Yoni Wolf peeks out from the curtain separating the green room from the venue floor, then rejoins his bandmates backstage. “Handsome looking crowd out there!” he says. He’s describing the audience at the band’s Dallas show for their Alopecia tour, but he said the same thing in Austin, and by the time we met back up in Brooklyn 10 days later, I was able to beat him to the punch.
I was with the Cincinnati-based four piece WHY?, following them on a few tour dates in late November and early December as they traversed the States promoting the 10th anniversary of Alopecia. The record is a staggeringly innovative blend of folk, pop, and witty rap music, a concoction that sounds awful on paper but felt novel in 2008, an expansion of what indie rap could turn into. Singer, songwriter, and live percussionist Yoni sings songs of sorrow and self-pity, lacing his rhymes and melodies with witty gut punches that mostly land squarely on his own stomach. “I’m not a ladies man, I’m a landmine / Filming my own fake death” is the first line of the album, and it’s a pretty good encapsulation of the emotional territory Wolf mines over Alopecia’s 45 minutes. The crowd laps it up everytime.
When the band and I returned from dinner before the show, the Deep Ellum Art Co. was already full. We had driven to Dallas the night before by way of Austin, where the band played at the Mohawk for their third tour in a row. At this point, this is how WHY? works. They know the audience they have, and so each time they play a city, the same people come to the same venue to hear a different collection of songs.
During the show in Dallas, Lillie West, the frontperson of tour opener Lala Lala, looked at me with a mischievous grin. “I’m angry you didn’t interview me for this story because I’m the biggest WHY? fan in the world.” I grin back, because that’s the way I feel, too; that’s the way seemingly everyone in the crowd in every city, singing every word feels. It’s hard to feel alone when everyone is singing along. But this is precisely what makes it a mechanical, ambivalent experience for Yoni and the band. Yoni’s revisiting stories and memories he’s moved past, and now, ten years later, they’re mantras being sung back to him by an audience that never needed to grow from his experiences in the way he did.
The show generally peaks during the album’s second to last track, “By Torpedo Or Crohn’s,” in which Yoni repurposes the chorus of “Brook & Waxing” as a refrain: “While I’m alive / I’ll feel alive.” Coming at the tail end of an album that is obsessed with death, it’s a moment of relief—that even someone unable to consistently cope with dying can have this sort of straightforward clarity. When he sang the line in Dallas, Here was our teenage idol, assuaging the fear of death by embracing the present. There was a deep longing in Yoni’s eyes, an almost pained expression on his face, looking overcome with emotions at this powerful public catharsis.
We all have connections to albums we discover during our teenage years, but rarely do they stay favorites. Alopecia is still my favorite album ever, and WHY? is still my favorite band. This seems to be a universal experience amongst people who love WHY?, which is what makes their shows so special.
I first heard WHY? in 2009, a year after Alopecia came out. I was in 10th grade, and one of my friends played me the first single from that record, “The Hollows.” I was immediately obsessed. The way Yoni infused every one of his words with a rapping snarl, the way he shouted things like “My god!” and “For the last sixth months I’ve been hiding behind a mustache”— it was like I was hearing music made specifically for me. The instrumentation was proggy but not stale, melodic without ever being overtly poppy.
Then I dug into Alopecia, and was immediately floored. For my money, “The Vowels Pt. 2” into “Good Friday” into “These Few Presidents” into “The Hollows”—the record’s opening sequence—is the best four-song run of all time. The songs that came after it were perfect, too. “Fatalist Palmistry” was a pop song about falling in love with a psychic, “Simeon’s Dilemma” was about trying not to fall out of a tree while hiding from the ex-girlfriend you’re stalking, and “By Torpedo or Crohn’s” was about puking behind Whole Foods. It was the perfect encapsulation of teen angst.
I vividly associate Alopecia with multiple eras of my life. Teen years, my early college years, my last break-up. I have an intensely personal relationship with it. But everyone who loves Alopecia feels that way. That Yoni is able to wax so personal and so raw while still making it feel personal for his fans, too, is a unique feat—one he’s never accomplished again, but one he never tried to accomplish again, either. The lyrical content is never quite interested in that connection after Alopecia. A few of their following records—2009’s Eskimo Snow and 2017’s Moh Llean, in particular—delved into themes more universal than personal like the slow decay of Earth and the way deeply powerful relationships can blossom out of nothingness.
