Interview – Why?
October 12, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, October 12, 2009.
Yoni Wolf’s creative alter ego Why? has assumed countless guises since emerging as part of the San Francisco Bay Area’s progressive hip-hop coterie Anticon at the turn of the millennium. Having first made a name as the vocal foil to producer extraordinaire David ‘Odd Nosdam’ Madson and abstract rap poet Adam ‘Doseone’ Drucker in the groundbreaking cLOUDDEAD, Wolf’s artistic trajectory has followed an increasingly melodic and instrumentally dynamic route.
While his first solo album OAKLANDAZULASYLUM (2003) and brilliant bedroom-recorded, follow-up Elephant Eyelash (2005) collaged rap abstraction with flourishes of happily wonky instrumentation – courtesy of his older brother Josiah and new band mates Doug McDiarmid and Matt Meldon –last year’s wonderful Alopecia saw Why? become a fully-fledged studio band.
Recorded during same sessions, new album Eskimo Snow sees Why? the band take its most realised steps so far. Wolf’s skewed, highly personal lyrics may well remain, but any trace of his hip-hop roots has been muted by pealing guitars, shimmering keys and beautifully layered psyche-pop melodies. We caught up with Wolf to chat about the new album, his approach to lyricism and shifting from bedroom to studio.
Hey Yoni, how are doing man?
I’m good, how are you?
Good. Where are you at the moment?
I’m in Maineville, just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Are you touring or is that near your original home?
No, no, I’m at my parents house actually.
Oh cool. I really like the new record by the way.
I was really interested to discover that these songs were recorded at the same time as Alopecia, just in the sense that it does feel like a natural follow-up in terms of the way you’ve been heading towards those more full-band arrangements. Did both albums come out of the same writing process?
Yeah, somewhat. I mean, I would say that there were probably more collaborative songs on this record than on Alopecia, but all in all they really came from the same sort of processes.
Sure. I mean, from the start, were these songs always going to be on a different albums?
No, well, we didn’t know necessarily that we had two albums. We knew we had this set of 20 songs that made the cut and that we knew we wanted to record and release, but we didn’t necessarily realise that there were going to be two albums. We thought ‘Well, maybe it’s a really long album, or an album and an EP?’ but we really didn’t know. But then, about halfway through the recording process, it kind of really dawned us that there were two really distinct identities developing among the songs, so we kind of just teased them out like that.
Do you feel that that shift from the more hip-hop orientated stuff and more bits and pieces, bedroom recording process to these full studio records as a permanent one?
I’m not sure how we’ll record always, whether it will be in studios or home studios or what, but I don’t think… Well, I started doing a lot of sampling and stuff really early on and sampling myself and doing stuff like that, but I don’t really see myself going back to that necessarily. I feel like there’s probably a move even further towards acoustic instrumentation somewhat and I kind of still feel in the vein. I mean, I can’t say what’s going to happen in the future – I really don’t know – but I feel really interested in instruments being played and recorded with microphones. I like that.
What about rapping and configuring lyrics in that way? Is that still something you’re working on in any context, or is singing really taking your attention for now?
Well, I don’t see a firm distinction between the two. I guess you can make a distinction between melodic singing and non-melodic singing and heavily rhythmic singing and singing that isn’t heavily rhythmic, you know. But I don’t know, there are a lot of grey areas. Am I still interested in rap music? Absolutely. I listen to a lot of it and still write in ways that I feel are rhythmic and, you know, I’m very interested in phrasing and the way that syllables sit together and all that. So yeah…
Sure, sure. When we last spoke, around the time of Alopecia, you mentioned how it was quite intimidating for you to step into that fully-equipped studio setting…
Is that something you’re far more confident about now?
Well, you know, there are plusses and minuses to studio recording, I think. The way that you have to prepare for studio recording, if you’re on a budget, which we are, is that you have to prepare completely and know exactly what you’re going to lay down when you get into the studio. So it doesn’t leave that much room for noodling around or trying to figure things out on the fly or being inspired in the moment and saying ‘Oh, let’s go in this new direction!’”
