May 17, 2005

Interview: A Long Conversation With Why?

Why? is the project of one Yoni Wolf, an Oakland-based lo-fi hip-hop meets folk meets experimental meets whatever pops into his head kind of fellow. He's a member of the respected Anticon crew, and he's been a member of several notable projects, including cLOUDDEAD and Themselves. It is with Why?, though, that he has come into his own, using the moniker for his solo work. And, truly, his stuff was solo, as until recently, Why? was a one-man gig. Records such as The Early Whitney and Oaklandazulasylum did not go unnoticed by the independent world at large. His latest EP, Sanddollars is an even further stylistic shift, as the record introduces a full-band version of Why? Sean Padilla recently sat down with Why?, who are Yoni Wolf (vocals/guitar/bass/keyboard), Doug McDiarmid (keyboard/guitar/bass/vocals), Matt Meldon (guitar/bass/vocals) and brother Josiah Wolf (drums/vocals).

I noticed that there’s a difference between the album Oaklandazulasylum and the new EP Sanddollars. Whereas the album is more computer-band, the EP sounds like a full band and has more live instrumentation. I was wondering how that came about --- how you guys became a band, and how the EP was recorded.

Doug: Yoni, for a long time, has been a “bedroom hermit” kind of recording artist…which is exemplified by Oaklandazulasylum, which he did largely by himself. When it came time to tour on said album, we had to go through as a band and come up with arrangements for obviously different sounds on the record, ‘cause it was done largely on computer. During that process, Yoni was so utterly blown away by what we had to bring to the table… (Everybody laughs)…and we started coming up with arrangements for new songs. A lot of them are actually old songs, but now everyone has a bit more input.

Josiah: Also, it’s the first time that everyone’s lived out here.

Yoni: We’re all from Cincinnati, Ohio, and we all moved out at staggered times. I moved out to the Bay Area in 2001, and these guys came to the Bay Area, one after another, later on.

Have the four of you written any new material together since the formation of the band?

Yoni: Not really on the EP…but there’s an album coming out in September, and about half of those songs were written collaboratively. They weren’t written by all four of us, but some songs are by me and him, me and him…(points to other members of the band)

Do any members other than Yoni pitch in with lyrics, or do you guys just help out with the music?

Josiah: Only on the music…on the full-length, some of the riffs are written by the members of the band. On the EP, the chords and music are all Yoni’s, although we all play on it.

(To Yoni) I had previously seen you perform with Reaching Quiet at the Orange Show in Houston.

Yoni: Oh, really? Two of the guys in my band were in Reaching Quiet as well. That’s a neat place, a very weird place.

I remember the Reaching Quiet album (In the Shadow of the Living Room) being a big, sprawling record with lots of ideas all over the place, whereas the Why? stuff seems to be more concise. The songs are two-to-three minutes and tend to have more actual verses and choruses, instead of hopping from one tangent to the next. Was that a conscious progression, or did it just happen naturally?

Yoni: I think that the Reaching Quiet record is the way it is it because I’m unlearned. I figure things out as I go along, and with that record…I had a poem that was a certain length, and I would just start recording music and try to fit the poem over it. Nowadays I’ll have a poem, but it’ll be put to music before it’s recorded. That makes a difference, I think. A lot of the Reaching Quiet record was about production ideas. For instance, there’s “Slow Polaroids,” in which the guitars are panned hard and go back and forth from one speaker to the next. Whereas now, I’m not as fixated on little anal ideas, and I paint with broader strokes. That’s why I say that the Reaching Quiet record is good to listen to on headphones, whereas the stuff I’m doing now is better for stereos.

Strangely enough, I’ve never listened to the Reaching Quiet stuff on headphones and I’ve never listened to the Why? stuff on a proper stereo. (Yoni chuckles)

Yoni: Oaklandazulasylum is a good one to listen to on headphones as well. There are lots of details in it. The production on that one was way labored over. It’s sort of an extension to the Reaching Quiet record.

(To the rest of the band): Do the three of you play in any projects other than Why?

Josiah: I play drums in a jazz band in the Bay Area, but that’s about it.

Do any of you have formal training on your instruments?

Doug: I met Josiah at the Conservatory of Music.

Yoni: We kinda grew up taking piano lessons. I took a couple years’ worth of piano lessons with Doug, but I learned more about the instrument from my dad.

