Cincinnati’s Why? have been a bit off my radar for some time now, with their last LP release, Eskimo Snow, having been birthed in September 2009. In a rapid-paced music world where bands and producers often put out a couple of releases in a single year, it’s refreshing to see a band giving their work (and minds) some time to breathe. On August 14, Anticon (the Los Angeles label that Yoni Wolf, Why?’s vocalist, co-owns) and City Slang (the UK label that has played host to artists like Arcade Fire, Caribou, HEALTH, and Nada Surf) released the six-track Sod in the Seed EP, and on October 8/9, a new Why? full-length release, Mumps, etc., will be out on the same imprints.
I chatted with Yoni Wolf on the phone a few weeks ago in anticipation of the new releases and the lengthy tour that the band was then preparing to embark on and have since begun. I’ll be checking them out tonight in Cambridge, MA at the Middle East Downstairs; you can find a listing of remaining tour dates at the end of the interview.
Read on for our chat about the band’s upcoming releases, the album cycle, the absorptive nature of the creative process and how it can mark time, and the importance of staying mentally and physically healthy while touring.
EARMILK: How are you today?
Yoni Wolf: I’m doing fine. How are you?
EM: I’m good. Where are you right now?
YW: Cincinnati, Ohio, where I live. I’m at my house.
EM: Cool. That’s convenient. What’s Cincinnati like as like a music city? How’s that place influenced you?
YW: I don’t know. I don’t think about it as a music city so much. It’s just where I grew up. It’s not like a music town exactly. I don’t really have a scene necessarily here or anything like that. So – yeah, I don’t know. It’s not really that so much but, you know, that said, it’s a cool place to live and there’s really awesome people here, so – yeah, it’s good.
EM: So I got to listen to the new EP, Sod in the Seed, and I really liked that. What went into making that EP?
YW: Oh, I mean many, many, many processes and things. It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing, you know? It was just written over the course of the last few years and last year we recorded it spring and summer and then mixed it in the fall and spring of this year. Fall of 2011 and spring of 2012. And then that’s that, that’s what you got, you know?
EM: Cool. And what would you say is different about that EP from the stuff you’ve made in the past?
YW: Hard to say exactly. But I think each thing that we do has a different personality and has a different identity, you know? This one’s no different. So, you know, I can’t say really what that identity is exactly, but you can hear it in it, you know?
EM: And is that EP pretty representative of what the album in the fall will be like to you or are you going in a different direction with that one?
YW: It’s pretty representative. The album was done at the same time, so all the material was sort of in the same quote/unquote fashions or whatever, so that means that goes down somewhat similar. That said, this stuff – I put the album together first and some of the songs on the EP are the songs that didn’t necessarily fit as well. Not to say they weren’t as good, but they didn’t fit as well with all the stuff that was going on the album. So yeah, there’s a certain sound that the album has, like a song like “27” which is on the EP was one of my favorites out of the whole lot of songs. But it wouldn’t “go” on the album. I tried it a few different places and it just didn’t work. So, you know, yeah.
EM: When you were making the album, were you thinking of it more as one sequence or did you sort of make individual songs — I guess what I’m trying to ask is, what’s the creative process for you with making an album?
YW: Well, everything is done one thing at a time, one level at a time. I don’t think in terms of the big thing early on or anything like that. It’s just like, okay, I have this one little seed and let me try to sprout it into something that translates orally or whatever with people. And that’s sort of how it goes and I build a bunch of that up. We turn a bunch of that into a song and then that’s written and then do some more and then you sort of start putting things together and see what the whole is.
It’s a very process-oriented thing, and that’s really why I do it, I think, is for the process. It’s totally integrated into my life, you know what I mean? It’s a way for me to mark time and a way for me to sort of move through life and think about another layer that’s going on other than just the very surface thing that I might be doing at the moment, like driving to Whole Foods or something, you know what I mean? It’s some sort of meditation for me, I guess. Not in an elevated way or something like that but on a very human, basic level.
So yeah, that said, when I start putting something together like the album, I’ll say more so than the EP since I had six songs that I knew I wanted to go together because they all didn’t fit in on the album. It’s a little different, I was like, “Okay, what sounds good next to each other?” I don’t know what the EP adds up to exactly. I’m not sure. But the album started to shape up into something that made me sort of start to realize what was going on my life for the past five years. While I’ve been working on it, that I didn’t realize before.
