To Not Focus on the Limb That's Missing: A Conversation with Yoni Wolf of WHY?

On his fifth studio album, Yoni Wolf turned to philosophy and wrote himself out of darkness. This time, it's more than catharsis.

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Mar 5 2017, 11:55pm

Yoni Wolf has carved out a curious niche for himself. In the two decades he's spent releasing off-kilter hip-hop under the WHY? moniker--first as a solo act, and more recently as the frontman of a six-piece band--he's evolved in some sort of isolation, refining his sound while indie rock and hip-hop forked off around him. He's adored for it, too. His first studio album, Elephant Eyelash (2005), and the follow-up Alopecia (2008) both became cult classics for rap fans with book fetishes.

As with every WHY? record, those breakout LPs were confessional. Often uncomfortably so. Wolf's struggles with Crohn's disease in particular have often left him exhausted and depressed. When Motherboard spoke with him in 2012, he said that he was "grateful just being alive." His music is, always has been, an escape route. He writes himself out of the darkness.

Moh Lhean, WHY?'s first album since 2013's Mumps, etc., is another step into WHY? And Wolf's confounding, literary, almost genreless territory. But this time, the 37-year-old's search for emotional honesty, a way out of depression and darkness, has him channeling mysticism and modernity; he borrows from the Western-born yogi Ram Dass without entirely leaving the confessionals of Marc Maron's WTF podcast that he connected with so strongly. The internal dialogue of WHY?'s earlier albums gives way to a Zen aesthetic, all backed by folk standards, art-funk, saxophone, and synth. Occasionally, it psychs out and starts to trip. Lyrically, he's Alan Watts with an ancient syntax; musically, he's wherever those words take him.

Photo by Jacob Hand.

Take "One Mississippi," one of Moh Lhean's standouts. There, he wanders through the value and the difficulty of not shifting one's focus away from the hardship.

With much of the whole intact
In this great anarchic expanse
It mostly comes down
To a gang of ants
Swarming on the shadow
Of the stain of a drop of blood

Wolf retains much of that poetry in conversation, too. We talked to him about Moh Lhean, its meditative qualities, and his sources of anxiety.

Noisey: This is the first album you've recorded at home in over a decade. Any reason for this?
Yoni Wolf: I feel like with Mumps, etc.,I put so much weight on the material and how it would do and I spent so much money. For this one, I wanted to get back to a feeling that's like, "this is just a private home, we're just doing this in a mellow way, it's becoming whatever it is". And I'm not trying to put weight on the outcome of whether people like it or not. It's just a thing that I made with my friends. Mumps... was probably my wittiest writing. The raps are intricate and tight. But I didn't want to be forced into making something that would cost a million dollars to make a million dollars. We did it on the cheap over the course over a lot of time, but we did it our own way and we went back to how things used to be. It was way harder. It's exhaustive.

Why did you include spiritual leaders like Ram Dass and Sharon Salzberg on the album?
I didn't put that stuff on there to be preaching at people. I chose quotes that felt like something I was thinking about. It's more personal. I fucking struggle. These are the things that I would try to repeat to myself — along with whatever the doctors are saying to me. When I say something in a song, it almost weirdly becomes true for me. So this album is me being like "I better put out something that is joyful and positive into the world" so that I can reap joy and positivity in my life as opposed to putting out really cynical, dark shit. But don't get me wrong. I stand behind my older material. It's still honest and it's still trying.

How much of your songwriting process is planned compared to what happens on the fly?
The songs start brick by brick, so to speak, with no blueprint and become what they are. Once you sort of see what it's shaping up into, you can guide it towards what it is. I don't think I've ever said I'm going to make a song about something in particular. As for things coming true, I made a song called "By Torpedo and Crohn's" named after a line in the song. I didn't have Crohn's when I wrote that. I don't know what happened. I'd heard of it. I have a theory, but I don't know for sure. I think I write a lot from my subconscious. I think that we know way more than we think we know about what's going on and what's going to be. I think that if you're a very sensitive person, there's a way to tap into that. That's what I always try to do with my writing. I go to that part of me that isn't self-conscious or ego-driven. For some reason, I tend to think a line is interesting to me so I'm going to put it into a song. Then once you put things together, you have to do a little sculpting.

Photo by Jacob Hand.

Do you think it'll be easier for you on tour to have a lighter approach in your songs?
Absolutely. Just going back and doing those old songs, they're dark and they're funny, but the humor is obviously just covering something up. If I think back to when I was writing a song like "Good Friday" from Alopecia in 2008, it was a terrible time. Am I going to go night after night and reconjure that in my life? I don't want to. I am and I do. But can I phase into some stuff that is actually going to bring positivity? Hopefully. This new album is praise music in a way, but it's not reggae and it's not gospel. It's just coming from my own personal heart.

Is your health something that gives you anxiety on the road? What about your diet?
On the road, I cook for myself everywhere. It's past the point where I can put it in anyone else's hands. I do my own thing. It's cool. I eat good food and healthy food and in the last couple years I've been in the best shape of my life. My cardio is outrageous, not to gloat, but I'm doing pretty good. I still have whatever health problems that I have but it's forced me into some things that have gotten me into pretty good shape. My physical body has forced me to take a look at my spiritual life, for lack of better words. Of course, I still worry. But my psychologist says that all suffering comes from attachment and I'm attached to the idea of what I am as a music person. And if I lost that and accepted it, I could go deaf and become a painter or something like that.

Does the album feel like it sits within the realm of what's happening politically right now?
The album feels like it goes outside of that stuff and almost says to look at how small all of that is. That's not to diminish whatsoever the great harm that is taking place right now in our country and in a lot of parts of the world. For me, though, this album says to relax a little bit. Don't forget about it, either. Like "Proactive Evolution" is basically the theme song for the Affordable Care Act. The song "Consequence of Non-Action" is a more personal song that points to the way I have been in regards to my life and politics and society and the larger responsibility there. The consequence is loss in that song. I'm the type of person where I had to stop watching the news because it would literally make me physically sick and I wouldn't leave my house. The album is to say that what's going on is hopefully not the end of the world and when the pendulum swings one way it will swing back the other way. I think it is appropriate even though it's not protest songs and there are no anthems. We have to fight for what we believe and for people.

What have you learned about interviews since you started your own podcast?
I want to actually connect with and have real conversations with people when I'm doing press. It happens very rarely. That's what an interview should be. I understand this is a soundbite world and I don't really want to be a part of that world. But I'm scared not to because I'm not Sufjan Stevens and I'm not Bon Iver. They have to take pictures of me. I don't want to be photographed but I get it. These guys are on this level where they can make those decisions. I think Sufjan decided that before he got famous. So maybe I'm just too much of a softy to say, "I don't do photographs" and I feel like if I don't do that stuff, people are just going to forget about me. That's just a fear that I live with. At some point, for my own sanity, I feel like I'll have to limit it to stuff like this that feels real. Or just relax and give a canned answer. The fact that anyone is interested is just awesome anyway. 

Lead photo by Jacob Hand.

Bryan Kalbrosky is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.