Wooden Shjips started by making crazy/noisy punk-drone records that they would mail you for free—you just had to ask!—and eventually revealed themselves as the California inheritors of that neverending motorik beat. They build riffs for miles, and if they ever invent the extra-extra-extra-long-play record, Wooden Shjips will finally have the space to release their ultimate record. Drummer Omar Ahsanuddin speaks now before the Shjips play the Thrill Jockey anniversary show this weekend. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
What’s the practical lesson of Wooden Shjips? You guys didn’t do anything ‘right,’ as far as the way you’re ‘supposed’ to make a band. You gave out records for free, you started with people who purposely had never learned to play their instruments, you didn’t tour … and yet here we are, where you’re doing pretty damn good!
Omar Ahsanuddin (drums): The success part just came because we weren’t looking for it. [Singer/guitarist] Ripley made those first records by himself—recorded all the tracks on them—and he and [keyboardist] Nash were in the first iteration of Wooden Shjips with the non-musician crew. They knew me and Dusty from all their years in San Francisco. So when they brough us in as a regular rhythm section, I didn’t even wanna play gigs. ‘I hate lugging all my gear around!’ And it’s like an empty show with just you and the soundman and the bartenders … why even bother? But then things took off. However you define success, there’s only a certain amount of time that can last. But if it’s about how we wanna make good records and make a show people enjoy and want to come back to, that all feeds back into itself. We’re a band that’s done everything wrong and had some success in spite of ourselves. Other than we made good records! We don’t tour that much—maybe six weeks a year? We don’t play a lot of different stuff. Our live show is not some kinda extravaganza, but it’s different from the record. All those things worked out because of where we put our focus. We didn’t get a booking agent til later, we didn’t get a manager til later. We just focused on playing music. Other stuff fell into place. We got lucky—got to work with good people like at Thrill Jockey. And then you got a record label that gets us song of the day on NPR. Which we can’t do by ourselves. So you get lucky and it starts to take off.
What’s the best wrong thing you did? The thing that should have broken you, yet made you stronger?
In the early days, we played a couple of restaurants where people were still eating.
Nice sit-down Italian spots?
Pizza joints. Two pizza joints. One, people were still eating. You’d be setting up your gear and people were eating and looking at you like, ‘Wow … you’re gonna set up that whole drum set, huh?’ We played a restaurant in Baltimore that was a restaurant where people knew cool bands come on. That was the cool version of this. The pizza restaurant … was not that. Teenagers were dumping Jagermeisters in their cokes underneath their jackets. That style.
Was this the first and only time you were paid in pizza?
The first few shows, there wasn’t any money. Just a few dollars. Most of us were working so we weren’t really worried about losing gas money. We had some flexibility. Another thing—we were all over 35 when this sorta took off, so we had a different perspective. I dunno what’d happen if we were 18 or 21. Everyone had an understanding that we were ‘going to work,’ to a certain extent. It wasn’t rock-cation to just go nuts. Most of us, our hard-partying days are behind us. No one was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna duck out and meet the band—‘
—in a week?
Exactly. No one wanders off before the show and you’re on stage wondering where the bass player is.
Sounds like this is coming from actual experience.
A little. Ripley and I were in a band years before. It was half party, half rock. When the Shjips started getting cool gigs that paid well, we approached them from a perspective of, ‘We’re here to play these shows and make the shows cool.’ As opposed to … I don’t fault anyone for whatever they do when they’re on the road. It’s a weird life! Some people are on the road most of the year, sleeping on floors.
And then they come back and sleep on another floor.
We’re lucky we didn’t have to do that! I don’t think any of us are really up for that.
Did you ever meet other bands on your same wavelength? ‘You guys wanna go to bed early too? Oh thank God!’
Totally! They’re out there. On our first European tour, we were touring with this amazing band called the Heads from Bristol in the UK, and they were sorta similar to us in age—all a little older, and they’d partied hard in their early days. This tour was pretty straight-laced. Not too much drinking or other stuff. We took a cue from that. We got in the van with them for ten days—guys we never met, and you gotta find a way to interact. And they were really mellow guys. That informed how we were gonna do it. We hooked up with our now-manager on that tour, and he’s also a taking-care-of-business kinda guy. Not puking in the pool at 4 AM.
