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Paring down rock

Wooden Shjips float along the rivers of minimalist psych-rock
Wooden Shjips started as an exercise for non-musicians before becoming a professional psych rock outfit.
Image by Anna Ignatenko
Wooden Shjips started as an exercise for non-musicians before becoming a professional psych rock outfit.

Omar Ahsanuddin doesn’t like playing fills. His drumming with Wooden Shjips is linear and without commotion — it’s at odds with flashy rock drummers who incorporate theatrical aplomb while helming the kit.

Ahsanuddin appreciates other drummers who play fills without sparkle.

“Drummers who did fills but did them in the context of the song, I always enjoy [them],” he said. “There [are] a lot of classic rock drummers like Charlie Watts and Levon Helm who drum as part of creating an overall song, as opposed to [saying], ‘Check out my rippin’ licks!’”

Formed in 2003, Wooden Shjips is short on ripping licks but long on backbeat. The band began in San Francisco as vocalist Ripley Johnson’s vehicle for experimentation with other non-musicians. Johnson wanted his bandmates to capture a primal feeling he yearned for in indie rock.

The group’s current incarnation assembled in 2006. That’s when Ahsanuddin, bassist Dusty Jermier and organist Nash Whalen jumped aboard, morphing Wooden Shjips’ sound from aural chaos to minimalist psych-rock. Their songs follow the same sonic blueprint and add shrieking, fuzzy guitar to stripped-down melodies reminiscent of Suicide and the Velvet Underground, but with more polish.

“I’m bad with my genres and my classifications of music,” Ahsanuddin said. “I tend to go a little wider, like rock, country, jazz, blues. I think of us as a rock band. The rhythm section certainly has the conscious approach to play minimal, locked-in grooves and to be the foundation for the guitar and the keyboards to jump off into. I don’t think genres figure into anything we’re doing.”

Following a simple plan makes Wooden Shjips’ songs run the risk of all sounding the same. In a way, they do. But a closer listen reveals that this strategy is intentional and not due to sloppiness or laziness on their part.

Wooden Shjips adopted a more economic sound amid record label changes. The band left boutique label Holy Mountain after two albums and released their last two albums on Thrill Jockey. These two albums — “West” and “Back to Land” — necessitated longer run times and shorter songs. Because of that, they feel more whole than their preceding albums.

“The first two records we recorded ourselves in our own studio with our own tape machine,” Ahsanuddin said. “The second two records were done in proper studio settings with an engineer and a mixer. You certainly hear the difference in the production.”

The band’s sound also changed when Ahsanuddin and Johnson relocated to Portland, Ore., in 2012. “Back to Land” is softer and less abrasive than other Wooden Shjips albums. A small dose of coffeehouse rock does the band good, rather than move them into Starbucks playlist territory.

Despite this move, Wooden Shjips remains a San Francisco act.

“If you had to pick a place where the band is spiritually based from, it’s San Francisco,” Ahsanuddin said.

But Ahsanuddin moved to Portland for the intimate, creative feel he believes is disappearing in San Francisco.

“The character of the city is changing [with] this third or fourth dot-com boom,” he said. “I bet they don’t even call it that anymore; I’m dating myself with that. It’s great for some people, but it seems like it’s on its way to being another Manhattan.”


Wooden Shjips
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: 7th Street Entry, 701 N. First Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: $12–14
Age: 18+


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