Music Interview #001 - Why?
Music Interview #001 - Why?
We are pleased to preset to you our first (and hopefully not last) installment of music Monday's interview series. Simultaneously we would like to introduce you to friend-of-the-family James Harry Ewert Jr. Recently James gave Why? front-man Yoni Wolf a ring to chat about cats, drugs and the success of their 2008 release Alopecia as they prepare for another album release entitled Eskimo Snow with Anticon on September 22nd, 2009 right before their nation wide tour (Chicago date Oct. 5th at Bottom Lounge [buy tickets]). James has also been an integral part of the re-launch of one of Chicago's keystone publications, Lumpen, which will release with a new format, design and a grade-A swagger in October (Releasing on Oct. 3rd @ The Co-Prosperity Sphere). Along with the transcribed interview and some audio clips from the phone conversation I've also included some recent webisodes they put together for the new album.
James Harry Ewert Jr: The first question I have for you is: When was the last time someone told you, “You suck.”?
Yoni Wolf: Uh, you know, let’s see, that’s a good question. It happens periodically whether it be my music or my personality or whatever. One specific story I remember is when we were playing a show in Canada, this was a few years ago, it wasn’t the last time, but one that sticks out in my mind. We’re playing this show in this dive-y, kind of bar situation; this was when we were really grinding it out pretty early on. We played this bar in Calgary or Winnipeg and this guy comes up to us, maybe he’s 40, maybe he’s kind of a big guy, paunchy, beard, mullet and he comes up to us after the set and is like, “Hey, your new wave sucks.” (laughs) And that one’s always stuck with me. I mean, we got in an argument. I was like, “Ok, that’s cool. You didn’t have to stay for it,” you know? “Yeah, it sucked.” We were like, “Yeah, ok. Cool."
JHEJR: The reason I ask is because everything I’ve read about WHY? is usually this rave review. I had trouble finding a negative review.
YW: Ok, I got this great story. I just moved from California to Cincinnati, or outside Cincinnati and I was like overwhelmed. I got back from Europe and had like a week and a half to get rid of all my stuff and move everything. I freaked out and was like, ”Alright, I have this modicum of fame right?” I’m gonna use it to my advantage for once.
JHEJR: Yeah, I saw your post up on Myspace.
YW: Exactly. So I posted this thing. I said can anybody help me, you know, get rid of all my shit, blah blah blah and I said preferably a cute female, right? And you know, joking, but not joking really. Somebody sent me a link to this blog called Brooklyn Vegan that I’ve heard of before, and they had posted my post that was supposed to be kind of private between me the 42,000 friends on the Why? Myspace, but Brooklyn Vegan found it and they posted that as like a news item in relation to us putting out a new record, like ‘Why? is gonna put out a new record; by the way, look at this post from Yoni Wolf what a jackass.’ And all these guys posted, “What a fucking loser. He has to get on his Myspace to get laid.” “He’s trying to get laid, not trying to move.” Believe me. Believe me dude, if you want to get laid in my position it’s not hard. It’s not a hard thing to do and you wouldn’t post on your Myspace about it. I thought that was funny. I just got reamed.
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JHEJR: Do you feel like the great deal of praise you’ve been receiving, both critically and in terms of record sales is having a subliminal impact on your song writing. I feel like there is a certain sentiment coming through in the few songs I’ve heard from Eskimo Snow that almost seems as if you are craving more criticism. I would point to “Against Me” and “This Blackest Purse” from the new album specifically; some of the words in there strike me as someone battling against feeling over confident.
YW: I feel like human psychology or whatever acclimates to whatever is going on. I don’t really think about it and like, if this were 10 years ago and all of a sudden people were talking to me like they talk now, it would definitely weird me out. I’d be like, “What the fuck?” But I don’t know. Everything happens gradually and we didn’t blow up fast, know what I mean, we weren’t that kind of band. We’ve been doing this for a long time and everything has been very gradual. Every record has been better than the one before it, but not in some kind of ridiculous way. I don’t know, I guess you just acclimate to it and you don’t really hear it that much anymore.
JHEJR: You got signed to Anticon in 2000, how old were you then?
YW: Well I guess the first record that I did for Anticon was in 2000. In 1999 was when they started the label. I was down from the beginning; we were just a group of guys trying to do this thing. I’m 30 now, so you can do the math.