I’m into this concept of psychedelic maturity.
We wanted to put in our rider: ‘PLEASE DON’T ASK US TO BE THERE EARLIER THAN WE’RE SUPPOSED TO BE THERE.’ Cuz we’ll show up. Don’t put 2 when you want us at 4. We’ll be there at 2.
But I bet you’d all have good books to read while you waited.
Yeah—a lot of hurry up and wait. It’s amazing how much time you can kill reading the posters in the bathroom.
Have you abandoned even the generations-old tradition of vandalizing the venue bathrooms?
We never do hardcore vandalism. There’s been a few mistakes … but nothing trying to bust something up. I’ve broken things by accident but never on purpose. I’ve seen it done—I’ve seen the deli meats go flying! It’s like, ‘First of all, I was gonna eat that. Second, now we have to sit here with deli meat all over. It’s kinda gross. If you were gonna do that, you should have done it when we were leaving.’
I like how your problem with this is that the vandalism was performed inefficiently.
You do it once you’re wrapping up. Leaving the scene of the crime is a better time!
I feel I could trust you guys to both plan a heist and babysit some kids, and you’d be great at both.
We’re organized. And somewhat responsible.
The German band Neu!—all their songs basically have the same 4/4 beat, and supposedly that’s because they decided that was the most perfect beat a rock band could ever have so why mess with it? Does Wooden Shjips have a perfect beat, too?
You’re hitting the nail on the head for the approach we in the rhythm section use. Minimalism and repetition are things [bassist] Dusty and I explore. We’re looking to lock into a groove cuz that gives the keyboard and guitar a place to jump off from and come back. But Dusty and I stay at home. We lock into what we think is a pulse. That’s all really true for my approach to drumming. I didn’t always play drums the way I do now. I play kick, snare and two cymbals, and we have a lot of shaker going on. But before Wooden Shjips, I didn’t play a stripped-down kit. When I played with a full kit, like when I started a fill, I felt it wasn’t necessarily going anywhere—like I wasn’t doing things for a reason. It felt superfluous. I was noodling. I wasn’t that great at it, either. I had … moderate chops. I couldn’t rip it up, and there are drummers I love who can do that. So getting rid of the toms and focusing on the pulse and the kick and the snare was really great for me. It made me focus way more into the music. Made me much more present. Every single note I really feel. I feel like I’m doing everything for a reason. Getting to the core of these things is really important as a rhythm section. I agree there’s a perfect rock beat out there. We actally got to meet Michael Rother [of Neu!] briefly backstage—he’s a very personable nice guy.
I’m sure you kept all the deli meat in its proper place?
That’s right—no baguette fighting. Talking to that guy who made those legendary records … this is something we talked about for a second. Whatever you’re gonna do, get to the core of it. Stripping down the extra stuff in the rhythm section and getting down to the core of it has been awesome for the band and the grooves. When you see the live show, you’ll see. We’re more of a rock band than comes out on the recordings, and the rhythm section is a big part of how we’re approaching that.
I think part of that is figuring out why you’re really playing. Are you just trying to impress people? Because you can set up a kit on your lawn and do that. Or are you trying to be part of a band—part of the song?
When I first started playing drums, I was definitely inspired by classic rock drummers. You listen to people like Charlie Watts or Levon Helm and you see how much they could do with just feel, and when they did a fill they did it within the context and flow of the song. You know when you hear some drummer like, ‘That just didn’t fit. Why would you even do that?’ You never hear that with those guys. From early on, I appreciated that, and then I wandered down the other path. And then I wandered even farther back to the minimal approach. The pendulum swung one way for me and then swung to the opposite way of playing really stripped-down, and I’d like to move it back the other way at some point. I start looking for fills in the context of the song—it sounds really huge when you’re locked in this barebones groove. Your fill can be just crashing a cymbal, and that’s kinda perfect, I think.
What do you think Wooden Shjips will do next? What’s interesting to you now?
