Following a Trailblazer
Rose City Band's Ripley Johnson let's us in on his Earth Trip
By Brent Rademaker
Rose City Band’s third release, Earth Trip, is an ode to the fundamental need for human connection and undeniable interdependence with the natural world. In his signature country cosmic jam style, frontman Ripley Johnson took all the love, pain, fear and joy of the last year and poured it into a cathartic reckoning.
In this exclusive Heads Lifestyle interview, fellow musician and head of Curation Records, Brent Rademaker delved into Earth Trip, song by song, asking just the right questions to unearth Johnson’s inspiration, many influences, and how the album came together as a collaborative effort during the pandemic. Enjoy the trip.
Brent Rademaker: Rose City Band gets referenced often as part of the new Grateful Dead/Jam Band scene. I love the minimalism and the simple approach, and people don't realize just how difficult it really is to make this kind of music, but after three records you've clearly created something unique, your own signature. Is there an era that most influenced you?
Ripley Johnson: I guess the era would be my own formative musical years in high school, when I discovered mind-altering substances and a lot of classic rock. The Dead would be one part of that—especially the bootleg tapes. I also had access to a lot of Neil Young bootlegs, and there were the albums too. So at the same time that I was experimenting with psychedelics and such, I was fully absorbing that kind of music. My first trips, I remember vividly being out in the woods with a boombox, dancing around to The Basement Tapes and Johnny Cash’s Original Golden Hits, Volumes 1 & 2 (dubbed from my Dad’s LPs). In a way, that’s at the root of all of my music, it’s just become more direct lately.
In The Rain
BR: Aside from the name Rose City Band, how much do you identify with Portland as a city? I have always equated your vocals and the way they are recorded as a reflection of the rain and fog—but not in a gloomy way.
RJ: We’ve been in Portland for almost 10 years now. I don’t know that I really identify with the city, but the environment and landscape always have a big effect on me. It does wherever I’m living. I’m very attuned to sunlight or lack thereof. The Pacific Northwest definitely has a strong vibe. With the band name, I just liked how obvious and banal it was—specific and vague at the same time. And the name Oregon was already taken. That's a pretty good one. But yeah, music press especially like to talk about where you’re from, probably because it’s really hard to write about music. I thought I’d just put it right out there: Hey, we’re from Oregon! Also, I’m kind of obsessed with roses since moving here. They’re everywhere and it’s beautiful.
World Is Turning
BR: I love The Velvets feel and Loaded is one of my top records. I adore when your songs chug along. It always brings a smile but there's a restraint that I also respect. Who plays the drums for RCB and how do you go about the recording process?
RJ: Cool. I’m a big Velvet Underground fan—another high school favourite—and Moe Tucker has always been one of my favourite drummers, because she only plays what’s necessary for the groove. The drummer on all three RCB albums is John Jeffrey, who also plays in Moon Duo. The process has been that I lay down some basic tracks then he records the drum up in British Columbia. For the second album, Summerlong, I went up to Vancouver and sat in and played some guitar along with the drums. We couldn’t do that for Earth Trip because of Covid, so he tracked on Vancouver Island with his buddy Colin Stewart at The Hive. JJ just has a great feel, and great taste, so I don’t really give him much direction. He knows to keep it classy.
Feel Of Love
BR: Such a lovely feel. Few artists master this vibe. I think of Harold Budd and Jason Pierce among others. More importantly, what is love to you?
RJ: Tough question. Someone just asked me this the other day. I can say that I’ve been feeling a lot of things, very deeply, since this pandemic shut everything down. A lot of emotions went into this record, including love that maybe had nowhere else to go. We (Moon Duo) had to rush home last March, in the middle of a European tour, as the borders were closing. Then there were all kinds of climate and weather disasters going on last summer, forest fires, so it was a heavy time. That all fed into the record and the title. Hopefully, some of that comes through—the love, pain, joy, fear.
BR: Tell us about the musicians who contributed to Earth Trip? How long did the outro go on after the fade?
RJ: It probably goes on for a while. I love a fade out. That’s me on the guitars and Barry Walker on the pedal steel. My friend John Whitson, who runs the Holy Mountain record label, introduced me to Barry initially. And then I met him again at a Mouth Painter show, one of his bands, of whom I’m a fan. I was planning to put together a proper touring outfit for the release of Summerlong last spring, but since that didn’t happen, I thought it would be cool to get some other people to play on the new album. Open it up a bit. I thought of Barry right away for some pedal steel. I also got my partner, Sanae Yamada, to play some piano. And Ryan Jewell to play some percussion; I just saw a post on Instagram that said he was available for hire, so I took a punt.
Ramblin' With The Day
BR: Again, I applaud the laid-back nature of this one. It's pretty easy to let a song like this get away from you. Can you tell us how this was recorded, especially the guitars in the outro?
RJ: This is a bit of a nostalgia track, a nod to my youth, trippin' around with a good pal of mine. It's all there in the lyrics. It’s about good times, so going for that good time vibe. The guitars were all recorded very simply at home—mic on an amp. One thing I did on this album, because I knew I wouldn’t be attending the mix, was split the signal for a lot of the lead guitar takes, with one going through my effects and one direct or clean. That way, Cooper (Crain, the mix engineer), could either use the effects or not. Or blend them as he saw fit. I think you can hear it best with some of the envelope filter stuff, where it sounds like two different instruments but the performances are identical. Cooper mixed the last Wooden Shjips album. We go way back, so I gave him a lot of leeway and trusted him to just make it sound good.
