INTERVIEW: Yoni Wolf / WHY?
May ??, 2005 — permalink
Why? is a question that should be posed on a regular basis. Yoni Wolf, coming from Oakland by way of Cincinnati and repping Anticon,Anticon was a record label founded by Wolf and a coterie of friends, including Jel, Doseone, Sole, Alias, and more, in the late 90s. It began as a bombastically avant garde rap label (
music for the advancement of hip hop was an early slogan), but slowly devolved into putting out rather bland and boring electronica, with some exceptions (namely Young Fathers). With the death of Alias, the label has officially shuttered, and even their website no longer exists. weaves unforgettable images through inquisitive music that is personal and anonymous all at the same time. On the new Sanddollars EP, Why? blends the homemade hip-hop and bedroom rock of Oaklandazulasylum with a new-found songwriting strength and the result is sublime. I caught up with Yoni Wolf at the Horseshoe Tavern, as he and his band passed through Toronto on a chilly May night.
everyoneisdoomed: When you’re starting a new project, how do the acoustic and electronic elements of your music interact with each other during the songwriting process?
WHY?: When you say
acoustic what do you mean?
EID: I mean performed as opposed to programmed.
WHY?: Well, everything I do is performed, even on record. I don’t program anything. Even if it’s sampled stuff, it’s generally played somehow as sounds. I don’t get into the whole computer thing really. I use a computer for tracking a lot, but I dont know programs that allow you to do sequencing and stuff like that.
EID: I was glad I heard your soundcheck, because the songs sound really different from the way they do on record. How does that sort of metamorphosis happen? Is it a necessity of the people you’re playing with?
WHY?: Part of it has to do with the people I’m playing with and how they play, but part of it also has to do with the nature of playing live. When you record, you can have 90 tracks and keep layering stuff. When you’re playing live, you have to pare it down. We have four guys in the band, so we can only do four things at once. Well, with Doug,Doug McDiarmid, multi-instrumentalist who has been with the band since 2004 and remains there to present day. he seems to be able to do three things at once, so I guess we can do seven things at once. [laughs] Sometimes we just change stuff live for the sake of it. Someone will try something different that sounds cool and we’ll just play it like that for a while.
EID: At your soundcheck you played a new song from the Sanddollars EP. Do the new songs also undergo that kind of a change when you’re playing them live?
WHY?: No, the new ones change less so, especially because these other guys were involved in recording more this time around. If there’s a part that MattMatt Meldon, multi-instrumentalist with a more on-again, off-again history with the band. played on the record, he can recreate it live. When I was making stuff by myself, we’d listen to the song and then making a live arrangement was a different discipline.
EID: Are the new guys involved more in the songwriting process now?
WHY?: They are involved somewhat in the songwriting process. Definitely.
EID: I wanted to ask you about your involvment with Anticon, something you’ve been involved with since the beginning. It’s a label that’s comprised of many different styles and artists, but it’s generally known as a
hip hop label. There are some elements of hip hop in your music but it's not always the focus. I’m wondering if you consider your music to be an extension of hip hop in some way, or is it an extension of folk... where exactly does it fit in with that kind of lineage?
WHY?: I don’t know. I think it’s homemade music. That’s what it definitely is. It’s part of this
honest thing that’s been going around. [laughs] I don’t really think about genre, especially if I’m in the process of making music. I used to think about it as being an extension of hip hop and I would try to be held back as little as possible by that word. Now I just kind of do it. Maybe I think about it as being more
pop songs, but what does that mean, you know? It’s not popular.
EID: Generally, when people say the word
pop and they’re not talking about top 40 stuff, they mean that it sounds pleasant: It’s not too noisy and it’s got some nice hooks.
WHY?: Exactly. I try to make stuff that sounds pleasant but still has that homemade quality to it.
EID: ...and why is that
homemade quality important to you?
WHY?: That’s just kind of how it’s always been. I think when music starts to sound godlike or too slick, it separates from you and it’s harder for it to touch you, you know?
EID: Yeah, definitely. I wanted to try something different for the last half of the interview. I find your lyrics to be very picturesque, very thick with images. I wanted to mention a few of my favourite lines, and maybe ask some questions that those lines have triggered in my head. The first is ChallengerReferring to the Challenger space shuttle, which exploded on live television on January 28, 1986. commemorative button pinned to the chest of my brown down vest. I was wondering if you could tell me about an historical event where you can remember exactly where you were when it happened.
WHY?: Well when the Challenger blew up, I think I was in the basement of my elementary school in the library sitting in front of a TV that they had brought in. I don’t think that was right when it blew up, but it was the day of, and they had us come down and watch it.
EID: You mean they had you watch it after the fact? Like, it had already blown up and they wanted all the kids to see it?
WHY?: Yeah. Or maybe I’m getting that confused with some other taking off of a space shuttle. Maybe my wires are crossing here. I remember watching the OJ trial in eleventh grade in American history class. Obviously there’s 9/11. I was sleeping in Queens at a hotel and my friend JeffJeffery
Jel Logan, MPC wizard, Anticon collective co-founder and one half of the excellent rap duo Themselves. ran into the room and said
shit is happening. I thought the world was ending and we turned on the TV and we looked outside and there was smoke everywhere.
