“I had alopecia on my neck,” says multi-instrumentalist/singer Yoni Wolf of Why?, discussing the skin disorder that became the title of his band’s third full-length release. “It was this mysterious word that I’d heard a few times. That word kept coming up, and I kept thinking about that baldness and why that had happened to me. Why that little spot? It kind of tied into fate. This little spot of hair just went away and wouldn’t grow. Then, it occurred to me that there’s a certain freedom in that baldness, in not having any ornamentation or any layer covering the truth of what you are.”
On Alopecia and Elephant Eyelash, the group’s 2005 album, Wolf and his band-mates have never sounded more naked. Elephant Eyelash stripped away most of the samplers and overdubs of previous efforts in order to capture the energy of a melodic five-piece band. (Fog’s Andrew Broder and Mark Erickson joined full-time members Josiah Wolf and Doug McDiarmid in a Minneapolis studio.) But as Why? takes another step toward conventional band dynamics, their leader found himself moving back toward his roots in experimental hip hop. This time around, he approached his usual blend of fatalism and gallows humor with a newfound attention to lyrical craftsmanship.
“I had never been into rhyme before, never really valued it,” he admits. “I had been listening to a lot more intricately rhymed music and reading some more rhymed poetry, and I thought it might be fun to fuck around with that. I was doing a lot of crossword puzzles at the time, and it was almost like a more creative extension of that. You don’t want it to sound like it’s driven by the rhyme, so you have to make it real natural. It’s a real labored thing. But it’s a game. You either win or you lose and you throw it out. I’ve never written raps like that before.”
Mentioning the surreal hip-hop trio he once fronted with Doseone and Odd Nosdam, Wolf says, “I don’t think of it like the rap lyrics that I used to write or like the cLOUDDEAD stuff. I didn’t edit that strictly or be too hard on myself. It’s a new thing for me.”
What remains are tales of suicide and self-effacement, of contradictions and confidence. The symbol of the hand came to define the album from its themes of hard-won experience and twists of fate. “That has to do with making a connection to the world, being able to touch,” he says. “The mention of it on the song ‘Fatalist Palmistry,’ that’s kind of an epistle to this person that was into palm reading. She would be like, ‘Oh, no, no, no. This is what is wrong with you.’ I always thought that was kind of funny. ‘This is why we could never be together. Look! Your love line is fucked up.’ The other stuff, I didn’t even realize it was about that. It was just writing something in my sleep.”