There’s one song on Sanddollars called “Next Atlanta” in which the main line is “Atlanta smells like exhaust.” Were there any other cities you guys have played in or traveled to that hit your senses in the same way…even if it’s not the smell, but something that stood out in your minds.

Yoni: Every city has something about it that strikes you.

Doug: Some are more memorable than others.

Yoni: I have San Antonio in a song on the full-length that comes out in September. It tends to be more of a situational thing…

Doug: You pretty much remember the best, the worst and the weirdest.

Matt: Salt Lake City…I don’t think it was the best or the worst city, but it was very memorable because it’s so strange…the people we met there. It was a good show, but the show itself wasn’t memorable. It was more about the people we met.

Doug: One of our most memorable shows was in Slovenia. We were supposed to play somewhere in Austria, but the show got cancelled so we quickly set up a show somewhere else at the last minute. It was this small, really poor town. I don’t know how far from the capitol it is. The promoter was really nice. We actually had to come to the border because the border guys were being really difficult with us. Eventually, the promoter just told them that we were a jazz band in order to break through….so if you ever want to play in Slovenia, just tell them that you’re a jazz band.

Yoni: That’s everywhere in Eastern Europe, though.

Doug: The place was played was this weird youth center with maybe 15 people moshing outside, completely drunk and heckling us in broken English.

Was it the good kind of heckling? Did they enjoy the performance?

Doug: It was pretty hard to tell. The few people who listened, we confused with our music.

Yoni: It was similar to those two guys in Raleigh…very similar…

Doug: …but those two guys weren’t fans.

Yoni: It just reminded me of that whole “I hate you/I love you” kind of thing.

What other countries have you guys played in?

Doug: We’ve toured Europe. A lot of Germany, a lot of France, and a lot of Sweden. We’ve played in Serbia and Croatia, which was wonderful.

Yoni: This summer we’re playing Portugal, Spain and Italy.

(To Yoni) How often do you write poetry nowadays?

Yoni: It depends on where I am and what I’m doing. That’s a really good question. When I’m on tour, it’s kind of a rarity in a way.

Doug (to Yoni): Have you written any this tour?

Yoni: Yeah, a little bit.

Doug (to Yoni): You wake up in the middle of night with a notebook and a Dictaphone.

I’m sure the creative process is different for everybody, but I figured that it would be harder to write while on tour because of the lack of solitude and constant movement.

Yoni: Yeah, that’s what makes it tough…always being around people, I don’t always get the headspace necessary for words to come to me. It’s a little bit tough, but they still come. They come in the middle of the night, or in the back of the car on the way to somewhere.

It seems like a lot of the songs on the Why? records are inspired by actual situations or people in your life. Do you get any bursts of inspiration from things that aren’t necessarily directly related to your life? For instance, seeing a movie or a painting and having it inspire you to write a song?

Yoni: Sometimes, I’ll see a movie. That’s a really potent time. After watching a movie, I think it has a lot to do with having meditated for two hours on one thing. You’re not saying a word, you’re staring in one direction and focused on something. It doesn’t really matter what kind of movie, but it’s got to have heart to it. I couldn’t write after watching an action film, of course.

Doug: Well, you wrote “Early Whitney” after Air Bud. (everybody laughs)

Yoni: Yeah, that can happen. Just random words can come that don’t mean anything specifically in my life, but have a certain feeling to them that I want to convey. Not everything is directly about my life, though.

I didn’t get the feeling that the songs were like diary entries, as much as they were just musings that had a little personal touch to them.

Doug: Yeah, musings and reflections on various things.

There are two extremes when it comes to that. You have to hardcore autobiographical people, and then there are the people who go, “I want to write a song about squirrels today…”

Yoni: You must have some of my early stuff, then. (everybody laughs)

Was Sanddollars recorded at home, or have you guys done any work in an actual studio?

Yoni: We mixed that in a studio with Tony Espinosa, as well as the upcoming album. We did a couple of things at a studio, but most of our stuff was recorded either at my house, Josiah’s house or my ex-girlfriend’s house.

Does it feel a little bit more comfortable to record at home?

Yoni: I think so. At a studio, there’s this rush that kinda be cool in a way, but can also be limiting. You feel like you can’t do it exactly how you want to do it because you have to do it right then. Doing it at home, you have more time to reflect and think about exactly what you want.

Doug: Plus, we don’t work the songs out in practice and then record them. We kinda figure out arrangements as it’s being recorded. If I want some guitar in a certain part, I’ll bring Matt over.