JHEJR: How much have you really changed from the person you were in 2000 to the person you are now. I mean it’s an incredible amount of time and a lot has happened since.
YW: I feel like I’ve matured a lot and become a grown man in many ways. I feel like at 20, 21, in some ways I still had a more of a teenager mentality or something like that, I don’t know. At this point, I have a little more clarity or something. Uh, maybe I don’t have that much clarity still, but I don’t know. I just feel a little more comfortable in my skin; I know that is true.
JHEJR: A little more patient?
YW: [pause] Nah, I wouldn’t say that necessarily. I’m a little more comfortable with who I am and what I am. Back then I feel like I was a little bit awkward, I’m still awkward sometimes, but I don’t know.
JHEJR: Have you noticed changes in shows in different cities as WHY?’s notoriety has grown?
YW: Yeah, like I said before, it has been gradual. With the last tour, the Alopecia tour, yeah probably our audiences maybe doubled or close to that depending on the city. But there’s also a science to it, there’s a lot that goes into shows. Like Chicago for example, I feel finally we got it right. I feel like with Chicago, we were working on Chicago for a while and we finally figured out just playing Bottom Lounge. A lot of it is location, I think we chose to do it 18 and up to have a later show and I think at the Abbey [2 years ago] it was all ages, but there was a curfew at like 9 and there’s all these little factors that affect it as well as just more people listening to it I guess.
JHEJR: Do you have any stories or thoughts on this fair city?
YW: I never really swallowed Chicago wholly. I don’t really understand Chicago yet, so much. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Bay Area and LA and New York and Cincinnati and Minneapolis, those are all places I’ve spent a good deal of time and understand those cities pretty well. I’ve never really spent a lot of time in Chicago.
JHEJR: I was wondering why you decided to move to SF from Cincinnati instead of Chicago like most Midwesterners seeking a more urban metropolis do?
YW: A lot of my high school friends moved to Chicago or New York and some people went to the Bay Area, I don’t know. I like the Bay Area a lot, my music friends moved to the Bay Area, the Anticon people all moved out there, so I followed them more or less.
JHEJR: Now you’re back living outside Cincinnati?
YW: Yeah, at my parents house, which is in the suburbs, but I didn’t grow up in the suburbs. I’ve read articles that say that, but there is such a distinction.
JHEJR: Wanted to ask a little about Eskimo Snow. What made you pick the name?
YW: I don’t know. I had a bunch of different names I went through, probably 15 names for the record. I felt like [Eskimo Snow] clicked. I asked a lot of people. There are a couple things I tend to be somewhat democratic about, not democratic, but I do ask for opinions on things and one of them is song order, I asked a couple people to make sure they like that. And the album title, I like to make sure the album title sits well with other people, not just me.
JHEJR: Your songwriting is extremely confessional and deals with experiences that would embarrass a lot of people, does it ever feel weird to perform songs about extremely trying moments in your life to a cheering crowd?
YW: Yeah. I definitely am always weird-ed out by audience singing back at me somewhat, it always feels kind of weird I guess, but you get used to it. Occasionally it’s weird, like I played a solo show in New York last December, just me playing piano and the audience was singing every single word with me, like louder than I was, you know? That was kind of strange. It’s different when it’s a full band, you don’t really hear anything but your buddy playing and no matter how hard and an audience person screams, they’re not gonna be louder than the band. But with me it was like this delicate thing and they’re all screaming at me singing the lyrics. Yeah it’s kind of weird. Sometimes I feel in a good mood playing a show, but it depends what mood I’m in. Sometimes I’m dark, sometimes I’m not really thinking at all and just kind of on auto pilot.
JHEJR: Your tour schedule is really tight and without much time in between dates, does it ever become monotonous?
YW: Yeah it’s a lifestyle. I get the monotony when I’m sitting in the car.
JHEJR: How do you make it so that you’re not just going through motions?
YW: Well that’s what it is. It’s a job. It’s like driving a truck and hauling gear, except for 45 minutes you’re playing in front of people screaming at you. I mean, that’s the bottom line. It’s blue collar work with this hour everyday. You know, you just do whatever any truck driver does, you watch a movie every now and again, you get a whore at a truck stop…nah, no you don’t.
JHEJR: Meth toothpicks?
YW: Meth toothpicks? (laughs).
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JHEJR: How has your vocal style changed during your progression as a musician?
