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Sweaty catchers’ cups, needle exchange trucks, bloodstained excrement, date rape drugs, Whole Foods, and the Garden Eden: These are among the objects and locales that populate the world of WHY?.  To stumble upon this particular parade of horribles, you don’t need to travel further than one song.  And not just any song, but “Sod in the Seed”, the lead single from WHY’s latest effort, the awkwardly titled and occasionally just plain awkward Mumps, Etc. It’s song that repurposes the jangly glee of Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, with a clattering beat that hop-scotches around Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf’s self-depricatingly labeled “vapid raps.”  It’s song that gives you a pretty good idea of the kinds of places an entire album from this band can take you.

WHY? has been a band – and not just an alias for Yoni Wolf and his hazy sample-based tracks – for over seven years now, since Yoni recruited his brother Josiah and multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid for the Sanddollars EP.  The invitation for listeners to step into Yoni’s clouded, anxious headspace has remained constant, but WHY’s musical landscape has continued to shift and evolve underneath his feet.  While the band’s sound has always been a slippery amalgamation of hip-hop and outré rock, Mumps, Etc. pushes it into newer territory, into tightly crafted chamber pop, courtesy of strings and woodwinds from the University of North Texas music school, an institution located near the Denton studio where the band recorded this time around.  The result one of the prettiest sounding things – let alone hip-hop records – you’ll hear this year.

BYT called Josiah Wolf a little less than a month ago, prior to Mumps, Etc.‘s release, to discuss the “meticulously” composed album and WHY?’s future, which if believe what Yoni has to say, may be something he’s already looking past.  In addition to arranging the band’s live show – take a listen to Almost Live from Eli’s Room to hear what an accomplishment that is – Josiah also released a solo debut, Jet Lag, in the spring of 2010.

WHY? plays a free show at UVA’s Newcomb Ballroom tonight and a good ol’ pay-for-play concert at The Canal Club in Richmond tomorrow.

Mumps, Etc. has a decidedly different feel than WHY?’s last two albums.  Did anything change in how you went about making a record?

How do you think it’s different?  I’m just curious.

To my ears, it finds the middle ground between the immediacy and rhythmic focus of Alopecia and the more spacious, in-the-room recording of Eskimo Snow.  And then the cleaner production lends a very lush, pretty gloss.

That’s a good answer.  You can use that.  [Laughs]  No, I’m just kidding.  I’d say the biggest difference is that we didn’t play quite as live [in studio] as we did on Eskimo Snow or Alopecia.  We kind of broke the parts up a little bit more.  For Alopecia and Eskimo Snow, there were five of us in the band doing it.  This time there were only three of us, but we also hired some outside musicians .  I’d say the arrangements and production were a little more thought-out ahead of time, which has its good and bad sides.  We just meticulously went through the parts and recorded them one at a time.  We really wanted every sound to be important – I mean, that’s what we always want – but we did a better job at keeping things stripped down this time around.

Was the concern that by bringing in these outside musicians you ran the risk of cluttering arrangements?

Yeah, I think so.  In the past, when we wanted to make something bigger or have more of an impact, we would keep adding tracks, and sometimes you find out that doing so actually takes away from a song.  You’ll listen to some solo part and think, “Man, that’s cool, but I can’t hear it anymore, so maybe we just strip it down to that.”  The intention was to focus in on every part that we enjoyed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7yci4ib_z0

How do songs come together?  Do you think about what you want to accomplish sonically and then write lyrics paired with that aesthetic?

No, with WHY?, the lyrics are the focus, and Yoni writes all the lyrics before we write any of the music, really.  That’s the focus of the songs.  It’s different than the way some bands do it.

Do you give Yoni feedback on those or does he have free reign?

It’s free reign.  I do sometimes give him feedback and my opinions, but he’ll take them how he wants.  [Laughs]  It’s not like I could tell him, “No, dude, don’t say that.”  I’ve definitely given him feedback.  There was a couple of times where he was unsure of something, like, “Which one do you like better?”  And I’ll tell him, and usually he’ll take my advice on those kinds of things.  But, generally, it’s just him.

Are there times where you’re taken aback or uncomfortable with the bluntness of his lyrics?

