Without a doubt

Josiah Wolf of Why? is stepping out from behind the drum set – and his brother, Yoni – to support his first solo album.

April 20, 2010 18:10
4 minute read.
FOR THE ASKING. Why?, with Josiah (left) and Yoni

josiahwolf311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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He may be the older brother, but Josiah Wolf has played a back seat – the drummer’s chair specifically – to younger sibling Yoni in their American indie folk-rock band Why?.

However, less than a year after keeping the beat at the band’s triumphant show in Tel Aviv last July, the elder Wolf is not only coming back for a return engagement next week with Why? at Tel Aviv’s Barby club, but he’s stepping out into the spotlight as the band’s opening act in support of his first solo album Jet Lag.

“I’ll be doing a solo set, and am a little nervous about playing by myself. We’ll see how it goes,” the soft-spoken drummer, singer and songwriter told The Jerusalem post from his new home in a suburb of his hometown, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Wolf should feel more confident, since Jet Lag’s introspective, atmospheric songs, mostly focusing on the end of a long-term relationship, resemble a toned down, gently charming version of the sprawling, seven-piece Why?.

For Wolf, the writing of the album was a way of working through the changes in his life – the break up and moving back to Ohio after more than a decade in California.

“I guess it was good therapy, but I sort of wish I had different songs to perform now,” he said. “It feels a little weird, but it was necessary to write and record them at the time.”

Wolf began writing songs a few years ago, but only grew more serious about it when he decided to make his album. Offering the songs to Why? wasn’t an option, he explained.

“Yoni writes the material for Why?. Sometimes I may offer a riff or Yoni will get his lyric book out and we’ll sing along with it and come up with something, but I never bring my own songs to the band,” he said.

Over the course of its seven year history, Why? has garnered a reputation for incorporating hip hop with slacker rock. But in recent years, a type of drawling Velvet Underground folk style has taken hold, more in line with some of the work of The Silver Jews and Yo La Tengo, resulting in acclaimed albums like Alopecia and last year’s Eskimo Snow. That low-key vibe permeates Jet Lag as well. Not surprisingly, younger brother Yoni was involved in how the album sounds.

“Yoni didn’t really produce it – that’s a mistake that somehow got into the press,” said Wolf. “He mixed it. I had another guy do the mixing originally, but it didn’t sound so good, so Yoni offered to do it.

The Wolf brothers have been musical partners on and off ever since they used to work on tracks together with the four-track tape recorder they found in the basement of Beth Messiah synagogue, the Cincinnati Messianic congregation their father Michael founded in 1977. The elder Wolf bought Josiah his first drum set so he could accompany Friday night services.

WHILE BOTH brothers have disavowed any connection to Messianic Judaism, Josiah said it was a natural part of their upbringing, and he even visited Israel as a teen as part of a Messianic tour.

“I grew up in a positive environment, I had some Jewish friends and some non-Jewish friends, it was kind of a mixed bag,” he said. “My family is full of love, and we’re not cut off from our extended family because of my parents’ beliefs. When it comes up at family gatherings, it’s kind of tense, and when my parents talk about it, it can get weird.

“As far as my personal beliefs, it’s hard to say. I don’t feel as attached to the Jewish community as I might, but in recent years, I’ve started feeling my Jewish roots more,” he said, adding that coming to Israel last year with Why? contributed to that emotional connection.

“I felt more of an emotional impact than when I was in Israel as a kid. It was very interesting being around a large Jewish population. We were mostly in the Tel Aviv area, but this time, we’re going to try to get to Jerusalem.”

For Wolf, stepping out of his comfort zone behind the drums to play guitar and sing has been a challenge that has gone hand in hand with the recent life changes he’s experienced. While recording Jet Lag, he found the biggest snag was learning how to open up vocally.

“I first began recording the drum parts and then building up to the vocal last, but that didn’t seem to work. So I switched to the vocal and guitar first,” he said. “Vocals have always been tough for me. I took voice lessons because I had a hard time getting into a higher range.”

Still acclimating himself to his new/old Ohio environs, Wolf said he had no regrets about leaving the rest of the band behind in California.

“I bought a house here in Ohio. I can afford to buy one here, which I couldn’t necessarily do on the West Coast. There’s lots of space, and I have a big rehearsal and practice area. I miss California, but I’m happy to be here right now,” he said.

He may wish he was in Ohio, or California, or just about anyplace else when he walks out on the stage at the Barby club in April 29th to open the show for Why?, but that feeling will likely be temporary. Between the sympathetic crowd, the intimate, shimmering songs, and his down home personality, Wolf will have nothing to worry about. And either way, he gets the consolation prize of getting to play drums for Why?

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