AU61: Why? interview

January 4, 2010

This one’s tinged with sadness, because Why?’s latest album was my single biggest disappointment of 2009 (review here). Maybe in time I will come to embrace it, but after the glorious Alopecia, Eskimo Snow was an almighty let-down. Nevertheless, I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to speak to Yoni Wolf myself and ask him about it. Of course, i didn’t tell him how gutted I was about his new album, but it was interesting to get his perspective on how different it is from Alopecia, and why that is. Incidentally, the interview was conducted over two days – he had to break off first time round because he was about to have a big slap-up lunch with his brother’s family. And the next day, he seemed to be eating while talking to me. Sound enough to chat to though, despite that.



Little more than a year after releasing one of last year’s summer-defining – and best – records in Alopecia, indie-rock wordsmiths Why? are back with a radically different follow-up. Eskimo Snow and its predecessor were written and recorded in the same sessions in early 2007, but sonically they are poles apart. Where Apolecia was a wry, witty concoction of indie-pop and languid hip-hop, Eskimo Snow is as dark and – at times – bleak as its title, an album that sees mainman Yoni Wolf recast as a country troubadour, obsessed with sex and death.

“It is different,” he affirms from his brother (and drummer) Josiah’s house in rural Ohio. “It’s kind of a small, consistent, melancholy type of record. If Alopecia is kind of large in scope and out in the world and erratic, I would say that Eskimo Snow is a bit more consistent and internal.”

That manifests itself in a brief and sombre set of songs – “pretty mortality-based” as Wolf admits. The gorgeous, fragile title track closes the album with a lyric that is typically opaque but full of arresting imagery. According to Yoni, it made sense as the album title – the song that “really represents the album”.

“Eskimos have a million words for snow,” he explains. “They live so close to it, it’s so much a part of their lives that they see it as if through a microscope – very clearly and in all its intricacies. So [the line] “all my words for sadness, like Eskimo snow”. I just feel like that word ‘sad’ is such a vague, basic word. Any of the words for emotion, like happy or sad. I feel like what I do is take those kinds of words and figure out the long answers – the things that can’t be explained in one word.”

The songwriter’s background is in underground hip-hop act cLOUDDEAD and as part of the Anticon. collective, but rather than the dextrous rapping that has marked out so much of his previous work – including Alopecia Eskimo Snow often sees his voice reduced to a resigned croak, albeit one that has a lot of startingly vivid things to say. But then lyrical ingenuity is nothing new on Why? records. The lack of any remnants of hip-hop is. Not that Wolf wants to engage with that.

“Throughout my career, I’ve run into people always wanting to categorise me,” he says a touch frustratedly, “and I just don’t think in those terms too much. I listen to a lot of quote-unquote rap music, yeah. I say rap more than hip-hop. When I grew up, hip-hop was the culture and rap music is just that someone is rapping. Whatever, I don’t have a problem with all that stuff.”

It’s something that has and will continue to come up a lot when this album gets discussed, because it sounds so very different. Is that something Yoni is conscious of or worried about? “I’m not worried about it,” he says bluntly. “I’m conscious of the fact it doesn’t sound like rap at all. Alopecia sounds like rap music, or half of it, and this doesn’t. Who cares, you know? It’s a record – listen to it for its own sake.”

Remember, though, that this is just one record pulled from those bewilderingly diverse sessions in 2007. Next time round, Yoni hints, things could be very different again. “I’ve been writing some rap-type stuff, I would say – rhythmic and hyper-rhyming, and I imagine the next record will be kind of like that.”




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