In just over ten years as a recording artist, Yoni Wolf has gone from the weirdo alt-rap of cLOUDDEAD to the rich indie pop of WHY? After a relatively long recording drought – Eskimo Snow came out in 2009, but the album was composed of songs recorded during the sessions of its predecessor, 2008’s Alopecia – the band returned to the studio earlier this year with plans of releasing a record sometime this winter. In the meantime WHY? are heading out on the road this fall for a special “sit-down tour,” the specifics of which, along with the album, Wolf explained to Prefix last week during a break from mixing.
Tell us about the new album. What does it sound like? Is it finished? When can we expect to hear it?
It’s not finished. In fact, I’m in the studio right now down in Atlanta with a guy named Graham Marsh, a wonderful mixing engineer, and we are on our eighth song out of fifteen that we’re going to mix for the record, and out of those we’ll probably pick thirteen or so.
How does it sound compare to earlier records? I saw that you tweeted recently about violas and violins.
Yeah. We’ve got lots of outside musicians on this one. It’s extremely composed — I mean, they were all composed, the WHY? albums. But this one is maybe more so. It’s got violins, violas, cellos, bassoons, clarinets, flutes, French horn, marimbas and vibraphones. It’s got a lot of different sounds on it, and we’re trying to keep it fairly dry and punchy. I think people’ll are gonna like it. I’m very pleased with what we’re coming out of here. We’re trying to make it as clear as possible. The previous records maybe tended to be muddled, psychedelic in a way, washy. I’m trying to make it as clear as possible.
How did the songwriting go? Was the process different from earlier records?
With this record I wrote everything myself, demoed everything really extensively before giving it all to the band because we’re all in difference places and so that’s kind of how it had to go this time. I would give everything to the guys, about a demo a week, during this past winter. It was a long journey, very much so, leading up to going into the studio in May — which was good. I needed to do that to show myself that I could and I had had a clog in a way. I started writing this album in 07 and I had a lot of lyrics but I didn’t how exactly they went to together, and over the course of this past fall and winter I forced myself to figure out how to put things together and turn them into songs. So, it feels good.
Does it have a title yet?
It does, but I’m not going to tell you.
Any idea on when it’s going to be released?
I really can’t say, to be honest. Everything’s a little up in the air as far as that goes. I’m hoping for some kind in the late winter and early spring.
What’s the plan for the new tour? It’s a sit-down tour, correct?
Yeah, when you come see us, you’re going to sit down in a seat, you’re going to watch the show and you’re going to enjoy yourself without having to stand there. It’s a little intimate seated theater show. We’re basically going out to give people a sneak-peak at the new songs. It’s an extension of the solo shows. We’re going out and playing the new songs in a very stripped-down way to allow people hear the songs before it’s all hyped and loud. It’s almost like a songwriters, like that MTV, VH1, whatever —
Storytellers, Unplugged, whatever the fuck you want to call it.
What percentage of the songs played will be new?
I can’t say for sure. We haven’t started rehearsing yet. I think probably half to three-quarters new materials, and the rest older songs that people will know and love, hopefully. It’ll be a good mix.
Do you like playing new material to people? Is it more or less challenging?
I prefer it, because you’re revealing something to people for the first time, knowing that people haven’t heard something. As I am singing or rapping the lyrics, I can think, “ok these people are hearing the lyrics for the first time. How’s it hitting somebody for the first time?” I really like that a lot.
Do you like touring? Do you like being on the road?
I’ve gotten a lot more fond of it in the recent past. I’ve struggled with it over the years. It is the only way to make an income as an artist at this point — for us, anyway. So I’ve had to do it over the years even though I’ve struggled with it, struggled with my health. I definitely have enjoyed doing it more recently, by adopting a different attitude. I’m looking forward to it, actually. I’m not the kind of guy that, if I’m at home, I’m not going to go out to shows, at all really, unless you’re one of my good friends and you’re coming through town, and I’ll go basically so I can see you and hang out. I struggle with loud noises and things like so it’s not my favorite thing to do. So — do I enjoy being in the club night after night? Ehhh? Not all the time. I do like traveling a lot, and I do like playing shows. I enjoy performing.
One could say that there’s been a trajectory away from hip-hop and rap in recent WHY? albums. Do you sense that yourself? Do you still think of yourself as a rapper?
Yeah, I’m definitely a rapper. When people ask, “Do you do rap or do you not do rap?” it’s like, that’s some kind of old-school or old-world mentality. I’m thirty-two. I grew up listening to rap music, as a teenager, when I was in high school. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my vernacular. It’s not like twenty years ago you either knew what rap was or you didn’t. At this point, it’s still part of who I am that even if I’m writing things that are melodic, there are still phrasing that I’m sure that picked up from Gravediggas or Pharcyde. This record, specifically, has a lot of stuff that’s not sung melodically at all that’s just rap. It’s by and large a rap record, I would say.
What are you listening to?
When I’m working on a record, I don’t listen like that. I’m listening to my mixes, listening to the songs, making sure they’re right. I can’t really just jam out to some shit when I’m hard at work. I kind of want to hear what that Jay-Z Kanye is about. I heard two little snippets and sounds pretty deep. I like those guys.
You’re sometimes compared to Silver Jews. You guys toured together and you share the same lyrical style. David Berman, that band’s leader, quit making music two years ago. Is that something that you could ever imagine doing?
Yeah, sure. I don’t think I’ll always make music. It’s something that I do and enjoy very much. I could see myself getting into something else and putting music on the back burner. You know, I started making music and put visual arts on the back burner. I could see moving on to something else.
Do you have a “Nasty ‘Natti accent”?
I don’t think I really have a Cincinnati accent. I could speak for you in a Cincinnati accent. It would be something like [goes into a nasally, shrill voice] “Get out from over there. Get back here from under those bushes…You’re a fucking asshole.” It’s a combination between Baltimore, Cleveland and Atlanta. If you look at a map, it’s triangulated between those three.