INTERVIEW | WHY?
Yoni Wolf of WHY? is a one-of-a kind, authentic, no nonsense, jack-of-all-trades kind of guy. Not only is he a visual artist, but he’s also a songwriter and lyricist who raps, sings, and plays countless instruments. Out of necessity, he has had a heavy hand in recording and mixing much of the WHY? catalog throughout the years. I believe he does it all through his instinctual knack for curious experimentation. His approach to treating his studio as his instrument, leads him to create sonic masterpieces such as his most recent album, Moh Lhean. It’s fascinating to delve more into his artistry as he prepares to venture out with his fellow bandmates ahead of their US tour in February and March 2018.
One thing we care a lot about on Blisspop is local community and appreciating one’s music scene. For example, in DC where I am based, I think the music scene is disjointed based on music genre. You’ve got the jammers, you’ve got the hardcore bands like Fugazi, there’s the go-go scene, etc. What’s it like in Cincinnati, your hometown? What are your favorite parts of the music scene?
My favorite? I dunno. Yea I think it’s probably the same here. More like punk and post hardcore punk here. There’s a lot of hip hop, more like trap style. There is a lot of funk, that’s the heritage music here in Cincinnati. Even James Brown’s band and Bootsy Collins and all those guys are a mainstay here. So you have a lot of old school funk sensibilities happening. There are also indie rockers, bands that are doing well right now like Walk the Moon, which is some kind of pop, I think? I’ve never actually heard them.
Haha! I know what you mean, I’m vaguely familiar.
So there’s all kinds of music here!
Where I got this idea to ask you about Cincinnati is I listen to your podcast, The Wandering Wolf. It’s a cool artistic pivot, where you get to rant stream of consciousness style about what’s going on. I listened to your most recent episode with Bridget Battle from the indie rock outfit, Tweens. I bring that up because you even talk about life as a touring musician a bit on your podcast. Considering you’re a veteran when it comes to touring and since you have your nationwide tour coming up in February and March, what’s a typical day in the life of touring?
It depends on how you’re touring. If you tour in a van, you’re pretty much just gonna drive all day, you’ll arrive, sound check, then find something to eat for dinner, get to the club and try to sell some merch or sit back and pound beers if you’re that kind of person. I’m not that kind of person.
But if you’re on a bus, you sleep while the driver drives. You wake up when you’re in town around noon. You just kind of walk around the town and try to explore where you’re at. There’s always something to be done, like I need to pick up contact solution or I really need socks. Or I need to pick up this prescription, so you’ll try to figure it out. Then it’s time to load in and sound check.
Yes, it’s a very repetitive lifestyle. No doubt about it!
How are you preparing for the tour?
I’ve been super busy so we haven’t started rehearsing yet! My brother called me a few hours ago and left a message saying, “Call me, we need to talk and figure out this tour plan and start working on it.” So that’s the next step, to get in the room with the fellas.
You released an album last year, Moh Lhean. Out of curiosity, what does Moh Lhean mean?
It doesn’t mean nothin’. It’s made up! I can’t explain it.
For your upcoming tour do you think your set will be focused on your most recent album? Or will you dust off songs form your back catalog?
I think it will be a healthy mix. We’ll play prolly 1/3 stuff off of the new album and 2/3 back catalog stuff. That would be my guess.
How have you as an artist grown as an artist over the past 15+ years?
Oh my goodness! As an artist, I’ve taken many twists and turns. As a human, same! I’m not the same as I was. They say all your cells regenerate after about seven years. So that’s happened two to three times since the start of me working on music. I’m a very different person.
“They say all your cells regenerate after about seven years. So that’s happened two to three times since the start of me working on music. I’m a very different person.”
I can tell the tone of each album you’ve released is different. What keeps listeners drawn to your music is definitely the songwriting and lyricism that tends to have a stream of consciousness element to it. Some of your lyrics will go so far as to be provocative. That being said, what won’t you talk about in your lyrics?
I definitely don’t think anything is specifically off limits. Some things call out to me at different times of my life that sound appropriate to write about. I’ve gone through many different phases in life and many different changes. Sometimes I’ve been angrier or frustrated. Other times I’ve been more joyous or have had feelings of gratitude. Yea … no subject is off limits, like I’m not the Chinese government or something.
What have you been writing about lately?
I haven’t really been writing in the past few months, I’ve been working on other stuff. I was working on a video project and now I am still working on producing and mixing someone else’s album.
Might I ask whose album your working on?
It’s a band called The Ophelias (like Ophelia from Hamlet).
Ooooh! I’ll check ‘em out!
They are a real cool band from Cincinnati.
Are they indie style?
Yeah! So that’s what I am working on now, and I’ll shift into rehearsal mode, then touring mode. Hopefully someday in the not so distant future I’d like to get back to writing and recording.
Did you initially start as a songwriter and musician and then work on producing and engineering? What came first for you?
I was really into fine arts, [specifically] visual arts in high school. I was always drawing and painting. I went to art school. All throughout my teen years, I played drums and piano by ear. Jammin’ and shammin’ for the folks.
And so that was my youth, but at the time it wasn’t something I was super serious about. I’d get a pizza after school and jam at my friend’s house. I started recording when I was in high school and when I started going to art school I met another guy and we started working on recording stuff together on a four track. We would mess around recording and I fell in love with it! Music and writing lyrics came at the same time for me. In terms of engineering and mixing, I’ve learned it by necessity and I’ve gotten better and better over the years. Now I would say I’m a good engineering/mixing guy. I’m not the best out there, but I do a pretty good job. Definitely back in the day I was not good at it at all!
It’s about putting in those 10,000 hours into your craft.
This next question is inspired by some of our readers who are aspiring producers. Last night, I happen to catch my friend watching a video about Mac Demarco talking about mixing. He was talking about that lo-fi sound and recording on tape (which kinda reminded me of your style). When he was giving advice he recommended that young producers need to “get yourselves a tape machine and get your head out of that Ableton shit, you moron.” That being said, are you the type to be hands on in the studio recording on tape or do you work predominately in the box (aka a digital audio workstation, such as Ableton). I’m curious, what’s your approach?
I do it all! I first started learning and working on cassette four tracks, then eight tracks. So I am very familiar with that whole thing. Most of the WHY? catalog was recorded on two-inch tape. So I can do that. Although I don’t have a two-inch tape machine in my house, I have a quarter inch tape machine that I use. But I also have a computer and these days I mix in Pro Tools. I like it for the endless options that you have. How good you can really get in there and edit well.
I agree, the editing features are really powerful!
Yep. But I’ve never used Ableton. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it! Even if I’m recording on the computer, I tend to play stuff from the outside through a microphone or instrument cable into the computer as opposed to using software. I have done a bit of the software thing, but that’s not my area of expertise.
So then how many instruments do you play?
I play a little bit of whatever. My main instruments are drums and piano. For recording, I play whatever. I play the recording gear, if that makes sense. They talk about using the studio as an instrument and that’s really what I do.
“They talk about using the studio as an instrument and that’s really what I do.”
To wrap up, Happy 2018! There are so many possibilities. I’m not the type to have new year’s resolutions but some people I know do. Do you have any resolutions for this year?
No, I’m not the type of person to make new year’s resolutions either, but I am always working on myself. I would like to try to be more grateful and positive, and be a better person to the people around me. It’s usually that self-help shit is what I am hoping to achieve in the next several lifetimes.
It takes several lifetimes, but one day at a time!