WHY?, the brainchild of Yoni Wolf, is more than just a vaguely posed question. A near perfect reversal of YHWH, the Hebrew Bible's transliterated name of a God too sacred to speak, it's also a vessel for Wolf's unique rap rock hybrid through which not much if anything has been off limits at all.
Deftly intertwining naked, confessional shock and ceaselessly nimble lyricism, Wolf's output is occasionally just short of sensationalist and often brilliant. It's a stream of consciousness if stream of consciousness had meticulously perfected off-kilter flow, with not even the most deadpan of deliveries betraying a true poeticism not commonly realized.
For his sixth LP under the WHY? moniker, Moh Lhean, Wolf returned to his home studio of the same name for the first time since the project's 2003 debut, Oaklandazulasylum. 14 years later it's more of a family affair, as what was once a solo catharsis now finds Wolf joined by his brother Josiah and Josiah's wife Liz, among others. Five albums later, the resulting recordings are far less lo-fi as well, layering the mystery of their album title with some of WHY?'s most melodic and textured tracks. The overall feeling is noticeably calmer and less cynical for the most part - Moh Lhean finds Wolf ever so slightly more zen in his philosophizing.
"While I'm alive I'll feel alive / And what's next I guess I'll know when I've gotten there," Wolf decreed on his 2008 magnum opus Alopecia. Despite bouts of illness and isolation he is still very much alive, and Moh Lhean finds him seemingly closer to coming to terms with the rest. “One thing, there is no other / Only this, there is no other... / Just layers of this one thing,” reasons opener and lead single "This Ole King."
Transverso caught up with Wolf on the phone to discuss Moh Lhean, health, hands, and surprisingly, Wrestlemania.
TRANSVERSO: Following last year's Testarossa tour with Geti you’re now back on the road with WHY?. How has it been so far? Is there a different dynamic touring with family?
YONI WOLF: Well Geti's adopted family in a way as well, we're close friends and we’ve spent a lot of time around each other over the last 10 or 8 years or whatever we've known each other. It's great rolling with my brother and playing with him is great too, as well as the other guys. It's a family vibe, but it always kind of is on tour, you know? You’re close to people, it's an intimate thing that you do. You’re always in intimate close quarters whether you’re in a van or a bus or whatever, you’re sort of around people all the time.
The press release for your new record hints that Moh Lhean was sort of born out of a “severe health scare” that you endured recently. How has your health influenced your music and are you doing better now?
I wouldn’t say that that’s accurate, the record was not born out of a severe health scare, but I have had some health problems, a lot of health problems in the last 12 years or something like that. I am stable right now, but struggling always to figure it out. It’s been an influence on the last two albums, this health stuff, definitely. The album Mumps, Etc that came out in 2012 [was] a lot and I think this one is to an extent - not as much as that one is but it’s a part of my life so it’s something I deal with. I’m sure it seeps in, you know?
One of the most interesting aspects of the new record texturally is the background chatter and vocal samples. A lot of these are your doctors, right? Were they aware they were being recorded?
The vocal samples like at the end of “Proactive Evolution”? Yeah, a couple of them are. I think they were not necessarily aware. I think one of them was and one of them wasn’t. I don’t think they would care. Maybe they would, I don’t know.
You’ve spoken about how personal this record is and how you don’t want to explain the album title, for example. How do you balance the privacy of your music with doing press?
I don’t know. I mean, I think you just talk about what you’re comfortable talking about. I’m just trying to kind of play it by ear in the moment [and] think about what feels okay to talk about what’s not right to talk about, you know? I’m pretty open, I’m fine.
Some were surprised by that interview you did on a conservative radio show a few months ago. How did that come about?
It came about because the guy’s assistant or guest coordinator or whatever booker guy hit me up on Facebook, I think, and asked me if I would be on the show. I looked at the link and I was like, well, this is interesting, this is different from what I’ve done, hell yeah, let’s do it. [Laughs] So that’s how it happened. I think the booker was a fan.
It had some awkward moments. Was it what you expected or do you regret it?
