A music blog from Ireland.
“Never meet your heroes” is a well-known proverb. It’s also said that things come in threes. Having kicked off 2008 meeting Frank Black, the man responsible for The Pixies‘ gravel-larynxed contribution to my teenage misery (his giant mitts made my hands feel 14 again), my artpash favourites Franz Ferdinand (after their accelerative neon pop-rocking set at Electric Picnic 2008) when an opportunity arose in late October to interview the frontman of Why?, I thought I was on to a hat-trick of heroes for sure.
Whether artistic creativity is an innate or empirical trait remains open to debate but Yoni Wolf’s origins in Cincinnatti, Ohio, were certainly conducive to a musical career. Born to liberal teacher parents (a rabbi father and an art-loving mother), the teenage discovery of a disused 4-track recorder at the local synagogue led Yoni to experimental poetry tapes. Lucky encounters in art school a few years later forged friendships with Adam Drucker and David Madson, more widely known to the world at large as Doseone and Odd Nosdam. These early links proved pivotal: Wolf never finished college, electing instead to pursue a career in music by heading to California’s Bay Area where Doseone had joined a musical collective…the early formations of what would go on to become the Anticon Hip Hop record label in 1997.
Yoni’s use of Why? debuted on the album Oaklandazulazylum in 2003, followed two years later by indie-tinged Elephant Eyelash, at which point the musical structure had expanded to a four-piece band with older brother Josiah on drums, Matt Meldon on guitar and bassist Doug McDiarmid. However, Matt chose to leave after Elephant Eyelash’s 2006 promotional tour and was replaced some time later by Austin Brown to provide guitar duties on third album Alopecia, which went straight to music fans’ 2009 Best Ofs.
Having risked what must read like a tokenistic summary of Why?, let just explain that it seems fitting to mention this history/discography in such brief paragraphs; I learned everything I could about this band in a few short weeks. Discovering Elephant Eyelash in April last year, still grieving for my grandfather who’d recently passed away from colon cancer, the philosophical brevity of Act Five pummelled into my fog of bereavement. It was a musical milestone. Never had I felt so touched and dumbfounded, enthralled to find such depth and meaning behind gloriously lucid lyric imagery. How could this stranger, removed by time, oceans, gender, race, religion and all Earthly boundaries, exist on such a parallel plane without having ever met me? How could he vocalise exactly the sentiments I daren’t even voice to myself?
How could this stranger, removed by time, oceans, gender, race, religion and all Earthly boundaries, exist on such a parallel plane without having ever met me?
Tackier than a heroine clashing eyes with a handsome stranger, I found the music I’d been waiting for all my life. Drums will never have me but I love rhythm. Yoni’s snappy alliteration, drawling through chameleonic tempo, hooked me. The rusty old pennies of love and hate, life, anger and joy, regained their copper zing. The playcount mounted. Who was this guy, what sort of person submerged themselves in such atavistic introspection, anyway? How dare he be so frank?
Drowning under the weight of Sandollars and Rubber Traits, freefalling into abstract signifiers like “the collected breaths of mutes” and “fisted language“, I found myself overwhelmed with questions to ask if we ever met. Like a person lost in thought might suddenly realise a faint glimmer on the horizon is dawn and they’ve unwittingly passed the night staring vacantly out a window, illumination fell still further to reveal the sounds of Silver Jews, who now follow Yoni in the kindred-spirit song-stakes.
And I hadn’t even heard Alopecia yet. When it came, it was in complete contrast to the indie-jangles of Early Whitney and Elephant Eyelash. Now the refrains were painful and tarry, disgusted, delicious. Now there were Hip Hop beats and dark fresh vibes, Yoni’s new experiences expressed via lyrical gymnastics. I tried to understand the twists and turns of style, puzzling over journalists’ descriptions of “abstract”. Surely they were holding the telescope the wrong way around? My viewpoint showed detail magnified to astounding clarity.
