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(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was in the basement of his father's synagogue in the Cincinnati suburb of Loveland, Ohio, that Yoni Wolf first discovered the wonders of creating music. But it wasn't just any music, and it wasn't just any synagogue.
Wolf, who is the frontman and creative force behind West Coast indie band Why?, was raised on a mashup of musical styles that were spinning around in his head as a restless 14-year-old. Luckily he unearthed his future in a dusty four-track recorder in a downstairs room of Beth Messiah, a messianic Jewish congregation that Wolf's father, Michael, founded in 1977.
"I was listening to classic rock at the time and the Beastie Boys and Primus, etc. I recorded some rap jams with drums, bass, piano, trumpet and a little portable Fisher Price turntable on which I scratched up a 'Jack and the Beanstalk' 45 rpm record," recalled Wolf. "It was more fun than I could have imagined at the time."
It was around this time that Wolf began embracing music as his religion instead of the Messianic traditions with which he had been raised. Like the Conservative and Reform Jews of Cincinnati, he had attended Hebrew school in the afternoons and celebrated his bar mitzva. Having a rabbi for a father, he had been extremely active in all facets of congregation life.
"Even if my father hadn't been the rabbi, I wouldn't have tried to skip Hebrew school. That's where all my friends were, it was one of the major parts of my life before I was a teenager," Wolf said in e-mail interview during Why?'s current tour, which will bring them to the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on July 15.
However, Wolf no longer considers himself affiliated, and as far as his religious observance goes, even a question about his proficiency at singing the Kabbalat Shabbat hymn "Lecha Dodi" drew a blank.
"I had to call my Mom just now to remind me what the hell that is. So I would say it's probably not so hot," he said.
But ask critics how Wolf's songs and vocals are in Why? and they'll say very hot indeed. The band's pop-inflected psychedelic folk-hop was initially the sole vision of the art school dropout, who relocated a decade ago to Oakland, California.
According to the band's Myspace page, "for four years, two EPs and one color-drenched album (2003's Oaklandazulasylum), Why? was [Wolf's] alone. He honed his trademark delivery - that sickly sweet, half-rapped, singsong-suicide style - shined up his wry, picturesque poetry on life, love and self, and developed a clip-and-collage composition aesthetic using keyboards, toys, guitars, samplers and anything worth banging on."
Five years ago, Wolf was joined in California by his older brother Josiah on drums, and their childhood friend, multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid. Since then, the band has released the critically acclaimed albums Elephant Eyelash (2005) and last year's Alopecia, and toured with the likes of the Silver Jews and Yo La Tengo.
The Myspace page lists them under indie, folk and new wave, but Why? has most often been lumped in the alternative rap group genre. That misclassification is based less on their music and more on their affiliation with avant hip-hop label anticon and the fact that, according to the American Music Guide, "Wolf will alternate his nasally sung vocals with spoken word pieces."
However, the Guide continues, "Why? are not hip-hop, but they are also much more than indie rock or folk or whatever other genres are thrown at them, staying within those distinctions but also moving forward, looking outward, all the while remaining esoterically accessible."
While it sometimes seems like the music is veering off into improvised adventures, Wolf insists that there's a firm structure to Why?'s songs.
"We try to be very well rehearsed. We take pride in our meticulous arrangements over the noodling musicianship of our (very talented) members," he said.
The area in which Why?'s music seemingly does venture into uncharted territory is in Wolf's lyrics, which have been described by one critic as "detailed, odd and sometimes all too humanly crude - finding a way to be both extremely intimate and detached, simultaneously."
"I do always try to keep paper and pen on me in case an idea should strike me. I haven't quite figured out how these ideas are born," said Wolf. "If I knew that, I would be much more prolific than I am. They seem to come to me somewhat at random, or at least I haven't figured out the pattern yet."
Fans will get to study Wolf's patterns more closely when Why? releases a new album later this year entitled Eskimo Snow. Wolf told the online music magazine Pitchfork that the songs, which Wolf described as the least hip-hop out of any musical project he's been involved in, were recorded during the 2007 sessions for Alopecia.
"There's a few different things. For one, lyrical content. I would say that Alopecia had more of a biting tone, more of somewhat of an angry sarcasm. And this one is a little more resigned, maybe a little more introverted in a way. It's a little more solemn, maybe," Wolf told Pitchfork, adding that in contrast, the music had a more live and wild sound.
Even though Wolf has been to Israel once before - performing with a pre-Why? indie band called cLOUDDEAD - and his childhood was full of Israel content, he said he felt no special connection to the country.
"I mean, I always heard a lot of talk about Israel, of course, all through my youth. I would say my parents are Zionists. There was always talk that we would someday move there," he said.
"I am not a Zionist or a historical sentimentalist. Cincinnati is my homeland - and maybe Philadelphia, if you want to go back a generation. That's about all I can muster. That's not to say that I don't feel a certain vibe when I am in Israel; I do feel something, but it feels a little bit sad to me. I think we are going to a strange yet somehow familiar, potent, sometimes tense place with maybe too much history to feel light and new."
Even if his expectations for his stay here turn out to be self-fulfilling, it's a good bet Wolf will find quite a few random lyric fragments that may wind up on a future Why? album.