So that’s always a real learning experience for me, and then I can sort of think about what’s the album title, what should it be, what should the album cover look like in relation to the threads that are going along throughout the songs. What are the connective tissues that hold these songs together? Why do they fit together well? Why this one before this one? That kind of thing. And you start to realize those things. Really, when you’re putting them together, you’re just going on gut feeling most of the time. Later, I listen to it in a more intellectual way, why is that there, you know what I mean? But as you’re doing it, you’re just kind of like, “This feels right, this doesn’t feel right,” that kind of thing, and that’s what being an artist is, I think, is being able to tap into that gut feeling, I think. Yeah. I hope that answers your question.
EM: Has music always served that function for you? When did you start using music as that kind of like structuring thing?
YW: I guess I started doing music, recording stuff, when I was around 18, sort of on an all-the-time kind of basis when I really got into it, when I was like, “This is really cool.” I enjoyed it. And since then, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with it. It’s not something I always do, like I’m right now in the position where I’m not working on music like that every day.
That’s the thing. The album cycle thing is a very real thing where you work on songs, write them, and then you go in and you record them and then you go and mix and you master and then you give ’em to somebody and hope they can get it out there to the world and then you talk to people, like yourself, about what the songs are about or something.
It’s a very strange life. And then you go out and play shows. But I like the life sometimes. Sometimes I struggle with it but that’s what it is. But yeah, it crept up over the years. The more people started listening to the stuff I was doing, the more I slipped into that lifestyle and the cycle like that. Before that, when I was 18, I could do whatever I wanted. I didn’t really tour like we tour now and I could just kind of fuck around all the time and that’s kinda what I did. Now there’s the cycle.
But yeah, that said, I do enjoy playing shows a lot and when I talk to a good journalist – and you seem good, you’re one of the good ones – then it really helps me to actually learn about what I’m doing ’cause otherwise, I don’t really think about it or put thought into words, you know what I mean? So it helps me to kind of put a name on things that are going on for me.
EM: Yeah, it helps to process things, for sure, after pouring yourself into it like that.
YW: Exactly. Process things, that’s the word I was looking for, yeah, definitely.
EM: Do you have a lot of literary influences into your lyrical style? Because you definitely have a pretty clear and unique lyrical style, so I’m curious what influences that.
YW: Yeah. I don’t know. Honestly, I hardly read at all. I haven’t read a book for a couple of years. So I don’t know. There was a time when I was first starting out recording stuff and writing stuff that I listened to all these poets that the library would have, all these tapes and stuff, and records, and so I would go and I would just pull out random tapes and records and hope that it was an interesting poet. And I would pull out ten at a time and then four of them would be kind of interesting and I would listen to those a lot.
And that was like the benchmark, were these really good poets. So I would try to write stuff that I felt would hold interest like those guys and ladies. So I think that was my first – that sort of gave me something to strive toward, and I think in a way, I kept that in my head ever since then, even though I don’t listen to those – I don’t have those tapes anymore or anything like that, but there were definitely some good ones in there.
EM: Cool. And what kind of music has been influential for you? What do you generally listen to casually?
YW: You know, honestly I haven’t really been listening to music that much in the last few years since I’ve been working on this album. It’s consumed me pretty good. But I listen to music at certain times, so like if I go jogging, I always listen to music. Usually, I just put it on shuffle on my phone. Occasionally, I’ll like put a rap album on. I’ll like put on Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest or something like that ’cause it’s one of my old throwback favorites from when I was like 14, you know?
But generally, that’s when I listen to music or in the car, I just listen to regular radio. I listen to the R&B/rap station and then I’ll listen to the oldies and the classic rock stations, you know? And just flip around. There are so many terrible songs on there but then you’ll hit a gold one every once in a while. So that’s pretty much it. I mean other than that, like if I’m hanging out at home or something, I don’t – these days I’m always doing something. I’m pretty busy. So I don’t listen like I used to. At least right now, I don’t go on random walks and stuff and listen to albums like I used to.
EM: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s interesting because a lot of the people I talk to tend to be DJs as well as producing music, so there’s obviously this like pursuit that they constantly have to be part of, of finding things and finding things and finding things, but if you’re really pouring yourself into creation, it seems like that would be harder to dedicate time to, so that’s interesting.