I’m about to ask a question about something that I’m pretty sure you guys get asked a lot about.

Yoni: Is it about hip-hop?

Yes. (Ashamed) (Everybody laughs.) I know that a lot of people write about how your music is breaking the “traditions” of hip-hop, but I want to take a different tack on it. What was the most recent hip-hop record you guys heard that genuinely moved you? This isn’t a springboard to talk about the state of hip-hop or whatever…it’s more like a ‘What should I buy next when I go to the record store’ kind of thing.

Yoni: First of all, you’re using the term ‘hip-hop,’ and that’s cool. It means something to me, but for everybody it means something else. I think that the Madvillian record that MF Doom and Madlib did was the last thing that came out that I really liked.

Doug: I would agree.

Yoni: And that’s not counting records that I was involved in. I helped with the Pedestrian record, for example.

To me, I think the Why? stuff is just as ‘hip-hop’ as Madvillain. I recently had the pleasure of seeing KRS-ONE live at Antone’s, and it confirmed for me a lot of the beliefs that I personally hold about hip-hop---that it’s not a specific sound as much as it is the aesthetic behind the sound.

Yoni: I’ve always felt that way as well. I think we have a similar way of thinking about it. We probably grew up listening to the same kind of music. How old are you?


Yoni: I’m 26, which is pretty much the same age group.

I do like, though, the fact that although your lyrics are still delivered in that rapid-fire hip-hop style, there’s a much greater emphasis on melody. I hear that in everything you’ve done from cLOUDDEAD onward.

Yoni: I’ve always felt that melody is a tool, so why not use it?

Some of the harmonies on the cLOUDDEAD stuff are unbelievable. Does everyone in this outfit sing as well?

Yoni: Everybody sings…not on the record, but definitely live.

Are the harmonies as complex?

Yoni: We do what we can.

Josiah: We don’t have a Dose One in the band, but we’ve got this guy…(points at Doug)…who is the second-best thing.

Do you still keep in touch with the other cLOUDDEAD members? If so, what are they doing musically now?

Yoni: Yeah, I still keep in touch with them. Odd Nosdam just finished a full-length that comes out on Anticon in a couple of months, which is pretty great. Dose One is just doing a shitload of stuff. He’s got Subtle and he’s got 13 + God, which is a collaboration between Themselves and the Notwist.

I end up buying most of the records eventually, but I can never figure out the names and faces of people. It just kinda blurs into one big Anticon.

Yoni: That’s something that has been following us over the years. It’s just been the nature of things. I don’t know why.

I think it’s cool, because it’s almost become a seal of quality. If I see the name Anticon, I know that it’s something I’ll want to at least listen to once or twice.

Doug: It’s a blessing and a curse, but more of a blessing.

Yoni: I think we’re sort of the odd man out on Anticon. We’re still definitely hip-hop influenced, but not as obvious as other people. Sometimes we got straight up hip-hop fans coming to our shows…

Doug: …and they love it! They always love it.

Matt: Some people. There’s definitely been some that weren’t into it as much.

I couldn’t imagine people who are familiar with the Anticon name having an instant negative reaction to your music, unless they’re really staunch hip-hop purists.

Matt: Some people just know about Anticon through Sage Francis, and they go to the show because we’re with Anticon.

They go, and it ends up sounding nothing like Sage Francis, even with a live band.

Yoni: Right.

While reading up on your music, I found out that you and Josiah were both raised by a rabbi. I wanted to know if you were still practicers of Judaism, and if so…or even if not, how your faith or lack thereof has influenced your music.

Yoni: My dad was never a real rabbi. He was in a sect of Judaism called Messianic Judaism that believed in Jesus as the Messiah. The rest of the Jewish community doesn’t really see them as valid Jews. It was an interesting upbringing, but as far as our beliefs now, we’re not really into all that stuff. Does it affect my writing?

Doug: Probably not consciously…

Josiah: How could it not?

Yoni: Well, it was my childhood. It was where my whole childhood was at.

Has your father heard your music?

Yoni: He loves it now. For a while, he wasn’t really into it, but we gave the Sanddollars EP to my mom and she gave it to him. He loves it. He’s a songwriter himself, and he’s really into pop songs and stuff like that, and this stuff has a little more of that sensibility. He’s been able to latch on to this stuff and get into it. He came to two of the shows on this tour, which was encouraging in a way.

