“I'm taking a break from rehearsing, and bolting wheels on a flightcase right now,” says WHY?'s Yoni Wolf, talking from the band's practice space in Cincinnati. The indie-rock/alt-rap quartet's packing its bags in preparation for U.S. and European tours that will keep them on the road until mid-December.
They're touring in support of the new five-song EP, “Sod In The Seed” (streamed in its entirety below), co-released yesterday by City Slang and the Anticon label Yoni co-founded in 1997 with indie-rap artists Doseone, Odd Nosdam and others.
In early October, WHY? plans to release “Mumps, Etc.,” the group's fifth full-length, and the highly-anticipated follow-up to 2009's “Eskimo Snow.” On the eve of their big tour, I caught up with Yoni to talk about his songwriting techniques and WHY?'s new albums.
On “Probable Cause,” from the new EP, you rap about you and your brother (Josiah Wolf, WHY?'s drummer) having a run-in with the police on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Did this actually happen?
Yeah, it happened in one form or another. I take a situation, expound upon it a few times and then it becomes something completely different when I write about it. Sometimes something begins with a small detail in my life, and I just take it from there. The more shocking shit generally tends to be the shit that's real. I'm a writer like any other writer. I'm sure Jonathan Safran Foer went to Russia and had some experiences, but I doubt every word is true, you know?
You've always presented yourself as some sort of anti-hero in your lyrics -- or like a person that does and thinks terrible things, but has a good heart. Is that how you see yourself?
I think that's me, but everyone is like that in some way. Everyone has flaws, but most people have a goodwill toward others, I think. Even though I do stupid shit, and wrong shit, I have goodwill. Most of my life is understood through memory, you know? I don't understand why I do the the things I do, and that's been both a blessing and a curse.
I act on impulse, and I go on my guts. But most of the time I'm not aware of what I'm doing. Maybe I'm in a therapy session, or writing, and then I realize what I did. I don't understand what the albums mean until much later. When I'm writing, I just trust my impulses, and they tend to hold together pretty well as works that have themes running through them.
On the EP title-track, you seem really conflicted. You rap that you can't be in a relationship if she doesn't drive a hybrid car, but a few lines later you're driving to critical mass in a gas-guzzling Ford. What's up with that?
I have conflicted feelings. For example, I was vegan for 11 years and now I eat tons of meat. All I eat now is meat but I try to get ethical meat or whatever. It was a health-related decision; I was getting really sick and I had to change my shit up. But even if I'm dating a girl now, I still think she should be a vegetarian. I don't know why, or where that comes from. Even though I smoke cigarettes sometimes, if I was with a girl who did that I wouldn't be cool with it.
You know, everyone has this idealized conception of the person they want to be with, and even if you have all these flaws yourself, you still want them to be righteous, you know what I'm saying? It's like you want them to be some sort of pure being that saves you. But that doesn't exist, and it's my own psychological problems that lead me to think that way. That's why I've been single for 32 years.
"I had some pretty awful times -- some breakdowns -- but I definitely had a good time writing the new stuff. “Sod In The Seed” has some of the funniest songs I've ever written, I think."
Do you think these conflicted feelings make you a more insightful writer?
No, but maybe some things stem from similar places. I think I was born insightful -- I've always been a watcher and a listener. I always had a very sensitive nature. But I had to cultivate writing. I was a very shitty writer at first, so I had to really hone it. I think I'll be a better writer at 50 than I am now.
Do your lyrics tend to come to you spontaneously, or does your writing process take much longer?
It comes out spontaneously at the beginning, and then I have to slave over it. A line like “'Cause Jesus would and I would not drive the needle exchange truck” from “Sod In The Seed” came to me when I was living in California in like 2008. I had just gotten home after seeing a needle exchange truck out on the street, took a shit, and was looking in the mirror when it just came to me. It was in a much different form then, but it was an interesting thought, so it stuck with me.
That idea was in my head spontaneously, but I slaved over the line itself. I knew in that instant that I wanted to write something about it, but it didn't come out until much later. I think of writing as puzzle-making; it takes time and patience. It feels really good when I eventually hit the nail on the head and get that right combination of words and rhymes.
"Everyone has this idealized conception of the person they want to be with, and even if you have all these flaws yourself, you still want them to be righteous, you know what I'm saying?"
The chorus for the title-track is “A steady hurt and a sturdy purse.” You seem to be saying that material comfort cannot provide happiness, and, in fact, it opens up a whole new type of unhappiness.
Yeah, that pandora's box is only opened up once you can afford to open it. Before that, your problems are starvation, thirst and malaria. Once you open the box, you have depression, social anxiety, ennui and all that shit.
Does that mean unhappiness is inescapable?
I don't know. Personally, I think there are ways to get better. For me, I've learned that if I stay physically healthy, I can stay peaceful in the mind. I run a lot, and do a lot of pushups and situps and shit. I have Crohn's Disease, so I spent years being pretty sick. Now I don't eat any carbohydrates; I eat tons of vegetables and fruits and good meat. When your gut's always fucked up, you just feel wrong. I feel a lot better now and I have a lot more energy.
Comparing a song like “Good Friday” from “Alopecia” with the new songs, it seems like you're much happier now.
Those were dark times back then, my friend. Those were terrible times. There was a real defeatedness about writing “Good Friday.” I remember I was three rooms removed from everybody else, in this pitch black room, and no one had ever heard verse three before. I just told everyone there was a third verse and then I just hit it in the first take. It was a strong feeling, but it was dark.
After that, I had some pretty awful times -- some breakdowns -- but I definitely had a good time writing the new stuff. “Sod In The Seed” has some of the funniest songs I've ever written, I think.
How is the new EP and upcoming full-length musically different from past WHY? albums?
We love experimenting with arrangements and production ideas. In my mind, every song should almost have an arrangement gimmick, or some sort of hook that feels different but catches you. “Eskimo Snow” is the exception to this, as we were aiming for this looser, live band feel. I wasn't so strict with arrangements on that album.
But with the new one and the EP, the arrangements were extremely strict. I made extensive demos that are very similar to the album but lo-fi and not played as well. We hired a ton of classical musicians to play for us through a contact at University of North Texas. Doug (McDiarmid, WHY?'s multi-instrumentalist) wrote out the sheet music and everything.
It's pretty damn arranged, and we scrutinized every damn thing. You know, every eighth note was criticized. It was arduous, but worth it, maybe. Maybe it's just easier to do it with loops and Pro Tools? I don't know.
Earlier you said you'd be a better writer at 50. Do you think you'll still be writing songs and rapping at that age?
I'm not sure. I go with my gut, and I have no idea where it will lead me. I might be doing movies or books, or writing copy for an ad agency by then.
Follow Elliott Sharp on Twitter @ElliottSharp for more news and updates.
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