Rose City Band’s Erik “Ripley” Johnson on touring, jamming, and the melancholy of fall

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      When Portland-based Rose City Band rolled through Vancouver back in May, it was an early stop in the act’s first full-fledged tour since Erik “Ripley” Johnson started the project back in 2019. In the time since, the band has simultaneously tightened up and loosened up, evolving its live show for receptive audiences across North America and Europe, including an opening slot supporting Kurt Vile back in October.

      We caught up with Ripley in advance of Rose City Band’s second Vancouver show of the year to discuss how the tour’s been going, how the band’s holding up, and what comes next.

      How have you been? We last talked, what, six months ago?

      That sounds right. I've been pretty good. Ups and downs.

      What have the ups been?

      Mostly music-related: touring, playing shows. That’s been a lot of the “up” for me. We’ve played a lot of local shows, but this year was our big touring debut. So that's been really fun.

      Do you like touring generally, or is it a necessary evil?

      I like playing the shows, but there’s a lot that goes into touring that’s not super fun. I don’t want to complain about all this stuff, but all the upfront costs are very nerve-wracking these days, because it just seems like anything can happen to throw the tour off or to cancel things. The planning seems to happen so far in advance now… It’s hard to get a band together and keep everyone together and lock everyone down for dates that are nine months in the future. It’s like: who knows what’s going to be happening? 

      But playing local shows is great. It’s so much easier. I like doing local, regional tours. Maybe we need to come up and play on the Island. That might be fun.

      I think you guys would be a hit over there.

      Our bass player is from Comox. He actually plays drums on all the records—John Jeffrey. Our old bass player decided he didn’t like touring that much. We needed a bass player and John knew all the songs. It’s been great because he’s a drummer, so he knows the feel really well—but it’s also been a challenge for him to switch to bass and come at it from a different angle.

      Has it changed the shape of the music at all?

      He brings a really solid feel and he’s really into improvising, so it’s opened the music up a lot. It’s adding a different dynamic for the improvisatory sections. I want to say it’s better. It’s looser, and we can stretch out a little bit more easily. So that’s really nice.

      But we have three different steel players now that we sort of swap in and out. I mean, all these things are stressors on me because it’s like, no, we need to find someone. But at the same time, it keeps things fresh. We kind of operate a little bit like a jazz band or bluegrass band; at least in some of the songs where I play lead guitar, there’s lead pedal steel, and then Paul [Hasenberg], our keyboard player, is a wiz on the keys. So having three soloists, everyone can take turns and that’s super fun. Someone can be swapped in, hypothetically, and it’s not a huge problem.

      Are you gonna lean into the jams with this band going forward?

      I wish I could say that’s the thing. I’m kind of a control freak, so with the live stuff, I’m trying to loosen up and be more open. That’s a challenge for me personally, and it’s not that I don’t want to [improvise more]—it’s just not the way I’m built. I’m not super comfortable onstage. I’m not, like, a big entertainer, so to get up onstage and just be like, “We’ll see how this goes!” is really fun, but it’s also challenging for me personally. But I like it and I’m trying to grow as a person—as an artist.

      I was listening to the first album yesterday and thinking that the world that you’ve built there, and the parameters you’ve set, work so well with improvisational, jammy music. But at the same time, I can see that being terrifying onstage if you’re not wired that way.

      In all the bands I’ve been in there’s been improvisation, but they’ve been very solid bands—like, the same players for years. This type of music [in Rose City Band], I mean, I don’t know. It’s a little weird. It doesn’t really fit into one particular genre. Everyone in the band right now comes from different backgrounds and has different musical interests. There’s enough overlap, so it works, but it creates a sound that’s kind of hard to pin down. People always come up to us after and try to describe the music to us, which is always fun.

      What do they say?

      All kinds of things, but a lot of times they just seem perplexed. They’re like, “Wow, it was a little bit country, but not really, and it was funky, and then there was this Pink Floyd kind of thing going on.” I always think that’s a good sign: if people can’t just say you sound like X. 

      Last time we chatted, you talked about how with [Moon Duo’s 2019 album] Stars are Light, you made it as a kind of an antidote to the political environment at the time. And I’ve wondered if Rose City Band was also conceived as an antidote. I certainly found a lot of comfort in it, particularly during the Covid days.

      I think for me it’s like musical comfort food. That’s where this all originated, in the music I listen to when I need to feel inspired. There was that intention. I’m sort of lost now. I don’t know. We’re entering into autumn, so I’m entering into this melancholic phase, I guess. But it’s also tough these days. There are so many terrible things happening in the world. With these records, I try to do something that’s light and that has some optimism in it, some comfort without being schmaltzy. And there’s always some darkness.

      When I sit down to make a record, I don’t know what’s going to come out. I’m just channeling whatever it is, trying to communicate some sort of feeling. It doesn’t really matter what the feeling is. I grew up with Neil Young, Grateful Dead, and this sort of folk-rock kind of music. That’s my comfort music, so whatever I’m coming up with is filtering through that lens. Whether I can make it work or not is the challenge. Is there anything left to say here? Which direction is it going to go in? I’m never sure where that’s going to be until I sit down and get to work.

      Are you working on anything?

      I guess I’m just waiting for a sign or something. [Laughs] 

      Rose City Band plays The Pearl on December 14.