Acclaimed Cincinnati Indie band WHY? returned to home-recording for its new ‘Moh Lhean’ album

CityBeat sat down with frontman Yoni Wolf to talk about the album's 10-song set, which is informed by what he calls his 'peaceful phase.'

click to enlarge Yoni Wolf says the latest WHY? album’s relative calmness comes from being more at peace. - Photo: Provided
Photo: Provided
Yoni Wolf says the latest WHY? album’s relative calmness comes from being more at peace.

Moh Lhean, WHY?’s first album in five years, is as textured and sonically diverse as anything in the Cincinnati-based band’s 12-year run, which is saying something. WHY? has carved its own unique space on the musical landscape by combining frontman Yoni Wolf’s Hip Hop roots — he was a key member of wonderfully slanted Bay Area crew cLOUDDEAD — with elements of Folk, Pop and Indie Rock.

Wolf’s oddly affecting sing/speak vocals and evocative, ever-elusive lyrics are again front and center. He’s aided by his brother/multi-instrumentalist Josiah Wolf, guitarist Doug McDiarmid and drummer Matt Meldon, resulting in an album that is both familiar and that branches off into new directions. The shift shouldn’t be a surprise to those already on the WHY? bandwagon: Yoni Wolf is a restless spirit, a guy who juggles any number of creative endeavors — he hosts an engaging podcast called The Wandering Wolf and is part of a few musical side projects — in an effort to make sense of this messy thing we call life. 

Moh Lhean’s 10-song set is highlighted by the layered, tempo-shifting opener, “This Ole King,” which is flavored by piano and various acoustic elements, and closes with “The Barely Blur,” a meditative track anchored by a fascinating two-minute instrumental conclusion that sounds like the entire record is being sucked into an ominous void. 

CityBeat recently sat down with Yoni Wolf at his cozy Northside home/studio space to discuss an album informed by what he calls his “peaceful” phase.

CityBeat: How does WHY?’s songwriting process work? Does it start with you and then filter through everyone else?

Yoni Wolf: It’s tiered in terms of involvement. I write songs. I sort of arrange the stuff with my brother and produce it with my brother. Then there are full-time musicians that come in like Doug (McDiarmid) and Matt (Meldon). They play on every song. Those guys are great. They have ideas and enhance things. And then there are people who play on a few songs.

CB: What’s it been like for you to work so closely with a sibling on a creative endeavor like this? What are the pluses and minuses of working together for
so long?

YW: I feel like there’s that underlying love that you have that isn’t going to go away. Above that there are times when it’s infuriating and you get into the same kind of arguments that siblings get into. It drives me crazy a little bit. It’s like, “Why are we going to argue about the same thing?” And you kind of know what each other is going to like and not like and get upset about it and not get upset about it. 

But, ultimately, it’s really nice having someone that you know so intimately being involved with something that’s so intimate for me like the music is. I don’t think I can do it without Josiah. It would be just a totally different kind of thing without him. I’d really have to grow up or something. He is key in keeping the thing sort of moving along and organized. 

CB: You recorded and mixed this one entirely at your home studio. How did that impact the process?

YW: Moh Lhean is the first album that we have recorded at home since (2005’s) Elephant Eyelash. So it’s another slow record in terms of recording. That’s the way I think about it. The other ones that we recorded in studios, you have to do it super fast because you’re paying by the day or whatever. The ones at home you just kind of labor over every day and try to get things exactly how you want them. It kind of works similar in a way to Elephant Eyelash where it was me and my brother every day going in listening to a track and figuring out what it needs. 

CB: Moh Lhean has a more laid-back vibe than previous WHY? records. I think the press release describes it as a “cosmic sense of calm,” which is a pretty apt description. Is that something you were aware of during the writing and recording process?

YW: You’re always throughout the process going back and listening to it and thinking, “What is this?” But we never really come up with a theme or approach ahead of time. I’ve done that here and there with other projects but not with WHY?. With WHY?, everything kind of happens organically. We’ll start collecting material and then, toward the end of the process, you start to see what it is and you start to say, “OK, well, these couple of songs don’t really fit with this other stuff. We can use another song or two that have this kind of vibe.” 

CB: Was the album’s sense of calm a result of something that was happening to you personally?  

YW: I think its attempt is to be more at peace than some of the other stuff I’ve done. I’m trying to be accepting about what’s going on in my life. I’ve spent a lot of years agitated and frustrated and cynical and upset, and you hear that reflected on a lot of that other material. You hear the anger. I feel like this album has less of that and is more of an attempt to be open and peaceful. Or something like that. (Laughs.)

CB: You’ve also talked about a physical scare you had recently. How did that influence the record?

YW: My interest in things beyond the physical and thinking about the more spiritual side of life has definitely been prompted by having to deal with being forced to know that the physical is impermanent. It sounds cheesy to say this album is more spiritually influenced — it’s not a religious album in any way — but I think it has more of an awareness of things beyond our control than the other ones. I think some of the other records get more down in the dirt and in the muck and wallow in that and sort of glorify the muck. This one accepts the muck and tries to look beyond it a bit. 

WHY? launches a nationwide tour Thursday at Woodward Theater. Tickets/more info:

Scroll to read more Music Feature articles

Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.