I wouldn’t say that I’m taken aback or uncomfortable.  Sometimes it makes me not necessarily like a song at first, but I’m too close to it.  It takes a minute for me to get some distance from it.  It’s not that everything Yoni says is autobiographical by any means, but it still has that feeling.  Sometimes I think it works better than other times, but it’s definitely his style and it’s very unique and a lot of people really like it, so I’m just kind of going with it.   I enjoy that I’m close enough to it that I can really get inside of it.

A number of songs on Mumps, Etc. reference life after WHY?  Is that something you two talk about?

It is.  Right now, we’re excited we have this new record.  We have this new band that we really like and Yoni’s very healthy right now, physically and mentally, more so than he’s been in a while.  We haven’t talked about it much lately, because we’re excited to keep going, but many times in the past we’ve expressed – well, he has mostly – wanting to do something else.  You know, like, “What would I do if I didn’t do this?”  We’re both really interested in film and video stuff.  We don’t have a lot of experience in that area, but it’s something that we’d both like to do more of.  I feel like if we had to take a hiatus from music, if we were feeling like we didn’t have much to say or things weren’t inspired, then we would move into that medium in some way, in any way that we could.

Was there anything you learned in making Jet Lag that you brought to this record?

In a lot of ways for this record, I went back to my roots, which is playing percussion.  With Jet Lag, a lot of the stuff I learned and did was in songwriting, but I’m not the songwriter for WHY?  I mean, I’ve written some of the music parts, but I didn’t really bring songwriting to the equation.  And as far as playing all the other instruments [on Jet Lag], I mostly stuck to percussion on this record.  It’s hard to say, though.  I’m sure something crossed over, but not directly.

I saw an article where Yoni walks through each of the album’s songs, and for a number of them he described how they attempted to approximate specific hip-hop songs by Outkast, The Game, and Tribe.   Is that something that you’re thinking about too?

Yeah, actually, for my record, there are a couple songs where if I heard something I’d be like, “I’d like to emulate that in a way.”   But, not usually – that’s more of an exception.  But it does happen, I think.

Do you listen to a lot of mainstream hip-hop?

I don’t myself.  I mean, I hear it when it’s played in the car, and some stuff I really like and some stuff not as much.  I enjoy that music, but it’s not something that I generally put on for myself.  I actually recently have a little bit, but more with people that I know, like, do you know Serengeti?  He’s toured with us and I really like his lyrics and his style.  I was out mowing the lawn the other day, put on my Spotify, and was listening to all of his stuff, stuff I hadn’t really heard, his older stuff.  It was just kind of nice to go back in his catalog.  So, I do sometimes listen to rap, but it’s not really my main thing.

What is that you enjoy listening to?

To be honest, I haven’t listened to much lately, so rap just kind of goes along with everything else.  But I’ve spent many years listening to older jazz music and studying that style.  I still enjoy that.  I have certain records that I really like to put on.  I like some newer stuff, but I haven’t delved deep into anything.  I hear stuff and I think, “Yeah, I like that.  I could get into that if I give myself the time.” [Laughs]

Why is that?

I think a lot of it is that we’re so busy, but that’s not really an excuse.   I mean, I could take the time out of doing something else and listen to music.  In a lot of ways, I find it hard to get excited about new stuff.  I do hear stuff that I like. I’m not a hater.  I know some people who tend not to like anything.  I’ll enjoy things, but I don’t hear things that make me want to get all deep into them right now.

I’m about due to go through another musical quest at some point.  It’s been a couple of years.  That’s how everything is in my life though: It kind of goes through phases.   Sometimes I’ll read a few books and then I won’t read for a while.  It’s the same with music.

I’m at a place where we’re touring a lot and we’re playing every night, so when I do have time, since we have a new band, I’ve been listening to the recordings of the show just to see what’s going on.  I’ll always learn something. I’m like “You know what?  If this song is too fast, I know you guys think it should be faster, but I’m listening back and it’s just too fast.”  Or I’ll hear what the soundman is doing and ask him do something else.  I’ve really just been focusing on what we’re doing right now.

What were some of the challenges that you guys faced in recreating this very particular, lush sound on stage?

