In the five years since WHY?‘s last LP, Mumps Etc., there’s been a lot of change in the world. From Trump to Brexit, the words ‘hate’ and ‘fear’ have never been so prevalent, at least within my lifetime. So step-up Yoni Wolf, whose cynical outlook on life propelled his alt. hip-hop/indie rock collective to cult heights with the release of their seminal 2008 album, Alopecia. Since then, Yoni’s self-deprecating, ‘open therapy session’-like lyric sheet has been delivering a relatable life textbook to every cynical twenty-something lucky enough to stumble across it.
Far from mainstream, WHY? have become a band that you hear about from a friend of a friend; tracks and albums handed down via mixtapes and youtube links – they embody that DIY, independent spirit – for better and for worse. But change comes in all forms. Even the deep cynicism so associated with the band, and particular it’s lyricist and frontman, transforms every now and then. So much so that with the bands latest album, Moh Lhean, a new, positive outlook on life appears to be blossoming.
The first WHY? album to be completely recorded at a home studio since their 2003 debut, Oaklandazulasylum, Moh Lhean sees the fight for life’s answers replaced instead with a relative calm and acceptance. One that says maybe we’re just not meant to know what it’s all about, even when the world seems so messed up.
So to find out why this change has come about, and to get an insight into the ever-so-active mind of the man himself, Vulture Hound spoke to Yoni Wolf to talk creativity, career pressure, perspective, consciousness and the future of mankind.
It’s been nearly 5 years since the last WHY? album. What have you been up to?
So, I started working on this album, I guess, in 2010 actually, before Mumps Etc. – that’s when I wrote the first song – ‘Consequence of Non Action’. So loosely you can say, as with any proper WHY? album, I always collect things over a long period of time. So, the short answer is – I was working on a lot of things, and also living my life, dealing with personal things, and whatnot. But in terms of work – I did a WHY? EP called The Golden Ticket, and also another Golden Ticket album that we haven’t released yet. I did a Divorcee EP with a friend of mine, Anna (Stewart). I did an album with Serengetti (Getti), and also two Yoni Wolf mixtapes, and probably some other things. With Moh Lhean, it started, like I said in 2010. So, you know, I’ve been dancing with those ideas since then. So yeah, I stay busy, man.
The themes in the new album, compared to the last one, are very different. If you were already formulating Moh Lhean around the time of Mumps Etc., how were you able to go into the recording of Mumps… when you were already kind of in the mind set of Moh…?
So, just because I wrote that one song – and I didn’t even write the melody for it yet – I had just written a poem, basically. I didn’t know I wanted to turn that into a song until I rediscovered it a few years later. But during the Mumps time period, yeah, I was working with a very different kind of vibe, I guess. And even that one started by blending out of the others – Alopecia and Eskimo Snow.
Well, I suppose you’ve got quite a few creative outlets; the collaborations, the Wandering Wolf Podcast – is it a matter of writing something and then deciding what outlet suits it best?
Exactly, yeah. I’m constantly working on stuff and then things start to emerge. The reason that I used the WHY? outlet for that song was cause it just made sense. You just live your life and you’re working on stuff – seeing what works and what doesn’t. It’s all trial and error – I never know what’s going on until something’s done.
Moh Lhean is being trailed as a kind of transformation of your outlook on life. Would you say it’s the most positive WHY? album yet?
I think so, yeah. I would say that. I think it’s an uplifting album, whereas most of the others have been pretty cynical, you know?
But we love the cynicism.
Yeah, well I guess Alopecia is for the cynical, hipster 20 year old and this one’s probably more for 30 somethings trying to figure their shit out or something, I don’t know.
And have you figured it out?
Have I? No, definitely not
With Moh Lhean there is a definite feeling that you don’t have to battle and fight against everything in order to get answers – there is a definite peace and acceptance in the ‘not knowing’…
Yeah. I’m trying! I am still definitely struggling through every day trying to figure it out. Trying to figure out my place in space and time and all that shit, but I am trying. I’m recognising that you don’t always have to be kicking and screaming, you know?
In terms of trying to figure out your place in the universe and the meaning of life, are you a scientific person? Do you find yourself interested in those questions posed by theoretical physicists as to the nature of the universe? How deep do you go?
I go as far as I can go until the panic attack sets in. You know, there are things that the human mind is not supposed to know. So, you take it to that edge and your body tells you, “nope, you’re not going to know that!” But seriously, yes, I am interested in science and I am interested in the mystical ideas that science hits at, whether it’s ‘String Theory’ or parts of Quantum Theory – stuff like that. I just like thinking on stuff like that.
But there is a danger in overindulging in that, and maybe it’s easier sometimes to just let go?
Yeah, yeah. I guess the danger is a panic attack, which isn’t the end of the world –but I guess you could die from one, but even that isn’t the end of the world either. So sometimes I guess you just have to turn on Netflix or whatever and just try to zone out.
