“The conversation goes where it goes”: An Interview with Yoni Wolf (of WHY?)

The first time I saw WHY? was on their tour supporting Mumps, etc. in 2012. It was the night before I left for Germany to do a year of study abroad. I only knew a handful of songs and as such had failed to purchase a ticket in advance. A friend of ours who’d been listening to WHY? for a while did not make the same mistake. We followed him to the gig to see if we could, by some miracle, make it into the sold-out show. It was a relatively small college town venue, so tickets for resale outside the venue weren’t likely.

We knew the venue pretty well and decided to hang out near the artist entrance. Sure enough we managed to meet the group’s second percussionist for the tour, who offered some advice on a way we might be able to sneak in. He let us into the backstage area and within half an hour we were in a packed crowd singing along to ‘The Vowels Pt. 2.’

After the show I identified as a full-time WHY? fan. I spent most of my year abroad listening through their discography on repeat. The year after Mumps, etc. they released the Golden Tickets EP, followed by a few years of silence which came to a close courtesy of last year’s Moh Lhean. After missing them on that tour, I was thrilled to learn of the 10th anniversary tour for Alopecia just under one year later.

In addition to acting as front man, primary songwriter & producer for WHY?, Jonathan Avram ‘Yoni’ Wolf hosts The Wandering Wolf podcast and has guest starred, produced & collaborated on various other albums, including a collaborative album with rapper Serengeti (remember the 2014 supergroup Sisyphus?), who’s performing as an opener for this leg of the tour.

WHY?’s music incorporates folk, hip-hop, electronica, piano balladry, indie rock, and a host of other labels, all of which adds up to much more than the mere sum of its parts. Yoni’s lyricism (not to mention delivery) is sharp enough to slice through melancholy or exaggerated self-confidence, depending on the day.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Yoni before the show for a chat.

MLP: How did you decide to tour for the 10th anniversary of Alopecia?

Yoni Wolf: It worked out timing-wise, basically. We had done two tours on Moh Lhean already and we didn’t have a tour for the fall, and we knew we wanted to re-release the album, so it just seemed like it made sense. You can’t really put something out and not tour on it, because you’ll lose money. You gotta get out and play the album and show people what you’re doing, what you’re selling.

How did you first get involved with Joyful Noise and what’s it like to work with them?

They’re really easy to work with, for sure. They’re really good people, and pretty on top of their business. We did an EP with them called the Golden Tickets EP, which is like a WHY? album but it’s a side project of WHY? I would say. That went well, so we decided when it was time to do the full-length, to do that with them as well.

How did you come up with the idea for the Golden Tickets?

It was sort of an evolving idea. It started with an idea to boost sales on the web store, for merch. [We said] Okay one person a month that buys something from the web store, their name goes into a hat, then we randomly pulled [one out] and that person gets their theme song written and recorded by us. That’s how it started. And then there was some global catastrophe stuff, like the Fukushima reactor happened, so we did one for charity for that, for the Red Cross. And then we did another one for tornadoes in Kansas that destroyed a town. It kept going like that, just finding reasons to do it. We actually had a whole second album’s worth – we do have another album’s worth – of those. We did a tour shortly after that and we wrote a song for one fan every single day who bought a ticket for the show. We looked through the ticket list, randomly picked a name and then wrote a song for them and brought them up on stage during the show.

Did you release any of those?

No. We recorded them in our studio at home, but they never came out. We may still release those at some point.

And you’re still offering, people can still pay for one of those songs about themselves, through your Patreon?

That’s true, yeah. But that may not happen. That’s like if someone gives me a hundred dollars a month for a whole year. I actually do have one hundred dollar patron.

Yeah?

Yeah. But we’ll see if she continues through the year. If she does, then next August I will write a song for her.

[As Serengeti starts his soundcheck, Yoni gets up to close the door to dampen the sound.]

How did you get the [Wandering Wolf] podcast rolling or how did you keep it rolling so long?

I started it, I guess in 2013. I just felt like I needed an outlet of something external to myself. That way I’m doing something that’s not just music from my own head. Started doing it then, and just kept rolling. I did a hundred episodes one hundred weeks in a row, so just shy of two years. After that I decided, ‘alright, I’m not getting anything else done in my life except the podcast, so I sort of turned it into a ‘whenever I do it, I do it’ type of thing. That’s where I’m at right now. I’m trying to ramp up a little more. That’s going along with this Patreon feeling of like, I want to do the podcast more and the only way to do that is to make a little money off of it…to ease the pain of poverty, no I’m just kidding. I have done a few more recently. I did two podcasts in Israel a couple days ago and hopefully I’ll get a couple more while I’m here [in Europe].

mdePhoto by Tijana Perovic

On the press junket for Moh Lhean you talked a bit about how you’re in a much more positive place, and how when you were touring the earlier stuff it was kind of a trial to go out on stage every night and deal with that semi-negative energy. Has that come back re-touring this album? Or is it a different kind of approach?