BR: Can you recommend some musical, spiritual, conspiracy or other rabbit holes we can go down on YouTube?
RJ: Ah, yes, I did a lot of this in 2020.
This four-part Derek Bailey documentary on improvisation, called On The Edge, is really great, and was new to me in 2020. It’s on UbuWeb and YouTube.
Herbie Hancock Headhunters, Live 1974. Good for jamming along or just watching in awe.
I’ve been enjoying Les Blank’s docs on Cajun and blues music, which are magical. There are various clips on YouTube but the Criterion Channel has the full movies.
I actually just discovered this one the other day. This guy Otis Gibbs tells stories about country music legends. I don’t know how legit he is, but I watched this one because I’m a big Jerry Reed fan (the guitar solo in East Bound and Down is one of my all-time favs, and I watched Smokey and the Bandit a million times as a kid). It’s a pretty good yarn. You Tube
BR: My favourite song on the album! Remember when If I Could Only Remember My Name was $1.00 at the local thrift shop? This song teleports me to the days when the indie scene was just turning on to that record and others. The wooden cover art and design of Earth Trip reminds me of many private press and other singer/songwriter and C&W compilations that I have found in the used bins over the years. Do you see the RCB records as future record store finds? Keeping in that spirit, can you recommend a few obscure treasures that are still under $10.00 in the used record bins or Discogs?
RJ: That’s funny! In a way, I see everything I do as future record bin finds. I love private press records—the handmade quality of the art, the DIY recording techniques, the unorthodox mixes, everything. That Crosby record is amazing, such an unusual gathering of musicians. Much credit to Paul Kantner and the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (PERRO).
For cheap record recommendations, and on that note, the three PERRO-related Kantner/Slick/Airplane albums are all great—and realistic—thrift store finds: Blows Against the Empire, Sunfighter, and Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun.
The Earth Trip cover art was inspired by a Bill Monroe record, part of an MCA Records country series that I did find in the bins for cheap. But for a country pick, I’ll go with Merle Haggard’s Back to the Barrooms album from 1980. It has three of my favourite Merle tracks: Misery and Gin, Back to the Barrooms, and I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink. The production is really cool too. It’s like an edge-of-80s sound, crisp and clear but without any cheesy studio effects.
And there are a couple of oldies series that I love to pick up when I see them for cheap. One is called Oldies But Goodies, of which there are about 15 volumes. The original pressings have a vibey, dark quality that I like. The other is called Cruisin’ and each volume is a different year, I think starting in 1955. The covers look a bit like Archie comics, and as the years progress the characters age, the clothes get groovier, and they become more socially conscious. The really cool thing is that each record plays like a radio show, with banter from actual DJs and period commercials. So you can pretend you’re hanging out in Buffalo in 1960, listening to Dick Biondi on WKBW. Super fun and good tune selections, especially in the earlier years.
BR: Here are a few rapid-fire questions that Earth Trip brings to mind:
Who is your favourite member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young?
RJ: Neil, for sure. I’m actually not much of a CSN fan!
When was your last psychedelic experience?
RJ: I took a mushroom trip in the fall thinking I would write a bunch of lyrics for this album. Of course, I didn’t end up writing anything. Go figure! But it helped in a way that I did not expect. So that was very cool.
What is your studio vocal microphone of choice?
RJ: Recently, I’ve been using the Shure SM7, which is the classic broadcast mic. I like that it has a built-in windscreen. I’ve used a Mojave MA-300 a bunch. But I really have no idea what I’m doing in the studio. I just wing it. I bought that vintage Sennheiser 421, but mostly for guitar.
What's your go-to Grateful Dead record?
RJ: For studio albums, probably Wake of the Flood. That’s my spring jam.
What's your favourite way to get stoned?
RJ: I think joints are the most fun because they’re communal. I’ve come around on vape pens a bit and get these high-CBD ones that are nice just before sleep. Mostly though, I’m a one-hitter, flower guy. I’m a lightweight.
BR: Many thanks for taking us down the rabbit hole and back.
Rose City Band's new album Earth Trip comes out June 25, 2021 on Thrill Jockey Records.
More about Rose City Band here
Follow Rose City Band on Instagram at: @rosecityband
Listen on Spotify
A multitude of influences went into the creation of Earth Trip. On this custom mix, Ripley Johnson offers up a handpicked selection of tunes that influenced and inspired the album. Listen to our custom Ripley Johnson-curated Rose City Band "Earth Trip" Mix on Spotify.
Brent Rademaker is a founding member of the California psychedelic country band Beachwood Sparks. His musical resume also includes the West Coast 90s indie innovators Further. He currently tours and records with GospelbeacH who will release their new Jam Jam EP on April 15, 2021. As a writer, Brent has penned articles and reviews for music mags, blogs and bios for fellow musicians. His record label Curation Records was established in 2019 with releases from Pacific Range, Farmer Dave & the Wizards of the West, Trevor Beld Jimenez and more.
Find him on Instagram: @brent_rademaker
Find him on facebook: Brent Rademaker (bee rad)
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