Jonathan "Yoni" Wolf and his brother Josiah, part of the indie rock/rap troupe WHY?, took to YouTube in September 2011 to apologize to their fans. Yoni's right hand sat threaded with pins and wrapped in a thick cast, his face pallid. WHY? had been forced to cancel much of its North American tour because of Yoni's injury.
"We are broke now," Josiah said. "We have no money."
"Destitute," added Yoni.
Canceling the tour was clearly a low point for the band, known somewhat ironically for songs like "These Hands," the first track on its 2009 release Eskimo Snow, on which Yoni whispers: "These hands / are my father's hands but smaller." That song shows a sliver of Yoni's preoccupation--he often spits references to palms, fingers and masturbation. The temporary loss of a hand presented a poetic dilemma for WHY?
Josiah and Yoni grew up with a Messianic rabbi for a father. Yoni got his musical start with a four-track player he found at the family's synagogue.
"They're very proud of us," said Josiah. "They like [the band], though it's not what they would normally listen to. My dad loves old show tunes and standards, I would say from the 'Classic American Songbook,' and he also listens to a lot of religious music. My mom is the same way, though, she's not as much of a music fan."
The band's frank lyrics often mean divulging a lot to their more traditional parents. On songs like "Crushed Bones" from 2005's Elephant Eyelash, Yoni raps: "I'd sell my shingles for a thimble dip of snow / Back then I'da sold my single for a finger tip of blow."
"I think they worry about Yoni sometimes because of some of his lyrics, but those were his struggles of the life he's had," Josiah said. "I have those troubles. I don't talk to my parents about those kinds of things. Yoni is very open about that stuff. I think you need to be honest with everyone, if you can, unless it's hurting someone or something. It's a good thing to let people know you and who you are."
After the accident that hurt his hand Josiah helped his brother in a months-long path to writing once again.
"In the beginning process, I kind of helped him organize. We sat down, pulled all the lyrics out. I just gave him my opinions and tried to help him," Josiah said. "He was really overwhelmed by everything."
Slowly, Yoni began to piece together new material while living with his parents in Cincinnati. That led to the band's Sod in the Seed EP, released in August, and material for a new album, Mumps, etc., which comes out Tuesday, Oct. 9.
Josiah admitted that working closely with a sibling can be difficult.
"In some ways, it's easier, but in some ways, it's harder, too," he said. "We're similar and we're so close, and sometimes, you're too close to the situation and it can be pretty tricky. It cuts both ways, I would say."
It's a relationship the two have worked on since the early days of WHY? Josiah joined his brother, fellow band member Doug McDiarmid, as well as former member Matt Meldon in 2005 for Elephant Eyelash, which was a far cry from Yoni's experimental 2004 album, Oaklandazulasylum.
When Meldon retreated to a remote island in Washington to live with his girlfriend after the album was released, the band became a three-piece, with McDiarmid and the brothers Wolf crafting their biggest hit, 2008's Alopecia. For that record, the band enlisted the help of a long list of collaborators, including Liz Hodson, who is now Josiah's wife and a permanent member of WHY?
Over four studio albums and collaborations with lyricists like Doseone, Yoni's vocals evolved to quickly spit abstract imagery with dark themes. But despite comparisons, Josiah wouldn't call the band hip-hop. The foursome doesn't embrace hip-hop culture. Yet Yoni's quick-tongued delivery over the band's arrangements is akin to an indie rock take on spitting bars.
"Rap is just a thing that you do. Yoni raps, just like I play the drums. Hip-hop is a bigger thing," Josiah said.
With a new EP, a fresh tour and a completed LP awaiting release, the band has picked up two new members, growing its ranks to six.
Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Sarah Winters will join WHY? on tour to provide piano and backing vocals. She auditioned via Skype, which Josiah admitted was a little weird.
"She had learned some of our songs, so me and Yoni and Liz were sitting there--but it was still daytime in L.A., so it was bright in her room but really dark in our room on our end," said Wolf. "She said it was kind of creepy."
The other addition, Ben Sloan, was one part of experimental indie pop troupe No No Knots. Sloan will share percussion duties with Josiah.
"Everyone has changed their parts, everybody has moved," he said. "Probably me the most because there are two drummers. Last time, I played a lot of bass; this time, I only play bass on two songs and mostly play the drums."
Josiah said he and Sloan will share a vibraphone and marimba on occasion. But squeezing six people on stage might be difficult.
"It's going to be tough on smaller stages, but I don't think we're playing anywhere too small," he said.
The band's style has shifted notably from the macabre Alopecia, transitioning to a much more rhythmic sound with less electric guitar and more percussion. "Sod in the Seed," the first track off the new EP, seems more upbeat by comparison.
"I wouldn't say the new record is happy," said Josiah. "It's pretty dark. It's a little more playful maybe with the lyrics. I think [Yoni] is in a better place right now, so everything he writes at this time will be a little more playful."[ Video is no longer available. ]