Why? – Interview – 04.15.06

2005’s Elephant Eyelash showed a change in Yoni Wolf’s style and direction for his band Why? The lo-fi bedroom hip-hop gave way to a lush kind of indie-pop that held on to its hip-hop sensibilities. For the Silver Jews’ first-ever tour, Dave Berman invited Yoni Wolf to open two of the dates, one of which was at Chicago’s Double Door. There, while the Jews soundchecked above us, Yoni took the time to talk with me about the upcoming tour and his plans for the band.

Loose Record: Is this the first day you’re playing with the Silver Jews?

Yoni Wolf: Mhm.

LR: Oh, it is. OK.

YW: Just tonight and tomorrow, just two days.

LR: Where were you coming from before this?

YW: We played Kansas City last night.

LR: How is the tour treating you so far?

YW: It’s good. I mean, I got some fuckin’ personal shit I’m dealing with … but as far as the tour shit …the shows have been good and the audiences have been really good.

LR: You started in Salt Lake City, why there?

YW: It’s just on the way out here. We basically set up the tour around doing shows with these guys (the Silver Jews). They offered us two shows, opening for them and I would have fucking paid out of my pocket to do these shows so we set up a little tour around it. We’re ending up going out to the east coast and we’re doing a bunch of shows with that band Islands on the way back to California.

LR: Now, how did you end up hooking up with the Silver Jews. I read that you’re a fan.

YW: Yeah, I sent a copy of my new record, Elephant Eyelash, to Dave Berman’s post office box. I got his address from a friend of a friend at Drag City and I sent it there. I got this weird mysterious postcard that he didn’t sign, but I’m pretty certain it was from him, because it was from Nashville, saying that he liked the record. A couple months later, my booking agent said that their booking agent offered (the spots to) us.

LR: How did you hook up with Islands?

YW: I met Nick (Thornburn), he’s the singer in Islands, first at one of our shows three years ago in Montreal. We hung out together because I got with his girlfriend’s sister at the time. So, we hung out that night. He didn’t really make music back then.

LR: This was before he was in The Unicorns?

YW: Yeah, and then the girl that I messed around with sent me some demos of his, they sounded cool. A year later they came out with that Unicorns record (2003’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone) and blew up. We’ve known each other since then and they asked us to do the shows with them and we figured, well, what the heck.

LR: Islands also have Busdriver opening for them before…

YW: I think he’s taking our place…

LR: I just saw him opening up for RJD2. What do you think about the current evolution hip-hop is going through, if you can have somebody like Busdriver open up for RJD2 and then open up for Islands and still be a draw for both?

YW: I think that’s a testament to how the all the lines are blurring between the different genres. I think that happens from time to time and then new things will emerge.

LR: I think it’s in sync right now, indie and hip-hop are kinda following the same lines. When was the last time you were in Chicago?

YW: Like…November. It wasn’t too long ago.

LR: All I remember is that I missed the show.

YW: (laughs) Oh, it was at the Abbey.

LR: Do you enjoy Chicago crowds?

YW: Yeah. There were some rowdy dudes at the last one, they’re kinda like what you call “love knife” material, the kind of fans that are super fans, like they know every lyric but on the real mellow songs they would scream the lyrics…real annoying.

LR: Any favorite cities, any favorite places that you’ve played?

YW: I don’t know, I have good experiences in certain places at certain times, and certain times not as good.

LR: Depends on the crowd, too.

YW: Yeah, show-wise I like west coast shows a lot. The audiences are really nice out there, they’re real cool to us.

LR: Are you looking forward to hitting Japan on this tour?

YW: Yeah, that’ll be a real interesting experience. I actually played there two other times with the whole big Anticon possie thing that DJ Krush brought us out for, but Tokyo. This time we’re touring the whole country. It’s going to be fascinating.

LR: Anything you want to take in culturally, besides just playing?

YW: I just want to see what it’s all about.

LR: I saw you’re playing with a band Limited Express Has Gone. You played with them last year. Is there any connection between them and how the Japanese tour came about?

YW: We played in Boston with them and Deerhoof, and we liked each other. I didn’t talk to them for long periods of time or anything, but they emailed us and asked us if we wanted to come out. They said they could hook something up.

LR: What’s your general opinion on touring? Do you enjoy it … is it stressful?

YW: Um…up and down, I mean it’s a very strange way of living. It’s, um…

LR: Transient.