(To the rest of the band) How about your parents?

Doug: My mom likes the Sanddollars EP, and my dad went to one of the shows. It’s pretty accessible.

Yoni: Doug’s brother loves it. His brother came to three shows on the tour.

Josiah: It’s kinda branching out to where we’ve got people following us around the country…family members. (everybody laughs)

Matt and Doug (in unison): That’s how it starts.

Yoni: Then you’ve got a bus following you…with grandmothers jumping on trampolines and playing vacuum solos (more laughter).

I always think it’s cool when I go to shows and the artists’ parents are there, and they’re beaming and proud while watching their kid. The last time I remember that happening was at a South by Southwest. I can’t remember the artist, but I do remember his dad walking into the club with a cane and nodding his head to the music.

Yoni: It’s nerve-wracking for me. Those are the only shows on tour in which I get nervous.

Matt: There’s some added pressure because you want to impress them…

Yoni: …and make them think you’re actually doing something worthwhile in your life, when you’re really not. (laughter)

Who is Mutant John? (the titular character from Sanddollars’ final track, whose e-mail address Yoni gives out during the chorus)

Yoni: He’s a friend of mine from Israel, actually. He’s been e-mailing me recently, asking me, “What is this I hear about a song about me? Everyone’s e-mailing me now!” (everybody laughs) I apologized to him but he was like, “No, I love it. There’s all these interesting people that I get to talk to.” I think he’s pretty lonely out there.

I actually didn’t think he was a real person. I thought to myself, “This is a pretty cool conceit for a song --- I wonder if anyone’s going to actually e-mail that address.” (laughter)

Yoni: He actually had a deep funk band called Mutant John, but it’s called the Pit That Became a Tower now.

Josiah: He’s a guy we grew up with in my dad’s congregation, and he’s into the whole Christian Jew thing. I guess you could call his current band Christian indie-rock.

Yoni: Have you heard the Danielson Famile? He’s kinda the one who hipped us to Danielson Famile. Since then, we actually got to do some shows with Bro. Danielson.

Are there any other bands that you’ve come across this tour that just blew you away?

Yoni: I’ve liked a couple of bands that we’ve played with.

Doug: There are a lot of them that are really fun to watch live, but then their CDs are just okay.

Yoni: I really liked those guys in Montreal. I can’t remember what they’re called.

Doug: They were called…uh, Donkey Heart?

Yoni: I could see potential in those guys, mainly the main dude. I think he calls himself Dishwasher. (laughter) He gave us his CD, and I think it has a lot of potential. He needs to be sort of refined.

Doug (to Yoni): He kinda reminds me of you when you were 18.

Yoni: He reminds me of myself when I was 18, and I think he’s got a lot of potential.

What do you think is the difference between the music you made when you were 18 and the music you’re making now?

Yoni: Now, it’s a lot more contrived and thought-out. (everybody laughs) It was pure and real…and it sucked back then, but now it’s okay. (more laughter) Back then I had four tracks, but now I have 100.

If you were able to travel back in time to see Yoni at age 18, what advice would you give him?

Yoni: I’d say, “Go back to school. Get a degree in business.”

Doug: “Do something productive with your life, boy!”

Yoni: “Maybe law. Do something.”

That’s pretty harsh. (everybody laughs)

Yoni: You know, everything you go through you’ve gotta go through. You learn it how you learn it. There’s no way to know otherwise unless you’ve actually done it.

I can’t listen to the stuff I made when I was 18, but I know that if I didn’t make it then I wouldn’t be making the music I’m making now.

Matt: If I didn’t play in that Steve Miller cover band, I wouldn’t be playing the hot licks I’m playing today! (everybody laughs)

Actually, that reminds me of one of my housemates who used to play in a Jewish ska band called Skazeltov.

Yoni: That’s off the hook! (laughter)

Therefore, every time he tries to make a judgment regarding music, I simply say “Skazeltov” and he shuts up.

Yoni: That’s a classic example of a band that’s based around its name.

Josiah: Ska is similar to klezmer in that sort of upbeat, fast tempo…

Yoni: “Why am I doing this to myself” kind of stuff? (laughter)

I have one more question before I stop the tape for real. I have two questions about the song “Vice Principal,” because it’s one of my favorites from the EP.

Doug: I’m sorry that we don’t play it.

