Yoni Wolf of Why? on bird people and making a mega stretch limo on a Kinkos copy machine
Why? was one of the flagship bands of the nascent Anticon imprint ten years ago. Like its labelmates, the outfit was expanding and pushing the boundaries of what hip-hop was and where it could go. But Why? in particular has blurred the line between hip-hop and experimental pop music in consistently interesting ways. Lead by Yoni Wolf, a captivating frontman with a unique and original performance style, Why? helped set the bar for underground hip-hop.
See also: Why? at Gothic Theatre, 9/5/12
Why?'s latest EP, Sod in the Seed, finds the act incorporating even more sounds into its style, and next month, the group will release a full-length follow-up titled Mumps, Etc.. We recently spoke with Wolf about joining Anticon, the surrealistic cover art for Sod in the Seed and bringing in classical musicians for the group's latest recordings.
Westword: You co-founded Anticon Collective. How did you meet Tim Holland and the other guys?
Yoni Wolf: I wouldn't say that I co-founded it. I would say it was more like Tim and Adam [Drucker] and [James] Brandon [Best]. I mean, I was around since the beginning, and I knew those guys, but I would say they were more aggressively moving forward there. When we founded it as an official business in '02, I was definitely part of that scene. But in the initial situation in '98, '99, I was doing stuff with the guys, and we were working together, but I wasn't the main business mind or anything like that behind it.
Tim Holland lives in Denver now.
You've put out that new EP The Sod and the Seed. Did you see that material as being essentially different in some fashion from the songs you're going to put out on your next full-length album in the fall?
Yeah, they were songs that didn't fit for one reason or another on the album. They didn't sound quite the same, or thematically the relationship didn't exist on the album -- that kind of thing. We had the nineteen songs, and then we started sculpting the album. Certain songs didn't fit in. Not that they weren't as good, but they just didn't go somehow.
The artwork for the EP cover has a couple of bird people. Who designed that?
I did it.
Is that a stretch limo on the cover?
Yeah, it's mega-stretch. I did it all at Kinko's on a photocopy machine, and I kept changing the percentages and stuff and made it an extra long one by changing the sizes of it. It's supposed to be an infinite limo.
On the side, it looks like there are medieval footmen or something.
They're the bouncers, the doormen of the limo.
What inspired the bird people on the foreground? It looks like they're getting married.
It's all kind of imagery from the EP. Mainly from "The Sod in the Seed," the song. The title is in the bridge of the song.
For Alopecia, there were some remixes done. How did it come that Boards of Canada remixed one of your songs?
I just asked them if they wanted to do it, and they said they'd do it. I'd known them for a few years. I met them in 2002 in Edinburgh, Scotland and Birmingham, England. They're really cool guys and really reclusive. But they did a remix for one of my older bands, Clouddead, and I've been in contact with them here and there throughout the years. I asked if they had any interest, and they were like, "Fuck yeah, let's do it."
"The Plan" has kind of a country-ish sound. Is that something you've explored before, and what interested you about that sort of aesthetic?
I don't personally see it as a country sound, but I can see that, I guess. Every song sounds kind of different as you're writing it and making demos, and, when you're recording it, it changes again. So I kind of let the natural flow of things work on stuff, and you get what you get. It has a kind of party percussion happening.
Are you usually directly involved in the making of your music videos?
It depends. I have been directly involved at times. But a lot of the time it's somebody else's vision. We did one video for "A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under," and we did one for the first two songs from Eskimo Snow. Those were done by my friend Ben Barnes. Those are totally his vision. We're doing videos for almost every song on the new album, and those are usually the vision of this guy Scott Fredette and the other guys at Lightborne, which is a Cincinnati production house. They're doing a documentary on the making of the new album. I collaborate with them on stuff as well. "The Sod in the Seed" video was a collaboration between me and Scott.
Did you get your start playing out live at more traditional clubs or more like art galleries and DIY spaces, considering the experimental aspect of your music?
All kinds of different places. When we first started touring a lot as Why? was in '03. We played wherever our booking agent put us. They tended to be in shitty bar situations or sometimes art gallery things.
How did you come to work with Half-Handed Cloud?
We met John [Ringhofer] through this venue called the Ramp that was like a church basement in Berkeley. We used to play there early on. He was the maintenance man at the church and lived in the back of the church. He was really good friends with the pastor and his family, and we became good friends with them and John.
Is The Sod and the Seed being co-released by City Slang and Anticon?
It's a licensing deal from Anticon to City Slang for Europe.
Did you partially name Eskimo Snow in part because Eskimos have numerous words for snow?
It's named after the song, and the lyrics are, "All my words for sadness like Eskimo snow." You know sadness so well that you have many different kinds of it and you can explain its intricacies and distinctions.
For the new EP and the album, was there anything you did that you haven't been able to try before? Obviously, you did, but were there sounds or anything else that you explored this time around for the first time or more deeply?
We got pretty heavily into ironing out the [details of having] classical musicians play stuff. We found string players, horn players and a choir, which we found in Denton, Texas. We got into that more. We hadn't done too much of that. We have brought players here and there but never people we didn't know to play sheet music that we write out. That was kind of a new thing on this album.
How did you get hooked up with that band in Denton?
We recorded most of the album down there at a studio called Echo Lab that that band Centro-matic has as their spot. We hit up Texas University. They have a renowned music department. An administrator guy put us in contact with a bunch of different musicians. Some were students, and others were part of local orchestras and things like that.
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