YW: Yeah, you feel like a traveling troupe of medieval performers sometimes, but it’s definitely grown on me over the years. I hated it at first, I would just get depressed every time. Now it seems like I always have some sort of drama going on while I’m on tour…but it’s all right.

Yoni pauses to listen to the Silver Jews sound checking upstairs.

YW: My god … I can’t wait. (laughs)

LR: So, what’s your live setup like?

YW: Well … it seems like it always changes, right now there’s only three of us. My friend Matt moved up to an island off the coast of Seattle with his girlfriend.

LR: Sounds like a nice life.

YW: Mhm. So it’s drums, vibraphone, more drums, keyboards, Wurlitzer, foot pedal bass, and guitar.

LR: So, how do you stay sane on tour?

YW: It’s tough sometimes to stay level-headed and shit, like I said it’s a weird thing to do. But it’s also kinda cool, because if you feel terrible in a place you just leave it the next day. It works out.

Guitarist Doug McDermit quietly sneaks into the room to steal a beer out of the venue’s mini-fridge.

YW: You stay sober … Don’t go there.

Everyone laughs as he quickly exits with a beer in hand.

LR: Is your brother on tour with you?

YW: Yeah.

LR: What’s it like touring with a family member?

YW: It’s good. We have friction sometimes, you know that feeling, the sibling thing … but there’s also that deep connection there too, which is good too.

LR: Helps ground you, I guess.

YW: Yeah.

LR: With cLOUDDEAD, the thing that blew my mind when I first heard it is that there was really nothing I could compare it to. It was music I found difficult to describe when I was trying to say, “Hey, listen to this it sounds like… blank.” The closest thing I could get was to say ‘Brian Eno producing hip-hop.” What did you take away most from the experience of having that collective of people and then having it dissipate?

YW: I learned a lot from working with those two guys, production stuff to rapping styles. It was definitely a valuable experience for me.

LR: Where do you see Why? moving to next: a new album or just touring some more?

YW: We’re already writing some songs, so we’ll have another album at some point in the near future.

LR: How did you adapt to the change in dynamic when you moved from being a solo project to having other people and family members involved?

YW: I’m still adjusting and figuring out how to make it work. It always takes navigating when you’re working with other people, but we’re getting better at that.

LR: Now that you’re writing new material, has the songwriting style, has it even evolved beyond when you did Elephant Eyelash?

YW: It’s different. Well, the last few I’ve kind of written on the piano and I’ll take them to the guys and we figure out arrangements and riffs to add. It’s always different, I mean that was just the last couple.

LR: The production on Elephant Eyelash was really lush. How much of a struggle was it putting it in a live context?

YW: You just have to think about it different. We’ve gotten good at it because we started playing as a band, well the three of us that are playing tonight, we started playing as Reaching Quiet which was a project I did with (Odd) Nosdam which was all production based…it was a recorded project. It wasn’t something to be live really. Then we ended up figuring out ways to play those songs live. That’s what we’ve always done really is just we listen to the recordings and figure out a way to strip it down, whatever you have to do, you do.

LR: How did the Rubber Traits(Quicktime link) video come about?

YW: I went to Denver to do a video with my friend Ravi Zupa. We ended up picking that song after a while and we had this concept for this claymation thing that was so involved. You know, filming stop motion backwards, all this weird shit and then we had two days left. So, all right, what are we going to do? And his girlfriend is a dogsitter, so there’s always like ten or eleven dogs at their house. So, let’s do something with the dogs, man! So we just ran around for two or three days just shooting all kinds of footage with the dogs and then developed an idea for how it should look. Then I went home and he just went nuts…it’s all Ravi.

LR: So, he’s an old friend? I saw he did stuff with Themselves.

YW: Yeah, I’ve known him since 2002. He’s a great guy.

LR: All the songs on Elephant Eyelash have what feel like are personal touches tucked away inside a lot of surrealist imagery. Which song do you feel is most personal, like you might have bared too much?

YW: Gemini (Birthday Song), probably. She’s coming tonight. Pauses. Shit.

LR: Really? I always think about that, when you have these deeply confessional songs and there’s one person out there, staring at the radio pissed.

YW: She loves it.

LR: She loves it?

Yoni nods.

LR: All right, works for some people. For my own curiosity, on the song “Fall Saddles,” the spoken word, found samples?

YW: That’s my dad, from like the early 70’s.