A local 18 year-old lad choked to death on his own vomit after a night out and I heard the words of The Hollows ring truly as church bells: “this goes out to all my under-done, under-tongued, blung-lunged frontmen“…an ex who couldn’t let go came back to haunt me and rather than hatred, I heard Simeon’s Dilemma chime in with a reminder of the pain of unrequited love. The pain of thinking too much, reading, breathing, loving too hard, feeling incongruous no matter the setting, awkward regardless of any achievement in a world where weight-loss and average good looks equalled perfection….to me, Wolf was a contemporary Byron, a philosopher of Voltaire’s ilk set to muddy rhymes. Chaucer on Whole Foods. A small, fierce new rival to Bob Dylan and John Lennon’s gentle commentary.
Imagine my angry tears being stuck at home the April night they first played in Dublin. Three miles away, every word I’d ever wanted to hear was tripping out across a crowd of which no one, no one could possibly appreciate as much as I. So when summer packed up and Why? announced a November return to Andrew’s Lane Theatre, all the questions raised in the past few months began to tussle with my ethic as a music journalist. I simply had to interview this man. It would be different, I reasoned, I wasn’t some dismissive hack who’d trawled a few websites hours before meeting. I was a true fan, a fellow inhabitant of a beautiful world built up with concrete demands. Yoni Wolf understood…and so he was my hero. But you know what they say about heroes….
Drop-D: I guess the most important place to start would be, how’s life as Yoni? Stocked up on health food?
Yoni Wolf: You know it. Always.
Drop-D: It can’t be easy being vegan, it’s an unusual lifestyle choice, organic parallels in your music convey an appreciation of Nature but is there more to it? An ascetic aspect or a way of maintaining control over your life via diet?
Yoni: I became vegan almost 10 years, vegetarian 12 years ago. It started as an ethical choice out of a moral obligation to the planet and its inhabitants. I didn’t want to be one more knucklehead who doesn’t consider how his day-to-day small choices affect the rest of the world. At this point, it is just a rule I live by. I don’t contemplate reasons anymore.
Drop-D: It’s been an interesting ride on a very scenic route for you. You’re in Europe today, started out in Cincinatti and irony of touring aside, seem pretty settled in Berkeley. Was there always a sense of a big world beyond the Mid-West?
Yoni: I have never been the type of person to plan ahead much or set big goals. I set small realistic goals for myself. That’s how you get things done. I never expected to be doing what I’m doing. It’s strange and I still don’t quite understand it or its affect on me and my relationships or how it fits in in the grand scheme of things globally. To what sort of trend in history do I belong? Time will tell…or it won’t.
Drop-D: You’re on the road under a fortuitous moon. How have you found this tour so far?
Yoni: Like I said, it’s strange.
Drop-D: You had the full gamut of music fashions in the front row of Andrew’s Lane: trendy, street, preppy, indie, goth, you name it…is there a different reception beyond the States in the people who turn up at shows?
Yoni: I think those who attend our concerts are quite diverse across the board.
Drop-D: Are there any major differences between your last trips across the Atlantic? Europe got hairy at times judging by Alopecia’s lyrics about London and Berlin. Will Dublin parties be added to the list?
Yoni: I will just say that Dublin is a wild town, untamed by the coolant, blandenning (is that a word?) effect of globalisation, most likely due to its relative geographic isolation.
Dublin is a wild town
Drop-D: People really got a kick out of the extra secret show and you totally hung out at the merch stand after the main gig. That doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. Do you always make that effort? Is it an enjoyable part of performance experience for you or a necessary evil, what you mean by “sucking dick?”
Yoni: I sometimes like to stand there and meet people and look at girls and sometimes I don’t. It depends on my mood.
Drop-D: How does the group dynamic alter with the pace of travelling, do you see changes in each other? I hear you’ve argued with your brother in the studio…is it different on tour?
Yoni: As a means of coping, we stay pretty much on the surface with each other and make a lot of jokes, mostly of a base nature. We get along pretty well most of the time.
Drop-D: Have the songs of the new album been well-received? You drew a strong indie base with Elephant Eyelash but Crushed Bones launched Saturday’s ALT show and the crowd joined in with fervour. Not an indie song, that.
Yoni: The new songs seem to have received more of a response than any of our songs before them.
Drop-D: How deep does your Hip Hop history run? You’ve the diversity of one who listened to Dylan as much as De La Soul.
Yoni: I’ve listened to rap music on a regular basis since I was 14. I’m 29 now.
