Get to Know Why?

Cincinnati Natives Why? come home for MidPoint

Sep 25, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Why`s kaleidoscopic musical output conjures a host of descriptors, the most accurate of which might be the Oakland-based band’s own genre-spliced classification: “Pop-inflected Psychedelic Folk Hop.” The brainchild of Cincinnati native/former cLOUDDEAD member Yoni Wolf, Why? started as a oneman bedroom project (2003’s Oaklandazulasylum) and has gradually become a full-fledged band (2005’s Elephant Eyelash and the new Alopecia) that includes Yoni’s brother Josiah, high school classmate Doug McDiarmid and various touring members.

CityBeat recently caught up with Yoni, who was gracious enough to talk about everything from the band’s noted indie label Anticon to the source of his imaginative lyrical flow.

CityBeat: Hey, Yoni, how are things in Why? land? Tour going OK?
Yoni Wolf: We don’t get too much sleep these days, but other than that, I have to say that the tour is going shockingly well (knock on Woodrow Wilson).

CB: How do you feel about playing MidPoint?
YW: To be honest, we don’t know too much about the festival. I think they started doing it after we moved away. We do know the guys that put it on a bit and they’re real good guys. We are always so glad to come back to the ’Nati to play and see our folks and whatnot.

CB: Alopecia has this kind of elegiac, almost wistful quality to it. Was that something you were going for this time out or was it more of an organic process?
YW: You made me look up “elegiac.” Good word. Well, I would say that our creative process is always one of unsuspected twists. It evolves in a very natural way as it unfolds. That being said, these songs were chosen to be a part of this record from a large group of songs that were recorded. Actually, the other record from that batch will be a lot more elegiac than this. I see the writing on Alopecia as being pretty playful and jokey … in a dark way.

CB: You have a pretty intriguing approach to lyrics. They combine what seem to be personal experiences — almost like journal entries — with more abstract/surreal elements and the occasional pop culture reference. Can you talk about how you craft the lyrics?
YW: I try to cut out the filtration systems of my mind when a line or idea might strike me; to let it come in a visceral way rather than worrying about being able to intellectually understand it. I then go in and do a whole lot of brain work — making the phrases rhyme in an interesting way, making sure that the listener can follow the story or connect the imagery. But the raw material must be something that hits me in the gut out of the blue. That’s something (UC professor/poet) Terry Stokes taught me.

CB: Musically, there’s a noirish, cinematic feel to the songs. They’re very textured. How do you guys create the music? Do you come with the lyrics first?
YW: On Alopecia, the production/arrangement ideas came from demos that I made in my bedroom. I gave those to the guys. They listened to them a bunch and then we went into the rehearsal space and tried to re-create them live, expounding upon the ideas and tailoring aspects that weren’t working so well. After playing the songs a lot, so that all the musicians got comfortable with the parts and could add their own flair to them and the tempos could fall into a natural and consistent place, we went into the studio and recorded them, adding a few details as overdubs.

CB: Who designed/created the Alopecia packaging (which is rife with textured, playful cut-and-paste imagery)? In this era of downloads, I still yearn to have a physical object in my hand. The packaging is still a big part of the musical experience for me. Thoughts?
YW: I did the art and my buddy Sam Flax Keener did all the layout work. I can’t agree with you more. I grew up looking at the art and reading the lyrics while listening to a new album. I think for us dinosaurs it’s part of the experience. I can’t say that’s true for the youth of today. I think we are a dying breed unfortunately.

CB: There’s a lot of talk about the current state of the “music industry,” which is going through a lot of growing pains right now. How has the fractured nature of the contemporary music scene — not to mention the state of our economy — affected Anticon and your band?
YW: I think it’s really hard for record labels these days. As far as artists go, it’s all about touring your ass off. That’s the only way to survive in the industry these days.

CB: How has making music changed for you over the years?
YW: Well, I guess when I first started recording, it was very playful and I had a real anything-goes mentality. And I think because of that, I made a lot of embarrassing but adventurous stuff. Now I try to maintain the adventurous while curbing the embarrassing. Our process now is a lot more involved. We take it a lot more seriously.

WHY? ( plays the MidPoint Music Festival Thursday at 11 p.m. at the Aronoff’s Fifth Third Bank Theater.