WHY? – Interview – 2017

WHY? fans will certainly encounter familiar sounds on Moh Lhean, the recent new album by Yoni Wolf. Within the quirkly eccentricities, the psychedelic alt-pop foundations, alternative hip-hop leanings, and the fluid arrangements, Wolf's experiences with (unspecified) mental and physical health issues and scares of late (he has Crohn's disease) inform much of the music. But this prolific artist keeps on making high quality music, something he has managed to do consistently with WHY?, as well as the other projects and collaborations he has been involved in, such as CLOUDDEAD and Doseone. Brightonsfinest spoke to Yoni Wolf

Hi there. Where am I calling?
I'm at my house in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I remember seeing you here in Brighton, back in 2002, as part of a Mush Records tour. An incredible night with CLOUDDEAD, Reaching Quiet, Boom Bip, Doseone. You remember that?
I do remember it pretty well. It was at the university, in a big auditorium type room (Sallis Benney). This kid, when I first met him Spain maybe five years prior to that, this little kid, Solly, he came up to me: 'Remember me'?

What does the title of the album, Moh Lhean, mean?
It’s a mash up of several words. It's a private thing. I haven't told anyone what that means to me. I'm trying to keep that as a little sacred thing.

It sounds Welsh…
Interesting, yes. It does have some Welsh in it. That's perceptive of you.

Tell me about the processes involved in this album, and how it compares with previous work.
There is a pretty big difference between this album and previous work. That said, every WHY? album has its own unique identity, except maybe the two we recorded together, Alopecia and Eskimo Snow. Other than that I think they all sound different. On this album we went back to more of an older style. With my old band, on that Mush tour you mentioned, we used to record and mix at home. This we did like that. We went back to that old style. The previous five WHY? albums have been mixed in a studio with other engineers, and for the most part recorded in studios as well. This one we did it all DIY style.

It was recorded about half digitally and half on tape. I have a Tascam 388 1/4" tape machine, which is a cool little eight track. My brother has the same. They are affectionately known as 'boat anchors' by the recording industry. But, we like them. We also used Pro-Tools, with a bunch of nice outboard gear as well: pre-amps, EQ's, and compressors, and things like that.

By and large it was my brother and myself shepherding the record. But then we had a lot of musicians play on it. My friends Doug McDiarmid and Matt Meldon played on every song. And then about 20 other musicians played on various songs, on a variety of instruments, including bass clarinet, cello, violas. A good mix of things.

What do you play?
I play any kind of percussion, keyboards, bass guitar, and a little bit of guitar, although I didn’t play any guitar on this album. Doug and Matt are decidedly more accomplished than myself. Live I would not play guitar.

How did the album come together?
It just happened as inspired work. I have a moment of inspiration and then I write a song, which then evolves. Eventually, through collecting these things, we'd say: 'Hey, we have an album'. It happens naturally for us. The first tune I wrote back in 2010. It just never made sense then to finish it. It was a poem, and it came back up in my vision and I completed it, and it became a song called 'Consequence of Nonaction'. In the past I might have made demos on a cassette eight track and sent those to the guys, and they would learn the songs and add parts, and then we would go into the studio and record. But this one wasn't done that way.

Can you tell me about the track 'George Washington'?
It's just a very quickly skimmed over metaphor for the idea of starting over. The lyric is, "Start again, George Washington". In some rap songs they would always be guys trying to start a new slang word, and then they would state the meaning, and state the word. He was the first president, he succeeded from King George, and started a whole new thing.

And 'Proactive Evolution'
That is about staying alive with the aid of our smarts, essentially. Whether it's wearing eye glasses or getting infusions, which I do sometimes. But, also being grateful that is the case, that I'm able to stay alive because of the place and time that I was born into. I probably wouldn’t be if I was born a hundred years ago, or whatever. Just the idea that we are aiding and abetting the natural process into evolution into something that is a bit doctored up, a bit different. And will lead into some kind of cyborg situation, and we have the internet implanted into our brains or whatever. In terms of politics, that stuff is everchanging and there is always going to be a struggle back and forth between the ways different people think, and eventually whatever wins and writes the history, and what is good. It's scary to think what that might be, but I tend to be more optimistic about it, and tend to think that what I think is good will win out. I think what I think is good is what's really good. But so does everyone else, I guess. So does ISIS.

How is it looking in the States, with Mr Trump in office?
It's a mess. It's a fucking mess, that's what it is! We do have this system where in 2020 we're going to have another vote. He may get ousted soon. He's continuing to do bold and illegal and incorrect things… yesterday he fired the head of the FBI who had this ongoing investigation about Trump and his relationship with Putin, and some sort of thing Trump is trying to cover up. Apparenty there are things that Trump believes, that if they come to light, will be impossible to talk his way out of as he has done everything else. We'll see. He may be out sooner than later, and then it will be business as usual for the Republicans. Which is prety damn shitty itself, but better than the maniacal musings of a very unstable, extremely narcissistic, psychopath.

Tell me about the track 'One Mississippi'
'One Mississippi' that is about my attempt to see the positive and also the realisation that things are always changing. Whenever something seems hopeless, eventually things will get better. And when they're better, they'll probably get worse again, too. The best thing to do is to step back and take a breath and count 'One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.' I don't know if you have that saying? It's a way to count seconds, to take a step back and breathe.

And all those voices at the end of 'Proactive Evolution'?
It was different people I was listening to, being advised by throughout the process of making the album, in regards to some issues I had been dealing with. Health stuff, both mental health and physical health. I thought it would add another dimension, rather than me talking in poetics and metaphors, to throw some of those actual voices of things that were guiding me through, so to speak, and keeping me sane throughout that time period.

In the relatively short space of time you've been making music, things have changed massively in the music industry, particularly with regards to selling your music…
When I first started it was tapes! We did our first vinyl in 2000. That was a huge deal. You can't make a living anymore from your recorded material. It has pinched a bit, I would say. You're reliant on touring. For us, anyway. You want to make good money? Get the hell out of music! But if you want to make a living you got to tour a lot to stick around. We're pretty damn frugal. We come home with some money. The rest of the band all have jobs when they get home, in order to survive. My bother is a bartender. One of the other guys does construction stuff. Someone else teaches guitar lessons. I just scrape by, by doing little solo tours when I need to. It's always been a hustle, but maybe more so now. Our band is more well known than it's ever been, and our shows are bigger than they have ever been, but we sell less albums than we used to. That's where we are at. We have to accept that, and go with the flow, and learn how to navigate within that.

You've always worked with your brother, Josiah. The bond must be strong…
Three years apart. It's actually his birthday today. We're going out to dinner and hang after that. Our bond is strong. We argue all the time, but that's family.

Did it all start for you when you found a four-track in your father's synagogue?
That's the origin story that has been told. I randomly found it in a closet, when I was 13. My dad showed me how to use it, and I recorded a couple of tunes and became hooked. At that time I was listening to classic rock from the 60s and 70s, as well as the Beastie Boys. That was my first CD, Licensed to Ill. My first tape was a cassette single, 'Under The Bridge' by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. At the moment I'm hooked on this Perfume Genius album. I really like the Bon Iver album too, and the band who supported us recently O…

Jeff Hemmings

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