"We dig repetition in the music/ And we're never going to lose it/ All you daughters and sons/ Who are sick of fancy music .../ This is the three Rs:/ Repetition, Repetition, Repetition" — The Fall, "Repetition"
There is this idea that in order to create truly psychedelic art, you aren't going to just go wild with a bunch of colors or sounds, willy nilly. In order to assist in an altered state, you have to concentrate heavily on the simplest task, and stay focused on that first and foremost. This is why most "jam music" is atrocious. It loses focus so quickly that the van never even leaves the garage. Whether you're Tony Conrad cutting repeated strips of black-and-white film together to create a strobe that induces visions in the viewer, or you're Bruce Conner making intricate marks over and over again with the smallest marker available, it is real, concentrated, and powerful work that's needed upfront.
West Coaster Ripley Johnson has shown himself to be a true psychedelic ranger, first with his beyond-heavy stoned mushroom band Wooden Shjips, and more recently in the perfectly stripped-down new wave biker band Moon Duo. Moon Duo is Johnson with his wife, Sanae Yamada. They started the band in 2009, three years after Johnson had gotten Wooden Shjips going. Johnson met Yamada at a wedding in Massachusetts. He grew up in Connecticut. Yamada grew up in Ann Arbor.
"When you're kind of a music geek and you meet a cute girl and she says, 'Oh my favorite singer is Lou Reed,' it's just like the best thing ever," Johnson says. Not long after, she moved to San Francisco, and they started to date. Johnson continued at the Internet company he'd been with since 1995, while Yamada worked first at Green Apple Books and then became a teacher, as she already had a master's in creative writing.
"Wooden Shjips were getting offers to do all kinds of stuff, but everyone had jobs and real lives and just could not tour," Johnson says. "We were getting these great offers to come to Europe or Australia. We could do some of it, but we were turning a lot of things down. Having played music for so long in bands that no one gave a shit about, it seemed a shame to not take advantage of some of these things. I figured if I just start another band with Sanae, with the two of us, it seemed easier to do more." In 2008, Ripley was rendered redundant. "The best thing that ever happened to me was that I got laid off, because then I got unemployment benefits. And so I said, 'Let's just take this band on the road.' It's a very direct back and forth, different than in a band full of guys, where there are all kinds of complications with egos. There's a freedom to it, in a way, that it isn't there with [Wooden Shjips].
The brand-new Moon Duo record, Shadow of the Sun (Sacred Bones), is fun and strange and has a more pronounced pop edge. There are more keyboard and synthesizer textures on here, rather than just one dominant organ sound. There are still heavy stoner jams, boogie drone safaris, and little krautrock K-holes. But the band might as well be wearing Devo glasses this time (which is never a bad thing, really). It's also their first record without too many programmed beats, as their new drummer John Jeffrey, who they met via a friend of a friend in Berlin, has been part of the group for the last year and a half. His mankind-motorik presence is even more reason to catch the band live. They really are one of the most powerfully hypnotic live bands in the world, as great as Oneida, Earth, or Blues Control. Moon Duo plays PJ's Lager House at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 4; 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668; $10.
Metro Times: I'm hearing more concentrated repetition and a stronger poppiness here.
Ripley Johnson: That was part of it, that I could do songs or indulge my obsessions a little more, in a different way, here. Part of that is the repetition, yes. The pop thing, I don't know. I'm not a big pop fan in general, but maybe by stripping things down a little more, it lays bare certain aspects of the songs.
MT: "Zero" on the new record, that song sounds like slowed down B-52's.
Johnson: [Laughs.] That's funny. Yeah, over time I think I've gotten more into writing songs, whereas initially I was more into sound and noise and texture a little bit more. Also, you can't do the same thing over and over again. You have to find new challenges for yourself and be inspired by different things. So for this album we started playing around more with synthesizers and getting more into — I don't want to say we were getting into new wave — but, just exploring different types of textures. That's probably where that B-52's thing is coming from, though I don't actually have any B-52's records.
MT: This song "Animal" reminds me of the aggressive, keyboard-driven punk of the Screamers.
Johnson: That's funny you should say that because I was just on eBay looking to buy more Screamers. I've been trying to find more things like the Screamers; I just bought this Factrix ecord and I bought a Cabaret Voltaire record. But other than Chrome I've never really delved into anything that's remotely like that.
MT: There was a band that Phranc was in early on, kind of like a feminist synth punk band that was pretty good.
Johnson: They came up. If you go online it's the same five bands that come up for bands that were actually using organs or synthesizers and doing punk rock who actually made albums.
MT: There's also organ-driven garage, which I'm sure you know, stuff like Monks. Some Moon Duo stuff for a bit will sound like the Monks, but obviously, the Monks didn't have six-minute songs. They pushed the edge, but were within their genre.
Johnson: Yeah. I went through a huge garage rock phase, not modern garage rock, but the Pebbles compilations and that kind of stuff. When I was in college, there was a record store in Santa Cruz where you could return records after 24 hours. So I'd buy these comps and record the songs, the good songs, and then return them. I got into that, and I really got into the Seeds. And I'd just want the song to keep going. A two-chord song, why does it have to be two and a half minutes? Why can't it be longer?
MT: You wanna take that and put it into the La Monte Young kind of time zone?
Johnson: As a music person, a record person, there's a time where I figured out exactly what it was that I respond to in music, and I can identify that and what makes my ears prick up. For me, what seemed an unusual mix of the Angus MacLise, La Monte Young, Terry Riley sort of stuff, and then that garage rock stuff. The mix between the two is basically a live "Sister Ray" thing, just pounding out the same groove over and over for 20 minutes, with lots of guitar feedback.
When I proposed the band to Sanae, the working concept was "Suicide with guitar." You be Martin Rev; I'll be Alan Vega but with guitar. And that tends to be how I think about things. When I hear something, I think, "Well this would be great if it just had feedback guitar in it."
MT: You've gone from a full band to a duo. When will you just go ahead and become a solo act?
Johnson: A lot of solo stuff you hear, it goes in a million directions. Like, here's a reggae song, and here's a disco song, and this is the old-time rock 'n' roll song — you end up with one album that just sounds like a wreck. But if you're in a band, you're supposed to create a structure. That was the other thing about Moon Duo that I liked, the idea of creating limitations. With two people, there's only so much you can do, especially live.
MT: You've now leapt beyond one-word titles — you chose four of them together this time. What's that about?
Johnson: I still like one-word titles, they don't reveal too much. But this one, it just sort of came to me. We went through this weird period this last year where I think we traveled too much. When you do that, you can suffer from this dislocation psychosis. You don't know where you stand anymore; the ground under your feet feels unsteady. It's like an existential problem. We both went through it in the past year when we were making the record. Shadow of the Sun came from this. Also, I was reading a lot of dystopian things.
MT: Like what?
Johnson: I have a thing for books that are so surreal that you can't tell what's going on. I struggle with them and tend not to finish them — books like Anna Kavan's Ice. Kobo Abe's The Ruined Map, and John Hawkes's The Beetle Leg. Also, Shadow of the Sun came from this idea of California noir, the menace that lurks even in broad daylight, like the opening scene in Blue Velvet. We had just moved to Portland, Ore. There's this creepiness about suburban life, a sense that things are fucked up even though they look normal. I like the idea of Shadow of the Sun because obviously you can't be in the shadow of the sun, it's impossible. But there can be a kind of darkness when you're standing in the bright sunlight of the sun.