Alopecia is sequenced to flow from one track to the next, which is partially why seeing it played live is so exhilarating. The energy from one song wafts to the next, and on stage, the band takes breaks only every so often, so the audience has a chance to catch its collective breath and Yoni can thank them all for coming out.
But when a band plays 32 shows in 27 states in just over a month’s time, enthusiasm and emotional connection to the material is stripped, bludgeoned, and tossed in the dumpster. Traveling to four shows with the band, it became painfully clear to me just how much of a job this was for then. For me and fans across the country, hearing Alopecia live was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For the band, it was another way to get back on the road, make money, and promote the tenth-anniversary vinyl release of an album none of them expected to resonate as much as it did when it was first released.
“Initially I didn’t really see a reason to do the tour,” Yoni explained to me over the phone in January, before the band headed out for the final five Alopecia tour dates in the Northeast. “But it fit into the schedule and made sense. I wasn’t into it at all, but when you put out a record you’ve got to tour it to sell it.” His tone was unaffected, as though he were neither particularly depressed by the state of the industry nor excited by its prospects.
“I didn’t really want to do this tour, either,” his brother Josiah, explained to me just before their Brooklyn show in late November. It was freezing outside, and we were sitting in the tour bus outside Elsewhere in Brooklyn, where a gaggle of teenage fans had been gathering since before the band arrived at the venue just before noon. This is something I noticed while traveling with them: There are people outside of every show generally before they arrive, many of whom looked to be years under 21.
“After recording [Alopecia] each night we would listen to the mixes afterwards on the stereo,” Josiah Wolf says. “We listened to something and I remember looking at Yoni as he was standing in the kitchen. I felt a feeling that we’re not gonna be young much longer.
Josiah told me that initially, he was unsure about the band’s decision to tour Alopecia again, worrying that it would create assumptions about the current iteration of WHY?, a project he still considers to be in its prime, especially after the release of Moh Llean. “There’s also the image thing. Is it cool to tour this album? Does that mean we’re done? Is that the end of the road?” Still, Josiah seems to be having a good time. “I’m actually having more fun now than on the beginning of the tour,” he explained.
Out of nowhere, unprovoked, he tells me a story about recording Alopecia in 2008, how at the time he had an unsettling feeling that this album may be the band’s last. Halfway through, Yoni enters the bus, sits down, and listens.
“After recording [Alopecia] each night we would listen to the mixes afterwards on the stereo,” he said. “We listened to something and I remember looking at Yoni as he was standing in the kitchen. I felt a feeling that we’re not gonna be young much longer. I felt like we were getting older already.”
“Did it feel like our last album?” Yoni asked.
“I don’t know if it felt like our last album, but I definitely felt like this moment is fleeting,” Josiah replied. “It felt like the end of a chapter. We’re not young any longer. Now we’re doing it again and we’re just a little bit older still.”
When Yoni, Josiah, Doug McDiarmid, guitarist Andrew Broder, and bassist Mark Erickson emerged from the Alopecia sessions at Third Ear Recording studio in the early days of 2008, they weren’t quite sure what they had come up with. They definitely had no idea that would it be a new defining moment for the group. Their previous album, 2005’s Elephant Eyelash, was their first success, earning positive reviews and allowing them to tour, but it was a small success compared to what would come with Alopecia. Plus, it was WHY?’s first effort as a full band. Before that, WHY? was Yoni’s solo project for four years, an endeavor that occasionally included contributions from his brother, Doug, Matt, and other Anticon collaborators. This was lo-fi collage music, earning an audience amongst left-field rap fans who were becoming enamored by the Anticon’s version of nerdy art-rap.
During the Alopecia sessions, the band recorded 20 songs and quickly realized that they had two separate albums on their hands. Ten of the tracks eventually became Eskimo Snow. After the session, Yoni took the Eskimo material down to Nashville to mix the album with Mark Nevers, who has helmed records for Lambchop, Silver Jews, and others. “As we started to record these songs, it became clear that there was a fairly clear division between two different styles,” Yoni explains from the tour’s first stop in Indianapolis, regarding how they divided up the session into two albums. “With the Eskimo style, I was listening to a lot of Silver Jews, Bonnie Prince Billy, and Drag City stuff. The Alopecia stuff was more in the Anticon vein.”
Yoni explains how he fancied himself an art-school Johnny Cash, but the label he co-owns, Anticon, didn’t. After mixing Eskimo Snow, they asked him what else he was working on, and he played four tracks off of what would become Alopecia, which they liked enough to encourage the band to finish recording that first.
