Why? – Keeping it Personal
September 28, 2008 § Leave a comment
Published: Cyclic Defrost, #20, September 2008.
Why? Interview by Dan Rule.
At the turn of the millennium, Yoni Wolf (aka Why?) was playing one of the key roles in reshaping perceptions about hip-hop’s orientation in the cultural ether. As a crucial player in San Francisco Bay Area experimental clique Anticon, and more importantly, one third of iconoclastic rap ensemble cLOUDDEAD (along with Adam ‘Doseone’ Drucker and David ‘Odd Nosdam’ Madson), Wolf help put a hyper-intelligent, highly abstracted twist on a genre dominated by four-four beats and realist street story. But since going out on his own, Wolf’s giddying lyrical traversals have found themselves framed by an increasingly melodic and candidly personal indie-rock couture. Stunningly detailed third album Alopecia seems to signal a shift or perhaps even a completion of Why?’s metamorphosis. Recorded in a professional studio with a full band, it is his darkest, but most fully realised record to date.
“Sucking dick for drink tickets at the free bar at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah,” mumbles Yoni Wolf beneath the stark, guitar-strung break of ‘Good Friday.’ “Cutting the punch line and it ain’t no joke.”
There are very few places that that the man better known as Why? won’t go on new album Alopecia.
“In Berlin I saw two men fuck in a dark corner of a basketball court,” he croons on ‘The Hollows.’ “Just the slight jingle of pocket change pulsing.”
Whether it’s admitting to stalking a friend he has crush on, or getting horny by reading a lost love’s handwriting, the bizarre brilliance of Wolf’s art is its ability to wrangle both deadpan humour and strikingly evocative, intensely personalised vistas.
During an artistic passage that has spanned five albums – 2001’s self-titled debut and 2004’s Ten (with cLOUDDEAD), and 2003’s Oaklandazulasylum, 2005’s Elephant Eyelash and this year’s Alopecia – and the best part of a decade, the 28-year-old has become a savant of the taboo. His patched-together lyrical snapshots deal in such internal, awkward daily happenstance and detail that they seem both immediately risqué and fundamentally, positively everyday. Indeed, if there’s one particular sensibility that echoes throughout Wolf’s work, it is casual, unabashed frankness, whatever the subject matter.
“Sending sexy SMSs to my ex’s new man / because I can.”
Wolf’s conversation, too – tonight, dispersed amongst cell phone static in a tour van in Montana – resonates with such a charming sense of candour. He extends the warmest greetings; he offers rambling explanations on cue; his twangy accent gives away his Ohio roots. “So much of my writing is kind of using these snapshots,” he says. “Just noticing things around me and feeling like I should remember them, you know.”
“Like on ‘The Hollows’ – that whole bridge, about seeing those guys at the basketball court and about being duped in Berlin by the guy with the walnut shells and the marble – that whole set of scenes I wrote separately while I was in Berlin. I was just taking notes on my life and things that I felt were poignant, you know.”
However rudimentary, the notion speaks volumes about the assimilation between Wolf’s life and art. “It’s a totally necessary thing,” he says. “It’s my way of sitting quietly and meditating in a way, you know; it’s my form of meditation and sinking into my life and what I’m doing here.”
“Whenever I achieve a small scrap of what I consider to be truth, on a very small level, that’s what the writing is a documentation of. It’s my inner life and my inner thoughts and, I don’t know, my categorising of things and working things out. It’s just me being present in this life, you know.”
The present that Wolf lives today in the Bay Area is a world away from his upbringing in Cincinnati. Raised as part of the Messianic Jewish community, his childhood was steeped in religion. “Messianic Judaism, it has a tinge of a kind of charismatic feel,” he says. “There’s a lot of singing and dancing and clapping of the hands, and you know, some pretty eccentric – for most people – prayer techniques, like speaking in tongues and stuff like that.”
“So we were around that kind of stuff a lot, but also, I feel like music was a real centrepiece to all that, at least for me and Josiah (Wolf’s elder brother, who plays as part of Why?). We were really steered away from secular music and whatnot – secular anything really, you know, TV or anything else that could sort of infiltrate our brains – and guided towards the more religious alternatives to these things.”
“We would watch like Gospel Bill or Davey and Goliath or whatever on the Christian network,” he laughs. “And we’d listen to Petra and Stryper. At the time, when I was like nine or 10, hair metal was like the thing and these were the alternatives.”
