"I'm so glad you didn't go there," says the 26-year-old member of the Bay Area band Why? at the end of a recent interview. "People are always asking if I've changed genres, but I just do what I do. Genres are for critics."
Yep, genres are for critics, but the critics sort of have a point. Wolf's first big break with the famed Anticon label's cLOUDEAD contained a fair amount of what sounded like rapping. And Anticon itself has been synonymous for almost a decade with white dudes talking fast and raplike over various electronic beats and other sonic experiments.
Yet Why?'s latest, Elephant Eyelash, released to rave reviews last month, is all guitar-picking, piano chords, mournful lyrics, and big choruses. No turntables, no laptops. "That sort of thing doesn't work for me. I like the idea that it could all fall apart," Wolf says. Critic or no, the new sound sure seems a bit indie rock. But a closer look reveals that that may not be such a departure after all, considering a musical continuum that stretches back to 1996, when Wolf and Anticon co-founder Adam Drucker met at the University of Cincinnati.
Drucker was winning freestyle contests and Wolf was an art school kid with a music background from the Messianic Jewish revivals his dad preached at. "I saw Adam on campus after the Scribble Jam [hip hop convention] at Cincy and asked him if he wanted to start a band. We just kind of got to be good friends," says Wolf.
Eventually the whole Ohio act moved west and blew up as Anticon, but the Oakland-based label hasn't really shaken its heartland tendencies. "Anywhere that's sort of in the middle of nowhere tends to breed desperate, interesting, and different sorts of artists," Wolf says. "In the city you get basically people doing the same shit as everybody, because there's a scene and you come up in a tradition of a scene." Since Wolf's move to the bay in 2001, he and Anticon have stayed somewhat sceneless by recording in crummy rented apartments in Berkeley and Oakland, blurring genre lines all the while. If there's a significant departure to be found on this album, it's in Wolf breaking with Anticon's cave-dwelling lo-fi tendencies for a more polished sound.
Like handing your home videos off to LucasArts for postproduction, Wolf gave his tracks to San Francisco Soundworks mixer Tony Espinoza (Dan the Automator, Lil' John, New Order, and R.E.M.) as well as mastering legend Brian Gardner (Dr. Dre, Janet Jackson, Blink-182), both of whom took on Elephant as a personal project at a discount rate. "I would give Tony these drums that I recorded on a cassette tape eight-track and were thin as hell, and he would take them and beef them up so it sounded lo-fi but fat," Wolf says. "You can listen to it on the radio, in your headphones, in the car; it can go anywhere."
Indeed, the resulting 41 minutes are a sparkling yet threadbare snapshot of Wolf grieving for the only girl he's loved and trying to understand a Jew for Jesus father who thinks his son is possessed by demons. Think Neutral Milk Hotel with bigger hooks and less depressing lyrics, or Beck's Mellow Gold if he had just gotten dumped Sea Change-style.
Best of all, especially for those of us tired of the laptop/mike approach to performance, Elephant Eyelash was arranged to be reproducible live, with Wolf's brother Josiah on drums, Doug McDiarmid on piano, and Matt Meldon on guitar, all three of them from Ohio.
Odd, that: The heartland is the new coast; indie is the new hip hop. Consider yourself briefed.