A Wink and A Nod: A Conversation with Yoni Wolf

by Morgan Davis

Yoni Wolf

When it was announced that Yoni & Geti would be coming through Austin, I jumped at the chance to do an interview with Yoni Wolf, who is probably best known for his longrunning solo-turned-band project Why? but is also a founder of seminal indie label Anticon. Yoni & Geti is a collaboration between Wolf and Chicago rapper Serengeti that explores the struggles of a couple trying to balance art, adulthood and family. So it’s fitting that when I called Wolf, he was shopping at Whole Foods. I managed to fit in a conversation with him about his different approaches to his various projects, whether Anticon had anything to do with hip hop and indie rock merging more frequently and Yoni’s affection for “hipster towns.”

Nick Hanover for Ovrld: I’m really excited for this chance to talk to you, I’ve been following your career for a long time, going back to cLOUDDEAD and the original solo stuff you did as Why? This project you’re doing now with Serengeti is interesting to me because it seems to have more of a narrative angle to it, and I was curious about why the two of you chose to do this story now.

Yoni Wolf: Well, I don’t know. It just sort of developed, it wasn’t really pre-meditated for me, anyway. We just went with it.

Ovrld: The project seems somewhat autobiographical in that it’s a concept album about a touring musician who has set aside family obligations to pursue his art, and the people around him may not have as much faith in that as he does. You guys tackle everything from criticism to life on the road to the struggles of trying to maintain a family while being a touring musician. I was wondering about how much of it is drawn from your own experiences.

YW: I’m sure it has some relationship to our lives, we’ve both been professional musicians for a while. But it’s definitely fiction, ultimately.

Ovrld: It seems like in your own music there has been somewhat of a narrative thread in the lyrics, especially in contrast to a lot of the more stream-of-consciousness Anticon artists. You tend to be very detailed in your lyrics while other Anticon acts lean towards freeform. But was it difficult to switch to a project that is more explicitly narrative?

YW: This project for the most part was more fueled by Dave [Cohn, aka Serengeti]. I would say my primary role on the album was the music side. That’s not to say I didn’t have influence over the lyrical content, but by and large I would say Dave was the main lyricist on this album. That in and of itself is a huge difference between Yoni & Geti and the Why? stuff.

Ovrld: I’m also fascinated by the trend of you and Doseone and some of the other original Anticon members coming back to seemingly dormant side projects. This is Yoni & Geti’s second release after a gap of several years, and you also appeared on the mixtape that announced the return of Themselves. Now that Anticon is a more mature, established entity, do you find yourself interested in returning to more of the projects you had done in the past?

YW: You’re looking at it from the outside, so you’ve got a different perspective than I probably do. From my mind, from the frontlines of my own life, everything’s always changing and developing, so I don’t necessarily see that. I don’t know, I just kind of go with the flow and work from where I’m at in the time that I’m working, you know?

Ovrld: Another thing that has always interested me about your work is the way you weave in a metacommentary on not just your work but the way people interpret and react to it. It goes all the way back to the Sanddollars EP, where you have a specific song addressing fan board culture [“Mutant John”] and criticism. And then the last Why? release was an EP constructed around the identities of some of your most dedicated fans [2013’s Golden Tickets]…

YW: Oh, right, that thing, yeah [laughs]

Ovrld: A lot of artists try to maintain a strict boundary between fan and artist, but you seem more willing to engage with fans and critics than a lot of your peers. Why is that?

YW: I guess you write what you know in your life. Since I’ve been writing and doing music, that’s something that’s been a part of it in a big way. The way that the [Golden Tickets] EP thing came about, it was a schtick, so it doesn’t feel like a Why? album for me in the strict sense of…I don’t know, some statement I’m trying to make or anything like that. It was more like a flexing of the craft muscle, you know? I was just kind of having fun with it. I guess at my best I’m talking about whatever is around me in a way that is getting to heart of it. That’s something that’s around me so I feel free to talk about it.

