Argus Arts-clusive: Yoni Wolf of WHY?
Yoni Wolf is the creative force behind WHY?, the Berkeley-based folk-hop outfit whose 2008 release, “Alopecia,” made waves in both indie and experimental hip hop communities—and found its way onto some notable year-end lists in the process. “Eskimo Snow” is the group’s fantastic latest—a brief, caustic batch of folk-pop tracks delivered in a stream-of-consciousness drawl akin to “Mellow Gold”-era Beck.
Yoni was nice enough to speak with the Argus this week and elaborate on the sessions that produced both “Alopecia” and “Eskimo Snow”:
Argus: You were quoted as saying that “Eskimo Snow” is “really the least hip-hop out of anything [you’ve] ever been involved with,” and I think it certainly shows in the music. What would you say facilitated this move away from hip hop? Was it a conscious decision? Or more a musical direction that just happened?
Yoni Wolf: I mean, it was recorded with the record before it—at the same time as “Alopecia”—so we basically chose these songs that fit together in certain batches, and these were the ones that sounded like they most matched each other.
Argus: Has the shift away from hip-hop been reflected in the music you’re listening to, current influences?
YW: I don’t know; that’s hard to say. I haven’t really been listening to too much lately, but probably.
Argus: Were you already planning on releasing these songs as two separate records before you entered the studio?
YW: No, actually. After about a week of recording, we realized that it was two different sets of material. We could’ve integrated it into one, you know, weird hodgepodge record, or a record and an EP, but in the end we decided that it was really two records.
Argus: Why release them over a year apart? Were there ever plans to release the two together?
YW: Well, originally, “Eskimo Snow” was gonna come out in the fall of ’07, but it didn’t feel like it was finished yet. So we went to work on “Alopecia,” and then later came back to it.
Argus: “Eskimo Snow” has also been described as the most “live-sounding” WHY? release yet, which seems to me like a particularly atypical progression. Is that accurate? How did that come about?
YW: This project started as a solo project, and I was doing a whole lot of layering on 8-track, until I started working with a band in ’02. You get more and more comfortable working that way. The way I used to record—it’d be layer after layer, and we’d add stuff and almost write the arrangements as I was recording them. This time I had done demos for everything beforehand; we went into the rehearsal space and kinda played everything out—everything all together at once, so all the harmonies are live . . .
Argus: Even on “January Twenty Something”?
YW: Yup, that’s the whole band.
Argus: That’s one of the most interesting tracks on the album, I think. I’ve read that the first verse was actually your answering machine at one point?
YW: Yeah! Two of the parts on there were little answering machine greetings. Before I had a cell phone—way back in ’04, ’05—I had an answering machine with a tape in; every week or so, I’d update it with a new jingle.
Argus: I’m also really struck by “Even The Good Wood Gone,” which seems like it’s written from the point of view of a mummy in a museum. What inspired that track?
YW: It was from a dream I had, actually. I just kinda wrote out the physical descriptions of the dream and the feelings that I had.
Argus: There’s such a stream-of-consciousness quality to your lyrics, almost as if the imagery is written on the spot in the studio. Is that accurate? Or is it all written and revised well before recording?
YW: The latter, for sure. I revise. I write in little bits here and there, and then I end up going back and quilting a whole lot of stuff together and smoothing it out and changing it.
Eskimo Snow is scheduled for release September 22 on Anticon.