WHY? frontman Yoni Wolf has broken up with the East Bay after an eight-year relationship, leaving behind an empty apartment and September 22 Anticon release Eskimo Snow — a delightful downer LP from the experimental Oakland imprint.
“I’m definitely going to miss the city by the bay. I love it here, man,” says the charming, thin, dark-haired, and mustached thirtyish Wolf. It’s late July and he’s just back from touring Europe and Israel, delirious from jetlag. He subleases his apartment when he tours, and it has become too much of a pain.
“I’m sick of this place, man. It’s on auto row and it’s just like car dealerships everywhere,” Wolf says as he walks down Oakland’s Broadway amid the wreckage of the auto industry. “If I could live anywhere in the fucking world it would probably be in one of those really nice Berkeley Hills situations up there or somewhere thereabouts.”
Wolf has a ways to go before he gets to the Berkeley Hills. The wayward son of a Messianic Jewish preacher has defied commercialization since he moved to the Bay Area from the Midwest in 2001. He had followed college buddy Adam “Doseone” Drucker, who founded Anticon in 1999 and released WHY?’s debut 2003 LP, oaklandazulasylum. For the 2005 follow-up, Elephant Eyelash, Wolf’s one-man bedroom band grew to include brother and drummer Josiah Wolf and pianist Doug McDiarmid. Amid world touring, the trio recorded two seven-inch discs, then, during a winter in WHY?’s native Cincinnati, Ohio — 2008’s Alopecia. Eskimo Snow is actually 68 minutes of troubled recordings from those 2007 Alopecia sessions.
“Right after we recorded it, I had gone and mixed it before Alopecia with the infamous-slash-famous Mark Nevers [engineer for Lambchop, Calexico, Silver Jews] and spent two and a half weeks in confusion there in Nashville. I had no perspective on the stuff — we just recorded it. I flew down there by myself. I just met Mark and I didn’t know what I was getting into — ‘Is this good, is this not good?’ — I felt like I just wanted to keep doing something to it. It needed another layer.”
So Wolf sat on it, worrying it like a bone for months and months, releasing Alopecia and touring.
“I worked on this record forever and I just needed a deadline; someone to just tell me ‘Okay, this needs to be done by this time,’ because you can always keep working on something forever. It’s also money, too. Already the label’s a little hesitant to have me remix it. We already paid for it to be mixed once. We’re not a big label. And again we are in the middle of this [recession], and there’s not a lot of money running around.”
Maybe a little too honest from the jet lag, Wolf admits, “I can’t listen to it. I don’t know how to listen to it. I don’t know if it’s good or not. I remember when I was in kindergarten and I did this drawing with crayons or whatever and I wouldn’t stop working on it. All the kids went to recess. I stayed the whole time working on this drawing and I was just crying ’cause I couldn’t get it right and then the teacher came in and told me I had to go to lunch.”
He shouldn’t stress. WHY? continues to serve up jagged and crumbling pop songs from the opening bleats of Wolf’s cracked, charismatic voice. Eskimo Snow has a swing that comes from recording all the members playing simultaneously, instead of their prior practice: recording one at a time with audio multitracking tools.
“Into the Shadows of My Embrace” starts as a three-part Motown ballad and culminates in a bashing indie rock crescendo, as Wolf sings, I wish I could feel close to somebody, but I don’t feel nothin’/Now they say I need to quit doin’ all this random fffffffff!!!
“I was hooking up with young girls and stuff,” the single Wolf concedes. “I was kind of weird about it, feeling guilty about it.”
Each song contains some type of pathetic pop confession. In standout track “Against Me,” Wolf admits, I’m ashamed of sleep/I lie when a phone call wakes me. He understands that saying all this in public should make me feel funny but gambles and wins on the bet that you got to yell something that you’d never tell nobody.
It’s unflinching and raw, with evanescent little hooks galloping through his dense rhymes. “What I’m writing now, a lot of it is puzzle stuff. A lot of interlacing rhyme-scheme shit and exercises and stuff that I’ve just been kind of having fun with. A lot of times I’ll have a line where every single word rhymes with every single word in the next line.”
It’s the kind of detail that creates fans for life, just not enough for a Berkeley chateau — yet. “The only way to make money is touring,” he says. “[Israel] was off the latches. We got the star-goddamed treatment, better than ever. Four-star hotel on the beach on the Mediterranean, they paid for everything and took us out. Seven hundred and fifty people at the show all singing along our first time there. It was fucking weird.”
Compared to his Oaktown crash pad, “It was unreal.”
In August, Wolf sold off all of his West Coast possessions in a garage sale and packed what was left into a borrowed car for a cross-country road trip to Ohio with his ex-girlfriend. “I’m just trying to get rid of any of my sentimentality and just let it all go. And just start fresh or something. I don’t know.”
On September 24 WHY? starts two months of touring behind Eskimo Snow, pulling into the Great American Music Hall on October 17. After that, who knows? Homelessness. With members of Anticon as well as some family here, part of him will always pine for the bay.