Yoni Wolf (WHY?): Interview
“It’s about a guy that takes girls on the lake and kills them.”
We’re taught it’s mostly specifics that matter when imparting or receiving information, yet in the presence of Yoni Wolf of WHY?, who is responsible for helping to create some of my favorite music, the eerie question about motivation kept creeping in. Wolf explained to me that WHY? was his childhood graffiti tag, and he thankfully humored me by doing his best to answer the rambling, mystified questions I posed. I did manage to glean that the new material WHY? will be playing on their upcoming tour is going to be more like Alopecia in terms of the tightness of the writing, but for the rest, read on.
Do you feel there are different audiences in the US and elsewhere who wouldn’t understand quite how you’re approaching a combination between everyday language and something a bit deeper?
I think what you do as a poet or as a writer is you sorta take the world and your experiences and what you see around you and you distill it: especially in writing poetry or lyrics, ‘cause it’s such a short form y’know; you distill it to the point where it becomes a very potent solution — or it should be — and you only write what words are necessary to get across the idea or feeling that you want to get across and nothing extra. So it’s an interesting process of editing and whittling down, and building back up and paring back down.
Definitely Alopecia is a lot tighter than Eskimo Snow, and I’ve read a lot of interviews with you guys where you seem almost protective of Eskimo Snow because so many people gravitated to Alopecia for that reason.
That’s not true! I don’t prefer Eskimo Snow. I prefer Alopecia. I wrote Alopecia, for the most part, after I wrote Eskimo Snow. Eskimo Snow is not my favorite thing that I’ve done… there are definitely lots of things about it that didn’t come out the way that I wanted them to. And there are things about Alopecia that are that way as well, and that’s just the process of making records; that’s just how it works. I feel like I get closer and closer to how I want to say things, what I want to say, and I feel like what I’m working on now is the closest, but I’m sure it’s not the closest that I’ll ever be. Maybe that’s the last one — but I definitely feel like I’m always getting the hang of things, like how to work with other people well, and I definitely have gotten a lot more of a handle on the craft of writing in the last couple of years.
I get deep into rhyming structures, especially on this new record: it’s gotten pretty out of hand, but in a good way. I haven’t studied rhyme structures in school, but I grew up listening to all kinds of rap music and all different people’s styles, and how they do what they do. And then you just start toying with things, you start seeing if you can rhyme every syllable in this line with the next line in a couplet, so that you have a couplet that both lines — every syllable rhymes, or different things like that. And see how it marries with the content, y’know. And that’s when I really like things, when the rhyme structure or the melody really marries with the content well, that’s when music is at its best — or word music is at its best — otherwise it could be on a page. But that’s when I get excited about it.
“There was a satisfaction that I had, knowing that what was coming out of that 4-track were my ideas, my feelings, as unhoned or as tacky as a lot of them were.”
Do you have any preferences as regards what’s happening at the moment, do you feel any kinship with what’s going on right now?
To be honest I live an extremely isolated lifestyle; I don’t have many friends. The friends I do have are people that I work with pretty much — I work all the time: I live a sad-ass existence of isolation and I don’t really know exactly what’s going on out there in the world, because I’ve ended up occupying myself with these self-absorbed matters of making records and writing these little songs, so that’s kinda what happened to me, and I’m not super happy about it, and someday I expect things to change again. But that’s what I’ve fallen into recently, so hopefully I’ll dig myself back out of that.
I think I understand how sometimes you need to get rid of all distractions and become obsessively focused on something… And I do hear a lot about this struggle in your lyrics, how to keep yourself going physically and mentally. Am I getting the right impression?
I definitely struggle with my physical health — that’s true — without a doubt. And it is always a struggle, and it does affect my mental health a lot, so yeah, it definitely becomes out of necessity a major part of my life day to day.
There’s this lyric of yours where you say that you’ve gotta yell something you’d never tell nobody.
I do have a feeling that even if I’m writing about something that didn’t necessarily happen to me in the same way, there is a certain… I think truth is not about the facts of what happened, but it’s more about the feeling — honing in on the emotion of things, not necessarily the dates and figures, so yeah, that’s more I think what I mean by that… I definitely try to stay true to those things, even if some of the story is embellished upon, d’you know what I mean?
I do, I think. I wanted to ask you how what you’re doing musically differs from Eskimo Snow — you mentioned that it was a bit tighter?
It’s a lot tighter than Eskimo Snow, it’s tighter than Alopecia… It’s very tight ‘cause when I’m left to my own devices, which is pretty much what happened on this record, I tend to go into a chasm of tightness… That’s what I tend towards, whereas y’know something like Eskimo Snow had a lot of collaborative songs and the idea was that it was supposed to sound like a band playing together. On this album, I wrote all the songs myself and made pretty extensive demos for arrangements and we just recorded in a very tight way and the lyrics are all very tightly written and scrutinized. So it is that way, I hope it doesn’t come off as too tight, but I like it. These are very punchy songs, more punchy songs than Alopecia or Eskimo. The mixes are very clear and crisp. Doug and Josiah play on every song, and they play most of the instruments, but it’s not like those albums… It’s supposed to sound more produced or more arranged.
And you play piano don’t you? Is that something new — or something you’ve been doing since forever?
Oh yeah, I’ve played piano since I was little, but I’m not a good pianist by any means. I use it as my tool to understand music: as a composition tool… I’m not a musician in the way that Steve Vai, or Glen Gould are musicians. I’m a songwriter and a composer and an arranger, and I use all that for practical purposes. I’m not a player in the same way. The other guys — Doug and Josiah — are players. I’m not an improviser whatsoever either… It’s a tool for writing. I’ll write a melody in my head, and I’ll figure out chords for that melody on the piano and then figure out a cool bassline on the piano perhaps and then play it on the bass after I learn it on the piano or… My main instruments would be drums and percussion really.