YW: Yeah. And I’ve never been a searcher. I have friends that are diggers and all that and I’ve never been that way. I sort of fall into things randomly, I still listen to Bob Dylan albums that my dad bought or that my parents had when they were kids and I inherited. I mean I’m not the kind of guy that’s like – I have this friend staying here who’s a new member of the band for these fall tours and we’ll be up late after rehearsal and she’s like, “Oh, you gotta check out The Weeknd, you gotta check out this other stuff.” So I’ve heard about some stuff from her or my friend Shaun who runs Anticon, the label. He’s constantly – he knows about all kinds of shit. So they’ll hit me with something.
But yeah, I’m not the best on my own at like – I can look at Pitchfork all day and there’s 100 million bands on there, and I can safely say I’ll probably never listen to any of them unless somebody makes me, like “You will love this,” and then 99 percent of the time, I don’t love it and it just kinda breezes right by me, and then every once in a blue moon, I’m just like, “Oh, my God, yes” or whatever, you know what I mean? So yeah, it happens, but rarely.
EM: Yeah. That’s interesting. So you mentioned Anticon, and I wasn’t quite sure – I know that you helped found Anticon, but do you still have an active role in that right now?
YW: No, not really. I vote on anything new that we’re gonna put out, whether we’re gonna put it out or not, I’m supposed to be in A&R, but I haven’t signed anybody for a long time, because I just haven’t – whatever, but yeah, I mean as far as running it, my friend Shaun runs it.
EM: So right now sort of in the album cycle, you’re kind of in the talking-to-people stage? So I guess the next stage or kind of overlapping stage is the touring stage? What’s your plan for the tour? What can we look forward to?
YW: Well, there’s plenty. We’re gonna tour all fall and then take the Christmas break and then tour mostly all next year. So it’s a lot but I’m looking forward to trying it, being out there, trying to stay healthy. That’s one of the things that I’m focused on now is just sort of keeping my physical body healthy enough so that I don’t run down and go mentally crazy like I sometimes have in the past or get physical sick so that I have to stop touring, stuff like that, so I’m just trying to stay mentally positive and physically healthy and everything. If those two things are there, everything else just falls into place, you know?
EM: Definitely. What helps you stay healthy and sane on tour? It seems like a challenge.
YW: Like I said, it’s about your physical/mental state, so it’s like eating well – and you’re not in control most of the time, is the thing, of your own body. You’re at the whim of whoever made the hotel bed or whoever’s responsibility it is to deal with your food rider or something like that. So it’s hard. You do have to give up a ton of control on tour and just be almost like a baby. You’re just kind of taken care of. And that’s hard for someone like me who’s very specific about everything they put in their body and has had many troubles with their body.
So yeah, for me, it’s just about eating and sleeping, and if you do that stuff well, then generally you’ll be okay. And staying positive and just trying to focus on positive things, which are ample, and get enough alone time. We’re going on buses and stuff like that, so we get into town in the morning, maybe I’ll take walks in the early afternoon and then go to sound check. Just get going and try to do other stuff other than just playing shows. I’ll try to do a little writing hopefully and maybe stay in touch with people, which I, a lot of times, don’t.
Yeah, so just try to stay somewhat normal and not turn into a tour robot.
EM: Yeah, that’s healthy, for sure. I think I am pretty much out of time now, but thank you for chatting with me, and I hope that the tour goes well. I’ll be there at the Boston show.
YW: Great. That sounds great.
WHY? Upcoming Tour Dates
09-12 – Cambridge, MA – Middle East^*+
09-13 – Brooklyn, NY – Music Hall Of Williamsburg ^*+
09-14 – Philadelphia, PA – Union Transfer ^*+
09-15 – Durham, NC – Motorco Music Hall ^*+
09-16 – Asheville, NC – Grey Eagle ^*+
09-17 – Atlanta, GA – The Earl ^*+
09-18 – Nashville, TN – Mercy Lounge ^*+
10-05 – Dusseldorf, Germany – New Fall Festival
10-06 – Evreux, France – L’abordage
10-07 – Paris, France – Maroquinerie
10-08 – Brighton, UK – Old Market
10-09 – London, UK – Electric Ballroom
10-10 – Manchester, UK – Central Methodist Church
10-11 – Bristol, UK – Fleece
10-12 – Glasgow, UK – SWG3
10-13 – Oxford, UK – The Bullingdon
10-15 – Berlin, Germany – Volksbuhne