Mumps, Rhymes, and Life: WHY?'s Yoni Wolf in interview
There’s a telling line on Why?’s latest LP that gets to the guts of frontman Yoni Wolf’s cryptic lyrical appeal: “Keep your producer guessing when you’re in the booth confessing,” he rasps over sombre strings. “And say it was mostly fiction if they ever come to get you.”
It’s lodged in the back of The Skinny’s mind as we sit down to talk to the man for the first time in a few years; trading a Glasgow hotel suite with a leopard print sofa and questionable décor (“It wasn’t my room!” he protests) for the bustling lobby of a less Pat Butcher-esque London hotel. So what else has changed in the world of Why? “A lot, dude, a lot!”
For starters, Mumps, Etc – the Cincinnati trio’s fifth album in nine years – has spent a proportionately long time in the pipe. “I started in ‘07 with this one,” says Wolf. “Shortly after we finished the last two records [which were written and recorded simultaneously], I started writing little bits here and there. I was making demos in late 2007, then there was more touring – that’s when the touring for Alopecia started, and then Eskimo Snow came about. There’s a lot of collecting. Amongst all that, there’s still a lot of scrutinising over the material.”
As a writer who often carries a Dictaphone around for fear of an idea slipping by, Wolf conveys the sense that each release is as much a bastardly jigsaw as a collection of songs – was putting the puzzle together a solitary practice? “This one was a little more my thing,” he confirms. “I felt like I needed that for some reason. Initially, I had all this material I’d been collecting for the last few years, I needed to figure out how to put this stuff together and overcome something that was inside me and find discipline. Josiah [Wolf, older brother and bandmate] put me on this path of ‘OK, you’ve got to turn in one demo every week.’ So I did that for the winter of 2010-2011. In the end, of course Josiah and Doug [McDiarmid, Why?’s resident multi-instrumentalist) were integral in the recording process. I’ve now made a conscious decision to change things and to move into a more positive way of working, but this was a hard one, man – possibly the hardest record I’ve ever made.”
At the heart of Why? is an obvious desire to connect with the people who subscribe to their music that goes beyond the joyous live experience their shows offer, from floating ‘Golden Ticket’ contests where songs are tailored specifically for individual fans, to inviting them out en masse to participate in their videos. Even while we talk, there’s a camera lens focused on the conversation to document the minutiae of promoting his latest LP. More than most, and without some cynical street team campaign backed by a major with too much money, Wolf independently seeks out new ways to keep his fans engaged.
As a band that has grown somewhat in tandem with the popularisation of music blogging culture, it seems only right that Wolf drags the bastard that made him “a minor star” (as he sees it) kicking and screaming into his twisted lexicon, paying a wink to ‘a hundred bucks worth of wordy blogger thugs’ on lead single Sod in the Seed. Does he pay close attention to his press? “Yeah, I do, and you’re right, there are a lot of references to where I’m at in my career, the press and the modicum of fame I have. All that stuff has made its way onto this album way more than ever before, purely because my career has advanced beyond what it was.”
This is not to say that Wolf has taken the topic of fame to some overblown, Kroger-like extreme in song. “I could try to avoid it but I like to write about what’s real and what’s happening. I tried to write about it in a way that’s not shut off and behind a glass wall. I tried to make it relatable. I really do try to be close to people and I want to be close to people in this world; I want to feel like I can relate and people can relate to me. I try to make sure of that. In a way that’s what I’m trying to do with the writing in general, it’s to have some kind of bridge.”
While Ghostface Killah uses YouTube to nag fans when album sales are insufficient and P.Diddy films himself rolling around in cash, Wolf embraces the medium by uploading diary entries and outlandish comedy skits, perpetuating a more positive idea of what an artist can offer their community by talking to it directly. “As far as putting myself out there goes… it’s a new world with Twitter and Facebook and all that stuff,” he nods. “But I do like that – like getting on Facebook to [motions to the camera] find these guys to film this. And then there are the golden tickets. I enjoy that sense of community.”