So if you see yourself as someone who’s got the responsibility for the drums in the band. Have you been doing anything differently with that on this album?
Yeah, this album is extremely drum- and percussion-heavy. I would say that’s the main thing other than the vocals, the drums and percussion, and the bass guitar — a lot of bass guitar on it — so yeah, it takes a front seat in a way.
“I definitely struggle with my physical health — that’s true — without a doubt.”
You’ve performed a cover of The Smiths song “Half a Person” that I really enjoyed. And I was just wondering have you recorded any collections of these songs you’ve covered, or is it just for fun?
It’s just been for fun, for now. Maybe in the future I’ll put together a covers collection. That would be cool.
How about your collaborative work right now? Are you doing anything with the other Anticon members or are you just mostly working on your own stuff?
Well I’m mostly just working on the WHY? record right now, but about a year ago I recorded some songs with my friend Serengeti, and he’s gonna be coming on tour with us for this whole tour, so that’s exciting for me, and I really like the songs that we did together.
I wonder can I get in any requests at this stage, or would that be a little cheeky?
I think it might be too late, I think we’ve already come up with the songs we’re probably gonna be working on, but what would you want to hear?
I really like “The Fall of Mr. Fifths.” How about you?
I like “The Fall of Mr. Fifths,” I do…
What’s going on in that song?
It’s about a guy that takes girls on the lake and kills them.
Oh really? I didn’t realize it was that dark. I used to listen to that song to pick me up….
But that’s not really what it’s about. That’s the story that I’m telling, but eh, yeah…
I’ve read that you started out doing home recordings and using 4-tracks. So during that time when you were younger, did it bother that you were doing it in a makeshift way when other people seemed to be serious musos around you, or did you just get on with it?
Oh no, I mean everyone around me was doing things in the same way I was doing them, on 4-tracks, and just little samplers. My stuff might have been more lo-fi, because I didn’t have quite the understanding. I wasn’t as talented at engineering maybe back then. I’m pretty good now, but it’s taken a long time to learn, and I’m still not a real engineer. But yeah I mean, that’s just what we did back then, that’s what we had, and we worked with what we had, and I still work with what I have. Though I have maybe more at my disposal now and more people that I can work with now that are talented, and you know, money helps.
I’m working now with a mixing engineer, who I’m actually very much on the same wavelength with, but you know, he’s expensive — he’s not cheap. He’s very good at what he does, and now I can afford it, and I’m doing it because I want the album to sound a certain way. But 12 years ago, 15 years ago, I couldn’t have done that, but I wouldn’t have been ready; my music wouldn’t have been ready anyway. My learning curve was such that I grew as an arranger at the same time as I grew as a writer and an engineer, and all that came together in a way. So, it is what it is. Unfortunately, because of that, and because I recorded some of my early stuff that sucked, it’s still out there and available, whereas somebody like Joanna Newsom, say: she didn’t record anything until — as far as I know — until her first record that came out, when she had already perfected her writing really. So yeah, it’s different for everybody, but I took the scrappy way as I always have and I always do, learn as you go, DIY approach, that’s how. I’ve always been that way.
So when you say that’s how we all started out, do you mean the label….? Were you all in the same boat?
Yeah, I mean me, Dose, Soul, Buck 65, Alias, Nosdam, Jel, Manee?, Slug, everybody started in the same way — Mr. Dibbs — everybody started making shit on 4-tracks and 8-tracks and learned better and better what they were doing and eventually got better and better at what they’re doing. This was the underground, yknow.
“And then you just start toying with things, you start seeing if you can rhyme every syllable in this line with the next line in a couplet, so that you have a couplet that both lines — every syllable rhymes.”
Yeah, it’s interesting, because a lot of those people are revered as producers now.
Well, you know, I didn’t like the dirtiness. It’s not like I was trying to make things lo-fi, it’s just what I had at hand, and I just did what I could with what I had. And regardless, there was a certain sound that would come out that I knew was me, whether it was good or bad or whatever. There was a satisfaction that I had, knowing that what was coming out of that 4-track were my ideas, my feelings, as unhoned or as tacky as a lot of them were.
Why did you come up with why? Why WHY? And how did it start?
It was my graffiti word when I was a kid…
So it was just your tag then, always?
That was my tag, yeah.
And… where did it come from, or was it just a little bubble in your head that came from nowhere?
It was just a word I like y’know.
So since you’re about to embark on tour, how do you feel about it? Are you the type of artist that hates touring, or are you looking forward to it this time?
I’ve gotten a lot better at it. I’ve enjoyed it more over the last while, but it’s hard for me. You know, I have major health problems, and touring can exacerbate that in a [major] way, and that can become really hard. Ad like I said, my physical affects my mental and my mental effects my physical, and I can go into a downward spiral and act like a fucking maniac, and that does happen y’know. But when things are going well — when I’m healthy — I love travelling, I love seeing new places and meeting new people, and I love performing. So it just all depends on how I’m treating myself while I’m out. Like, did we take good care to make sure that I’m eating right or that I’m sleeping enough, and you know that kinda stuff. That may sound stupid or trivial and a lot of people would be like, “Who cares about that?” but for somebody like me, it makes a huge difference whether I’m healthy or not, and that makes a huge difference as to whether I’m enjoying my life or not. It can be tough sometimes to do what I do, but it’s also a blessing: It’s the fact that you would actually be interested is a blessing, and I have to look at it that way.