GENRE: Psychedelic country, folk
ESSENTIAL TRACK: “Rip City”
FOR FANS OF: The War on Drugs, Jim Sullivan, F.J. McMahon, Robert Lester Folsom
Rose City Band’s debut LP was dropped quietly in the spring of 2019, self-released anonymously, and generated just a few online reviews, in addition to a curiosity about who, exactly, the Portland-repping band was. The easy-breezy nature of the album was punctuated by flourishes of private press country and folk record nuance, with a psych underbelly that seemed oddly familiar, though no promotional push or accompanying context was applied to its release, and no live shows had been performed (and still haven’t) by the mystery band.
“My idea for it was this desire to make a record, and I didn’t want to have to talk about it,” laughs Ripley Johnson, the now-revealed maestro behind Rose City Band. Johnson is a familiar face in the psychedelic rock scene in Portland and beyond as guitarist and vocalist for the San Francisco-based Wooden Shjips, as well as for the psych-synth combo Moon Duo, which he performs in with his wife, Sanae Yamada.
“I wanted to do something for myself, and just release it into the world and see what happens—let it exist on its own for a while before having to talk about it and explain it. Or just for it to maybe find its own context based on who discovers it and who doesn’t, without any preamble.”
The project is mainly Johnson, with some additional instrumental collaboration by a revolving circle of friends. But, Johnson explains, the turnstile partnerships are an idea that’s still evolving. The self-titled debut record is being re-released by seminal experimental indie label Thrill Jockey, and Johnson already has the follow-up mostly finished for a late spring or early summer release, also on Thrill Jockey.
“Some days I feel like I wanna put a touring band together—people who can actually go on the road—and then other days I wanna keep it a studio thing, so I go back and forth,” explains Johnson, who admits that, due to the Rose City Band’s anonymity and freedom before our interview, he hasn’t fully structured how he’d like to approach the project just yet.
“You’re getting the first interview answers where I haven’t really figured out what to say about the music yet,” he jokes.
The record is a pastoral, warm affair, redolent of sunshiny psych folk of the underground ’70s songwriter explosion (though Johnson is quick to point out that he doesn’t consider himself a “songwriter,” per se, with lyrical stories or messages to impart). Standout tracks like the album opener, “Rip City,” paint a lush, panoramic love poem to the Rose City. Elsewhere, the raucous psychotropic haze of summertime is explored on songs like “Rivers of Mind” and “Me and Willie”—tunes that would find themselves right at home as the soundtrack to a meditative psilocybic wormhole. In whatever form they took on, Johnson was keen on curating the songs to represent his affinity for Portland, where he and Yamada have lived for the past 10 years after moving from San Francisco.
“I wanted to do something that was really super mellow and super easygoing, but with a Portland summer vibe, which to me is such a magical time of year in the Pacific Northwest in general,” Johnson explains. “I like that [the band name] comes from the country thing as well, the regional kind of pride in band names or song titles. People make music about where they’re from and where they live. I find that that influences my music a lot more and more as I go along. That’s probably part of why the record sounds the way it sounds, and why I wanted to make the record, was living in Portland.”
There is the sense that, with Johnson’s heavy touring schedule between Moon Duo and Wooden Shjips, he is yearning to break from the cyclical nature of the music business where “it’s just record, put out a record, tour for a year, repeat,” he reports. Though by virtue of Johnson agreeing to be interviewed, he’s agreed to lower the veil somewhat. The sense of mystery he fell in love with in his youth when sifting through rare country and folk records is still central to his musical ethos with Rose City Band.
“I always would threaten to my friends or to Sanae that I’m gonna start a blues-country band so I can retire and just play down at the pub every Thursday night during happy hour,” Johnson says. “It’s kind of what I think about sometimes; I love being able to tour and travel—it’s all fun and great—but I also like the idea of having a local band that just plays around town, and is more of a social music experience versus ‘the professional touring band,’ which is what it feels like a lot of the time.
“On the one hand,” he continues, “it’s nice to do something that’s in a little bubble and you don’t have to worry about any outside influence. At the same time, it’s nice when people can hear your work. It’s nice to have an audience.”
MOST RECENT RELEASE: Self-titled debut re-release out January 17 via Thrill Jockey Records