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Interview: Yoni Wolf of Why?

"I went to a psychologist for a while, but I didn’t figure much out.”




Phoebe Streblow

Why? is the project of avant-rapper turned tortured songsmith Yoni Wolf. The Berkeley-based confessionalist has released four albums as Why?, including the amazing Alopecia (2008) and his latest LP, Eskimo Snow (2009).

Interview: 17 September 2009

Your lyrical persona has been compared to Woody Allen and Larry David. How do you feel about that?
“I always say I’m more of a Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise than a Woody Allen or Larry David. I mean, come on, just ’cause I’m Jewish? That’s racist! No, no, I know, I wear spectacles, I’m kind of a nerd. I admit it. What do you want me to say?”

So, you’re aware you come across as a neurotic figure on record?
“Yeah. I hate to say it, but maybe that’s true.”

Can people get a sense of who you are as a person through listening to your albums?
“I think people can get a sense of one dimension of who I am, yes. I do feel like people get a true vision of a certain part of me.”

Speaking of Jewish nerds: I once asked that question of David Berman, and he responded that he’d never met someone who was a big Silver Jews fan and then become friends with them. Have you ever become friends with someone who knew you as listener?
“I guess I have a couple of friends that I met after they had heard my music, but it’s rare. It hasn’t happened recently. It’s hard nowadays, which keeps me a bit isolated. Because there is a weird dynamic that develops when people do know you that little bit, but you don’t know them. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but there’s definitely an initial strangeness to overcome.”

The best part of getting to know other people is the gradual sharing of intimacies. Which stands in contrast to that line on [Eskimo Snow] about yelling something that you’d never tell nobody.
“Maybe that’s true. Maybe it would be hard for me to meet somebody after they’d listened to that song (‘Into the Shadows of My Embrace’), and heard all those things I confess. Because it definitely is a different kind of sharing.”

Have changes in your music reflected you growing older?
“I think that the albums have changed as I’ve changed, for sure.”

Do you ever listen to old albums?
“It’s hard for me to listen to older stuff. It feels like somebody else made them, but I know that it really was me. That makes me cringe, like looking at old photos, or reading an old journal.”

When people tell you they were obsessed with that first Clouddead LP do you cringe then?
“No. Just because it’s hard for me to go back and listen to that, doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate that everyone hears things differently. No one else is going to hear all the stuff that makes me cringe; like the ways I could’ve written things differently. Lyrically it’s hard for me to listen to [Clouddead], sonically I like that record a lot.”

Have cash-wielding promoters tried to get the Clouddead reunion happening?
“Fans and journalists are always asking me when it’s going to happen, but no people with money have made it worth our while just yet. I might change tune if that were the case, you know what I mean?”

It’d be like the Pixies reformation: they still hated each other, but the sums of money became so obscene they couldn’t say no.
“Who could? Everybody wants another house.”

There was so much discussion back in those Clouddead days about how you fit into hip-hop. Do you still feel connected to that scene? Like what you’re doing is even hip-hop?
“I do feel connected to rap music: I like rap music, and listen to it, and I have a history with it that won’t go away. And I feel like Alopecia is a rap record. Obviously, Eskimo Snow isn’t, it’s like a country record, or something.”

I’d call it a piano-balladeering record. How has it been sitting down behind the ivories?
“I like it. It’s a real challenge for myself, learning how to play like that, hold things down like that. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the course of the year-and-a-half or whatever that I’ve been trying it.”

Did you learn instruments when you were growing up?
“I learned piano and drums, mostly. I was in garage-type bands in high-school, but I didn’t write songs, and we just jammed around really.”

Have you ever recaptured that feeling you had as teenager in the garage since you turned Why? into the fully-fledged live band?
“Nah, there’s a big difference to me between writing and jamming, and I was never much of a jammer. When you start talking about writing parts, breaking things up, and really orchestrating things, it’s a different feeling. I like it much better than just ripping through three chords over and over.”

Has your approach to songwriting actually changed over the years?
“It’s always changing, depending on where I’m at in life. Like, ‘do I have a studio set up at home?’ or ‘am I anywhere near a piano?’”

Do you think of albums as albums?
“It’s half like that, half not. In general, my brother and I will talk about it in advance, that this record should be super-raw or super-produced or whatever, and then it turns out to be something else entirely. Because, when you get down to it, you have to take each song for its own thing. Record-making is just making a whole lot of little decisions. You make each one unto itself, yet in the end they all add up to this full thing. It was a little different with this record, because it was done [at the same time as Alopecia], and we didn’t know we were making two records.”

When did it become clear that you were?
“Mid-way through the process, it identified itself that way. There were two different styles of arrangements, even two different lyrical themes developing.”

Most of your records have been, in one way or another, thematic studies in mortality. Is Eskimo Snow your most focused, considered attempt at doing so?
“Nah, it’s not. I hear that, too. It’s not conscious by me, ever. But, somehow, it always gets into the music.”

Have you ever stopped to wonder why?
“I don’t know. I really don’t. I went to a psychologist for a while, but I didn’t figure much out.”

Did you spend a lot of couch time talking about your lyrics?
“We didn’t talk about it that much. I honestly don’t remember what we talked about for all that time; I always wondered where my time went. But, I did give her my albums. And she liked them a lot. She became a fan.”

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