State speaks to Yoni Wolf from Californian abstract hip-hop/indie rockers Why? ahead of their Dublin date this Saturday..
Yoni Wolf has been involved in a lot of projects over the last ten years from revered underground names like cLOUDDEAD and Greenthink (both with Doseone of Subtle) to more obscure releases under his own name and Odd Nosdam. With the latest album from his main musical devotion, Why?, rapper and lyricist Yoni and his band have hit upon an altogether more focused sound. Alopecia (released on Anticon, the spiritual home of abstract hip-hop) is the sound of a band in crossover mode. Thoroughly engaging and vivid, with any justice it should feature in the best-of lists come December.
Just before Why? embark on a 6 week tour including an opening date this Saturday (26th April) in Andrew’s Lane Theatre, State talked to Yoni from his home in Oakland, California. Though the album is a cohesive affair, the man who is largely responsible for its creation and sprinkling it with stark lyrical honesty, Yoni Wolf doesn’t have a lot of concrete answers. Responses usually start with ‘I don’t know..’, always uncertainty before he latches onto some train of thought.
When State expresses a strong liking for Alopecia and asks how he feels about it the positive reaction it has received, he sounds slightly confused – ‘It’s been real good, people seem to like it a lot. I don’t know. ‘
In an effort to engage him further, State suggests it’s a lot more of a pop record. Again, uncertainty leads the way – ‘Yeh. I don’t know… I think Why? Has always been attempting to make hooky kind of music. I have that propensity as a writer to write catchy melodies. It’s what I’ve always tried to do,’ explains Yoni before backtracking and dismissing any pop traits as deliberate. ‘I think it’s less poppy than the last one. I think it’s more raw and people are responding to that. It has a certain…from the gut thing that people like.
With cLOUDDEAD, that had more of an abstract feeling to it. You had to listen to it 101 times before you understood what the hell was going on at all! And I kinda liked that in a way. But with Why? It tends to be a bit more immediately accessible.’
Ironically, the album does contain one radio-friendly moment in the wonderful ‘Fatalistic Palmistry’ which was arrived at by chance – ‘I had a bunch of lyrics written already and as I was sitting down at the piano to put the chorus to the melodies I was coming up with, I started to figure out different parts and ways that..’ He pauses and hits upon an idea. ‘… and this is how I think pop writers work which is why I think that song sounds like a radio song. I started making bridges between sections and altering lyrics, writing new lyrics, a lot to make them fit to the sound that I want them to do.’
Why’s last album 2005’s Elephant Eyelash, though Yoni claims it is a pop record, is a lot harder to penetrate. The sharp focus of Alopecia marks it out from its predecessor and Yoni does agree with State on that – ‘Well, I think sound-wise, Alopecia is more consistent. I think that’s a product of the way it was recorded and everything. Elephant Eyelash was a bit more disjointed and jumpy which I like in a way and that’s also a product of how it’s recorded,’ he enthuses. ‘In terms of content, I think Elephant Eyelash had a bit more of a hopeful thing going for it. Alopecia is a bit more….I don’t know.. a bit darker and a bit more lost in a way.’
‘I would say Elephant Eyelash wasn’t really a rap record at all, it was more of a pyschedelic pop record or something like that. Alopecia is definitely more a rap record. It’s like half a rap record, half a pop record,.. no half-rap, half-rock but not like Limp Bizkit!’
Alopecia is definitely nothing like Fred Durst’s excrementous musical gift to the world. Lyrically, there are a lot of metaphors and inner thoughts splashed across the music and one wonders whether Yoni ever feels awkward sharing these reflections with the public?
‘Oh yeh. Oh yeh. In a way, what happens is, when you’ve sung a song a million times, it kinda loses its meaning for you right then and there. You, on stage become someone who is just instituting the song. You’re just doing the words. Displaying the song for the audience. The part of you that wrote it is a different part of you and stays at home.. for me at least. So, I’m not really thinking about what I’m saying at all times. Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse at what I’m saying and I’ll be like ‘Wow, this is weird!’. But most of the time I’m just trying to sing it right, stay on beat, stay in key. ‘
So why write about yourself in such a revealing fashion? ‘I don’t know. I guess I’m just drawn towards that as a way to relate to people. I can’t say why it [songwriting] happens otherwise I’d be able to sit down and write on command. It happens in very sporadic moments throughout my life. Things come to me as something which seems poignant, y’know? They stick around in my head until I write it down. Sometimes it’ll be the way words interact in a rhythmic way, or how they sound together and their meaning. Sometimes it’s just an idea of meaning and then I’ll expand upon that. I might have a few of those that fit together so I’ll put them in a song or poem, whatever you want to call it.’
Live, Why? Are a four-piece band consisting of Yoni, his brother Josiah, Doug McDiarmid and ‘new guy’, Austin Brown who Yoni used to play with in his Cincinnati days. Although members of Fog – Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson played a part in recording Alopecia, they won’t be touring with the band. For the first time it seems, audiences have been singing his words back at him – ‘They tend to sing along. A lot of singing going on these days. And that’s weird,’ he laughs.
Despite such positive reactions from audiences and glowing reviews for Alopecia, Yoni hasn’t changed his aspirations for the coming months – ‘The greatest thing that I could achieve, right now, is some time off. Some time to start writing new songs, some time alone – quiet time to be able to write and make some demos. Spend some time doing that. Eventually, have another record. That’s my favourite part of the process – the genesis of things.’