That sucks. (laughter) The first question is: what was that song inspired by? The second question is: was there any advice that your guidance counselors gave you in high school that stood out, either because of how on the mark it was or how off base it was…and did you listen to any of it?

Yoni: That’s a good question. I can’t honestly say that I have a really good answer to that.

Doug: That song is so off the cuff, though!

Yoni: Well, the first question I can answer but I can’t really answer the second. As far as the song goes…I wrote that in 2000. When I was writing songs back then, sometimes --- the “Miss Ohio’s Nameless” song was written back then…

I actually have the Miss Ohio’s Nameless EP!

Yoni: Well, the title of the Sanddollars song came from that EP, but that song wasn’t on there. I was fooling around because my parents had a piano, and I moved back in with them after living in an apartment for a while. I would write these little things, and I would have melodies to them. Any word that would come to my head I would just sing, and then I’d refine the words later. The original words to the “Miss Ohio’s Nameless” song were like the Wizard of Oz --- (sings) “I am the king of the forest/With a pocket full of dough” --- and then I’d kinda refine the lyrics into what is it now. With the “Vice Principal” song, though, it never really happened…so those are pretty much the lyrics. It was about my sister --- “You can do anything/ You just found your calling” --- I just thought it would be funny to make it about this vice principal. I was always into second-string things…you know, how like Robin is a second-string superhero, or how like the vice principal is not quite the principal. I’ve always identified with that character. It means something to me now…well, it meant something to me back then but I had always meant to go back and refine it. The only reason why it got recorded was because my brother was really into it. He’d say, “Play that ‘Vice Principal’ song; I really like that one!’” He kept pestering me to do it so I said, “Fine…we’ll do it, but I don’t have the lyrics done.” He said, “No, they’re fine!” Doug came over and laid down some ill licks on the tables, and that was it.

That’s one of the reasons why I like the song so much --- the combination of the piano and the turntable scratching.

Yoni: It’s a weird kind of texture, isn’t it?

Yeah, but it’s cool! The turntable scratching goes right where you’d normally expect a guitar solo.

Yoni: Exactly. That’s what we were thinking. “We’ve got this one verse. It’ll be too short if it’s just one verse and a chorus, so we’ll add another verse and put something cool there. Maybe we’ll have a keyboard solo or something.” Then, we thought of the turntable thing and that seemed like the perfect thing, because the sounds are so contrasting. It’s almost like a tap-dancing rhythm the turntables are doing…

(Imitates the exact turntable solo with his mouth): Like that?

Yoni: That’s exactly it. He did it once, and then I made him learn the whole thing and he doubled himself.

Doug: Yoni’s a slave driver in the studio. (laughter)

That’s awesome. I noticed that the lyrics didn’t really stick to one topic, and usually when that happens, I end up getting images in my head to fill in the blanks. When I listen to “Vice Principal,” I think of my high school guidance counselor sitting me down and saying, “I think you might be wasting your brain power with this whole music thing. You should be using your mind for science and law!” (laughter)

Yoni: That makes sense. Unfortunately, I don’t have guidance counselor stories. I got into a couple of fights with some vice principals in my high school. Dr. Howe…

Matt: I had my run-ins with him as well.

Yoni: He was a good guy. I was highly emotional, manic-depressive or something like that. In 11th grade, I went through a serious period of…when I was in a car, I would think, “I wish this car would crash.” That kind of shit. That’s just background information. I got sent to Saturday school for something stupid, and I thought it was ridiculous. I was talking to him and was like, “I’m not coming on Saturday…whatever.” He got upset with me, and I just started crying and acting crazy. (laughter)

People get pretty crunk in high school. I remember when I was high school, I actually set my ID on fire and this crowd gathered. It had to be broken up by a bunch of police officers. I was pissed off because I had been sent to detention for not wearing my ID, and there were people trying to blow up the school that didn’t even get caught.

Yoni: That’s good. I like people who actually get upset about stuff like that. I get upset about stuff like that. Then, there’s the other 90 percent of people that just do anything that they’re told to do and don’t question why they’re doing it.

Well, I’m certainly glad that you didn’t have to deal with any guidance counselors and their crappy advice. Thanks a bunch for letting me do this interview with you guys!

Doug: No problem. It was actually one of the better ones we’ve had to do.

Yoni: Yeah, thanks a lot!

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hey my brother played drums for mutant john
they actually named a song mutant john?
ha ha cool