It’s a different approach. I’m in a better place. I was a mess ten years ago. I was pretty sick and didn’t know it exactly; losing a lot of blood, and my mind was not working right. I was in a dark place. Touring on it, I mean. Now my body is monitored by doctors, I keep myself in a level place. I keep myself okay. Looking back on this older material for me now is fine. It feels like going back to a previous time and not living in it.

You having fun with it?

Yeah, so far so good.

[Someone has left the door open after entering. Serengeti is still doing his soundcheck. Yoni gets up to close the door again.]

Thanks for that, you know what its like recording on the go.

Yep, I do.

I think one of the biggest surprises for me in reading up on WHY? – because I’ve been listening for a long time but I had never really read up on your life or the band’s history before – I was really surprised to learn that Eskimo Snow came out of the Alopecia sessions. When you were recording that material, did you have a feeling that it was two distinct albums?

At first we thought that it was one album. I made demos for everything, everybody learned all the songs, we rehearsed, blah blah blah, and it wasn’t until about halfway through recording that my brother and I started to talk about it, like ‘you know, some of this stuff sounds one way and some of it sounds another way. Let’s see if we can pull two albums out of it.’ It’s a lot of material. I had just been very prolific I guess, the year before that, in writing. We said, maybe let’s split it into two albums. We started thinking about which songs went together with other songs, and it actually wasn’t that hard. There were only like two songs, maybe, that felt like they could go between the two albums. Other than that, everything pretty much naturally teased out.

Do you remember which songs specifically?

I think ‘Simeon’s Dilemma,’ seemed like that could have gone either way. ‘Fatalist Palmistry’ seemed like it could have gone either way. Maybe ‘January Twenty Something’ felt like it could have been on Alopecia.

Would ‘These Hands’ have gone with it?

I don’t know. The way I put those together came later. They weren’t blended by all that stuff I made in the middle for the transition. So probably not. ‘These Hands’ is almost the epitome of an Eskimo Snow song, you know what I’m saying?

That’s really crazy.

Yeah and you know I finished Eskimo Snow first. And that was supposed to come out first. We brought it to the label and they were like ‘eh. You have anything else or whatever?’ So I said ‘oh well I have this other stuff.’ So I played them ‘By Torpedo or Crohn’s’ and ‘Song of the Sad Assassin’ and they said ‘we like that stuff, can you finish that one up?’ So I was hustling to finish it. We recorded three more songs for Alopecia in Oakland, and hustled to mix, master, and put that one out. Then I remixed and remastered Eskimo Snow and added a couple little things here and there after Alopecia came out. They’re really one thing. They’re kind of like sister albums, but very different as well.

Was the video for ‘These Hands’ and ‘January Twenty Something’ conceived of as one whole or were they separate pieces?

It was conceived together by the same guy, Ben Barnes. It’s a two-parter obviously but yeah, he conceived of it like that.

Has any of the text, the lyrics from Alopecia jumped out at you in a new way on this tour? Or does it kind of bring back old memories?

It’s more like muscle memory, because I’ve been singing a lot of these songs for ten years. I like it, I think a lot of it’s really funny. It’s cool material.

Any lines that are your favorites or that you’re most proud of having written?

I always used to be proud of those lines in ‘Fatalist Palmistry’ where every syllable rhymes: “a pet bird caught in a jet stream, that’s me/You count them blessings because your net worth oughta be/less cream in your best dreams,” I liked that. Just because it’s funny, it’s poignant and it rhymes.

Have you managed to “shirk this first world curse?”

Uh, no. No I haven’t.

[There is an awkward pause at my forced quoting of off-topic lyrics (the hook from ‘Sod in the Seed’: “I’ll never shirk this first world curse/A steady hurt and a sturdy purse”)]

You recently produced an album for The Ophelias. How was that process, working on the production side of material that wasn’t your own?

Good. Kind of hard at times, I’m used to having my say creatively, and this was a situation where it was definitely a collaborative process. I had to make sure the band liked what I was doing. I tend to take things pretty far; I like out of the box production, I like stuff that sounds different and unique. The band was used to a certain thing that they had done, and they sort of struggled to accept a whole new look and feel, but I think we ended up with a good happy medium. I think it actually benefited from the push and pull. I love the band, and their first album was great, which I didn’t work on at all. And the second album’s great too.

How did you find them?

