Moving to Portland made Wooden Shjips drummer Omar Ahsanuddin feel like a kid again. It's made him live like one, anyway. "I have a drum set in my basement for the first time since I lived at home,â he says.
A year ago, Ahsanuddin and singer-guitarist Ripley Johnson, independent of one another, left the density and financial instability of life in San Francisco for the Rose City, a town much more agreeable for bands making cosmic psych rock with few commercial prospects. It wasn't a career decision, though: Both were looking for a place to settle down with their wives. Nevertheless, the relocation has changed many things about how the group operates. For instance, now they can practice in the comfort of their own homes.
"It's a really nice break from the way we'd rehearse before, where everyone meets at a rehearsal studio that's dungeon-y and crappy and you don't really want to hang out there," says Ahsanuddin, who has a house in the Irvington neighborhood. "A lot of that gets wiped away in Portland. It's much more focused on the music. You can rehearse for a little while, play a few songs, then go upstairs and make cookies."
That newfound domestic idyll is bleeding into the music. In its San Francisco days, Wooden Shjips made harshly minimalist albums of droning guitar and caveman rhythms, inspired by the Velvet Underground, Suicide and the darker corners of '60s garage rock. By contrast, last year's Back to Land, recorded at Portland's Jackpot Studios, feels almost pastoral. It follows the pattern of the three records that preceded it—Ahsanuddin and bassist Dusty Jermier locking into repetitive, trance-inducing grooves, allowing Johnson and organist Nash Whalen to float off into space—but the riffs are brighter, the pulse calmer. There are even acoustic guitars!
"I don't think we set out to say, 'Let's have record that's got, for lack of a better word, a mellower feel to it,' but I think it comes out because of your surroundings," Ahsanuddin says. "It all goes into where you are at the time. Being in a place like this, it can't help but filter through."
Still, while the move to Portland helped alleviate some of the pressures of balancing art with the responsibilities of everyday life, there are a few kinks left for the band to work out—like the fact that Jermier and Whalen still live in California. "We've lost that thing where you're a regular band and you practice every week," Ahsanuddin says. As such, Wooden Shjips has had to become more "goal-oriented," a significant shift for a band that, from its inception in 2006, has been committed to just letting things happen. "It makes us have to think through where we're going and what we're trying to accomplish a little more," he says, "where, when you have your weekly jam session, itâs not that way.â
Those logistics aside, Ahsanuddin still exudes new-to-Portland enthusiasm.
"I'm looking forward to being in a place that's got the creative pulse that I feel San Francisco had when I first moved there in the '90s," Ahsanuddin says. "You can feel it here, just in the way people are living their lives. People are more focused on stuff that matters to them creatively."
SEE IT: Wooden Shjips plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Plankton Wat, on Thursday, Jan. 16. 9 pm. $12. 21+.