Asking WHY? in a World of Wonder

WHY?'s Yoni Wolf talks Judaism and embracing the mystery of it all

“I definitely am pretty f------ Jewish,” Yoni Wolf said to me over the phone earlier this month after commenting on my rather Jewish sounding last name. “My mom’s side is like 96 percent Ashkenazi Jewish and my dad’s side is like 98 percent Ashkenazi Jewish.”

Wolf, lead singer and mastermind of alternative hip-hop outfit, WHY?, derived his musical moniker from his past as a graffiti artist, when he was known as “Yoner” or “Y-1-er.” So the question “Why?” -- the unknown -- is integral to his very identity as an artist and as a white, Jewish kid growing up in the Midwest with a secret passion for rap.

In Jewish tradition, the tetragrammaton “YHWH” is one of God’s names, which is too sacred to speak (many practitioners of Judaism don’t even speak the transliterated form, “Yahweh”). But if we rearrange the four letters just the slightest bit, we arrive at both Wolf’s alias and the reason he does anything creative at all: the mystery of it all.

“I know how the craft works. I know how to sit down and iron out a song over the course of time in a grueling and arduous procedure. As far as the seeds, it’s a mystery to me, it really is. It comes when it comes, and it doesn’t really come from me, the ego person, the personality person, the person with a history -- it comes from something that I’m tapped into through consciousness that we all have,” Wolf said. “The seeds should come from that mystery place, that initial thing should come from that place of wonder, that place of, ‘Why are we here? What are we doing?’”

In college, having already developed a love for A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, Wolf started taking home records of poetry that he would borrow from his campus library’s big vinyl collection. “I got a Dylan Thomas record and a Galway Kinnell record to sample them, and then I started listening to them and I thought, ‘Holy f--- these are great,’” he said.

But he also started to really get into indie bands like Pavement and Guided by Voices in his 20s. The product was his own unique form of artistry: part indie rock, part old school hip-hop and part English literature.

In 2013, WHY? released their “Golden Tickets” EP, which is as much performance art as it is musical composition: Wolf and his brother Josiah stalked seven fans on the internet in order to create personalized homages to them. According to Wolf, “That was kinda breaking the fourth wall or whatever it is in play acting. It was kinda like a little meta moment. Like, ‘Okay we know all you people are listening to what we make.’”

But even if he’s definitely aware that people are going to hear what he makes, his impulses are, unconsciously or otherwise, more metaphysical than that. “I think there are many different reasons why artists work, and I’m no different than any other artist. Part of it is the wonder of whatever is beyond our scope of understanding. I think if we understood everything, I think if science was 100 percent complete, there would be no need for art. But we do it in the face of that -- that’s the underlying reason, that’s the pure reason,” Wolf said.

On March 3, WHY? released their newest album, “Moh Lhean,” and in characteristically Wolfian fashion, it remains somewhat of a mystery to him. “I’m not sure what it says exactly. I made something that was me at the time of making it. So yes, I’m attempting to make something that’s honestly me without pretension and without posturing,” he responded when I asked him what he was aiming for on the new album.

In the face of the unknowable, the unsayable and the unanswerable, shedding pretension and posturing and embracing the question “Why?” is about as good a response as any.

WHY? play the Irenic on Thursday, March 30. Get tickets here.

Rutger Rosenborg was almost a Stanford neuroscientist before he formed Ed Ghost Tucker. He now plays in the Lulls and makes music on his own when he's not writing. Follow his updates on Facebook or contact him directly.

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