Jonathan Wolf didn't have a typical Cincinnati childhood. Wolf, known to fans of renowned Hip Hop collective Anticon as Why?, came to popular music at a late age.
"I listened to (Classic Rock radio station) The Fox, man — 94.9 and 92.5 after that," he says by phone in a deep tone that belies his recorded output. "That was the first music that I related to. I grew up really religious, so I wasn't allowed to listen to anything that was secular. One time I was at my friend's house and his mom was into old Classic Rock. I remember hearing David Bowie on there. They were playing 'Ground Control to Major Tom.' I was 13, and I was like, 'That's it, right there.' For whatever reason I got into it.
It touched me, 'cause it was this story I could latch onto, you know, this guy that went out to space."
It wasn't until Wolf saw DoseOne (aka Adam Drucker) go head-to-head with Eminem at 1997's Scribble Jam that he would have a similar revelation.
"When I saw Dose, what he was doing, I was like, 'Oh my god, that's it, right there. That's it,' " he says. "It really sort of changed how I was thinking about Rap. Yeah, I was super-stoked on him. Then I met him, and I was really excited."
The pair hit it off and, along with buddy Odd Nosdam (aka Dave Madson), formed cLOUDDEAD, a spacey, Avant-Hop art project that defied all expectation.
Recorded at Wolf's parents' house in Pleasant Ridge, cLOUDDEAD's 2001 self-titled debut (released by esteemed underground label Mush) is a dense, majestically surreal soundscape of fractured beats, esoteric samples and DoseOne and Why?'s uniquely intertwined vocal tradeoffs.
From a Cincinnati suburb to worldwide acclaim in a single bound, cLOUDDEAD became darlings of the underground Hip Hop scene. Yet few in their hometown noticed and, by 2002, all three had moved to Oakland, Calif., home of Anticon's headquarters.
"We were definitely jerking off," he says looking back on the self-indulgent nature of the project. "Yeah, we were definitely surprised at the reaction. It was a weird thing. I remember the Mush guy was in Cincinnati at the time, and he asked us to do this record. We were like, 'Yeah, sure, that sounds cool.' "
Alas, the cLOUDDEAD ride appears to be over following last year's equally enthralling follow-up, Ten.
"At the time, it had to stop," he says of the project's demise. "I had to not be doing that anymore, 'cause it was just getting weird. Relationships were strained because of it."
Yet it's not as if the ever-evolving Wolf was sitting on his ass between cLOUDDEAD releases. A number of his side projects have popped in recent years, including Hymie's Basement, an intriguing collaboration with Fog (aka Andrew Border).
But it's Wolf's solo stuff as Why? that's closest to his heart. Released on Anitcon, 2003's Oaklandazulasylum found him taking a more personal tact than the willfully obtuse, humor-inflected cLOUDDEAD output.
Employing a more traditional, often uneasy vocal style, he delves into everything from wistful childhood daydreams to songs about girls and back again.
Then there's the sonic shift. Moving away from the sample-heavy creations of cLOUDDEAD, the acoustic-inflected Oaklandazulasylum sounds like an otherworldly transmission from Art-Pop heaven. Think the Casio-laced excursions of early Grandaddy fronted by Daniel Johnston and you're close.
When informed of the resemblance to Johnston's childlike way with lyric and vocal, Wolf responds sarcastically: "Thanks a lot, dude." A moment later he admits the influence. "His old tapes from the '80s — Don't Be Scared and Songs of Pain — I'm really into them."
Contrary to the one-man approach of Oaklandazulasylum, Why?'s forthcoming EP, Sanddollars, is a true band effort: Cincinnati natives Doug McDiarmid, Matt Meldon and Josiah Wolf round out the current lineup.
Their presence is immediately evident in the textured one-two of "Miss Ohio's Nameless" and "500 Fingernails," both of which meld straight-up, Technicolor Pop with Wolf's undeniably slanted take on life in the 21st century. Sanddollars is another stellar entry into Anticon's eclectic canon, yet Wolf wasn't so sure.
"I had thoughts like, 'Oh, I shouldn't be on Anticon anymore,' because I felt like we were being pigeonholed into this one thing, and we can't really do anything outside of it," he says. "I think this new stuff is sort of a test to see if it can work on Anticon. I hope it can."
While certainly less fuzzy (and fussy) than past efforts, Sanddollars still revels in Wolf's long-standing DIY approach to home recording.
"There's a certain sort of thing that I think we've developed over the years that can't really be achieved in a studio environment," he says. "I think some of the uniqueness comes from recording at home and having constraints."
A full-length Why? effort, Elephant Eyelash, is set for a fall release. But Wolf isn't looking much beyond the current tour, a once uneasy activity for a guy who's more interested in the art of recorded sound.
"Shows can be weird and depressing — you have all these people staring at you," he laughs. "Lately I've been into it. I've been pretty mellow about it, and I've found a way to do it that doesn't seem weird — that way is called alcohol."
WHY? performs Saturday at the Southgate House.