As far as the live thing goes, that’s my thing.  Yoni is more in charge of the recording, but the live stuff is more my thing, although we each do both.  In this case, what we wanted was a bigger sound, and we wanted Yoni not to have to play any instruments, so he could just sing and dance and whatever.  I saw a couple of band a few years ago live at festivals, and the frontman was just singing and jumping around, and I was like, “Man, we need to get Yoni freed up.”  The energy is just better than when you’re trapped behind a keyboard or something.  One of the main goals was to have enough people so we could do that, so we hired a few people.  Now there are six of us.

It’s a real percussive record, as you know, and we wanted to include all the parts, so we hired another drummer, which was a little scary.  But, it’s been working out well.  The biggest challenge was to figure out how we could make it interesting and break up the rhythms and do stuff without it being just two drummers playing loudly together.  That took us a lot of time.  Ben [Sloan] and I got together a long time before everyone else and started trying to figure out how to make the arrangements interesting.  It was easier in a way with the new stuff, because we knew what to do, but with the older stuff, we had to kind of rework it.  I didn’t want to play the songs the same as we had in the past, so we changed some of the things.

And then we got two females in the band, which is great, because the vocal sound is much nicer.  I’m not the best harmonizer.   I mean, I enjoy it, but when I hear myself back in the group, sometimes it’s sour.  I love to hear really nice, sweet harmonies and we’re finally getting to that place where they’re a little nice now.

Is your wife, Liz [Hodson], one of those two females?

She is, and Liz Winter is the other new member, and Ben Sloan is the drummer that I was talking about.

You have the uncommon distinction of being in a band with your wife and brother.  Does having those kind of relationships make life on the road easier, or does it create issues of its own?

Overall, it makes it easier, unless you’re single and you don’t have any connections at home. I think the easiest way to travel is if you’re a hermit and you don’t have connections anywhere, but that presents other problems with yourself.  Some people enjoy that though, and sometimes I envy that.  But as far as traveling with your significant other or leaving that person back home and being apart, I would definitely recommend traveling with them.  As much as you may have struggles on a daily basis, you can work it out and you get closer over time, whereas if you leave someone at home –  as I’ve found out through experience – you slowly grow apart and it’s very difficult.

You two look pretty happy in the “Sod in the Seed” video.

They made me do that!  They made me happy!   They were like, “Smile bigger!”

Is that enthusiasm something fans can expect on a nightly basis?

[Laughs] No, you can’t.  But even though I’m not smiling quite that big, I do love playing.  We’ve been having a good time.  I try not to smile too much with all the dark lyrics.  I have to keep it real.   There are certain times in the set – and a lot of it just has to with the interaction between me and the other drummer – where you definitely want to smile.

Graham Marsh was an interesting choice to mix the record.  He’s someone with more experience with big budget rap albums.  How did you guys find your way to him?

Well, you know, Yoni thinks big.  He really just wanted to get the best.  [Laughs]  He had this other guy that he really wanted to get, Chris Carmouche, who works with Outkast and Andre.  We had met him at a festival a couple of years ago and had a nice talk, but it just wasn’t working out.  His manager was… It was just roundabout and kept going on and on and on.  Somehow, through all of this, Graham Marsh’s name came up and we listened to some of his stuff.  He’s also an Atlantic [Records] guy.  It just happened quick.  He was like, “I’m free.  Let’s do it.”  And Yoni was like, “Ok, I’m not waiting around for Chris Carmouche.  Let’s just do this.”  That’s how it happened.  It was really quick.

It was expensive for us, though.  It was a “deal,” of course, according to him, but it was a big production.  But, I mean, it does sound good.

How involved were you?  Were you down in Atlanta?

I wasn’t there this time.  I didn’t mix Eskimo Snow either.  The last record I mixed was Alopecia – we mixed that together.  I was more involved with this than Eskimo Snow, though.  It actually happens that when mixing started, I was in Michigan getting married.  We had eloped to Michigan when Yoni was down in Atlanta, but he would send me a track every night, and I would listen to it a bunch and then make any notes I had.   I notice more rhythmic stuff or different things like that.  For example, I noticed at the end of one song, “Bitter Thoughts”, that things weren’t lining up.  I would have liked to have been there, but sometimes there are too many cooks. And mixing is not my forte.

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