Exclusive Q&A WHY?’s Yoni Wolf

After many years of collaborating with Anticon buddy Adam “Doseone” Drucker, Yoni Wolf turned his solo project, WHY?, into a full-fledged band in 2005. While the band employs an appealing concoction of hip-hop, folk, and indie rock, it’s normally the lyrics that get the most attention. Last year’s Alopecia — which found Wolf describing darker situations — was the band’s breakthrough, garnering near-universal praise from critics for its unconventional imagery and a new legion of increasingly devoted fans.

Now, WHY? are back with Eskimo Snow, a more melodic and contemplative album recorded at the same time as Alopecia. We had the chance to catch up with Wolf before his current tour to talk about Eskimo Snow, poetry, and the trouble with trying to describe his music.

WHY?: “This Blackest Purse”
From the album Eskimo Snow (Anticon)

Flavorpill: Eskimo Snow was recorded at the same time as Alopecia… now that it’s been a while since the initial recording, do you feel removed at all from it lyrically or musically? Are you in a different place now?

Yoni Wolf: Yeah, I guess so… I haven’t really been working on new songs so much, so it’s not like I have a stockade of stuff that’s being locked up, necessarily, but I guess it’s a little strange for it to be a little older. But you always get a fresh feel for it, especially when you start rehearsing songs for the live show, which we’ve been doing… you get a fresh feeling for the songs, and you sort of take them on anew. That’s been kind of nice.

FP: Are there any lyrics you wrote for the record that surprise you now?

YW: No… it is what it is, you know? You get used to it. For the first little while when I started recording ten years ago, it would be kind of strange when something was going to come out six months after you finish it. That felt so weird. Nowadays, you just kind of get used to the time delay on things, and your mind turns it into normalness. It’s like when you put on a new pair of glasses and it’s the wrong prescription, and then you get used to it… then it becomes the right prescription.

FP: The lyrics on this album seem a bit more… I don’t know, I guess I’ve heard you say they’re more introspective, and it definitely seems that way, a lot more reflective… less immediate and raw maybe. Do you consider that an evolution of sorts, or was that just something different that managed to sprout up at the same time?

YW: Well, it can’t be an evolution because they came about at the same time, so it’s just two different sides of the coin. The songs separated themselves because of that for one thing, and sonically also. Alopecia is more acid, and this one’s a bit more base or something, I don’t know, but they stick together.

FP: When I introduce your music to friends, the people that usually gravitate to it immediately are poets or writers of some sort, namely because they’re in awe of your lyrics. Do you write poetry when you’re not writing songs, or does your writing always find its way into your music?

YW: Nowadays I mostly write for music… there are some little things that I do that aren’t very lyrical, and they’re more prose-ish things that don’t ever see the light of day. I have this fantasy of one day writing some kind of prose thing, or something a little more linear or story-like. Other than that, most stuff I sort of write considering that it will probably be a song. I didn’t used to write like that until I was doing this full-time.

FP: I know that you guys are about to go back on tour again… it doesn’t feel like there was that much downtime between the touring behind Alopecia and the tour you’re about to embark on. Do you have to stop yourself from considering it an obligation or getting tired of it at this point?

YW: I want to take a vacation at some point. Even when we’re not touring… me personally, I’m always working on something. There’s like, a million things to do for WHY?, there’s always something I’ve got to do, I don’t really get time off. It’s a cool job… in a way it’s not 9 to 5, I make my own time, I do whatever, but in other ways, there’s no real rest from it. My head is always filled with the next shit I’ve got to do, even if I’m not working on it. Whereas if you clock in and out, then you’re clocking in and out, and when you’re at home, you’re just watching your TV, thinking about nothing. I’m not complaining… it’s an awesome job to have, but the touring and traveling so much wears on you, and it can be kind of rough for your physical health and mental health, but it’s all right. In a way I’m looking forward to going back out. I don’t know why, but I am, kind of.

FP: Does the idea of categorization annoy you at all? It’s pretty common to see people struggle to describe a WHY? record to someone that hasn’t heard it. Are you hesitant yourself to try putting your music into any definable genre?

YW: I personally don’t try to categorize. If I’m talking to someone that I just met, and they find out I do music and ask me “What kind of music do you make?” I usually say “It’s eclectic… it’s arty and eclectic.” And it’s lyric-based, I say that. Arty, eclectic, lyric-based… those are my little phrases that I’ll say to people. Whatever… people want to categorize stuff, that’s all right… I don’t personally feel comfortable saying that it’s “folk-hop” or something, but if somebody else wants to say that, that’s cool.