I remember the first time I heard a WHY? track. My friend and I were driving around Little Five Points in Atlanta in her old white Jeep.
It was just turning cold outside, a beautiful October day in 2009, when “Crushed Bones” came on the stereo. It was so articulately vulgar, unlike anything I had ever heard before. Hailing from Cincinnati, Ohio, WHY? consisted of Yoni Wolf, his brother Josiah Wolf, and their friend Doug McDiarmid. Their lo-fi, rap-sung, trip-hop sound made a massive statement in the music community, pulling them a late angst but overtly philosophically minded cult following from fans all around America.
We at Four Over Four decided Yoni Wolf was the perfect introductory to the new section featuring influential musicians, and what’s a better time to talk to Wolf than when he would be in New York on tour.
A couple hours before their insanely crowded and supremely high energy show at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, I got to sit down and talk with him. Yoni walked out of the venue on that awfully humid Sunday afternoon around 4 PM; and after I shook out my cigarette and timidly introduced myself, it became clear he was ready to go anywhere and talk about anything.
After finding a restaurant tucked away on Thompson with cozy outside seating, we sat and ended up chatting for over an hour about everything ranging from his Wandering Wolf podcast, to his collaborative music projects, to his favorite WHY? tracks.
We read somewhere that this is going to be your last tour for a while, why is this?
Yeah, yeah, should be. Im working on all kinds of stuff just, this is sorta on the tale end of the same cycle that’s been going on since September 2012, and it’s just time to do something else. I need to make some more music. I have several different things I’m working on, different projects with different people.
What inspired your Wandering Wolf series?
I just started doing it just to get something outside of myself, something more instantly interactive with other people – a woman walks by and Yoni comments on how she dropped her keys but ever so gracefully picked them back up, and then jumps right back in – but yeah I just wanted something instantly interactive and music is such a delayed interaction for something thats already metaphoric or like… it’s already sort of distilled life. And I wanted something that was real talk, in real time.
Which person in the series has affected you the most?
Ah, a lot of them have affected me. You know? Like ones with people – for one thing, they make me closer to the people I talk to, cause you know, who has the time to have that long of conversation with people? It’s really rare.
And thats one of the reasons I wanted to do it as well. I wanted to be able to have that closeness with someone that I didn’t normally have the chance to do that with. I find that each one has influenced me with maybe just one little grain of wisdom, and thats what you’re hoping to get to with them.
With an album you have time to really get it to the point where every song has to make an impact, and each song should lead to a point of a “eureka” moment. But, I find with concerts and a podcast, there’s always a “eureka” moment or two within an hour or two conversation, so what you’re doing the whole time is just trying to get to that moment.
I find that if I can find the nugget, it always sticks with me in each podcast. So, you know like, from talking to Lou Barlow, I started writing every morning… [pauses] Fuck, I haven’t done it this morning yet. But typically I grab my book and write three pages, and that’s something [Barlow] talked about.
And then from talking to Dave Portner (Avey Tare) I started doing breath meditation. Well I had been doing a meditation and mantra before, but it didn’t work. So he taught me deep breathing meditations. And then from talking to Lorde, I mean, she’s young but has a lot of things figured out. And she’s not beaten down yet, and I am, and she’s invigorating for me. Like she taught me that I really should go out and talk to fans..
What inspired your collaboration with Anna for Divorcee?
Well it’s hard to say. It initially started cause I kind of poached a project she was going to do with her boyfriend at the time, and I was like… yeah… no you’re not. I knew him and I knew her and was like “That’s cool, but you’re not gunna do it.” And I was, like, well we could do something and she was like “Ok!” So, we did it.
Is it a tell-all of your relationship?
You know, marketing has made it seem like that, like it’s ‘her side of the story,’ but we just made music. A couple songs are directed toward me, one is directed towards her dad, and a bunch of different things.
What is your favorite song on the Divorcee album?
The one that touched me the most is the last one, “Law & Order.” It’s very heartfelt and it’s about her ex who died, and her imagery is really nice in there, and I think I captured it in the melody pretty good. It’s slow, but it’s touching to me. But I do like the whole thing together, I had a lot of fun working on it.
What’s your favorite album that you’ve written lyrically?
They all come together in a similar way, I write notes in my phone a lot, and in many different places, so they’ve all kind of come together in that way slowly. There are certain moments I remember. Like I remember sitting at this coffee shop called Gaylords in Oakland, working on “Torpedo or Chrons” and “Mr. Fifths” and worked on those two parallel and I felt like I was really tapping in. Or even “Waterlines” on Mumps, it felt like they were coming together.
In general, most albums have come together in similar ways, but in terms of recording, one thing that sticks out is Hymie’s Basement [a side project consisting of Yoni and Andy Brodder]. A no pressure situation and we had nothing previously, I had come into town to hang out with him and he rented this one inch tape A track and he was like, “We’re gunna do some recording.” So it was one of those nostalgic times.
Whats your favorite city to play?
…New York City… [laughs] I don’t know.
Where do you have your best fan base? You and WHY? have such an intelligent cult following, where do you think it’s heaviest in?
Well thank you for saying that, they are very intelligent people. I feel good in a lot of cities, I mean, you know San Fran, in a way, it’s pretty much where we started. I lived in Oakland, we really started when we lived out there. But, New York is great, Tel Aviv is crazy. They are nuts, and such a great audience. Basically the bigger the town the more receptive it is.
If you could pick one artist to collab with, dead or alive, who would it be?
That’s a hard question. I would just want to be loose and work with a number of people with no pressure and keep it casual, it’s hard when you deal with super famous people. It’s always a weird interaction.
Do we take the weirdness out of the fantasy? It’s hard to say.
When you’re alone, what record do you listen to?
Oh it varies. Last night I put on Majical Cloudz’s album, I like this guy he’s chill. When it’s a mellow time, it might be that or it might be Drake or the Beyoncé record. But that’s just right now, it changes week to week.
I don’t know exactly. I think it’s just time to get in, dig in and try to discover whats going on with me. And thats kinda the way I’ve tended to figure things out, just through working.