They’re from Cincinnati, where I’m from. I stumbled upon them at one of their shows. It was in the park across the street from my house. I happened to be there and thought ‘whoa this band is good!’ You rarely see such a unique sounding band in Cincinnati at a park festival. You usually see more punk stuff, funk stuff, but this was its own thing, and it was really neat. So I met them there, became friendly with them and I now happen to live with the bass player. [chuckles]

How did you and Serengeti decide to collaborate on the album Testarossa?

We had done, actually this album [shows his T-shirt]. This is Family & Friends, the Serengeti album cover. We had done that album together, or half of it, and the other half my friend Owen did. But we did that and enjoyed working together. That was sort of on a whim, he liked my stuff and I really liked his stuff a lot, so we decided to work on some songs, it went well, and we said ‘let’s do some more shit.’ He came down to Cincinnati for maybe ten or eleven days, and we did a song a day. The initial stages of a song per day, anyway. We just kind of worked out the bones and I worked on the production a bunch at home when he wasn’t in town, and then he would come back to town for a couple days, we would work on a couple more songs, he’d go, I’d mess around with the production more….that kind of thing. I think the results are awesome. I think it’s a real cool album. One of my faves that I’ve worked on.

Where did the vocal samples on Alopecia come from? Is it you?

On ‘The Fall of Mr. Fifths,’ that guy at the end there? No, that’s not me, that’s Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy from a movie called Old Joy.

[At this point I was rather embarrassed that I hadn’t researched that bit, and moved on rather than pressing the issue at all. I wanted to ask why or how he decided to sample a film so recently released at the time (Old Joy is from 2006 and Alopecia 2008). I also meant the spoken word part which opens the track ‘Song of the Sad Assassin’: ‘Sometimes I pretend to know a guy but I can’t tell you what his hands look like,’ which sounds like it probably is just Yoni.]

Have you been reading or hearing anything you really liked lately?

It doesn’t feel like I’ve been settled enough for that, but I’m trying to read this book called Trip. I’ve started it but I can never find time to read. Maybe in the van I’ll try to read, but then I’ll get nauseous. Trip by Tao Lin.

I know you’re a fan of his.

Yeah, I read his last book, Tai Pei. Real interesting, super intense writer, intense guy.

You also had him on your podcast.

He was on the podcast, yeah.

You’ve got such an enormous archive of stuff I’m just starting to dig into.

There’s a lot! There are a lot of really good ones you may not even know are good, like people you never would’ve heard of…

What’s your number one of those?

Like this old, old, old, one, like maybe in the first twenty episodes, of this guy that my brother and I grew up with named Jordan Feinman. So if you find that one, listen to it. If you’re into like, spiritual stuff or spooky…it was just an interesting one. And I really liked talking to this guy Brent Weinbach, who’s a comedian. I don’t know. There are just some hidden gems. Aaron Weiss is really good, the guy from mewithoutyou, though people have heard of them. Those are really good episodes. There’s a lot of good ones out there. It’s sad, [but] … I feel like with something like a podcast, they sort of just fade into the ether… who really goes back – some people do, once you really get into a podcast, you go back to the beginning and check them out. I do sometimes, but you know, when there are already a hundred episodes you can’t really catch up. But they’re there. They exist in the world.

Did you and your brother make much music together before WHY?

We would fool around with music. I wasn’t a super serious music person until we started recording, when I was like eighteen years old. Before that it was more about visual arts and my brother was a music guy. When I was in college, we had a band. That was the first band that we had, it was called Apogee. Like a freestyle funk band. Probably wouldn’t age well if you were to hear it now. We would just get together and jam, hang out and play. The rehearsals were really the fun part. We played maybe four shows, and they always felt a little bit ‘stressy.’ It was all improvisational, but rehearsals were awesome.

What’s it like playing with him now?

It’s great, we only argue about tempos.

What’s the latest with click-tracks?

Oh we don’t use click-tracks. Oh! In recording we do sometimes, but not live. I just mean live, we don’t really argue about recording… well, maybe we do sometimes. We’re pretty good together. Do you have siblings?

Yeah, a bunch, but they’re all back in the states.

Are you from the states?

Yeah. Oklahoma.

Okay, how long you been here?

About 4 years.

You’ve picked up a tiny bit of an accent, like a little bit. I was thinking like ‘damn man, your English is pretty good, you don’t have much of an accent.’ But you’re from Oklahoma.

Is there anything you wish you’d get asked but never do?

No. I enjoy conversations like this; you wrote some notes just in case, but you’re naturally asking based on where the conversation goes. That’s what I prefer.I’m not a huge fan of canned question interviews. So this was great, this was perfect. I always ask that to my guests, I ask ‘was there anything I missed’ just in case there’s a whole part of someone’s life that I missed, but by and large I think the conversation goes where it goes and that’s what it is.

 

 

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