WHEN ERIK "Ripley" Johnson—guitarist for the ambling psych-rock band Wooden Shjips—answers the phone, he is sitting in his car outside a bank, avoiding his home, where a recent basement flood has spurred a flurry of activity. "It's total chaos there. All this stuff is happening," he says. "This is a much better place to talk."
For a while now, Portland has been home for both Johnson and Wooden Shjips drummer Omar Ahsanuddin. Johnson and his wife, Sanae Yamada, settled here in August 2012 after a couple years on the road and staying with family in between tours. But Wooden Shjips' sound—a fuzzy fusion of krautrock, stoney drones, and cosmic psych jams—screams (or rather, mumbles) San Francisco, which makes sense: The band formed there in the mid-2000s. Johnson and Yamada left, however, after they decided to make music a full-time job. (They play together in another band called Moon Duo.)
"It just wasn't feasible to live [in San Francisco] anymore," Johnson says. "After a [while], we reached a point where we felt comfortable getting our own place... so we started looking at different cities."
The couple wanted to stay on the West Coast, but returning to San Francisco was too expensive. With family not too far away in Seattle, Portland's relative affordability made sense. And over the past year and a half, they've fallen for the city's artistic vibe, independent spirit, and easy access to the outdoors. Even the long, gray winter is appealing, Johnson says. "I like the seasons. I like having a winter. I like being able to mark time with nature."
Wooden Shjips' fourth album, Back to Land, was recorded at Portland's Jackpot! Recording Studio and released in November by Thrill Jockey Records. The songs were written last spring as Johnson was exploring his new environs—hiking and "looking for particular ducks" with bassist and birdwatcher Dusty Jermier—and settling into a new house while reacquainting himself with his record collection, which had been in storage for years.
"I was listening to all this old classic-rock stuff that I hadn't listened to in a long time because I just didn't have access to it," Johnson says. "You start going through your old records and pulling out random things that... are great to have on vinyl. I think that all fed into my mindset at the time."
As such, Back to Land is the Shjips' most concise and overtly charming album yet, an eight-song collection that trades in a touch of the band's hazy-jam past for tighter arrangements, more melodic organ parts, and a sharper focus on Johnson's vocals. (Not that the relative clarity illuminates his meaning much; Johnson's lyrics are as slurred as ever.)
"I was thinking more about songs for this record, and I have been since the last Moon Duo record," he says. "For me, I usually just write and edit as I go, and then cobble something together. When the album is done, then I can sit down and think, 'What does this actually mean?'
"[But] this one, it was pretty obvious to me from the beginning, was about moving into a new home for the first time in a few years," Johnson continues. "Returning to Earth, being grounded, and letting those old influences seep into the record. Feeling comfortable and happy, I guess."