Ovrld: Since I’ve been following Anticon, one of the things I really like seeing is its impact. When you guys started, the division between hip hop and indie rock was pretty major and now as we move further into the 21st century, that division seems to have almost disappeared completely. As you were shifting from more abstract hip hop to making Why? a clearer indie pop project, did you notice that the genres were starting to change? And do you feel that Anticon had an impact on the way hip hop and indie rock culture were starting to merge?

YW: Maybe, I don’t know. I never really felt there was that line, which is probably why I do the music I do, I guess. As an artist, you don’t go in to work thinking about genres or where it’s going to fit in within criticism. That’s backwards. So as an artist you go in and make what’s right for you at the time, or what feels good or real or what makes you nod your head or whatever. Then later people say whatever they think it is. I didn’t really consider it like that.

But you do notice that these days everything is hip hop influenced, from country music to indie rock. Or like 21 Pilots or whatever. You have all these country artists, for instance, who are doing quote unquote urban music, or trying to break into those markets. I think hip hop has become ubiquitous over the last 20 years or so.

When I was a kid, hip hop was like a wink and a nod. Not hip hop at large, at the schools I went to everyone listened to hip hop. And I sort of reacted against that. But then in high school, in the early ‘90s you started to have this other hip hop that was a wink and a nod, it was more underground or something. Like the Native Tongues [movement], there was a new thing happening that felt like sort of quote unquote intelligent hip hop. De La Soul and stuff like that, where you felt like it could be something more than just boasts and bravado. So there was a period where I felt it was more like “this is a thing that we listen to.” And now it’s everywhere.

Ovrld: It seems like the reception to the new Yoni & Geti album Testarossa has been good, the reviews have been very positive. How has this tour been, as far as crowd reaction?

YW: Good! We’ve just done one leg so far, the east coast leg or whatever. I gotta say, the audience have been really good. We’re going to go feel it out in the west next.

Ovrld: Do you feel like the different regions have a different reading of the material? Is there a difference with west versus east coast sensibilities?

YW: Yeah, different feels for different places. Especially with what I would call “hipster towns” versus non hipster towns. There’s like towns that are more inclined to know a project like this. Like we played New York and Chicago but we also played Providence, Rhode Island and Columbus, Ohio. Those smaller towns, there will be a lot less people and they won’t necessarily know the project yet. But Chicago and New York were bigger crowds and they definitely knew the record already. There are always those hubs of culture. I think on the west coast there will be more of those towns, who are more hip to it. But you take it all and you enjoy yourself and you play your shows and that’s it.

Ovrld: The stop you’re doing in Austin will be the first time I’ve had the chance to see you two play together. When you’re getting this project ready for live shows versus with Why?, what are some of the key differences? Do you have to change your approach?

YW: In terms of the live show, yeah, man, it’s different. Every project is going to be different of course. But this is kind of how we’ve always done it with Why? as well, where you take the album and you listen to it and you say “Okay, how can we recreate these songs live?” That’s kind of how it’s always been. It’s no different in this project. In fact, I’m bringing two of the guys that have played in Why? a lot. We broke it down in the same way as Why? I guess, deciding who should play what and we all play a lot of different instruments so you think “What can we bring? What makes the most sense for each person to play? How can we get a good arrangement with just the four of us?” That kind of thing.

We tend to opt out of backing tracks. A lot of bands will have parts of their music playing off a computer or something, and they’ll play with that but we don’t really like doing that. We like a more organic approach. Even if there are samples and drum machines, we prefer to play it all live. So that’s what we’re doing.

Ovrld: I’m excited to see it. Are you more focused on collaborations right now? Or are there any updates on Why? or another solo project?

YW: I’m working on a Why? album right now. That’s my main focus at the moment. I’m getting close to finishing that, I think.

Yoni & Geti play tomorrow, July 16th at the Sidewinder with Space Camp Death Squad.

Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.