Drop-D: To define Why?, the musical make-up of the band as a whole is quite diverse and difficult to pin down, flitting easily from rap to rock, snappy pop and psychedelica. Despite this shifting form, musical equilibrium is deftly handled: instrumental patterns stand out with remarkable clarity despite very intricate vocal deliveries. Do you write and bring words to be fitted out with sound or would there be a case of listening in on Josiah and Doug and hearing your own ideas coming into play? Or something completely different?
Yoni: Every album has had a different process behind it.
Drop-D: Well, for example, how was Alopecia constructed? By delving into R’n’B was there as much of a challenge to the other guys to push their instruments as you were pushing your lyrics?
Yoni: I made demos for Alopecia which we studied and then rehearsed for a while before recording quite quickly. The other guys definitely got to flex their playing skills, although I am somewhat of a stickler for simplicity in playing. To me, it’s more about the way everything fits together than any individual element on its own. The other guys understand that as well and sometimes have to understate just how good they are as musicians (they are all really fucking good) for the sake of a clear and focussed arrangement.
Drop-D: Alopecia came as a surprise. The music has progressed to a more streamlined, simple form but the lyrics and vocals are more complex. Naturally you’ve matured between albums but I mentioned organic parallels: in Elephant Eyelash you sounded like a young guy questioning the world by projecting human behaviour on to natural history. Now you follow up with much darker, synthetic…answers. Am I way off track? Are you a learned man now?
Yoni: I am most definitely not a leaned man. I don’t know shit. If I did, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
Drop-D: Would it be unfair to suggest earlier flowery arrangements of music and metaphor were a bolster? The smooth rhythms of newer songs leave you room to sound raw, bolder and more confident….
Yoni: I don’t know.
Drop-D: You pull no punches this time…there’s an abundance of taboo in Alopecia. The final verse of Song of the Sad Assassin cuts like a knife “”I feel like a loop of the last eight frames of film“…/…”caulked” cracked wall“…/…”Billy the Kid did what he did and he died“. What a lethal arsenal of empathy, quite stark in contrast to the glee and glory of Speech Bubbles or Sanddollars. I feel compelled to ask what led you to place so much emphasis on negativity?
Yoni: There is no glee or glory in Sanddollars. Only sarcasm. I think Speech Bubbles is somewhat hopeful, but mostly sad. The new songs are just a bit more blunt is all.
Drop-D: While I don’t want to ask about your personal relationships, it does seem as though you take a very hard line on yourself and how you deal with the opposite sex; “I’m not a ladies’ man, I’m a landmine“…/…”there’s nothing more appealing than the sound of high heels…followed by a single high pitched scream“…/…”out there thrashing like a pet bird caught in a jet stream…that’s me“…. Are women worth the heartache?
Yoni Wolf: No.
Drop-D: I adore Simeon’s Dilemma. At least we can believe our stalkers love us. Again, I suspect you sing for many and there’s a little stalker in everyone. It must have encouraged a few obsessive fans of your own? Those of us who find it difficult to emote, feel we almost know you, people must react with a lot of familarity. Does that become frustrating?
Yoni: I am flattered that anyone would listen hard enough to my songs to feel like they know me but the fact is, I am most surely still a stranger. Even to myself
Drop-D: Originally I wasn’t going to ask about Religion: I think it’s too often used as a label. However considering you’ve written and sung about instances of faith it seems silly of me not to. Spirituality is still coming across in the new record. How important is God to you, as a concept or a way of life?
Yoni: I think for me, the idea of God fits in that category of things I don’t and and will likely never really understand. Right up there with the behind-the-scenes inner workings of plumbing and electricity. It’s not meant for human understanding. That’s why people have faith. But faith is something I’ve never been good at. I use God in my songs as an image sometimes even though perhaps I should not. Perhaps I should use something a little more concrete that the listener can conjure a picture of.
I use God in my songs as an image sometimes even though perhaps I should not. Perhaps I should use something a little more concrete that the listener can conjure a picture of.
Drop-D: Male emotion is a subject of great derision from both sexes yet you thrive on expression. Is there an urge to disprove the ‘boys don’t cry’ stereotype?
Yoni: “Derision”. Thanks for teaching me a new word! To answer your question, I am just being who I am.
