistic thing. But if you read some of their interviews, they talk about being outside of New York and playing sock-hops. In the late ‘60s going to high school gyms and people are dancing. Even in ’67 and ’68, maybe people aren’t as hip in these smaller towns—they just wanted to dance. And they would play ‘Sister Ray’ and people would dance. That to me is the key to the repetition and drone. You hear it in dance music, you hear it in early rock ‘n’ roll—then I think rock ‘n’ roll lost some of that in the ‘70s. It got a little wanky. But to me, the Velvet Underground were a great dance band. And they’ve said that in interviews. I think that’s missed a lot. That’s how I respond to that stuff.
Kim Fowley said, ‘They shut off the heat of the beat.’ Same concept?
I did meet Kim Fowley once. He’s a funny guy. Is he writing a book? He really should be. Anyway—I don’t know why that happened. Some people blame cocaine. People got all self-centered and self-focused and you do a bunch of coke and think you can do anything, and people got really into the virtuosic kind of thing. But not everyone—there’s always stuff going on beneath the surface.
If the ‘60s were acid and pot and ‘70s and ‘80s were coke, what chemical substance controls American society today?
Meth? I don’t know? Caffeine? Sugar? People are addicted to food these days, it seems. I don’t know what the kids are doing. It’s hard to say.
You said that you thought Johnny Thunders was the best thing that ever came out of New York—what’s the best thing that ever came out of L.A.?
I really like Wallace Berman. He did an art magazine and was tied into the avant-garde scene—I’m no expert; I just have a book by him that’s amazing—and he was one of these guys in the underground art scene in L.A. in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He was a polymath. He did everything. He did photography, he did any kind of thing he could get his hands on and knew every artist. He was one of these inspiring figures. When I think of L.A., I think of him and of these people that are sort of working in the underground there. When I think of L.A., I think of the underbelly. There always seems to be like really interesting things you can discover about L.A. that don’t get exposed very often. I’ve just started getting into L.A. noir fiction. Ross McDonald, Raymond Chandler—I’ve started reading him obsessively.
Who’s the most Chandlerian character you’ve met recently?
I don’t run in interesting enough circles! I don’t know any tough guys or tough chicks.
What is the most awe-inspiring African rock reissue you own?
My favorite is the Chrissy Zeppy Tembo—My Ancestors. I think he may have been the drummer in Witch. These are things—you buy the reissue and don’t get around to reading the insert cuz you just get obsessive about listening to it. All of that stuff, it’s just so good. I love a lot of the afrobeat and afrofunk stuff—the Nigerian stuff, and even highlife stuff—but this zamrock stuff isn’t funky. It’s just rock bands from Africa. Really amazing songwriting and guitar playing.
What kind of beneficial health effects are there to playing repetitive rock ‘n’ roll music?
I’d hope there’s some stress relief.
Like a hot tub for the mind?
Something to take your mind off your troubles. I listen to a lot of music when I’m driving and it allows me to zone out for a while. There are benefits to not thinking about things—that’s the goal. Maybe not while you’re driving! But I tend to have crazy ideas when I’m driving, and get inspired by that. Sometimes things will pop into my head. I’m constantly taking notes or sometimes I dictate to someone else in the car.
Which of those crazy ideas is most exciting for you now?
We’re talking about doing a tour 12” in October and we’re gonna do this Halloween thing—this came up while I was driving! But we’ll do a variety of custom t-shirts for the tour, and we’ll each have a custom t-shirt we can wear on tour. I’m really into tour gear right now. Like I make handmade t-shirts and take them on tour and wear them every day. It’s a consistency thing. Every day I’m wearing a similar thing. Right now I’m into shapes. White t-shirts with geometric patterns. Triangles and circles.
Doesn’t that come out in the wash? Or is that not an issue on tour?
We do the wash every once in a while, but you just got to get it on thick! Just do layers! I’ve been talking about this record a lot in interviews and now we have to do it—it’ll probably be more instrumental, but maybe we’ll do a cover. ‘The Monster Mash’ or something. We wanna do something spookier. I think of it as a soundtrack to a Halloween party, or if you had kids trick-or-treating in your neighborhood, you could crank it on your porch.
A soundtrack to a guy pretending he’s a stuffed dummy but then he jumps up and freaks out a bunch of six-year-olds?
Exactly! There was a house that everyone was afraid of in my neighborhood growing up. This really dark gothic stone house overgrown with ivy.
How many people in American suburbs have been denied the gothic creepiness of childhood?
The suburbs are scary in their own way! The Stepford Wives kind of thing. I find that sort of conformity incredibly creepy. I think it’s gotten worse, actually. Some of the older suburbs are somewhat interesting. You can find certain neighborhoods—weird subdivisions that were the precursors to the suburbs. Like in Oakland, one were like Disney made it and the lampposts are all the sames—like ‘50s-style art deco. But today things have gotten cheaper and worse. I don’t these McMansions are gonna last very song. They don’t seem made very well. But I like the idea of some of these modular homes—these prefabs. Some designers are making really interesting prefab homes that you can pretty much plop down anywhere. They’re designed smart and low-impact. I have a small dream to buy some land in the desert and plop one of these boxes down.
Fort Ripley? What do you think you’d look like when you came back to town once every three months for supplies?
Probably exactly the same! I already look like that. We’ve talked about going to Detroit and doing that. It’s not a blank canvas, but it’s a place where the American city can be re-imagined. Like suburb-type communities with mass transit. In suburbs and exurbs, everything looks the same. If they let people go crazy and be individual, I think you could have really cool neighborhoods. Like gated communities—my parents live in this retirement community in Florida and there are rules. Your bushes have to be trimmed a certain way. To fulfill this idea of how a neighborhood should be. That’s scary to me.
What do the security guards at this gated community think of you?
If your family lives there, it’s fun to be the freak who comes to visit cuz it throws things off a little bit. I haven’t started golfing yet, but I kind of want to.
L.A. RECORD PRESENTS MOON DUO WITH CRYSTAL ANTLERS AND XU XU FANG ON TUE., APR. 12, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $10-$12 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. MOON DUO’S MAZES IS OUT NOW ON SACRED BONES. VISIT MOON DUO AT MOONDUO.ORG.