Favouring the approach of a guitar band with hooks to the abstract “dicking around” that made his first group – seminal outer limit hip-hop trio cLOUDDEAD – such a curious breed, Why?’s forthcoming third LP sees lynchpin Yoni Wolf continuing to dole out his compelling epiphanies with an untouchable kind of colloquial finesse.
Flanked by his brother Josiah and Doug McDiarmid, the trio was joined by Fog’s Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson to produce this stellar sequel to 2005’s critically lauded Elephant Eyelash (64 in Our 66). The opening gambit of Alopecia’s first track (‘Vowels Pt. 2’) suggests that it's not all change though, as Wolf sums up the premise by returning to a lyric he spat in a previous life: “I’m not a ladies man, I’m a landmine.”
DiS steps inside Mr Wolf’s melodic realm of motivated defeatism – not to ask the time, don't be daft – but to talk about those bittersweet sentiments that make his songs fly, the woes of Ghostface and the continuing transformation of what was once a simple solo affair...
Yoni Wolf? What are you up to?
I was just typing some shit, not doing much…
Well, I’m doing an interview for some Italian magazine… sometimes I get deeper into these questions if they’re typed out, I start thinking about what I’m writing. You’ll see, I’ll say a lot of stupid shit to you that won’t make any sense. When I’m typing it all out I get to read it again and go, “Oh, I’m an idiot”.
Italian rags on e-mail, DiS on the blower – busy times then. Itching to get out on the road and play some of these new songs of yours?
I don’t know what the fulfilment in singing my songs to people is exactly, I have the sinking suspicion that it’s just an ego boost, which I don’t want to be lead by and maybe in some years I won’t be interested in that anymore. There’s a part of me that does enjoy performing, for sure, but I think I’d enjoy it more if the lifestyle and the travelling was easier. As it is, it’s a pretty difficult thing to do in terms of maintaining any kind of health in your body or mind. Anybody who hasn’t done it thinks I’m a pampered pussy for not really enjoying myself touring and anybody who has knows it’s really hard. It might not be like working in a foundry or a car factory but it presents its own set of difficulties.
The opportunity to do something a bit different while you’re on tour seems to present itself here and there, though. Your MySpace reckons you’re playing a gig at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles next month…
They have a monthly night where I guess they’re trying to get the younger generation into taking up a museum membership or some shit, I don’t really know – but they’ve asked this woman to curate shows for them and we go way back with her. It’ll always be special on its own if you’re playing in front of a bunch of dinosaur bones.
Can we expect to see you over here, in the UK, once you’ve escaped Jurassic Park?
Yes you can. I think we’re hitting the UK first when we get to Europe, in late April, maybe early May. We’ll definitely be there.
Why? photographed by Sarah Cass
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Ace. This rather outstanding album you’re about to release recently ‘leaked’ its way online. As an independent artist, where do you stand on music theft?
My thoughts are that it’s just inevitable these days, and as time goes on it’ll just become more and more difficult for that not to happen – you can’t fight that. It’s like having ants in your house. I had ants in my house last week, and you can keep killing them or whatever but there’ll always be more. I feel like, in the coming years there’ll be institutions or sites set up to pay artists and labels for what they’re doing but it’s just at a point where you can steal or share albums off the internet, y’know? In many ways it’s good, we’re going on tour in a couple of months so the more people that have heard it and know the songs, the better. Although, I find that it’s actually not too easy to steal music. I dunno how you are about it but I actually tried to do it recently and I couldn't work it out. I figure the people doing it are this select group that are internet savvy. They’re gonna do what they do, and if they like the record – I’m confident about the record, I think it’s a good one and I think that people are going to respond well to it - they’ll tell their friends about it, maybe they’ll buy it from the store. I don’t hate on it. I heard about (this thing) on YouTube where Ghostface Killah’s talking to his fans about the first week of his new record’s sales and he’s like, “I’m disappointed in you guys, you all stole my record from the internet, only 30,000 of you have bought it so far”.
I’ve read about the encounters you’ve had with a few of your own fans and that refrain on ‘Simeon’s Dilemma’ made me think about the problems that might bring from time to time: "Stalker’s my whole style, and if I get caught I’ll deny, deny, deny.” The suggestion of certain neuroses in your lyrics must appeal to all sorts; no obsessive maniacs camped out in the back garden to report?
I hope not, man. I get weird phone calls every once in a while, but I’m a lot more fuckin’ sick than any of the fans I’ve got… so I’m not worried about it.
True to its title, Elephant Eyelash spoke a lot about getting old and what you referred to at the time as “a certain longing”. With Alopecia, again, it’s all in the title. I hear a lot of lyrics with a similar melancholy and playfulness, mixed in with allusions aplenty to loss and decay. It seems as though you’re coming from the same place, so what distinction can you make between this record and the last?
They’re both about longing, but I think there’s a certain resignation in Alopecia. I guess there was a breaking point for me, and so it becomes a little more absurdist than before. I’m just making jokes on the new one really, from deep down. On Elephant Eyelash I was trying to win somebody over, on this one I’m saying: “I can’t.”
Video: Why?'Rubber Traits’ from Elephant Eyelash
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Those sentiments often appear quite candidly. Are you ever compelled to write more character-driven narratives in the third person, at least for the sake of protecting yourself?
