A shaggy-haired punk kid in a tough denim jacket slowly drags the lip of an empty Coca-Cola bottle against a chain link fence in the video for Wooden Shjip’s “Black Smoke Rise.” He posts up like a hooligan underneath dreary power lines and chugs another. He chucks the fucker against the pavement near a desolate baseball diamond and stares blankly at the sun, like he’s testing the guts of the big, flaming bastard. He’s one more soda away from lassoing the fiery star and setting earth ablaze.
San Francisco’s Wooden Shjips have been making hard-punching and foreboding Krautrock-drenched psychedelic-rock music since 2006. The quartet hasn’t deviated much from the original template of 2007’s eponymous Holy Mountain LP—Motorik drum and bass grooves carrying glistening, stabbing and often improvised guitar and organ meltdowns—but their latest, West (Thrill Jockey; 2011), sounds mightier and more irate: The perfect soundtrack for gulping whiskey while playing wicked games with switchblade knives and motorcycle chains.
When Shjips thunder into cities like deranged acid-stoned vikings, people get scared. Like when Brando’s Black Rebels Motorcycle Club cruised into that unsuspecting town in The Wild One, it’s probably best to lock your doors and hide your daughters. Actually, Shjips’ recent European tour was absolutely nothing like that.
“We had relatively short drives so we’d stay in the hotel until we had to check out,” says organist Nash Whalen. “Then we’d check into the next hotel as soon as we could. We just wanted to get back and lie down in bed. After the show maybe we’d have a beer, but we didn’t want to keep the party going on too long. We went to bed as soon as we could.”
It turns out looks, or in this case, sounds, can be deceiving. While Shjips produce gritty, shotgun-pumping rock ’n’ roll, they’re actually just four really friendly, polite guys—two of ’em are approaching 40, and 40 has come and gone for the rest.
“We would’ve gotten in a lot of trouble if we were 20 years younger,” Whalen admits, laughing. “The bottom line’s that moving gear around and spending all this time in clubs wears us out really quickly. We’re ready to go to the hotel as soon as possible.”
Shjips may not be wild ’n’ crazy on the road—don’t expect a Mötley Cruë-era cocaine-and-hooker fueled tour vid anytime soon—but the tunes pack enough danger to make Nikki Sixx seem like a choir boy. “We don’t make light-sounding music,” says Whalen. “There’s something about the four of us playing that pushes out onto the edge of darkness—it always has to be heavy and rocking.”
“It’s timeless—something humans have heard for thousands of years,” Whalen says about Shjips’ steadily hellbent drum and bass scaffolding. “It gets into your head and body, creating a foundation for the listener to feel the groove, opening them up for whatever else is coming. We don’t even know where we’re gonna go each night.”
Wooden Shjips perform Fri., Nov. 11, 8pm. $10. With Birds Of Avalon + Moon Women. Kung Fu Necktie, 1250 N. Front St. 215.291.4919. kungfunecktie.com
PW's Music Issue 2014