Erik "Ripley" Johnson first came to prominence in the rock underground with his San Francisco-based band, the Wooden Shjips. That project's hypnotically dark, droning psychedelia became a favorite of fans and critics alike. In 2009, Johnson teamed up with Sanae Yamada to form Moon Duo (due at The Hi-Dive on April 16). Rather than the gritty, Chrome and Spacemen 3-esque sound of Wooden Shjips, Moon Duo often seems to explore a poppier, more meditative side. Its recently released Mazes finds the duo creating what might be described as space rock for people as into the primitive sonic mayhem of the Seeds and the boiling harmonics of Silver Apples as Spiritualized's twisting, warping melodies.
The key to Moon Duo's music is how Johnson and Yamada work within the limitations of their numbers and the equipment on hand, making the minimal seem maximal. Johnson and Yamada recently moved to Colorado from San Francisco, and we had a chance to talk with Johnson about that move, his songwriting and the equipment used to do it, as well as some misconceptions of the roots of the band's music.
Westword: What prompted your move to Colorado -- and what part of the state did you move to?
Ripley Johnson: We moved to Blue River, which is up near Breckenridge. We moved because we spend most of the year on the road, and we needed to get out of the city because it was just too expensive in San Francisco. And we were just looking for a change of pace as well.
Sanae had spent time in Colorado and she knew the area, and I'd been there a few times. We just really like it up there, and we wanted to live somewhere rural. We had a bunch of different things we thought of doing, and they were all kind of extreme. One of them was, we thought about moving to Detroit, or somewhere like that, and buying a house for a thousand dollars. But we ended up going the rural route, and we really liked the idea of being up in the mountains. We travel so much that when we're home, it's nice to be somewhere where it's mellow.
Whenever anyone writes about your band, they bring up the Velvet Underground, Suicide and The Silver Apples, as they should. But your sound is also reminiscent of '60s psychedelic garage rock like Electric Prunes, 13th Floor Elevators and the Music Machine. Was any of that music inspirational to you and if so, how so?
Some of it, certainly. We have so many influences it's hard to narrow it down, but definitely the Seeds. Link Wray, 13th Floor Elevators...I think that's it as far as garage-y stuff. I'm a big Seeds fan, I think all their albums are brilliant. There's certainly some element of that influence. The really repetitive songs. They had some great songs that were just two chords and lots of organ.
Do you sample drums and beats for your live shows? What do you use to capture those beats and then trigger them at the right time?
We use a Roland sampler. SP-404SX, I think. We recorded live drums directly into that device. Then we used that to build the beats for the recordings. Then we take the beats out of the recordings and put them back into the sampler for the live shows. We have mostly programmed drums. Part of the idea of the band was to be as compact as possible. We're just two people and we drive around in our own car. We don't need a van. Things like that to make things economical.
Do you still use a Memory Man in your effects rig, and why that particular delay rather than others?
I actually started out with an Echoplex. That's what I really fell in love with -- that sound. Mine was a mid-'70s unit, and it was really fragile, and it would break and be really unreliable. It's also really big and heavy to carry around. I also tried a Real Echo -- Danelectro made it, I think -- it looked like a tape echo and even had a slider. It didn't sound great for guitar, and I tried the Memory Man next and was going for that analog sound. The new ones I'm not as big a fan of because they changed the knobs. The old ones had these giant knobs that you can play with your feet a little bit. I like it for that reason, because I can adjust with my foot and still play guitar -- which I do a lot of.
Your new album is called Mazes, and you recorded it in Berlin. Why record there, and what is the significance of the title?
We actually recorded most of the record in San Francisco, and we mixed it, and we just weren't happy with all the elements of it. Our tour manager lives in Berlin, so we spent some time there. And we knew these Finnish guys who had a studio there, and we talked to them about it and they said, "Come on over, we'll be happy to work with you on it." They had access to this old Nieve board. It's an amazing board, and I'm not a huge recording geek, but it's just a beautiful old board. We got to do some work on that, and it was at this amazing studio in Berlin that doesn't actually rent out studio time except to these guys, because they befriended the guy that owns the studio. We revamped some things. It was more like sonic upgrades and re-doing the mixings. We recorded one of the songs there in its entirety.