There’s a theory called the ‘Simulation Hypothesis’. It argues we’re all just part of a computer simulation set up by our post-human selves. They set about running an ‘ancestor simulation’ and that’s what we’re actually part of. The chances that we’re living in a ‘base reality’ are incredibly small. Have you come across that? Cause there’s some real indulgence to be done with that one!
Yeah! Who knows? Who knows what is going on here? That’s the thing –we have started with the computer age and we have started to, very crudely, simulate human consciousness and we’re doing it with more and more deftness. So does it follow that future versions of ourselves have created full on consciousness and have the ability to manipulate it…? I don’t know! Plus I guess with things like Westworld coming out ‘Simulation Theory’ is coming back into vogue – and to me that does seem pretty far-fetched but I do think of stuff like – how long ago were the first humans? Probably less than a million years if the planet is 4.5 billion years old. So if we’ve gone from being apes with spears to what we are doing now in that time, what will we be like in another million years? That’s considering exponential growth too…
And supposing the fact we don’t blown ourselves up or get beaten back by nature.
Right. But also we’re figuring out how to lord over nature as well and manipulate that. So who knows? Basically you’re talking about the fact that we would look like a God to the first humans, so what would the humans of the future look like to us? Even in a thousand years from now! What would the humans of a thousand years from now look like to us? Would they still even really be human? They’ll be totally modded out! With that cyborg shit and manipulation of genetics. That’s the interesting stuff right there – a human in a million years could probably create a universe of something, transcending time and space.
I guess there’s some comfort to think that we might just be a part of some future kid’s science project, tasking them to creating a universe as homework…
I don’t think…for me that seems a bit too simplistic! But I think whatever’s going on is equally as strange – actually, I think it’s way stranger. But I think If you were able to see behind the veil somehow, I think that it would make perfect sense. I think you’d see it and go, “oh, of course, right, right, right…” – cause you already know somewhere in your cells, somewhere in the atoms that are you that have existed since the Big Bang. Somewhere you know what’s going on…
Do you think you would actually want to know either way, or just stay content with the mystery of it all?
Oh man, if I had my way I would know everything! I wanna know. (Singing) “I wanna know!” I would know it all. But I don’t think we’re given that option and that’s because we’re still in those baby steps of evolution. I think of our brains as receivers and in terms of evolution we’re still babies – we can’t receive all those answers, yet. But when we do, that’ll be the end of everything somehow, and then it’ll start over. It’s like if you’re given the option to time travel to the past or to the future – I would never go to the past, there’s no answers there.
I guess that’s one of the fears behind death – the not getting to find out those answers…
But maybe you will! You might not have the same sense of yourself, but in death you may just sink back into the hole of consciousness and know everything on some level…
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go so off topic…
No, this is the stuff I actually like talking about. Of course I love talking about my music, but that’s alright!
Back to the music – WHY? has always had a DIY approach, and you yourself have had a pretty DIY last few years – from the podcasts, to concept records like The Golden Ticket – how much of that influenced your decision to avoid the studio this time around and record Moh Lhean at home?
As far as how much that stuff has influenced this – everything you do influences everything else you do, but it’s not always super obvious to me how much the other stuff influenced this album. I guess when you’re working from home you have the time to keep tinkering with things, keep altering, changing – and I guess this album is a product of that, whereas Mumps Etc., Alopecia, Eskimo Snow, the albums we did in the studio, we did them in a relatively quick amount of time. I mean, they were written over a longer period, but in terms of recording it happened very quickly. We recorded Alopecia and Eskimo Snow in 21 days, something like that. Mumps Etc. was less than a month. Moh Lhean was over the course of several years.
That’s a big difference…
And it’s good and bad. It can become like this lingering thing that you still haven’t quite gotten out of your system, but it does allow you to keep on making revisions and turn it into whatever you really want. Whereas sometimes on those other albums it’s like, “okay, this is what it is”. That’s not to say that I don’t stand behind what we did on those albums but… it’s just a different method.
So I guess as this is the most positive album WHY? has ever created there was probably no other way to do it – avoiding the rushed, maybe stressful environment of a studio…
Well, we could have done that but… I guess we spent so much money on Mumps Etc. I felt with this one I just wanted it to be low key and I wanted to go back to a situation where it didn’t feel like there had to be all these expectations on sales, or how it was received – I just wanted to make work, put it out there, and not really stress so much about if people are going to like it or not. And I actually do feel different about this one than I did about Mumps. Although with Mumps I knew it was good and I do feel like that was my best writing, and my most witty…
Mumps was the funniest WHY? album in terms of lines and lyrics, for sure. Not that everyone appreciates their work being described as ‘funny’…
Yeah, some people don’t like that, but I felt pretty good about myself having written that stuff. But it was a bit overblown, I spent a lot of money, hired six musicians for the tour… Whereas on this one I was like, “okay, lets just keep it low key, keep it the four of us in the band”. So im just a bit more realistic about expectations here. I don’t expect everyone to love it, it’s just something we did on a smaller scale… but I do still hope people like it.
Would you say that Moh Lhean is more for you, than to meet the expectations of the fans?