So Alopecia’s release was given priority by the band, the result of a label trying to avoid fitting a square peg into a round hole. Alopecia was the band’s second choice, and in some alternate reality, there’s a world in which WHY? follows Elephant Eyelash with a rollicking country record.
But they rounded out the album with three more songs, and Alopecia became their biggest hit to date. The album got a score of 8.2 on Pitchfork and became a staple in the mid-level indie circuit, playing festivals and touring the world over and over again. “The inscrutable indie hip-hop group returns with an uncontainable record that defies genre and expectations at nearly every turn,” says the Pitchfork review.
Listening to Alopecia in 2019, some of the lyrics haven’t aged very well. On “Simeon’s Dilemma,” Yoni sings, “Are you giving me a dirty look in the rear view? / clicking the button on your U-Haul pen / Don’t pretend you didn’t see me coming ‘round the bend/ On my fixie with the chopped horns turned in.” This comes from a song in which Wolf, or a character he sings about, relentlessly stalks an ex-girlfriend. It’s these details that fans have latched onto obsessively, but in 2019, scan as flawed at best. I still think it’s one of the most romantic songs I’ve ever heard, but I can’t blame anyone for being turned off of the band because of this.
It’s a problem really scan as an issue when the album came out, but that the band has had to reckon with since re-issuing Alopecia ten years later. When WHY? went on tour for Moh Llean in the second half of 2017, they played a song from Elephant Eyelash in Austin called “Yo Yo Bye Bye,” which includes the following refrain: “You act like a slut / But you’re really a freezer.” Before playing it the night I saw the band, Yoni would apologize, noting how shit was easier to say when no one was listening, how things get uglier as we get better. “Every night singing this record, there are things you can’t say now,” Wolf said of Alopecia when we were sitting in tour bus in Brooklyn. “People seem forgiving because it’s older, but I’m sure some people are offended,” added Josiah.
In speaking to me, Yoni’s gone back and forth on how much to hedge before playing these songs. “I always wonder how much to say about that,” he explains on the tour bus, not quite defensive but certainly struggling to reconcile feelings he no longer has or no longer projects onto his characters that his audience nevertheless ascribes to him.” Still, he said that he ultimately decided that this work is his to own, whether agreeable or not.. “I usually don’t say anything. I feel it but I’m not gonna censor it or change it. It is what it is. People like it as it is. This is stuff that’s not cool. I’m playing a character, and people are obviously attracted to it.”
Though Alopecia brought WHY? greater success than they’d ever known, it was also the beginning of a difficult period in Yoni’s life. Around the time of the first Alopecia tour in 2008, Yoni’s health began deteriorating. Crohn’s Disease wreaked havoc on Yoni from Alopecia through 2012’s Mumps, Etc, a fact he spells out on Mumps opener “Jonathan’s Hope,” bluntly revealing the case of mumps he contracted due to his weakened immune system: “When I got better from the mumps / Yep, my swollen nut and neck shrunk .” Crohn’s still impacts every aspect of Yoni’s life, but with a heightened understanding of the disease, he’s able to mitigate many of its symptoms with a healthy diet and sobriety.
By the time Mumps came out, Yoni was a menace on stage. He seemed to have a permanent scowl on his face;, he stalked the stage like he was looking the audience had betrayed him somehow. “I think that character I was playing is what people responded to pretty well,” he told me. “It was a confidence-wrapped anger that I don’t really have any more.” They were playing music that was pretty, but extremely bitter, too.
On Mumps’ “Distance,” he sings: “Men and women might yet quote his modicum of the truth / But never will they get right close to Jonathan Avram Wolf.” Lyrics like these felt 1,000 miles away from the Yoni of Alopecia, who rapped about “jerking off in art museum johns” and killing a wasp to show a woman how much he cared for her. On Alopecia, Yoni Wolf was inviting us in. By Mumps, he was slamming the door shut.
Yoni had reason to be angry. Mumps got demolished in a Pitchfork review that read like an attack on Yoni’s character instead of his music, and Anticon wasn’t able to support the band with the infrastructure Wolf and his bandmates felt they deserved, according to the band. They split from the label shortly after Plus, Yoni’s only consistent way of making money, touring, was in jeopardy. The traveling was debilitating and the pace relentless. It was a dark time..
