Yoni Wolf of Why?: The _Heeb_ Interview

Text by Justin Jacobs

Yoni Wolf (left) was raised a "Messianic Jew," a term that many Jews find problematic since Judaism is already a messianic religion. But for reasons other than the purely theological, when Wolf reached the “not so sure about this whole God thing” stage in high school, he effectively had two religions to reject: the Jewish ethnic perspective and the Christian faith in Jesus as the Messiah. If anything, that just gave him more material to work with. With Why?, his not-quite-hip-hop, not-quite-indie-rock band, Wolf doesn’t shy from his personal narrative: “I wear the customary clothes of my time, like Jesus did, with no reason not to die; facing history with little to no irony, like I’m some forgotten Southern city" opens Yoni on Eskimo Snow, Why?’s fourth studio album (out last month on Anticon).

With Eskimo Snow, the snark of previous records like Alopecia and Elephant Eyelash are put on hold, allowing Wolf some serious introspection. Interestingly, the darkly humorous Alopecia (released in 2008) and the slower, more haunting Eskimo Snow were recorded in the same exact sessions. Wolf talked to Heeb about the making of these albums, living with his folks and his "Bar Mitzvah."

Photo by Sarah Cass

Were Alopecia and Eskimo Snow originally meant to be separate albums?

We realized about half way through the recording process that it was going to have to be two distinct albums. Before that, we weren’t real certain what it was. We would record, and then when I listened back to the roughs from the sessions, I started to realize there were two different kinds of songs happening. 

You toured behind Alopecia while Eskimo sat waiting.

It was strange. We thought we had finished up Eskimo Snow first, just after the recording sessions. And then we realized it didn’t sound quite done. And we moved on to Alopecia, finished that up, put it out and then went back to Snow, finished it up, put it out. We’ve never had some kind of set way that we work, so it fit into a ‘now this is happening’ kind of situation. 

What was your first piece of writing that you were really proud of?

I have this book of poems in English and Spanish I did in the fourth grade that’s shaped like a Nike shoe—I was pretty proud of that. It had some drawings in there, too. I got more serious about writing in my late teens, early 20s, and more and more serious as time has gone on. 

Before then, was it just a casual hobby?

In my late teens I saw writing as something I wanted to do a lot. I didn’t know about actually making money, but as someone who’s always been interested in art and creative expression, I became more interested in writing than any other art form I was working in at the time—I was drawing and painting, too. When I put together writing and music, it took control of that side of me. 

What was your idea of religion as a kid, and how has it changed?

When I was a kid, I was very religious and was very much a believer. And now I’m not. So that would be the difference. I would say some time in high school it wasn’t for me so much. 

Your dad is a ‘Messianic Jewish’ preacher. What does that mean?

My parents accept Jesus as the Messiah—in their minds, the Jewish Messiah. It’s an interesting crossroads between Judaism and Christianity. 

Did you hang out with mostly Jewish kids growing up in Ohio?

Well, what little friends I did have were through the religious side of things. I went to public school, but I didn’t have any friends there.

What was your "Bar Mitzvah" like?

Oh, the whole thing was awkward. There’s an interesting video recording that my brother sampled on this EP he made—it’s me making my Bar Mitzvah speech. I sound like a little, fat hick kid.

You’re on tour now, and you will be for a while. What’s the plan when you have some time off?

It takes a minute to get back into home life after you tour. I’m living at my parents’ house in Ohio. It’s fine—it’s been good. I don’t know how long I’ll stick around there or when I’ll move on to somewhere else. I don’t have any plans. I tend to be a short-term plan maker. I think six months into the future, no longer than that. And at that point, I’ll still be touring.

Photo by Phoebe Streblow

Related Posts:

Why? The Surreal Ponderings of Yoni Wolf

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