EID: Wow. You mention place names a lot. Fairmount, Whitney, etc... And you also mention wanting to make homemade music. How important is place to the music you’re making?
WHY?: It’s very important. I’ve pretty much only been able to do one record and an accompanying EP in each place that I’ve lived at. It’s weird, but it seems like I have to move to a new place before I can actually do something else. I’m not very settled as a person, I don’t think, so that just seems to be the way it works. Not only that, but the recording process totally changes depending on where I am, the setup I have, what I’m recording on, and the people I’m working with. It’s different every time and I think that keeps it fresh. The place also affects what I’m doing each day, like where I go to have coffee or eat breakfast or whatever.
EID: There are very few microwaves in the third world. What are some strange places that you’ve traveled to, either on tour or on your own? What are some of the most interesting places you’ve seen, or what was the biggest culture shock for you?
WHY?: Eastern Europe was pretty strange. We were in Sylvania and Croatia on tour and we were in this town called Murska Sobota, in Sylvania. We played a show, and there were about 40 people there. They were all drunk when we arrived at 5 in the afternoon.
EID: Did they know your music or did they just show up?
WHY?: No, no. No one knew our music. The promoter did, this guy named Ivor. He was the only one that knew the music. We played at this sort of community centre and these kids were all hanging around. There were fourty people in the room when we started playing and within about two minutes there were like five people left. Everybody else was standing outside drinking. It was weird, just really strange. Japan was really weird. Tokyo was very strange in a very different way. It’s all neon and just crazy.
EID: maybe you shouldn’t call him that until he ropes one. That line about a cowboy kid got me wondering about what kind of games you might have played when you were a kid.
WHY?: My brother’sJosiah Wolf, drummer, has been with the band since the beginning. He also released a solo record and EP and did some touring on his own in around 2010. here too, and he plays drums. There were two really weird games that we would play when we were younger. One of them was called
suffocation. Basically we would take every comforter we could find in the house, every blanket and every sheet, and we would lay them out on the floor all nice, you know? Then, one person would curl up in a ball in the middle of it and the other person would fold up each blanket and sheet and kind of weave it, and weave the next one and weave the next one, until you had about fifteen covers over you. Then the person on the outside would say
go! and would time how long it takes you to get out. If you were really struggling and you felt like you were about to die you could yell out
suffocation! and the other person would pull you out of it.
Another game we played was called
sleeping bag revenge. We’d usually play it when we had a friend over. One person would leave the room, and the other two people would set up all these traps: a bucket on the door full of legos, all kinds of toys to trip over and other little traps. The person in the other room who was singled out would have to put a sleeping bag over their head upside down like a ghost so that they couldn’t see anything. They would get called into the room and basically just wander around getting caught in all of the traps, tripping over things, having stuff fall on their head.
We also had lego fights. We had these glow in the dark legos and we’d hold them up to the light for like twenty minutes to get them really charged up. We’d pour them out into a pile in the middle of the room, turn out all of the lights, grab handfuls of them and start throwing them at each other and running around. By the end the whole room would look like stars.
EID: if an ape can take an interest in his hairstyle. There’s two places where that line shows up: once on Themselves’ album and once on your own. It made me wonder what aspects of human behaviour you find the strangest. What do people do that is strange to you?
WHY?: Oh man, there’s just so much. [laughs] I don’t think I could pick just one thing. We do tonnes of strange stuff. Most of it has to do with sex. The mating rituals we have are just bizarre. I mean, I try to be conscious of what I do when I’m doing it. Even then I’m sure that 80% of what I do, I don’t know why I’m doing it. Other animals are so uninhibited that they’ll just run up and try to hump each other. And you know, I’ve been there and it just doesn’t work. It never works. I get bucked. [laughs]
EID: something about this is clowns with knives. Do you have any outstanding phobias?
WHY?: I’m getting better. When I was a kid I was rife with phobias and crazy shit, OCD kind of shit. I was scared of crayons...
EID: ...do you remember why you were scared of crayons?
WHY?: I don’t know. I got sent to a psychologist, but I still don’t know what that crayon thing had to do with, quite honestly. It was really serious though. I would freak out. I’m getting a lot better, though. I still don’t really like dirty things. I don’t like to touch something if I know it’s been touched by a lot of people but there’s nothing too outstanding anymore.
EID: One last one for you but it’ not really a lyric. On Oaklandazulasylum there are two parts where you take a big breath like you’re about to say a line, but you don’t say it. When I first heard that sound I thought,
why would he leave that in there, that’s a mistake? The more I listened to it, the more I thought it might have been more than even intentional...
WHY?: Well, the one on the song Bad Entropy just implies that I’m holding my breath, or it can imply that I’m about to say something but I don’t know what to say. Sometimes, I leave stuff like that in because it sounds cool, because it’s a happy accident. I might accidentally cut the vocals off and it sounds cool like that and I’ll just leave it. These days, barely anything is a happy accident. I just get too involved and I think about the music too much, and I hope you can’t hear that.