A Conversation with Yoni Wolf of WHY?
This Thursday evening, September 15th, the Carnegie Music Hall in Carnegie will host a unique night of music with WHY? and Serengeti. The three members of WHY? will play a stripped down set to premiere material from their upcoming, as-yet-untitled album. I spoke with frontman Yoni Wolf by phone this past week while he was in a studio in Atlanta, hard at work on the new album.
“This tour is a way to preview the new songs from our album that we're working on now. It’s just a way to let people in on what we're working on and, you know, to go hang out with the folks again,” Wolf laughs. “This will be the first time by and large that we are playing the new songs.” The band has been working on practicing the live material over the past few weeks in preparation for the tour, which will take them up the east coast, to Washington and California, and ultimately to the UK, France, and Germany. Pittsburgh is the second date on the tour after it opens in WHY?’s hometown of Cincinnati. “I don’t know exactly when the new album will come out. We’re still working on it,” Wolf said. He told me that working with Graham Marsh has been exciting, and he hopes to finish up production in the next month or so and work on a release
The chance to hear new material from WHY? is exciting. Over the past several years, Wolf’s music has been incredibly creative and rapidly changing. WHY? has notoriously defied categorization in sound, bringing together a range of instruments (always heavy in flawless percussions) and vocal styles to blend hip hop, indie rock, folk, Americana and more. In 2008, the band released the critically acclaimed LP Alopecia, featuring a stream-of-consciousness delivery of infectiously clever lyrics; spoken, rapped and sung over percussion, bass, and keyboards. Just a year later, they followed with Eskimo Snow, an album recorded during the same session. Wolf decided to release two separate albums because he felt that they had produced two sets of songs with radically different stylings and feel. On Eskimo Snow, pianos and guitar carried Wolf’s lyrics into a deeper contemplation of themes begun on Alopecia, particularly that of mortality. At points, he lyrically takes on the guise of the eternal mummy of a pharaoh (pictured on the album’s cover). He asks elsewhere about aging and death, “Am I too concerned with the burn of scrutiny/ Cold chased on run and covered like a horse before the race/ Will I gain weight in later life?/ And when will someone swing a scythe against me?”
For me, Wolf’s lyrics are some of the best in music today—heavy on imagery and thematic connections across songs, even though he rarely lays these themes out in advance. I asked him about his writing process and inspiration for lyrics. “For this album, I was writing lyrics in bits here and there, maybe a couplet, maybe a stanza, or just a phrase. I collected them over the course of 4 or 5 years. I would write bits of songs as well, just melodies. And then I went through a process of putting everything together, figuring how everything fit together in the songs.”
He is known to keep a disciplined work schedule; joking in the past about not leaving the house for six days a week, diligently sitting at the piano working through melodies and lyrics. I asked how it fits together so seamlessly on the albums. “Lots of editing, man. LOTS and lots of editing.” Wolf’s philosophy of the creative process rings truer for me than that of musicians who claim that their music just ‘flows.’ “It really is what I think Edison* said: what goes in is 5% talent, 95% work and effort. I really do feel that way. The initial idea is, I guess, that sort of innate thing that I have that you could consider talent, but those are just little things that come. Where it really comes together is in all the effort of just crafting it and putting it together and spending all the time and energy to do it.”
I asked if he enjoyed the work involved in the creative process. He hesitatingly said, “Yeah…. I do. Like everything else, though, after awhile it can get cumbersome, you know.” In another line I love from Eskimo Snow. “That’s right, I’m like everybody else is/ Ashamed of sleep. I lie when a phone call wakes me.”
As I think about the many ways an artist or author determines what their work is really about, there are many ways of arriving there. Do the artist’s intentions matter? Or is it instead the listener’s interpretations? Wolf finds himself somewhere between the two: he is both the artist creating the songs and lyrics, but he says he often doesn’t grasp the meaning of an album in its entirety until his is done recording and becomes a listener to his own work. “I don't know where this new album is going yet. It is very different from Eskimo Snow, without a doubt. Honestly it's very different, I think the attitude is very different, but I don't know how to summarize it yet, exactly. I have to sort of hear everything together. Really, it's about putting the album together and listening to it through without thinking about it as a work space before I can really get a sense of what it's about. You know what I'm saying? I mean, that's how it is for me anyway. I work on intuition a lot. That's how it really tends to be for me, I don't really get a total feel for what it's about till later.”
I invite anyone interested in a creative and thoughtful music to jump on this opportunity to see a band perform advance songs from what will surely be a highlight of 2012’s new releases. The audience will be able to partake, along with Yoni Wolf, Doug McDiarmid, and Josiah Wolf in the process of creative interpretation of songs, old and new. As Wolf told me, although he writes the songs and has some privileged position to understanding them, it’s really about making sense of things, whether as artist or listening. “I have more insight into where the songs are coming from...that's why I really do it in a way is to get to the bottom of things to really understand what's going on. And it's my way of doing that.”
*Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”