I don’t know about “more for me” – I’m still well aware that I have a career in music, you know? But I think I have less of a ‘do or die’ feeling. I feel like when I made Mumps there was this feeling of “this better do well or else I’m fucking beat in a hole of debt and my career is gonna be over!” or something like that. But now, I’m feeling like, well, we made this album, it took a really long time, but we’re releasing it and I hope people like it, but if they don’t… I am not controlled by that and I can make another album or I can do something else. I can write a book or I can make beaded jewelry and sell that on ebay or whatever.
Do you make beaded jewelry?
I don’t, no. But I have. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s not the end of the world – even if I get laughed off stage. And that’s part of our positive outlook. Well, even more than just positive, it’s our even field approach – being able to endure whatever is thrown at me whether it’s suffering or adulation – taking it in my stride.
It almost sounds like you’re expecting people not to like it, almost defeated to the fact that they might not…
Oh I’ve been defeated. I’ve been defeated since I was born. But defeated is not the right word here. I think that when I was young, well…younger – when I was in my 20s I had a cockiness. I thought I had something that no one else had. I was a shy person and I never talked shit about being better than anyone but I had this feeling of, “I got this”, you know? I had this private little thing that I did and it was totally different to what anyone else was doing… I don’t know… I’m not that way anymore. Now I’m 37 and I’m at this point where I realised that not any single one thing that I do is going to change the world that much – I have a larger perspective now, that’s the bottom line. I was so abuzz with the small world of independent music that somewhere in my mind was a competition, and there was a feeling that I was maybe showing off – I don’t feel that way anymore.
Is it just a matter of growing up?
Yeah. I’m an adult now. I make records, and I don’t always like the process but it’ll always be part of me – it’s like breathing. And as dried up as I feel after every single thing I do, I know that after working on twenty, thirty albums, I’m always going to do another record. So it’s not over, you know what I’m saying? I also realised that we are very small in this universe and that my little 35 minute communications with the world are not the be all and end all. It’s just a thing that talks to current society – and maybe you can look at it for another hundred years where it will still make any kind of sense in terms of music, but after that it’ll be a sort of artefact, and then after that – it’s gone.
You’ve recently released the first video for Moh Lhean with the 360° clip for ‘This Ole King’. When can we expect some more, because WHY? videos are always worth watching, and dare I say – incredibly funny.
There will be one for ‘One Mississippi’ and there will be one for ‘The Barley Blur’. We wanted to do one for ‘Proactive Evolution’ as well, but there’s already the lyric video for it which is pretty cool looking, I think. So yeah, there’ll be at least three.
It’s the outfits in some of these videos, ‘Paper Hearts’ and, in particular ‘Sod In The Seed’ – Is that actually stuff you have in your wardrobe? I’m trying hard not to cause any offence here…
No they’re definitely my everyday outfits. That’s what I look like, wearing those shitty outfits – that’s me man.
What about the fitness outfit in the ‘Sod In The Seed’ video – is that your everyday outfit too?
I believe I was wearing some terrible yellow shirt, and some Kappa shorts – but yes, those are my real clothes. I just arrived for the shoot, and the director was like, “you’re gonna wear that?!” and I was like, “I guess? I’m wearing it right now…” So now I hate seeing myself in that video and I feel like I should have fucking listened to the director and changed my outfit… but I didn’t have any other clothes!
So you’ll be back in the U.K. in June for a couple of shows. Looking forward to it?
In all sincerity I definitely am. It’s been way too long. Not only the U.K. but I’m looking forward to being in Europe, for sure man. Just the whole trip I’m looking forward to.
One last thing – with the U.S. going through a pretty turbulent and divided time at the moment, if there was one thing you would say to all U.S. citizens to either reassure or rally – what would it be?
Oh my god. I don’t have a sound bite for this! I guess this is something that we’re all going through right now and I’m hoping the dude will self-destruct at some point and be cause for impeachment – and I already think he should be impeached, or at least has given cause for it. I feel like we just need to live our lives and support anyone that’s being fucked with. So when he made the order for the Muslim ban we took to the streets and said “no”. People were shutting down the airports and that’s a beautiful thing. This is not Nazi Germany, we’re not going to go along with it, we won’t do that here. We’re too diverse, we’re too strong and we’re used to the rights we have and we expect those rights for everyone. So we have to resist it, we have to fight it. But we also have to think about it on a larger perspective and know that while it is a big deal – it’s not the end of the world, hopefully… unless he does blow up the world, which is also a possibility! But we hope it’s not. Also, it has actually radicalised a lot of people that were a-political before the election, including myself to an extent – I’ve cared about politics before but now I’m fired up and I feel like it will eventually swing pretty hard the other way. You throw a ballot down in front of us now and I know it will swing hard to the left. So maybe it had to go this way…
Plus if our future selves are really simulating this reality right now, it must just be a joke. They’ll play this joke on us for a bit to see how we react and then put things back to normal!
(Laughs) I love that you are a true believer in ‘Simulation Theory’, man. This is great!
Moh Lhean is out on Friday March 3rd via Joyful Noise.