Oh no, I didn’t regret it at all, I thought it was fascinating, I enjoyed it a great deal. I mean, as far as press goes that’s like best case scenario, that you can get into something weird and interesting like that from a different perspective from where you come from. I grew up steeped in more or less Evangelical Christianity - Messianic Judaism was definitely the Jewish flair - but I’d say, moralistically, Evangelical Christianity, and so I was used his whole spiel and everything. I’ve heard that since I was growing up, [the] sort of the stuff he was saying. Anyway I enjoyed it.
Moh Lhean leaked a month before release. What was you reaction to that?
Oh I don’t know, somebody told me that at some point. It was like, oh well, you know, that’s how it goes. It’s inevitable, so no sweat.
It's interesting you say that because you touch on the issue of acceptance on “One Mississippi,” singing “I’ve got to submit to whatever it is in control.” As far as Moh Lhean and this time in your life are concerned, what have you found to be in control?
The kids on Reddit. [Laughs] I don’t know. I mean, I wish I knew.
Throughout your body of work there's this reoccurring motif of hands. Depictions of them, either your own or from fans, have repeatedly been present in your cover art, and Moh Lhean carries on this tradition. “Easy” has a line “I lost my only hand in Chicago” and “One Mississippi” then touches on it being a phantom limb. You also have a song “These Hands” and “Gnashville” says “Sometimes I claim to know a guy but I can't tell you what his hands look like,” which I’ve always especially liked. What is it about hands that so fascinates you?
It’s about control. I mean, I don’t know, I go on instinct, so if I’m writing about that it’s not something I think out. But, if I was to go back and analyze it most of the time I would say it has to do with control. Either that or maybe it has to do with creation, you know, the creative process, but that’s just me analyzing it after the fact. I don’t think about that while I’m writing instinctually.
Moh Lhean's cover could be interpreted as a waving hand or an arm of a drowning man reaching above the waves. What was your aim there?
Yeah, I guess in my mind I think of it as kind of like when Hulk Hogan gets knocked down a bunch of times and then at some point he’s had enough of it and his arm goes up and it starts shaking and starts sort of pointing up in the air and slowly but surely his whole body stands up and then he body slams whoever is trying to attack him as though he’s impervious to their punches for a while. So that’s sort of the start of that, if you’re familiar with that. You’re gonna have to do some research for this article and go watch Wrestlemania V from 1986 or whatever, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
I’m actually not a wrestling fan right now, my friend Mike Eagle is like huge into wrestling right now, but I was as a kid. We used to watch it every Saturday morning, and then the Wrestlemanias once a year or whatever on Saturday night, we would watch those. So yeah, I’m just familiar with the classic people from the ‘80s: Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior.
One of your lines that has resonated with me most over your entire discography is “Preemptive nostalgia of the possible but doubtful” from “Paper Hearts.” Five years after that track was released is there something that was doubtful then that you’ve since accomplished and can now feel nostalgia for?
I don’t know, that’s an interesting question. I have a lady friend now, thats something that I wouldn’t have thought at that time maybe that I would have, you know? That was a very lonesome time. So yeah, that’s something, I guess. Something big.
Is it a struggle to revisit those older songs from darker times in your life through current live sets?
In general, yeah, a lot of older songs I don’t like to do so I sort of pick and choose which ones feel okay to do and which ones I don’t want to revisit. It’s an issue [but] I wouldn’t say anything’s like permanently off limits, it’s just whether I feel like doing it or not if it’s gonna feel like it drags me down. Anything that has sort of a negativity to it or a pessimism to it. I mean, I do some songs like that, we’ve been doing “The Vowels Pt. 2,” I would say that’s a pretty dark track, but it’s kind of fun to do. I can’t say how it affects me one way or another doing it night after night.
I’m phasing into more positive material, I think, with Moh Lhean, and I’m not saying in the future I want to make all praise and worship music, but Moh Lhean definitely has that connotation and that feeling. I think that that’s good to have, some of those positive vibes going in the shows, because when you sing something night after night it affects you, you know? It affects you physically, it affects you psychologically and emotionally. I’m trying to phase into positivity into my life, so I think the music has to reflect that, and I think Moh Lhean is a good step.