As far as Berlin itself, our tour manager runs a club there as well. He's in the music scene, and he knows everyone in town, so when we're there, it's just amazing. We get to go around to whatever shows we want to go to -- he gets on guest lists for everything. There's a really cool scene there. There's not as much for rock music going on, but as far as art and club stuff, it's pretty amazing. People from all over the world live there. It's really cheap, and for Europeans, it's easy for them to work, because they can cross borders and get jobs without having to have work visas.
What's that club your tour manager runs?
It's called West Germany. It's actually not a legal club. It's an underground art space, I guess. For bands like us -- we're playing there in April -- who are not packing huge professional clubs in Europe. Bands like Ariel Pink. A lot of American touring bands end up playing there, even though it's not an official space. But because it's Berlin, there's lots of venues like that, that are semi-legal or totally underground. Really cool spaces.
It sounds like you've looped the rhythm guitar part and played lead over the top on songs like "Goner." Is this something you've done since you started Moon Duo because you don't have another guitarist, as I assume you do in Wooden Shjips, or is it something you've always done?
It's not looped on the recording, but it may sound looped [laughs]. That's why we can play live -- our sound is kind of like that anyway, so it makes it a little easier for us to do that.
So on the recording it's just like a track, but live, you use a looper?
Yeah, it's a Boss RC-20.
What got you interested in mixing what some consider the more organic sounds of the guitar with electronic sounds?
I think it comes, to some degree, from having really cheap equipment [laughs]. Part of it's that, part of it's just probably just soaked up from listening to a lot of Suicide or a lot of Silver Apples or things like that. Some of the Kraut stuff. Bands like Chrome. With the electronic stuff, we don't have a lot of really fancy gear. I'm into all the Kraut stuff like Kraftwerk and Cosmic Joker, where there's a lot of crazy synth stuff. We don't have a Moog or any kind of heavy synth, so from that perspective, we use what we can.
Sanae has a pretty nice keyboard now, but a lot of stuff was recorded on a keyboard I bought a year or two ago for twenty dollars. Some of it was recorded with an old Wurlitzer, home, grandma organ with polka beats and stuff. We had one of those in San Francisco, and we did a lot of stuff with that -- though not all the keys worked, so we had to play in certain keys. It's more about using what's available and making do with what you have than anything else.
Your music seems to be as much about texture and creating long arcs of rhythm as about melody. Did you start out making more conventionally structured music -- and what were some turning points, maybe, in developing the sound you have now?
The first couple of bands I was in, I wouldn't say they were more conventional -- I might even say less conventional. I played in a band that was more rock with guitars and drums, without the organ stuff and it was super loud, and we were into the Stooges, Fushitsusha, High Rise and all that Japanese ZSF [Produkt] stuff from the '90s, and Blue Cheer. It was very rock, but also atonal and abrasive. Another band I was in was kind of the opposite, and organ-based. It had drumming and it was very primitive. I guess what we're doing now is a more refined version of that. In that sense, it hasn't changed too much. One of those band was called Botchulism, and the other was called Communicator.
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Westword: What kind of effect do you strive for your music to have on other people, and what effect does it have on you as you're playing it?
Ripley: I hope to get lost in it. That's what I like in music in general, is to be able to get lost in the music. We don't have any ulterior motives. We want people to enjoy the music, but we also want people to take it on their own terms, accept it on their own terms. That having been said, different situations call for different things. Sunday night, if it feels kind of mellow, you hope people get into it, and maybe you can have a sort of trance-like effect on people. Other times, we're playing rock shows, and you just want people to rock out -- or people are ready to rock, and we want to try to fit into that. I don't know, that is a tough question. In general, we're not trying to lead people too much.