Asking Why?

by Matt Gonzales

He's not known for honesty, but on Yoni Wolf's new album, he's not taking the piss.

Yoni Wolf is in Salt Lake City pumping gas (“Not too bad, only $2.87 a gallon,” he tells me), and the wind must be blowing, because my reception is shit. After we exchange the initial phone-call niceties, he asks abruptly, “Hey, you mind if I take a piss?” No, not at all, I tell him. Moments later, I hear a door shut. The reception becomes crystal clear. I ask Wolf what he’s doing in Utah.

“We are in Salt Lake City, just getting out of town here,” he says over the sound of piss hitting toilet water.

“We’re doing this weird thing where we’re driving across the country to start doing shows,” he continued. “We live in Berkeley [California], and we’re driving all the way to Boston.”

I tell him that that doesn’t seem like a very efficient way to go about things. He zips up.

“It’s a weird situation. Basically somebody fucked up, and I’m not sure who it was—it might have been me. Somehow, it ended up being the only way for us to get our gear out to Boston.”

Wolf is traveling with his brother, Josiah, who plays drums for his band. The other two band members, Doug McDiarmid (keyboard/guitar/bass/vocals) and Matt Meldon (guitar/bass/vocals) are meeting them in Boston.

Wolf is better known as Why?, and probably best known for being one-third of the now-defunct experimental hip-hop group cLOUDDEAD. He recently released Elephant Eyelash, the second Why? full-length, and the first recorded with a full band. The result is a far cry from the what-the-fuck noise-hop of cLOUDDEAD—in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that Elephant Eyelash is anything-hop, although some like to call it folk-hop. It’s really patchwork pop, rife with pretty melodies and catchy choruses, and more akin to the Beach Boys than the Beasties. Whatever it is, it’s sure to throw off record-buyers who pick it up expecting anything resembling typical Anticon fare.

Elephant Eyelash finds Wolf at his most emotionally honest. Underneath all of his signature too-clever-by-half analogies and plays-on-words are songs about relationship turmoil, narcissism, insecurity and death. It’s far more personal than the elliptical, often nonsensical rhymes and chants he spat for cLOUDDEAD, which was really more of an elaborate exercise in sonic envelope-pushing than heartfelt expression. Even Wolf will tell you as much. It’s the reason why he decided to walk away from the project after the group released its final album, Ten, to all manner of critical adulation.

“I don’t like to use the word abstract, but that stuff was a little more removed from the reality of our lives,” Wolf said of his work with cLOUDDEAD. “Adam [Drucker, aka Doseone, Wolf’s rhyming partner in the group] and I were kind of playing with each other, which was fun, but it’s wasn’t exorcising demons in me. I couldn’t stand on the stage and sing that stuff and feel it every night.”

When cLOUDDEAD members began to disagree about the group’s direction, Wolf knew it was time to walk away.

“We were all kind of not getting along. There was some tension underneath, and on the surface too sometimes. I mean, I get along with the two guys now; I don’t know that they get along too well. I made the decision in Sweden—I remember I was in Stockholm, and I called Mush Records and I told them that we weren’t gonna tour. I know we could have blown up if we would have gone on tour, but would I have been happy? You can’t think of success in terms of popularity. You’ve just got to follow your arrow toward the target.”

Listening to Elephant Eyelash gives one the impression that Wolf’s target lies far afield of the discordant avant-hop of the rest of the Anticon stable. His songs are psychedelic confessional poetry put to catchy pop hooks and hummable melodies. But Wolf doesn’t think those who have been paying attention to his past efforts will be caught off-guard.

“I think if you listen to older Why? stuff, it’s a pretty logical progression,” he said. “I wouldn’t consider Elephant Eyelash to be a rap record, really, though there are elements of that to it. It doesn’t have feeling of rap music to me, but then again, it does have some of that gut to it. It’s hard for me to gauge.”

“It’s definitely lyric-based music,” he continued. “The music is secondary, As far as how the music sounds, I guess it used to lend itself to a rapping sort of thing, but now it’s kind of melodic, and sounds like a pop record. But the music is just the coating. The music is secondary to the content.”

Back in his college days in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wolf would raid the university library’s collection of poetry on tape. He has an uncommonly strong affection for 20th century poets.

“Galway Kinnell, Marilyn Hacker and David Ignatow, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath—just random smattering of poets. I definitely got deep into some of that shit. I would listen to Galway Kinell over and over, I just love everything he does, and the way he reads; his cadence. I also dig Philip Levine—he was really dope.”

Like most of the poets he admires, Wolf is more interested in exploring universal matters of the heart and soul than addressing politics and other social matters in his solo work.

“I hear some of the political rappers, and I just don’t know if it really makes a difference. I know I don’t feel the need to talk about Bush. It’s understood that he’s a louse. No one who picks up Elephant Eyelash is going to be a supporter of Bush, except for my parents.”

It’s not something that touches me,” he continued. “Bush being an asshole doesn’t touch me. My music is a small way of looking at the larger questions in life. Talking about getting your heart broken, or your impending death—or my impending death. Death is universal, getting your heart broken is universal. I’d rather be discussing that sort of stuff.”

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