Putting down roots, then pulling them up // WHY? Interview
The first time I try to call Yoni Wolf, an African American woman answers the phone. There's no Yoni Wolf here, she says, ruffled but polite and sounding distinctly like she's just woken up. It turns out one digit in the phone number is wrong, and I've set a telephone ringing in a random house in Oakland in the middle of the night.
A few emails and a few hours later, and I try the correct number. A phone rings. That long flat, US landline tone. It's answered after one ring.
- "Helloooooooooo", they say, in a distorted English accent.
- "Hey, is that Yoni?", I reply.
- "It's Joe," says the Englishman, "who's this?"
- "John Rogers," I say, "calling for -"
- "Sorry… AHHHHH," says the voice, "Ha? Are you fucking me about? Who's this?"
- I pause, unsure whether to laugh or hang up.
- "No. Uh, yeah," he says, now distinctly North American, "It's Yoni, yeah. This is Yoni."
I've just been pranked by Yoni Wolf.
Birds sing and wind blows in the background; Yoni is out at his brother Josiah's house. "We've been rehearsing," he says, "and now I'm chopping wood. A tree must have fallen. Josiah lives way out in the country. I've been given an axe and told to chop wood, so that's what I'm doing."
A lyricist temporarily turned lumberjack, Yoni Wolf has been building a head of steam with his band WHY? for over a decade now. With each album more people rally around their overtly intellectual, surreal, semi-autobiographic brand of hip-hop-influenced indie music. Yoni pours out introspective rhymes, examining himself, his relationships and attitudes; describing environments and situations strewn with illuminating detail, vivid moments and an unerring ability to paint a picture that invokes an eerie sense of familiarity in the listener.
How much of it is taken from life is all part of the game. Some of Yoni's lyrics are hyper personal to point of being confessional. I wonder if there's an element of extroversion to it. "Introversion/extroversion, something like that," drawls Yoni. "It's real internal, personal stuff but you're externalising it… it developed out of being extremely introverted I think, when I was younger, and wanting to stop being that way."
Is making music like therapy, then? "I hope it doesn't sound like therapy," he says. "I make stuff up too, it's not like these are diary entries or anything like that. At this point it's a craft too, when I want to create a certain feeling I can usually try to make that happen."
He sounds relaxed but guarded as he flips through different modes of speech: between the reedy hi-speed rat-a-tat delivery heard on WHY?'s earlier material when in full flow, such as cult classic albums Alopecia, to a slow, affected drawl when he talks about hip-hop, or wants to slow things down to consider the question a little more. Some of the questions seem to take him by surprise; when asked about conceiving of overarching album themes in advance, he's quick to say no.
"That I definitely never think of," he says. "I can safely say I've never sat down and thought, I want this record to be about this. What the record is about is based on where I'm at in the time period I'm working on them. They define what I'm about more than I define what the record is about." So each record is like a time capsule of that period? "If I go back and listen to older records, it does sound like a time capsule, definitely. Some makes me cringe more than others. The early stuff especially, but certain stuff on every record makes me cringe."
So what's life as Yoni Wolf like at this stage of the process, this in-between time? "I've written all the songs for the new record but we haven't recorded it yet," says Yoni. "Up until a week and a half ago, when we started working on these live shows full time, I had a pretty strict schedule. I was working every day, with rarely a day off. Every once in a while I'd take a Sunday off. But just writing songs and making demos. My job was to have one demo done every week, and that's what I did."
Photo Credit: Phoebe Streblow
Wolf gave up his apartment in Autumn 2009, largely due to constant touring from then through until last September. Touring has a an impact on his (sometimes fragile) health, and so this last six months have been spent both music and recuperating - focussing on exercise and diet, and writing the new record. "I live with my parents right now, and I set up a situation, in what was formerly their dining room I guess," he explains. "I put a piano in there… and, uh… shit this dog is getting close to the saw… shit, that would have been a bad scene. That's like an electric saw. But yeah. A piano, some the instruments, and just work and record in there. It's been great. The most productive period of my whole life and the best work I've ever done, for sure."
So what's the WHY? writing process like? "I've mostly always written on piano, usually by myself," he explains. "Eskimo Snow had the most collaborations of all our albums. Our process is always changing. I never go into something knowing how it's gonna work. I have nineteen demos down and send out to the guys, and they'll be writing and enhancing them over the next few weeks, then we record in May. I'm very excited about it, I like the material a lot."
Yoni won't be drawn on working titles or lyrical themes in the new material, so I change tack and ask if it has more in common with the beats-and-samples version of WHY?, or the more recent piano and melodies style heard on their most recent album Eskimo Snow. "I have of the nineteen I'd call rap songs, the other half, I dunno… more melody and chords sort of thing," he says. "I tried to get rid of the electric guitars. Maybe just for stabs but nothing sustaining or long… it eats up so much of the high mid-range where the vocals sit. It's mainly percussion-based I would say, that's the driving force."
I wonder if Yoni likes the dual lifestyles of being closeted away writing for months on end, and then being cast into the constant travel involved in touring. "I haven't quite figured it out yet, especially with my health," he says. "I have to figure out being back on the road… I can't eat food at restaurants, you know. I have to figure out how to do this without getting sick again. I think the fact that I'll have a house that I can always go back to will make it feel a whole lot better. Like, we go out for a month, then come back for a couple weeks, then go out for another month… I think that'll work. But I do like the different lifestyles."
And what's his favourite part of it all? "Most of me is satisfied with the creative process, creating and writing," he says quickly. "But I love to travel, I love to see different places, and I like playing shows as well. So that does satisfy, but in the same deep satisfaction as the creative process."
And it must be exciting to take the new work out in front of crowds. "There's definitely a weird ego satisfaction you get from people appreciating your songs," he admits, "which I tend to think of as the dark side of things. But it's also kinda nice. You can see that people appreciate the work that you do."
And what's next? "Well, I hunkered down all winter, I didn't leave the house more than once a week. I'm going to New York tomorrow, I'm looking forward to some travelling and recording down in Texas. I just bought a house, closed on it yesterday. I live in Cincinnati. It's getting fixed up, and I'll have my own place, which is something I haven't had for years."
Putting down roots, then pulling them up. As you read this, Yoni Wolf's next time capsule is being chosen and packed, and later in 2011 it's contents will be revealed to the world. We can't know what's in there yet, but the wait will be worth it. Every WHY? album is a treasure trove, and this latest one will be no different.
Written by John Rogers