A lot of great things emerge from Cincinnati: goetta, Graeter’s Ice Cream, George Clooney… Among those locally bred gems is WHY?, the eclectic indie Hip Hop band with some of the most brilliantly complex and candid lyricism out there, courtesy of Jonathan “Yoni” Wolf. In addition to its lyrical genius, WHY? is never lacking in instrumental flair, boasting infectious beats, tinkering bells, moving strings and woodwinds — the works. Band members Yoni Wolf, Josiah Wolf, Doug McDiarmid and Liz Wolf toured all around the country and world this year. They’ve traveled to San Francisco, Montreal and London, to name a few, but now find themselves back in their hometown.
CityBeat met with drummer and instrumentalist Josiah Wolf (Yoni’s brother) at The Comet and spoke to him about Cincinnati, his new projects, upcoming shows and WHY?’s latest albums.
CityBeat: Cincinnati is your hometown. You and Yoni grew up here?
Josiah Wolf: I was born in Philadelphia but came here when I was, like, two. So yeah, I grew up here. I lived here all of my formative years…left when I was around 21.
CB: I saw that WHY? is nominated for the “Indie/Alternative” category for the Jan. 2617th annual Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEAs). How does it feel to be nominated?
JW: I don’t ever expect to win those things, but it’s nice that we’re on the radar of the city. We were nominated last year too and went down to The Madison. I think [the CEAs] have gotten bigger. It’s cool — it’s kind of a way of getting the music community and art community together.
CB: Do you interact with some of the local bands here?
JW: Uh, never, no. [Laughs] Just kidding. Yeah, I’ve met some good friends here and some good bands here. I’ve met a lot of people through WHY?’s other drummer Ben Sloan — a lot of his friends that he went to school with. They have a collective, The Marburg Collective, and they play at The Comet every Monday.
CB: Aside from WHY?, I know you’ve been working on some other projects, such as Dream Tiger with your wife, Liz. Can you tell me about that?
JW: I’m doing stuff for myself right now that is only in infancy. Some of that might be music I release myself or I might collaborate with Liz on it. Some of it might become WHY? songs. I have a lot of tracks that are in their beginning stages.
CB: So with WHY?, do the members work on music individually and then come together?
JW: Yeah, we do that a lot of the time. Every record is different, though. Like with the last record, Mumps, Etc., Yoni worked on almost all of that by himself. With the Golden Ticket EP, I did all of the music on that. Yoni wrote the songs on the piano and then he sent me the tracks and I put music around it.
CB: How is it different to do your own stuff versus stuff for WHY? or Dream Tiger?
JW: WHY? is kind of Yoni’s band in a way even though we’ve had times of collaboration. It’s my band also but he’s the main guy. Dream Tiger is Liz’s band. [Laughs] In both bands, I kind of take a side role. The difference is working with my brother versus working with my wife. They’re different but both are good in my life. Lately, I enjoy working by myself in a way, as far as coming up with ideas.
CB: You’ll be playing at The Comet on New Years Eve with WHY? for your last show of the year. How do you feel about that?
JW: I love The Comet. It’ll be a fun, low pressure show for us. I’m excited about it. I’d say that intimate shows [are] my preference.
CB: Which of your albums is the band’s favorite to perform? I know at the Fountain Square show this summer, you guys played a lot from Alopecia, which is one of my favorite albums. How do you choose which albums to play?
JW: Right now we’re focusing on the new record, Mumps, Etc. We do most songs from that but, yeah, we do a lot from Alopecia. Some Elephant Eyelash. We don’t really do much Eskimo Snow right now. The Alopecia songs do lend themselves to the live performances better than some of the other ones — they are more exciting songs in a way. For some reason, the Eskimo Snow songs are a little more difficult to pull off live [but] we do a couple.
CB: So Mumps, Etc. came out last year after a three-year break. How would you say the band’s sound has evolved in that latest album? And since then?
JW: That record was mostly Yoni as far as the arrangements go. He didn’t play a lot on it but the rest of us got the parts he arranged and learned them and embellished them a bit. The goal was to get a very clean, large sounding record with minimal instrumentation — not too cluttered. I think we did pretty good with that. When I listen back to the instrumentals, it’s clean, and that’s what we were going for. Nowadays, the newer stuff that we’re working towards is a little more homemade — a little more experimental. We’re trying to get back to some of that stuff and get away from being in a big studio. Next up, we’re going to record more at my house in my basement studio.
CB: And then there’s the September EP Golden Tickets from this year on the Joyful Noise label. It is a described as “a collection of personalized ‘theme songs’ for and about seven specific WHY? fans who were Internet stalked.” Can you tell me a little bit more about that project?
JW: It first came about through our web store three years ago, I believe, right around this time. We had this one t-shirt that was a misprint. All of the other shirts had a certain color but one shirt was gold. It was like a test print. Somehow we came up with this idea: How about we put up a contest online and say whoever gets the golden shirt will have a song written about them. And the first guy who bought the shirt — it was Hunter Van Brocklin, the guy — was sent the shirt and we wrote a song about him. That’s how it started. From there, we did another merch contest and then we kind of got away from the merch contests and did more of a charity after the Japan [tsunami]. We did an auction where whoever gave the most to the benefit got the song written about them that month — that was the golden ticket. So every month, it became a little different.
CB: When the fans found out about their “theme songs,” how did they react? Creeped out? Flattered? Shocked?
JW: Everybody liked it! At least nobody expressed a [creeped out] sentiment. Maybe some people were creeped out [Laughs], but people seemed to like it a lot. People wrote us about it. We were lucky; all of the people we selected were really cool people. If you’re going to put your information out there on social media, we can write a song about it. It’s all public information. We had a good time doing it. Yoni would send me the tracks and I would make the music around it. It was just a fun little project.
Originally written for Cincinnati CityBeat: CLICK HERE FOR THE INTERVIEW.