It wasn’t until the Wolf boys’ mid-teens that they started to forge their own secular identities. “I don’t think I ever really liked that religious stuff, but I thought I did, you know. It wasn’t really until I was about 14 or 15 that I decided that the religion stuff wasn’t really for me. I mean, I had listened to some secular music before in dribs and drabs.”
While the pair began playing in bands during the latter stages of high school, it was visual art that really piqued Yoni’s interest, and with his family’s full support he enrolled in the University of Cincinnati art program. “I mean, people assume that because you come from a religious background, you had a bit of a hard time, but both of our parents have always been pretty supportive of whatever us kids wanted to do. They were never the kind of parents who would be like, ‘You’ve got to go to business school’ or ‘You’ve got to be a lawyer’ or something,” he laughs.
“We all did pretty well academically and kind of did what we wanted to do. I always had this very internal sense of wanting to do well or something.”
It wasn’t until sharing a subject with Adam Drucker (aka Doseone) – a then voracious battle-rapper – that Wolf found himself drawn back towards music and into an underground clique that would go onto to become the Anticon collective. After forming Greenthink with Drucker in 1999, they went onto establish the critically lauded cLOUDDEAD ensemble with fellow visual artist David Madson later that same year, relocating from the Midwest to the Bay Area.
Over five years and two albums, the group went onto to become the signpost artists for experimental hip-hop’s new wave. Whether it was Wolf and Drucker’s angular lyrical abstractions, or Madson’s artefact-riddled ambience and low-bit-rate sonic crunch, cLOUDDEAD were making music that fore ran anything of its ilk. After stunning the underground with their self-titled debut, the group’s second and (what would turn out to be) final opus Ten saw them at the height of their powers. Pendulum-like cuts such as ‘Pop Song,’ ‘Dead Dogs Two’ and ‘The Teen Keen Skip’ were wildly offset by ambient noise explosions like ‘Son of a Gun’ and the Boards of Canada collaboration ‘3 Twenty.’ The drone-drawled intensity of ‘Rifle Eyes’ still stands up as one of the memorable cuts to come out of the mid-00s.
But while their cultural currency was higher than ever, the group’s three players were already in the grips of an irreparable creative schism. With a debut solo album already under his arm, 2003’s Oaklandazulasylum, Wolf walked away.
Few solid details have emerged about the split, and while Wolf is relatively equivocal on the matter during our dialogue – instead choosing to discuss the change and development of his lyrical direction when the topic is broached – he chose to speak about it at more length in a 2005 interview with US website PopMatters. According to Wolf, the group’s differences were of both a personal and artistic bent.
“We were all kind of not getting along,” he said. “There was some tension underneath, and on the surface too sometimes. I mean, I get along with the two guys now; I don’t know that they get along too well. I made the decision in Sweden – I was in Stockholm, and I called Mush Records and I told them we weren’t gonna tour. I know we could have blown up if we would have gone on tour, but would I have been happy? You can’t think of success in terms of popularity. You’ve just got to follow your arrow toward the target.”
“I don’t like to use the word abstract,” he continued, “but that stuff was a little more removed from the reality of our lives… Adam and I were kind of playing with each other, which was fun, but it’s wasn’t exorcising demons in me. I couldn’t stand on the stage and sing that stuff and feel it every night.”
You didn’t need any more evidence of Wolf’s directional shift than Why?’s 2005 ‘solo’ follow-up Elephant Eyelash. Drawing on players such as Josiah, Doug McDiarmid and Matt Meldon, the record saw the younger Wolf ply a swathe of highly-confessional lyrical meanderings to a tapestry of bedroom-cut, psyche-inflected indie-rock tropes, becoming one of the most talked about and widely celebrated crossover records that year.
But, according to Wolf, Alopecia – which features Fog’s Adam Broder and Mark Erickson in the place of Matt Meldon – represented a much larger step. “Elephant Eyelash was essentially recorded just like the stuff that I used to do by myself, just with more people involved,” he explains. “I was still recording it in my bedroom and what not, and just bringing guys in to record the parts and stuff, but still doing it one layer at a time. But this time, on Alopecia, it was all recorded in a studio and pretty much all at once.”
“I made demos for every song and then we learned the songs in a rehearsal situation, then we went in and tracked it. So it’s definitely more of a band record.”