YW: My vocal style is so fresh and clean?
JHEJR: Was your delivery and voice something you crafted or were they something that came naturally to you?
YW: I just kept listening to a whole lot of Roy Orbison and say why, why can’t I be like this? I don’t know, I guess it’s just the natural way I do it. I’m obviously not a trained singer and I just kind of figured it out for myself.
JHEJR: One other thing I wanted to mention to you was something I read where you said you considered your honesty to be a political statement. I don’t really have a question, but I just wanted to say I couldn’t agree more…
YW: I agree. The word politics, I don’t know exactly what that means, but it’s the way you live, all the little choices you make. If everybody was honest, a lot of the problems in the world wouldn’t be like that, I mean, there would probably be a lot more different kinds of problems I guess.
JHEJR: (Nonsensical incoherent rambling)
JHEJR: Unfortunately not everyone adheres to that policy. That’s why there are people like you and me to call them out on their shit.
To finish we have a clip of James asking Yoni a few either/or questions. We left the transcription... you know... just in case. Enjoy.
JHEJR: For the last part of this interview we’re going to do something different. I’m gonna ask you questions that are incredibly vague or ambiguous like “Do you want to hang out?”, or they might be either or questions like “Joint or spliff?”. Does that sound alright?
YW: Sure, ok.
JHEJR: Cats or dogs?
JHEJR: Cats or hugs?
JHEJR: Cats or drugs?
JHEJR: Drugs or handshakes?
YW: Neither. Pound.
JHEJR: Hugs or talking heads? The band.
YW: Are hugs a band? Is that a band? The hug a bunch was a gang, a street gang in Cincinnati.
JHEJR: No, just a regular hug.
YW: what kind of hug is it like a sexual hug is it some kind of weird…Uhhh…The Talking Heads, we’ll go with the talking heads.
JHEJR: What do you think of when you think of anxiety?
YW: Stomach problems.
JHEJR: Philosophy or fixed gear bikes?
YW: Fixed gear bikes, lets go that route.
JHEJR: What is your style in 5 words or less?
YW: Ride hard or go home.
JHEJR: Burrito or torta?
JHEJR: Terminator or Terminator 2?
JHEJR: Heaven or Hell?
JHEJR: Fixie or single speed?
JHEJR: Now, I know you’re a vegan, but chicken or steak?
JHEJR: Ethics or morals?
YW: Aren’t they kind of the same thing? Ethics, morals seems to religious.
JHEJR: Do you have your shit together?
JHEJR: Is your bag zipped up?
YW: It would be, yes.
JHEJR: Raw or abstract?
JHEJR: What the difference between sarcasm and parody?
YW: There’s a big difference, what do you mean, they’re two very different things.
JHEJR: Have you ever had a threesome?
YW: No. I would love to, that would be awesome.
JHEJR: Are you tired of talking to me?
YW: No, you’re good.
JHEJR: Do you ever get tired of talking?
JHEJR: Is it better to have loved and lost or to never have loved at all?
YW: Loved and lost.
JHEJR: Who’s your best friend?
YW: Uh, that’s a good question. I guess it changes depending. Sometimes it’s my sister, sometimes my brother.
JHEJR: When will you get a real job?
YW: I would love to if it was a real job, not like McDonalds, that’d be great.
JHEJR: What do you think of hippies?
YW: Uh, they seem like they generally have a lot of contradictions.
JHEJR: What’s the stupidest thing you’ve said to a girl?
YW: Oh man, there is a list. I’ve said all kinds of stupid shit to girls. Probably one of the stupidest things that stands out is…the last girlfriend I had, the first time I met her; I met her at a laundry mat and said something like “Girl, you got it goin’ on, what’s up with a date?” I was like trying on this persona of some dude I went to high school with or something and it didn’t work at all. She was like, “ok, bye,” and then I met her again and actually felt like myself and I actually did get a date that time.
JHEJR: What’s the stupidest thing a girl’s ever said to you?
YW: Like picking me up or something? Again, all kinds of stupid shit… “Are you shy?” like sometimes if you’re not attracted to a girl and you’re not that into them and they’re obviously hitting on you hard, “Wha, what’s wrong, are you shy?” “No I’m not fucking shy, I’m not into you.” I am shy though, yes, that’s true, but anyway…
Thanks to Catfish Studios for help with the audio clips.