We’ve usually recorded pretty quickly, and to a certain degree that helps us keep it fresh, And it also becomes a record of your first ideas—a literal recording of your first ideas. It’d be cool to start exploring more rhythm, but we tend not to have time for that. If something is a little more complicated, we tend to not spend the time in the studio doing it. I don’t wanna go all percussion-style with a crazy set-up, but in the studio I’d like to start thinking of other sounds a drummer can make that aren’t straight off the kit. We had a good use of bells before, like jingle bells. And we had some success with … you know those drumsticks that are like little dowels instead of an actual stick?
Like experimenting with those—I’m really getting into details.
But maybe when the next record comes out, someone can be like, ‘Oh man! He DID use the rods!’
Maybe this could be a side article for some drum magazine. I’d love to get a good riveted cymbal. You just tap ‘em and they sizzle for like an hour. I don’t necessarily wanna break out the conga or the timbales … although that’d be kind of cool …
I could hear you change your mind as you said that.
The thing about experimenting more is you have to give yourself a little more time. And you have to take the pressure off yourself. ‘Oh, we didn’t get this take—but let’s just get this done.’ It’s hard to go back and try it again.
I’ve read and talked with Ripley, and there seems to be a real philosophical aspect to why he makes this music—that’s his driver. What drives Wooden Shjips for you? What makes you stick with this band?
Over the years, though my life has changed, I still love playing drums. I go through long periods where I don’t play, and when I sit back down I remember—I still feel good about it. When Wooden Shjips hasn’t rehearsed in a while and we start back up, there’s that moment where you knock the rust off. Then things get back in the pocket and it’s a really great feeling. Ultimately, playing music is still fun for me. I don’t necessarily love the business side of being in a band and I don’t always love playing shows, but I still like playing drums. And the band when we’re clicking is so fun. It’s the most simple thing for me but it’s still true, I think.
Can’s drummer Jaki Liebezeit used to focus all his energy on one single person at the show, and try to make their heart explode with the sheer power of percussion. Have you ever tried that?
I think we all do that. It may not be pre-meditated, but you’ll notice someone and be like, ‘What if that person started dancing?’
How can someone make sure they’re the audience member that everyone in Wooden Shjips is totally focused on?
You can’t always see too far back, so usually it’s someone in front or off to the side that you can see. Other than that … random. You’ll be focusing on a person like, ‘What if they start nodding their head?’ Sometimes it happens, and sometimes their face lights up … because they start texting.
Aw, I thought their face would light up just cuz they were happy.
No, not like that! Playing a little Tetris or whatever people play these days.
Maybe they’re so inspired by the way Wooden Shjips brings order to chaos that they’re joyously completing a statistical function.
‘This reminds me of that equation I was working on!’ When I play, I’m in this wave where I’m totally thinking about what to do next, but not exactly. I’m really present in what I’m doing, but I veer in and out. Like a reality check. ‘Am I still synced with everybody? OK, now I can zone out a bit.’ I definitely have an internal monologue. ‘Am I on the beat? Am I on the beat?’ It’s a total compliment to have human metronomic qualities, but I don’t have that. But I can tell by Dusty’s reactions. If I’m hitting it just right, he’ll start wiggling around. It’s like a green light that lets me know I’m in the right spot.
Do you have a tell that the rest of the band uses to make sure they’re doing good?
Maybe they haven’t told you because it’s embarrassing.
‘Your pants kinda drag down and everyone can see your buttcrack!’
Ripley told me before he wants to get a house out in the middle of nowhere, and just be like the hermit in the hinterlands. What noble dream can Wooden Shjips help you realize?
That’s not too far off. I’d probably be in the mountains instead of the desert. There’s the dream of being able to live your life in a way where you don’t feel like you’re making compromises. We all have to go to work, we all have to make a living. If you’re lucky enough to find a way to do that that’s something you get off on, that’s an amazing place to be. Wooden Shjips isn’t my whole living, but there’s a portion of time I can spend doing this, and I feel it doesn’t sort of suck the life out of you like your 9-to-5 job can.
It puts the life back in?
Exactly. That’s what you get from being able to be in a band.
IHEARTCOMIX AND BLUNDERTOWN PRESENT WOODEN SHJIPS WITH TRANS AM, LITURGY AND MAN FOREVER ON FRI., DEC. 14, AT THE THRILL JOCKEY 20TH ANNIVERSARY AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8 PM / $15-$18 / 18+. BLUNDERTOWN.COM. GET TICKETS HERE!