Wolf often finds humour in the darkness and absurdity of the human condition with his couplets and rhyming remains typical of his lyrical vocabulary. Significantly, Mumps, Etc signals a clear return to straight up rapping for the sometime MC; measured verses on tracks like Waterlines and White English bring an understated complement to their melodic choruses. “It was just a natural thing,” shrugs Wolf. “I was writing that kind of stuff. You get into this zone of thinking in rhyme like that; my brain was in that mode. If a lyric would come to me while I was walking down the street, in the shower or wherever, it would come to me in a rhyme form, and then I would carve it out. I was doing a lot of crossword puzzles all the way throughout, so it was like an extension of that in a way.”
Although barely into his thirties, Wolf muses on the idea of retirement on yearning lullabies like Strawberries and Distance, perhaps taking cues from his idol David Berman, who put his career to bed in 2009 after a 20 year run with Silver Jews. Is it another character talking, or can he already envision a time when he’ll walk away from all this? “I felt old quite a lot when I was making this stuff,” he hesitates. “It was a strange time for me… I think I’ll always do something in the arts; it’s in my nature to do that… can’t say for sure. I could foresee maybe not making music one day.”
With lyrics that gravitate towards the distinctly unpopular topics of illness, depression, and now retirement – it’s fortunate that Wolf’s wit and his band’s musical palette offer a little levity. Is this a balance he works hard to maintain? “Nothing’s conscious like that,” he rolls his eyes at the notion. “It’s all gut stuff, like ‘this seems right.’ As far as the lyrics being that way goes… I think dark. But it’s funny too, y’know? And then I feel like there’s also a glimmer of hope in it. In the end I think this is a hopeful record; it’s a record with a lot of sickness and depression, but I think, in the end…” he pauses to recall the most appropriate lyric: “‘I’ll hold my own death as a card in the deck / To be played when there are no other cards left.’ We all go through trials, tribulations and tough times. In the end, it’s about what you do, where you go from there. I’m working towards positivity now, moving towards living and being healthy.”
With Mumps, Etc under their arm, Why? make their return to Scotland this autumn. When the subject comes up, Wolf speaks fondly about his first excursion here with his former group cLOUDDEAD in 2002, playing the much-missed Venue in Edinburgh and striking up a friendship with Boards of Canada that would spill over into a mutual exchange of remixes between the seminal ambient duo and several members of the anticon Records collective, of which Wolf is still a part.
Besides providing a comfortable infrastructure to release his music, what is Wolf’s involvement in anticon nowadays and how much creative licence does it afford him? “I was never too hands on involved,” he insists. “But if we sign a new act I still vote yay or nay. I have the option to A&R new acts too, though I haven’t in a long time. Shaun [Koplow]’s the main guy, he runs the label day-to-day, and a lot of the new acts are his signings. Baths is him. I think Adam [AKA Doseone] Drucker brought in Serengeti, which is a great addition. I produced on that album; I like him a lot. We bring him on tour a lot. He’s coming on some of these next ventures. When it comes to Why? stuff me and Shaun are hand in hand talking about what we’re gonna do. Adam’s the same with his stuff. We take a bigger role than an artist might normally.”
After the initial underground boom of its co-founders’ output, a move from San Francisco to Los Angeles has helped assure its continued diversity in recent years. Wolf speaks about its achievements with pride, but he’s not arsed about platinum discs. “I feel like we’re putting out pretty good stuff now,” he enthuses. “I do yoga and this one teacher always plays Baths, every time I’m like ‘I know this guy!’ It makes me proud, like this is something our label did. When I think back, my most cherished memories aren’t really even about making good music but just that exploration of ideas. It’s the idea that, when we first started out, me, Adam and Dave [Odd] Nosdam [as cLOUDDEAD] were really exploring stuff in the early days… it was just like we could do anything. Everything was new… I enjoyed that period a lot.
In the here and now, The Skinny reminds Wolf that when we first talked in 2007 he confessed: “I don’t know what the fulfilment in singing my songs to people is exactly.” Has he got to the bottom of that yet? “I really don’t think I knew back then,” he says. “A lot of times, at my worst I feel very distant from the world, and I think it’s my attempt to try and bridge a gap between myself and everyone else.”