You can’t really do that there, whereas you can do that stuff at home. You’ve got ample time – you’ve got as much time as you want – but then again, at home you don’t have a 36-channel Neve console and you don’t have a bunch of U47’s hanging around (laughs). So you know what I’m saying, there are plusses and minuses to both.
I guess you have to be a lot more decisive in the studio…
Yeah, yeah. I painted that as a negative, but that can also be a positive, you know – really nailing down what you want to do, going in there and just knocking it out. There’s a certain feeling of seriousness when you go into the studio to do that. You have to nail your take, you know. You’re playing with everybody at once and if you fuck up, then everybody has to redo what they’re doing. So there’s a certain pressure that I think can be positive there.
Considering how long ago it was written and recorded, do you feel that Eskimo Snow is reflective of where you’re at now creatively?
Well, we haven’t done any studio recording as such, but I’ve been doing some demoing and doing some writing. I’m keeping all these scraps of paper in this envelope and I just pulled out a bunch of those today to sort of peek through them and see what I had. I feel like it’s quite different to Eskimo Snow, I think. It’s far more sort of wordy, I would say. Maybe that means it will be rap music or just more verbal. So you know, we’ll see.
While your work has really grown to become more kind of songwriterly, it still has those diaristic qualities that your older material had. Does the spark for these songs still come in from a kind of diary-like scenario?
Yeah, sure, but I wouldn’t say diary because these songs aren’t always necessarily from my life always. But everything does sort of come in these sparks – these little moments like that – where I sort of might realise something that I’ve always thought but could never really pin down. But you know, I wouldn’t say that it’s always from my life. I use the first person a lot and a lot of things come from my life and are then expanded upon, but you know, there’s also character writing at work there as well.
At the same time, in Alopecia there were a lot of family references and so on. Do you ever worry that people are going to take everything you write down as truth?
Nah, I really don’t worry about it. People who know me know me, you know? People who know me realise what the truthful parts are and what the parts that I made up are, most likely. Or hey, maybe they don’t. It makes me a dark horse (laughs), which is fucking cool.
How does it make you feel now when you listen to a lot of that old cLOUDDEAD stuff? It was pretty dense…
Yeah, a lot of it makes you feel awkward because you’re in a certain phase or state when you’re writing that stuff and looking back on it, a lot of it is almost embarrassing to listen to (laughs).
The songs on Eskimo Snow seem very much about self-reflection and your place in the world; references to your own death and how you’ve treated others and so on. Whether fictional or not, were these songs about self-definition for you?
Yeah, but it’s hard to say at this point. I mean, it kind of depends on what I do next, if you know what I’m saying, because if I stay feeling that way and having those same sort of feelings then I guess it’s not a phase. But yeah, I’m not really certain and I don’t think I will be for another couple of years, you know, working out exactly what the trends have been in my life so far. But yeah, I mean, I did an interview with an Israeli guy this morning and he said that he thought Eskimo Snow, in a way, was the last album in the trilogy of Elephant Eyelash, Alopecia and Eskimo Snow, and that kind of resonated with me like, ‘Yeah, maybe that’s right!’
So I do feel like, in my life, I’m at somewhat of a new beginning. I’m 30 now and I do feel like I’m entering a new chapter in my life, so I do feel like the next album will be somewhat of a new beginning.
Eskimo Snow is out now through Anticon/Stomp
Why? Australian Tour
MEREDITH: Sat 12 Dec @ Meredith Music Festival.
BRISBANE: Sun 13 Dec @ The Troubadour w/ McKisko, To The North and Lion Island. Co-presented by In Finland.
MELBOURNE: Tue 15 Dec @ East Brunswick Club w/ Aleks & The Ramps and The Parking Lot Experiments.
SYDNEY: Wed 16 Dec @ Annandale w/ Seekae and Danimals