Crammed With Ideas

Yoni Wolf's Why? offers funky, folky pop--with just a touch of surrealism

Back in the day, when Yoni Wolf was a teen-age hip-hop fan and occasional graffiti artist in his hometown of Cincinnati, he used to sign his urban artworks with the tag "Why?"

Soon Wolf started crafting songs, joining his nascent poetry to music made with whatever instruments were lying around. He mixed the stuff on a crude four-track he'd found in the basement of his father's synagogue--dad was a rabbi, mom a book editor. And the handle Why? evolved into the appellation for Wolf's musical endeavors.

Why? remains with Wolf today, having traveled with him to the San Francisco Bay area in 2001. The project waited patiently while Wolf dabbled with the hip-hop ensemble cLOUDDEAD, made some ambient rap with Reaching Quiet and became a member of the Oakland-based Anticon Records collective.

But Wolf always returned to Why? The name found itself labeling a handful of singles and EPs and the critically acclaimed 2003 album Oaklandazulasylum. Why? no longer was an outlet for hip-hop, but Wolf's unique brand of eccentric folk-pop with elements of dub, funk, alternative rock, European electronic music and, yes, hip-hop.

And Why? is now a four-piece band, on tour to promote its latest CD, Elephant Eyelash, a remarkable accomplishment--as funky and folky and daring as anything by Beck or Soul Coughing, two of Why?'s more obvious cousins. Why? will play on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at Club Congress.

Wolf, now 26, considers Elephant Eyelash a pop record. He spoke to the Weekly a few nights ago on a cell phone between a sound check and performance in Vancouver.

"I mean, hip-hop is part of me, and it was synthesized into my culture from early, early on. That's what I was looking to in my high school days, when I was first writing poetry and rap. But I would not call this a hip-hop record by any means. I mean, I definitely think of it as a pop record of some kind, just not a candy-pop record or those junk-food pop records," Wolf said.

"Anyway, though, yeah, I still am into the idea of words having their own rhythm, and I do retain those hip-hop elements in my style."

Wolf's cohorts in Why? are drummer (and older brother) Josiah Wolf, guitarist Matt Meldon and multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid. All made their ways from Cincinnati to Oakland at one time or another during the last few years.

One of the most delightful aspects of Why? is that its music is nearly impossible to pigeonhole. Wolf's interpretation of old-school flow and post-modern information overload will crowd one song, such as in the opening "Crushed Bones," then he'll massage stark poetic imagery into the fine grain of a bare-bones folk, such as on "Yo Yo Bye Bye."

He said he doesn't mind that the music of Why? is difficult to pin down. "I think that people have had trouble doing that when it comes to our music. And I don't even attempt to do it myself.

"I wouldn't say that it's one of our set goals or anything, but I do think it comes naturally if you're trying to do something honestly," Wolf said. "I don't think it's as if we're following toward a particular target or that we're trying consciously to emulate or not emulate something."

He certainly appreciates music by other artists who are difficult to categorize. "I find that stuff to be quite interesting. It's the sort of thing that is always a pleasant surprise," he said.

Wolf gives much respect to recent recordings by Animal Collective, Boards of Canada and the Silver Jews, all currently in rotation on his iPod, as examples of kindred non-conformist spirits.

Wolf's emotion-laden symbolism ("And the Monterey birches were bare / Raising their skinny arms / To the stars in surrender") alternates with off-kilter simile and metaphor ("I'm fucking cold like a DQ Blizzard"). Some critics and publicists have dubbed the combination surreal.

"Well, I thought I was sort of a surrealist, and people have written or said that about me," Wolf said. "But I recently went to this modern art museum in Rotterdam, in Holland, and saw a bunch of dada stuff and surrealistic stuff. It seemed like its purpose was to break free from some movement that was the norm in the art world. But it was so self-conscious about it, and so, like, determined to announce, 'This is like the popular thing, and we're so not this thing.' It was really distancing for me."

At about the same time, Wolf saw an exhibit of legendary underground cartoonist R. Crumb's work. He said he connected more deeply with Crumb's pop-realist point of view, leavened with a hint of existentialism and sexual angst, than with surrealism.

"(Crumb's) stuff just blew me away. I was never really into his more psychedelic stuff, but the real-life life stuff that he does is just brilliant. He also did a lot of art for that American Splendor comic. I love that stuff," he said.

The rush of information in Wolf's lyrics, the smirk in his nasally sing-song vocals and the multi-faceted arrangements can be a little overwhelming on first listen. The music is dense and vertiginous. Wolf doesn't disagree.

"Elephant Eyelash, especially, has that feel, where it's really crammed with ideas. Maybe I might've gotten into that a little too much with this CD. It's so built up; it has so many layers to it. I mean, I have written more simple, stripped-down music in the past, and at some point in my career, I'll probably make another record that goes in for the kill, you know, that has more dark lines outlining and defining it."

The members of Why?, therefore, don't even attempt to re-create the musical density of the new album on stage, Wolf said.

"We reinterpret the songs for a live setting," he said. "You know, we look at the arrangements, and we say, 'There are four of us playing, and each of us can only do one or two or three things at the same time,' and we just decide which elements of the song we are going to bring to the live show. You have to really trust in the song, and know that the raw elements of the song--the melody, the rhythm, the lyrics--are strong enough so that we can pull it off without re-creating the recording."

So it's like a different translation of the same story, then?

"Or a simpler translation. Sometimes it might end up with us playing what turns out to be the Cliffs Notes of the song."

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