Yeah, I’m learning how to do that and creating characters that I feel akin to in some way. There are pieces of me in there but also pieces of other people and certain songs maybe have some sort of universal appeal because of that. On this record I’ve been able to think outside of myself a little more, or maybe they’re just metaphors for me…
That’s an approach your mate DoseOne seems to specialise in. It’s all over those Subtle records. Do you still bounce ideas off of him or are you making efforts to stay away from one another’s palette, post-cLOUDDEAD? I hear a cheeky echo of ‘I Heart LA’ in ‘Good Friday’...
He gets deep into that. I think we’ve had a longstanding difference of opinion in our writing. Recently, I’ve been writing a lot more personally than he has. He has created - like with the Subtle records - all these characters and backdrops for that world. All that stuff belongs to Science Fiction and Fantasy. In the past few years I’ve gotten more and more into my own personal world. I might create characters in a certain way, like I said, but they’re more related to my own experiences.
Are you essentially collecting snippets of conversations and scrawling on Post-Its with what will become nicely executed nuggets - like “Billy the kid did what he did, then he died” - until you have a record’s worth in your pocket, or is writing and recording more a continual process that you can keep running simultaneously?
I can’t sit at a desk like Hemingway or something – that’s not me. It’s a continual process, I may spend a day not really doing much and have a couple of ideas strike me that seem like epiphanies and that might be all I do, is write a line. By and large they come in these little waves, there’ll be a string of them that all fit together. I write these things as they come to me and I’ve gotten good at honing in on ideas. Other days I’ll sit and work on a song all day, ten hours or something. Could be recording a demo or writing and rewriting the way they the chords sit together. There’s no set way that I can work, I haven’t figured that out yet.
You had Boards of Canada and Xiu Xiu on board to help out with reinterpretations of a few new songs to go with the Tomlab version of the lead EP from the album [The Hollows]. Did those collaborations meet your hopes? Is there more of that to follow?
I like all of those remixes and covers, I think everybody did a great job and they all came out differently to what I expected, I couldn’t be more pleased. As far as doing more of those goes, we have a few more that are being worked on right now by a couple of different groups. You know that guy Yacht? He’s working on something for us, as is Architecture in Helsinki.
Why? photographed by Jacob Hand
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They’re not touring with us, but we just rehearsed all the songs with them and they definitely influenced this music a lot… they colour the record quite a bit. Andy and I are real close… ever since I went out to his studio in Minneapolis to do the Hymie’s Basement record (MySpace). He’s a great musician, he fits in perfectly with my brother and Doug, they’re both wizards on pretty much any instrument you hand them, and they can just rock it. Mark’s a solid bass player too. We wanted to do it pretty much live and couldn’t do that with just the three of us. They seemed like the prefect guys to add, Andy’s so versatile and Mark holds it down.
With the numbers in Why? expanding, album by album, has the band become something of a democracy or do you still reserve the right to lay down the law in the studio?
Recording is different to playing shows, which is more of a democracy. When we’re recording I’m a little less apt to let it be loose, definitely. If I don’t like it, it’s got to go. Making Why? records is the only place in my life where I’m able to exercise control. I want it to be perfect and the best it can be in my eyes and ears, so I don’t fuck around. I’m not worried about hurting someone’s feelings when it comes to recording, in the studio I trust my own ear better than I trust other people’s ear.
What you’re recording nowadays with the band – worlds away from the lo-tech bedroom endeavour of old – feels much more immediate than the abstract style that cLOUDDEAD was famous for. Was that always the intention, to set about making records with a heavier pop inflection?
I started recording music before I knew how to write songs at all. With cLOUDDEAD, we didn’t know anyone would hear any of that, we were just dicking around in our apartment. I think I’ve gotten better as a song craftsman, once you start doing it all the time things just start coming to you. I work a long time on these songs, I think back in the day when we were doing cLOUDDEAD it was a lot more random, and that’s what it was about in a way, like “Oh, listen to what happened on that take, that’s crazy, lets leave that in there.” Whereas, now, I’ll sit with a song and scrutinise for a long, long time before recording it and continually say, “Ha! There’s one note in there that’s not quite right, let me switch that.” I’d say I’ve gotten more into the melodies and rhythms of the words and better at tweaking rhymes. There’s your key into that whole pop thing.
Now you’re not just messing about, has making music become a necessity for you, as much as a hobby?
I was just talking to my friend about that today, we make these little life decisions that funnel into who you become as a human and what you end up doing and how you spend your days. I guess I made a bunch of small decisions that lead to me becoming whatever I am now, my lifestyle’s pretty much based around making records and advertising them on the road. I can’t really separate my being from that; if I could I would probably have a girlfriend. It’s nothing I can control at this point.
I’ve heard that the name Why? originates from the tagging moniker you used as a kid. Interestingly, I clocked a gigantic Why? emblazoned across the side of a warehouse when I was in San Francisco last year …
I’ve seen that too…
I have my suspicions. Does that kid still come out to play on occasion?
I didn’t do that… I didn’t do it! There must be some other graffiti guy named Why? here, I’ve seen a couple of his things around, he’s really good actually. I haven’t done it for years; it’s been a long time…
Tell it to the judge, Mr Wolf.
Deny, deny, deny!
Video: In Search Of Why? (part one)
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Alopecia is out on March 10 via Tomlab. For more information and US tour dates check MySpace here.