LR: Many of the Anticon family have a lot of side projects, do you have an collaborations in mind?

YW: Nothing right now that’s happening specifically. I don’t know … we’ll see.

LR: Subtle is playing tomorrow night up at the Abbey Pub tomorrow night. I’m going up to cover that. What did you think of their debut New White?

YW: It’s good. Their new one is even better, I think. I’ve heard a few songs and they’re fucking stellar.

LR: Are you close at all with Dax Pierson? (Subtle/13&God keyboardist critically injured in a 2005 tour van accident)

YW: Not best friends, we don’t hang out all the time, but yeah.

LR: There haven’t been any updates to his website on how he’s doing.

YW: Well, he moved up to the bay.

LR: So he found a place to live?

YW: Yeah. I saw him a week ago at the Subtle show, he’s just trying to navigate how to live like that.

LR: It’s a big change.

YW: A huge change.

LR: With Odd Nosdam’s Burner, who of Why? collaborated on the track “11th Ave Freakout”?

YW: Is that the one with Mike Patton singing?

LR: There’s part one and part two, and Patton was on the second part.

YW: Both my brother and Doug played on the Mike Patton part. Doug played guitar and my brother played drums.

LR: What’d you think of that album?

YW: Burner is great. It’s dark, heavy, perfect.

LR: I love the droney experimental stuff on it. Now, do you know the Cloudead song, do you know why he titled it that?

YW: He called it “Clouded.” I think that sample, or whatever it is that’s making up that song, was originally going to be used for a cLOUDDEAD thing and he ended up pulling it back out for Burner.

LR: Have you seen the video for that song?

YW: It’s dope. His cousin made the video for that. His cousin also makes dope ambient music under the name Drape. Really dope… he doesn’t have anything out yet.

LR: Any influences you can see on your lyrical style?

YW: Bob Dylan, a lot, going way back. Then within the last few years Berman a lot. I don’t know, I don’t think about it like that. It’s an involuntary act for me, writing is not something I sit down to do because something pops into my head.

LR: I think when it comes to you like that, it’s far more personal.

YW: Yeah.

LR: What do you see as non-musical influences?

YW: Well, everything that’s around.

LR: Anything specific from a media context?

YW: I mean early on I would always say something like Monty Python or Kids in the Hall. I always thought that the way those skits were put together, I always really related to that and if you listen to Reaching Quiet or something like that, it’s got all these little skits.

LR: There’s a good sense of humor and satire throughout your stuff. Do you find yourself setting aside time to just write for writing’s sake – poetry, prose, whatever it may be?

YW: Like I said, I don’t really force it. It’s like breathing. The way I end up doing it these days, it just happens. It’s part of what goes on, I don’t really set aside time…I’ve thought about it, I’d like to. I think you have to do that to write anything serious, you have to set aside time, you know for novelists. I’m not there yet, so maybe one day I’ll be there.

LR: A little off topic, but what do you think about how the internet, specifically things like MySpace, is changing things…specifically as a music promotion tool. How do you think it’s affecting things, positively or negatively?

YW: I think it’s good, for people to get their stuff out there. MySpace helps a lot for bands for bands that don’t have labels to get their stuff out. It can’t hurt, right?

LR: Who’s your favorite contemporary act?

YW: Hm… Yoni points up to where the Silver Jews are soundchecking… the Jews, man. My favorite band right now.

LR: In terms of books, have you read anything recently that has particularly struck you?

YW: I just started the newest Haruki Murakami book (Kafka on the Shore). It’s good so far, I mean I’m not more than six chapters in. I can’t remember the last one before that.

LR: You’re vegan, right?

YW: Yeah.

LR: What prompted that decision?

YW: I gotta go back in time in my head now…. I just started to think about things too much, into where things were coming from. The process behind everything. You know, I can be kind of obsessive and it just got to me. I realized maybe it wasn’t the best thing to take part in that whole process, so I cut it out. Now, it’s just habit.

LR: What was your last full-time non-musical job?

YW: I haven’t had a full-time job since I moved out to California. I worked at a flower shop for like three months, part time, but before that I worked at a grocery store, Wild Oats in Cincinnati, then the Library before that. I’d like to say I was a truck driver, but I wasn’t. Now, I kinda am with touring.

LR: That pretty much wraps it up. Thank you, I really appreciate you taking the time for the interview.

YW: Not a problem at all, any time.

Previously published on Loose Record

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