Interview: WHY?

WHY? - Photo by Scott Fredette

WHY? – Photo by Scott Fredette

It’s been five years since hip hop indie act WHY? released their fourth studio album, and the same amount of time since the band has played in Berlin. So naturally, lead singer Yoni Wolf is curious what it will be like returning to the German capital.

“We haven’t been there since 2012, so, you never know if your audience has, like, aged out, or if they’re still waiting on you to come, or what,” he said. “You just don’t really know.”

It’s true that this is the same of any place when you’ve been gone a while, but Berlin holds a special place in Wolf’s heart, and that of his bandmates as well — brother Josiah Wolf, and Doug McDiarmid and Matt Meldon.

“We’re excited to get back there,” Wolf shared. “I love Berlin. It’s like one of my favorite cities to hang out in for sure. We’ve spent a lot of time there ’cause we have a lot of friends there.”

With the band having so many connections in Berlin, it might beg the question of why they don’t live there. There are plenty of reasons, but the simplest might be because of the weather.

“I could never live in Berlin just because of the other times of the year,” Wolf explained. “In 2008 I believe it was, we spent a whole summer in Berlin. [We] would go on weekend trips to festivals, and the rest of the week we would just chill in Berlin. You know, I was staying in Prenzlauer Berg. I mean, I know that’s not the hippest area anymore; it’s considered yuppie or whatever. Maybe I’m sort of yuppie, but I like it. It’s beautiful, and I like just walking around, going to restaurants, living that summer life of leisure there.”

Today, Wolf makes his home in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he moved in 2010 after living in the Bay Area in California.

“I kind of go by impulse on a lot of things in my life, and it just sorta seemed like the right thing to do at the time,” Wolf said of his decision to move back to the Midwest. “And come to find out a little later, I was getting pretty sick [with Crohn’s disease] and it just seemed right to get back to where my family [was]. I’m glad I did that.”

Though he can’t say for sure if he’ll always stay in Cincinnati, Wolf said that for now it feels good. In particular, he bought a house, which is where his home studio, Moh Lhean, is located. For anyone who’s been paying attention, Moh Lhean is also the name of WHY?’s fifth studio album, released in March of this year on Joyful Noise Recordings.

The album, which was done entirely in the home studio, is the first to be made that way since 2003’s Oaklandazulasylum, written and recorded back when WHY? was Wolf operating as a solo artist— a period that lasted until 2004.

“You know, I’ve always had some kind of home studio setup…sort of in my bedroom or whatever,” Wolf said. “But now I have like a room in my house dedicated to it, and it’s nice.”

Wolf can’t say what’s better: recording in a studio elsewhere or doing it at home. But he did admit the major advantage of recording at home is the freedom to do whatever you want to do without many limitations.

“Essentially I wear like four hats or something if I’m doing it at home, and it does take a lot longer because of that. You know, in a big studio situation, you always have, hopefully, you have an engineer [who’s] dedicated to just making sure that everything is mixed correctly and everything is routed correctly. And then you have assistants that sort of do a lot of just moving stuff around. And then sometimes you have a separate producer — we don’t, we always produce our own stuff,” he shared.

“Things go a lot faster in a studio, and they have to go faster ’cause you’re paying by the hour or by the day or whatever. At home it is a lot slower process. We’re doing everything ourselves in terms of setting up and mic’ing and recording and everything. It’s a little more intensive for us, but that said, it also allows for precision in getting what we want, because you really do take time to make sure it’s exactly how you want it.”

Long-time fans of WHY? will notice the new album presents a bit of a mindset shift. Whereas Wolf is known for his self-deprecating lyrics and sometimes-bleak outlook on things, suddenly there seems to be more hope in his words.

He acknowledged this change as something real, and admitted he tries to meditate more, exercise more, and eat a better diet — all things which help him manage Crohn’s disease, but also which affect his mental outlook and spill over into what he writes.

“I’m really trying to remember that everything is transitory, so even if things get real difficult, [it helps] just knowing things are naturally changing on their own. That’s just the nature of the universe: everything’s constantly in motion,” he said. “It’s a total illusion to think that things are in some kind of stasis mode. It feels like we’re still right now, but everything’s moving. You know the planets are moving around the sun, the sun is moving around the galaxy, the galaxy is moving around the universe. So, you know, if everything’s moving on that level, everything’s moving on a smaller level too, of course.”

Wolf said this kind of awareness of the world around us is what helps him when life is tough. It’s his own version of not sweating the small stuff if you can help it, because there are much larger things at play, far behind what we can imagine.

“Things change. So that’s something to always remind yourself of when you think you’re into dire straits,” he shared. That’s what I always try to tell people I’m friends with who are going through something, or even people I don’t know well who sort of confide in me or something. Don’t take it so serious. Things will shift.”

At this point, the conversation entered into a discussion of what Wolf believes. He was raised in Messianic Judaism, and his parents were central figures in the movement; it was their relocation from a congregation in Philadelphia, Penn., to Cincinnati that resulted in him being born and raised there. And naturally, as the son of a rabbi, the theology left a significant impression upon him. But as he’s grown older, he’s also embraced science, and these two ways of approaching and understanding the world have given him a lot to think about.

“I definitely am interested in spiritual things, at this age. I wasn’t always, and I would say that’s a big difference between this record and the previous ones.  In previous times of my life— [and this] is reflected on previous albums — I definitely had a lot of curiosity. But I also had a cynicism and sort of distaste for anything that had a spiritual air,” Wolf said. “And now I’m very open to it and know sort of in my conscious brain that there’s a lot more going on than is possible for us to understand. I still feel like we are at a pretty primitive stage in understanding what’s going on here….and we can only really see our own perspective. I like to imagine other perspectives, but each one is its own universe. It’s just amazing when you think of it all, and you can really just get lost in thinking ‘Is there a purpose for us here?’ And I tend to think there is.”

WHY? plays tonight at Festsaal Kreuzberg in Berlin. The show begins at 20.00.


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