This prickly dilemma was key to Why’s Yoni Wolf signing to underground hip-hop label Anticon. Sure there were other reasons, like the fact that he was college mates with Adam Drucker (a.k.a. Doseone, another Anticon musician), the incredibly prolific madman behind Subtle and Wolf’s band mate in critically acclaimed projects such as cLOUDDEAD. But the biggest selling point for Wolf was the fact that Anticon is in fact collectively owned by the artists.
“I decided that the Anticon option was the best option at the time, back when I was going to release my first record,” says Wolf. “And I’m glad that I made that decision. I feel like that with Elephant Eyelash [Why’s critically lauded 2005 sophomore release] and now, Alopecia, it’s been really good. I can’t complain at all. Anticon is so homegrown that I feel comfortable there. Other, bigger labels might provide some benefits like if you want your stuff in big chain stores—it’s harder to do that with a small label and a small distributor. But a lot of good bands easily get lost in that swamp.”
As Wolf mentioned, Anticon is so homegrown that with each of the label’s diverse artists coming from all over the country, it took a mass migration to the Bay Area to really solidify its future. For Why?, that meant Wolf leaving the family synagogue in Cincinnati, Ohio dropping out of art school and heading out to northern California. After the success of Why’s first album, 2003’s Oaklandazulasylum (a record he pretty much recorded on his own), he convinced brother Josiah Wolf and friend and multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid to follow in his footsteps and take that giant leap forward toward the West Coast.
For Why?, touring also became a priority, and eventually the road morphed into a makeshift rehearsal space where their sound was fine-tuned. Not to say that the band has solidified into something that is easily pigeonholed, by any means. Each of their three LPs have such divergent sounds that one can’t help but wonder if the band was just going through growing pains—or if the diversity is far more deliberate.
“You know, playing live more and more has definitely changed the music for me and I think it’s always good to change things up,” Wolf says. “For every record, I think it’s important to have a new process—a new way of working, a new way of thinking about what you are doing. Otherwise it can get sort of stagnant. You don’t want two records to feel the same way. I like to try new things.”
Even more than helping them to explore new sounds, playing live helped Wolf to develop his vocal chops. Accordingly, Alopecia is often a wild romp of lyrical deliveries, from soulful crooning and rhyming raps to sing-songy choruses. So it is easy to see how incessantly playing live shows over the past few years (touring with the like of Yo La Tengo, Islands and Silver Jews) has transformed the way the band approached their studio time.
“Yeah, we pretty much recorded this record live,” says Wolf. “There are some overdubs here and there, but we definitely recorded all of the bed tracks with all of us at once. We went into this record with that idea kind of driving us, not to mention the next record as well that we recorded during the same time period. The idea was to have the basic tracks all be fairly organic in a way where the instruments are reacting and the tempos are driven by each other; that was all important to us.”
That left the guys (which mutated into a quintet to record the album by including a couple members from the band Fog) feeling like even very simple arrangements with just a few simple instruments can work, as opposed to Elephant Eyelash, which is very symphonic with tons of layers and layers happening at all times. This time around the band decided to make each element more important with far less elements total. This attention to simple details also helped them to skirt the trouble of taking Alopecia on the road. Touring and recording have quite rightly become a sort of autocatalytic dream for Why?.
That sort of long-term band development is precisely what used to make the big labels successful, allowing them to become market dominators. But now that there are a lot more avenues for both press and getting those creative juices out en masse via the Internet (blogs, zines, etc), labels like Anticon are now the ones redefining the way the industry works. Not to mention the sheer amount of brand loyalty they inspire.
Why? @ The Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East, Saturday April 12, 9 p.m. 24Tix.com
Thu., Nov. 20, 6 p.m. / $18