Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf is a one-of-a-kind singing rapper who makes beautiful mariachi-Klezmer-folk-pop with an eclectic band called WHY? and winking, intricate lyrics. But wade into that lyrical soup, past the propulsive old piano melodies and beatmaking, and you’ll hear the mind of someone who is constantly worried in the pitch dark of modernalia, resorting to rhyming Woody Allen-ish lines over a psychedelic drum machine. Cue this music for what we still have of 2012, with its neuroses and narcissisms, extreme weather and awful politics and possibly the end of the world. Here’s Yoni in a new song called “Waterlines”:
I can’t sleep in rental cars or airlines, yo
and so I keep a deck of cards for down time.
The road and other solo Christmas and valentines.
No it’s not the hobo’s wish list i had in mind.
Then when I’m free off a mission
I’m sorta like filled with ennui, indecision, and more strife.
Life long bouts with depression, lone fights.
Down in the town unheaven, I’m fine in time, though.
Standing with the will to start a bike up hill with pride.
Ringing the bell and riding straight outta hell.
But waterlines fine like ink from porcupine’s quils
are etched beneath my skull, but that’s all.
But it’s also the year of Mumps, Etc., the first WHY? record in three years, a thrilling opus of dense confessions and soulful kaleidoscopic jams, with touches of harp and woodwinds from the University of North Texas’ music school. A founder of the eclectic West Coast rap collective Anticon, Yoni got his start playing rock music and graduated to hip hop under the umbrella of two bands: cLOUDDEAD, a seminal avant garde group that also included rapper DOSEONE and producer Odd Nosdam, and Hymie’s Basement, a highly acclaimed one-album effort with the producer Fog. WHY?, Yoni’s band since the early 2000s, has just taken their very entertaining live performance on the second half of a European tour. Before he left, I called him in his hometown of Cincinnati, where he was picking up some stuff at the store, getting ready for the tour, absentee voting, making funny web videos (his new pastime), and sounding generally happy.
Yoni, I’m always interested to know what touring does to a body. Are you sleeping enough? And how are things?
I’m doing okay. I mean you know, on tour I don’t sleep great. I’ve been trying to exercise, yoga. I don’t meet that many fans. I’ve kind of been in the shadows. Things have been pretty good, I think people are liking [the concerts], I hope.
It’s a fantastic album. I was just admiring some old Hymie’s Basement on MySpace.
Oh yeah, there’s a Hymies Myspace page!
For some reason while I was playing your stuff, Myspace started playing Foster to the People. Like it recommends similar artists…
Foster to the People is that … “ we are youngggg”…
No you know the Pumped Up Kicks song? “All the other kids …”
I should certainly not be singing to you. I was listening to Alopecia and there’s a lot of references – or it seemed like there were a bunch of references – to disease and I wondered how that – whether that was something that you realized or thought about. I thought about Crohn’s disease and pestilence and of course alopecia. There’s a good deal of depression too. How did all the illness get in there?
Oh. Well, you know I’ve dealt with a lot of that stuff so you know it manifests. I think about it and it seeps in. Yeah, hard times man. Honestly, it’s been some hard times. But coming out of this winter, which was really tough for me, I’ve sort of been reevaluating things and deciding to live and to work on. [Making the album] changed my perspective and I feel a lot more you know, sort of, grateful, just being alive. It’s been good. I’m doing good now.
Did you know that you wanted to be a musician and rapper when you were growing up?
I did not know I would choose it. I was kind of into visual art. That was kind of my thing. My brother was a musician. Yeah, I dabbled, I played drums you know growing up and in bands in high school. But yeah, it wasn’t until I started recording and writing that I really sort of fell in love with music in that way and yeah I definitely clicked pretty quickly.
What was the first time you put something on tape? Do you remember that was?
Well you know I started dabbling around when I was young, like 13, and I kind of forgot about that, and went to high school and then out of high school I met this guy Adam [Drucker], you know DOSEONE
He’s great. How did you meet?
He had been recording rap stuff with other friends of his, guys from Cincinnati. I had seen him at a tour jam in a rap battle, and he was so different and so weird. He was so unique. I had listened to Tribe Called Quest thinking this was the shit. I was thinking, I couldn’t really make good music because I was white and, you know, like – I’m not cool enough and you know blah blah blah, and when I saw Adam do that I was like oh! He kind of took it and made his own thing in a way, and wasn’t trying to emulate anything. Like when I would freestyle, when I was a kid, I’d be in bands, playing drums and freestylin’, and I would be trying to emulate that East Coast rap thing that I loved so much, but it didn’t feel like me. I would put on the Long Island accent you know whatever, the rap accent…
Yes. “Yo, Dudes!” Everyone did that.
Yo yo! Exactly. You know but then after that I realized, okay, you don’t have to sound any certain way.
“This About the City,” by cLOUDDEAD (WHY? and DOSEONE)
How did you get together with Anticon then?
Well we started before we met all those guys. So me and Adam at first and then later we met Dave [Madson], the other guy that was in cLOUDDEAD. I mean I went to elementary school and high school and all that shit with him. He was my brothers age, and my brother was a marching band guy and they would like fucking jacking fools, dealing weed… I was 18-19 years old when I re-met Dave. And then we met the other Anticon guys shortly thereafter.
What’s Anticon now?
Now? It’s just a label. It’s owned by the eight of us. We make decisions in terms of who we put out. But its run but my friend Shaun [Koplow]. He’s really into a lot of electronic shit so that kind of informs in some ways the direction the label is going. But on some level we’re also into rap music and pop and rock. It’s an eclectic label. You know, I always wanted to do my own thing within the context of the greater Anticon world. And I did pretty much.
Do you freestyle?
No. I don’t. I’ll tell you whose great: Adam. That guy’s amazing.
How do you make a living these days?
The way a lot of people make their money now is touring. I’m still working on a publishing deal with someone so I can get songs in Nike commercials [laughs]. Licensing: that’s how artists make big bucks. That’s not my world yet. I have friends who have started getting bank commercials. “Here’s two hundred grand for having thirty seconds of your music.” That can free you up. I can take a year off touring to record this thing, or go and do more video stuff.
How did the video stuff come about?
I guess It’s mostly my brother [Josiah] and my idea. I sort of wrote it all together along with Andre [Hyland], whose sort of the man for all of our video series. We’ve done these series now for the last three albums and yeah — they’re a lot of fun.
What setting do you need to be in to write?
It’s more of a headspace. Just to be grounded, and not searching for my reviews on the Internet. That feeling of anonymity and connectedness and not worried about what anyone thinks of me. Feeling the world for what it is. That sounds cheesy, but that’s kinda what it is. Being open. Then i’ll start to think of some words that feel profound to me. Sometimes, I can take way too much time writing something but there always comes a time when you know you’ve reached the end of the process.
It’s hard to get there.
Yeah it is. Especially in New York, I guess, where you have constant noise. You have to get into that Matrix moment, and everything slows down and you see everything for what it is, and you see the machinery behind things. That puts you into thought, or not thought so much but feeling. If everyday I can get away and do some physical activity, walking and thinking, that helps. Traveling around different places is kinda cool. There’s something kinda neat about that. Maintaining relationships with the people i’m traveling around with. Meeting new people every day. That’s all I can ask for every day. But now my focus is touring and playing shows. I’m about to be going without any days off — I have to show up to all these concerts and perform well. That’s my job. Other than that, it’s just about maintaining.
See and hear more at WHY?’s site.
Top photo: Yoni Wolf of Why?, shot on Canal Street by Alexander Wagner