For someone used to recording in a domestic setting, working in a studio wasn’t always a necessarily comfortable experience. “To tell you the truth, it scared me,” he says. “It was quite a different experience and I wondered if what we were getting was too typical-sounding or not unique enough or something.”
He worried that the artefacts and happenstance that recording on imperfect home equipment had garnered in the past might be lost to a more generic studio sound. “When you’re doing it in your bedroom you can do all these things to make each sound come across okay, like, recording through a bunch of different devices because you can’t get the right cable to work and it gives you some weird sound.”
“Whereas in this case everything was perfect and it was the best, you know, top-of-the-line equipment you could ever use, and I just didn’t know if what we were getting was right. It really only came together in my mind in the mixing process. I just suddenly realised that what we had was great and it was working really well. We recorded 20 songs in that studio in Minneapolis, and once we plucked out the songs that were right and sat together well, the album started to shape up and I started to realise that we did actually have a good album on our hands.”
He’s right. Over 14 tracks, Alopecia glows with a much fuller, more melodic and layered sonic palette, shimmering with angular guitars, dense tiers of keys and droned ambience, stark drums and skittering electronic percussion. But it’s Wolf’s ever-maturing poetics that really set this record apart.
There’s a darker personal dynamic to the record. Where Elephant Eyelash spent much of its time revisiting the fragments of a fading relationship, Alopecia deals with wider ideas of self and mortality. “I think it has the sense of a rebirth or of tearing oneself down to the absolute bare, like bare skin, a blank canvas or whatever,” he says. “I would say that this is a lot more of a lonesome record. This is about being alone, whereas Elephant Eyelash was about trying to maintain or salvage some sense of connectedness. This album is an acceptance of disconnection in a way.”
It results in a poignant, often foreboding feel. “Never in the night, when the knot grows tighter than fingers can untie,” he raps on the stunningly ominous ‘Gnashville.’ “And all the last half-dammed rivers have gone dry.” Where on final track ‘Exegesis,’ Wolf speaks of being “hung hight from a telephone wire / with no poor boy’s pile of books underfoot… to lessen the pressure of the phone cord choking my neck.”
But while Wolf is willing to admit to admit to the record’s disquiet, he’s quick to put it in context. “Sure, I think it’s darker but I think it’s funnier too,” he says. “I mean, it’s definitely darker and, in a way, more hopeless or something like that. But it doesn’t take itself as seriously as Elephant Eyelash did.”
“Like, with ‘Exegesis,’ if you really listen to that song, in a way it tells you to disregard everything I’ve said on the whole record. It says ‘If I really meant it…’ and I haven’t hung myself high from a telephone wire.”
He has a point. The record’s darkness is tempered by humoristic undertones at nearly every turn. “I sleep on my back ‘cause it’s good for the spine,” he sings on ‘Fatalist Palmistry,’ “and coffin rehearsal.”
“I mean, on Alopecia, I feel that I’m kind of using my life as a starting point and going from there,” he says. “In the past I was perhaps a little more documentary-like.
“I’ve got a little more into the craft of song writing. Even if I’m not writing directly about my life – maybe it’ll be a metaphor for something I’m going through or maybe just some fantasy that I had or whatever – but you know, it does relate to me on a personal level.”
Indeed, as Wolf admits, sometimes there’s no denying his songs’ referential foundations. “People do tend to notice when something’s about them,” he laughs, “I’ve had a couple of negative reactions, but most of the time it’s pretty positive, even when I’m worried about something or how somebody’s going to react.”
“For instance, with song 12 on Alopecia (’Simeon’s Dilemma,’ the song about the stalker guy), I gave the record to the girl who that song is pretty much about – the person I wrote it for – and I was really worried about what she would think about that one. But she listened to the record and called me and was like, ‘Yoni, you’ve done it again. This is a beautiful record, especially song 12’,” he laughs. “Man, that was a relief.”
“And you know, on Elephant Eyelash there’s a song about my dad and I was really worried about how he would feel about that. But he’s all proud of it, you know.”
“Whenever we play a live show and he’s there, he’s like, ‘Play the one about me, play the one about me!’,” he laughs. “It’s pretty cool. I don’t have any ill intentions about these songs, even if theyseem dark or dramatic or violent in a way. I think people realise I’m a good-intentioned person.”
Alopecia is out through Anticon/Stomp