Drop-D: The famous story is that your teenage self found a four-track in your synagogue and started laying down bad poetry?
Yoni: I got interested in writing when I was pretty young and gradually taught myself with the help of a few key people, through reading and listening to other peoples writing, how to write something that can be read, or heard, and understood in the way that I meant it. It was not an easy task at first but I think I’m getting better at it as I get older.
Drop-D: Your eye and ear for detail often put me in mind of a director orchestrating scenes. Movie metaphors crop up in your songs with regularity, especially in Act Five; “…when the blackened tape runs out/the invisible frames Death tacks to your movie reel/far outweigh the reel itself…”.
Yoni: I do write mostly in images and think visually a lot of times, yes.
Drop-D: ‘Abstract’ is often bandied in relation to your lyrics. Complexities overlap from your obviously personal remote signifiers to sweeping sentiment everyone can relate to; “Today after lunch/I got sick up in chunks“. Detailed clusters of prose and metaphor break poetic rules, not technically making sense. However there are no rules in music as long as it sounds good. Is this why you call yourself a songwriter and not a poet?
Yoni Wolf: The line is actually “Today after lunch/ I got sick and blew chunks…”. ‘To blow chunks’ is vernacular for the verb ‘to vomit’. I don’t really know what the difference is between song and poetry except that at some point when people developed written language, they began to make the distinction between poems that one reads quietly to one’s self poems that one sings aloud. I don’t really understand the distinction or know where the line is drawn. I like to think of myself as an orator in the old sense. Campfire style.
I like to think of myself as an orator in the old sense. Campfire-style.
Drop-D: The late twentieth century saw American culture cast an instrospective eye on its state of affairs. Freaks, families, famous people: satirists spared no one. Was this something you were concious of?
Yoni: I’m not really aware of this trend as such but I’m certain that I am a product of my environment in the most literal sense.
Drop-D: In the same year as new signings Son Lux and Anathallo bring alternative sounds to the label, Why? release a distinctly Hip Hop album. I read that you recorded a lot of material at the time and specifically chose the Alopecia songs as a set. Were these deliberate moves to flummox dissenting voices who argue with the use of ‘Hip Hop’ as a definition of Why? and the Anticon label?
Yoni: No. The songs from those recording sessions were simply divided into two camps to become two records based on a few different criteria.
Drop-D: You played an unreleased song while in Dublin, Eskimo Snow. Is this destined for the other album you recorded at the same time as Alopecia?
Drop-D: You’ve collaborated extensively with other musicians in the Anticon. Collective such as Dose One, Odd Nosdam and Andrew Broder and release under Hymies Basement on Lex. This is a really interesting aspect of your career for me: as someone who writes about the independent music circuit here in Ireland, I find the lack of communication between bands and labels very frustrating. We’ve no similar fraternity here. What inspires you to get intensely involved with other artists?
Yoni: I suppose a kinship in ideas.
Drop-D: How do you recognise good music? Are there intrinsic values of sound that appeal to you?
Yoni: I guess I just know it when I hear it like anyone else. There are definitely no hard and fast rules that make music “good” or bad to me.
Drop-D: Setting up a label’s no easy task, one of our independents celebrates its fifth birthday this month: it’s called Out On A Limb. Have you encountered many obstacles from the music industry during this decade you’ve been working?
Yoni: Sure. It’s a difficult industry and as in any other industry, any individual setting out in an independent manner has an uphill battle ahead of them.
Drop-D: A lot of the crowd at Andrew’s Lane Theatre were musicians themselves, notably BATS and Cloud Castle Lake, two very original new Irish groups. While it sounds a bit cheesy to ask, have you any advice for fellow creatives?
Yoni: Work hard. Say your prayers. Take your vitamins.
Work hard. Say your prayers. Take your vitamins.
Drop-D: So murder, STDs, self-harm, substances, stalking…You sound kinda hardened. Perhaps it’s time for a cottage by a lake? Can you see yourself dropping off the face of the Earth to write novels?
Yoni: Sounds pretty good to me.
Drop-D: When, when, when will we see you again?
Yoni Wolf: Soon, my friend. Soon.
Originally published November 2008, Drop-d.ie