The five years between Mumps and 2017’s Moh Llean wasn’t a particularly productive one for the band outside of Yoni. Doug and Josiah didn’t have many creative endeavors outside of the project, so as WHY? Went, so did they. Yoni made a record with the Chicago independent emcee Serengeti (the underrated Testarossa) and released some solo covers. Outside of Yoni, the band didn’t have many other projects. Yoni’s brother, Josiah played around jazz clubs in Cincinnati, but Doug’s non-WHY? time was generally non-musical, and guitarist Matt Meldon was a self-described dog walker to the stars. WHY? was fairly non-existent. Yoni played WHY? songs on solo tours, but the group was inactive.
“It seemed like the right place at the right time,” Yoni Wolf says of Alopecia. “It was on this crest of a certain kind of hipster irony that was going on that I railed against but also played into in a funny way. I was trying to have fun with it.
Part of the miracle of 2017’s Moh Llean is that the band sounds so good after five years off. Combining sparse arrangements, multi-layered harmonies, and a heavy dose of percussion, It’s a refinement of Alopecia’s aesthetics and themes into something softer and gentler. The anger has dissipated, ex’s aren’t chastised for ignoring his calls, the fantasies of murder and death are no longer told from the first person—or at all. On “Easy,” Yoni recounts an old love in lighter terms: “I put you in a mantra and meditate / 'Cause we got history / And it's no mystery / Breathe in and out and go easy.”
Now nearing 40 years old, Yoni Wolf re-invented himself. Despite playing Alopecia every night, he’s trying to escape the picture he painted of himself as on that album. He’s nicer, calmer, more settled into his place in the world. This creates some tension because the Yoni that this Alopecia audience loves is one he’s moved on from. They’re fixated on the Yoni Wolf of Alopecia and don’t necessarily want a different version of him. But that Yoni is gone.
Having seen the Alopecia show four separate times, I’m still trying to figure out what, exactly, makes this such a pivotal album for a certain group of music fans. It’s rap music but not really, emo music without the scene-obsession that pervades that world. Yoni has a clearer idea of what, exactly, he stumbled upon.
“It seemed like the right place at the right time,” he told me, referencing its relationship to some of the wider trends that were sweeping the indie rock world at the time. “It was on this crest of a certain kind of hipster irony that was going on that I railed against but also played into in a funny way. I was trying to have fun with it. That made it relevant to that time.” He continues:“I can’t say I know exactly why people love it. It’s certainly those two things, and there’s a certain urgency or immediacy to it. It’s a little more aggressive and angry than some of the other stuff. It’s funny and dark but not over the top.”
Now that the pain and anger of the record has dissipated, now that Yoni seems happier and healthier, Alopecia’s humor shines through more readily. His performance is still self-serious, but only inasmuch as Yoni knows how foolish self-seriousness can be. A story about trying to get money back from a guy who sold you fake marbles and walnut shells and almost dying as a result because a bunch of scammers try to stab you begins to feel like detail worthy of a chuckle. A song about being “born lonesome, bald, and bashful with a nasty ‘Nnati’ accent” is more self-deprecating than it is a cry for help.
I have one memory from the tour that I can’t shake. There was a kid at the show in Dallas, probably no older than 16. who I’d seen waiting in line before the doors opened to secure a good spot. He had blue hair, and whenever I caught a glimpse of him from my backstage perch during the show, he was either singing along or smiling uncontrollably, occasionally pressing his to his face as if he couldn’t believe what he was watching.
After the show, as WHY?’s merch manager buzzed around the table, selling shirts and vinyl and stickers at a frenzied pace, Yoni chatted and took photos with blushing and adoring fans. When the boy and his mom approached, he was shaking; she was clearly emotional. “We saw you last time, I don’t know if you remember,” he said. Yoni smiled and said, “Of course I do!” I never asked if he was telling the truth, but it didn’t really matter.
The boy removed a brass square that he had engraved “WHY?” into from his pocket and handed it to Yoni. His mother explained that he had been working on it for weeks. Yoni gave the boy a big hug, and the boy’s mother began to get teary-eyed. “Thank you for everything,” she said.”
Yoni repeated the process with other fans for 45 more minutes, and then left to go clean up at the hotel the band rents in each city before returning to the bus. They left Dallas and I went back to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving that night. They were off to St. Louis, Missouri the next day, to do it all again. They’d wake up at the venue, wander around, load-in, do a sound check, eat dinner, play the show, meet the fans, and leave. Everything the same, but a little different.
Will Schube is a writer based in Austin, Texas. You can find him on Twitter or at the next WHY? gig.