One of America's most curious groups, WHY? retain a certain aura.
Now operating in rather more straight indie rock fields than their nascent hip hop, Yoni Wolf & Co. remain a thrilling, intoxicating experience. Recently emerging from their slumber, the band pieced together new album 'Mumps, etc.'.
Another idiosyncratic blast, the album found WHY? once again moving forward. Out now, Clash writer David Tate sat down with Yoni Wolf for a (sadly very brief) chat about his working methods, the group and his relationship with the watching world.
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Yoni Wolf has always been something of an enigma. Starting life in the acclaimed experimental hip-hop group CloudDead, Why? began as a side project for Wolf's more melancholic and poppier solo output.Recruiting older brother Josiah and multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid the output was no longer solo. Keeping the same moniker, but using a decidedly different approach, the band released their debut album Elephant Eyelash. Stylistically the 12 track LP was a departure from those earlier solo albums. Closer to Yo La Tengo's brand of lugubrious indie than the hip-hop he was initially know for, the album was well received and the follow up, 2008's 'Alopecia', made plenty of end of year lists. Regarded as their breakthrough album, it introduced a larger audience to the bands idiosyncratic blend of Indie/Hip-Hop and thrust Yoni into the limelight. Then came 2009's Eskimo Snow. Recorded in the same sessions as 'Alopecia', the album marked the group's furthest departure from the hip-hop sound that had previously defined them. Slower songs with sparser, more folk oriented instrumentation, the album portrayed a more melancholic soul.
New album, Mumps Etc., marks the 7th album of Wolfs career . Lyrically, the album sounds like Wolf coming to terms with his current situation. A "minor celebrity" in his own words, the album deals with themes of death, retirement and hairless to name but a few. Self referential and perpetually sardonic, the songs paint Wolf as somewhat of a pessimist.
"I would say I am hopeful for the most part", he argues, "I wrote this album during a period of illness and turmoil. I think in a way I was ready to crawl under the porch. That said, I also hear a lot of hope in it. I think it is an album of death and rebirth. I think I changed as a person A LOT through the making of this album." There is a definitely a sense of a character in crisis throughout this album. With lines such as " Girls used the fawn over my locks to kill / Now the girls are gone and I'm on minoxidil", Wolf can hardly be accused of the same excessive bravado that is the preserve of so many contemporary rappers. When asked to describe the style for himself he chooses "Chamber Hip-Hop", and there is definitely more than a grain of truth in that label. This is more Sufjan Stevens than A$AP Rocky. The deadpan delivery and apparent frankness of his lyrics often has people clamouring to tag him 'confessional', a label which he seems to be destined to hold ad infinitum. But through his varied career, Wolf has evolved into a chameleon of sorts. One song has him dismissing some "cute" girl in the throes of some romantic passion, while the next has him evaluating the apparent symbolism of 2 doves on the hood of a car. At times he sounds his liveliest to date, and then all of a sudden it's almost possible to hear his life force ebbing away in front of the mic. "I would not really call my lyrics confessional as a rule. Perhaps sometimes they are but I make way too much shit up to fit under that banner. I often write from the point of view of a character.I suppose all my characters are derived from some part of my nature or some aspect of my desires. They are distorted reflections of my secret inside out selves. "
It becomes quickly apparent that Yoni Wolf is not the sort of musician to consider what he is doing lightly. That does not mean his lyrics are entirely devoid of humour, quite the opposite. His quick wit and Sahara dry sarcasm are some of the sharpest tools as a lyricists, but the delivery of these quips are so inflicted with pathos, it's impossible not to feel even the slightest empathy for Wolf. His constant battles with guilt,illness ,the ageing process and every other small such malady life seems to throw at him have left indelible marks clear from the first words to the last (When i got better from the mumps/yes my swollen nut and neck shrunk and I'll hold my own death as a card in the deck/to be played when there are no other cards left, respectively).
Photo Credit: Natalie Escobedo
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'Mumps, etc.' is out now.