Yoni Wolf has spent the last two decades traveling the remote sonic terrain where hip-hop, rock, and electronic music meet. In that time he’s cultivated a unique sound, and a unique position as one of contemporary music’s most distinctive voices. Some of Yoni’s most compelling and critically-praised musical experiments have been issued under the moniker WHY? and his latest entry is no exception. On AOKOHIO Yoni condenses the essential elements of WHY? into a yostunningly potent musical vision.
Yoni Wolf has been on the cutting edge of hip-hop and so much more for decades, with the legendary Anticon label and his own outfit, WHY? A fortuitous social-media message from director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (As You Are, Dreamland) led to a collaboration on new WHY? Material, specifically a “visual album” to accompany the music, masterminded and partially directed by Joris-Peyrafitte. Here, the two dive deep into the creative process and mental health.
— Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
Yoni Wolf: What’s up with you lately, man? What have you days been looking like?
Miles Joris-Peyrafitte: I’ve been writing mostly, every day.
Yoni: A new movie?
Miles: Yeah. This is a movie for Annapurna that I’m going to write and direct for them. It’s called Hunter and the Fox. I also did this narrative fictional podcast. It’s sort of like a radio play, with a bunch of… I don’t think I can talk about it… Honestly, it came at a moment where I couldn’t pay rent. And I went to my manager and I was like, “Get me a fucking job.” And, they were like, “Have you ever thought about a podcast?” And, I was like, “No, dude. But, sure, whatever.” And they put me on the spot on the phone, that day, with somebody who makes a podcast. And, they were like, “Can you come up with an idea?” So then, it all of a sudden, out of necessity, just sort of materialized instantly as a sort of a thing about this relationship about these two girls, one who’s in a cult and has kind of gone back to visit a friend that doesn’t know where she’s been. That’s been really a lot more work than I thought it was going to be, but I’ve been doing that and writing.
Yoni: So, you have to sit now with the editor and kind of go through, and…
Miles: Yeah. My sound mixer.
Yoni: Who you work on movies with, you mean?
Miles: Yeah, who I did my first two features with, and I did all my shorts before that with also. I’ve worked with him since I was 15. And he had to edit it and do everything, basically. He also had never done something like that. But it was really sick. I’m also scoring it with Patrick Higgins, who I do some of the scores for my movies with. Normally I feel the most confident visually with stuff. But, this was like all of a sudden being like, “Oh! I have to walk without crutches.” You know?
Yoni: Right. You can’t hide behind the pictures
Miles: Yeah. But it was super fun. I’m really pumped that I did that.
Yoni: How much is what you do writing? I mean, conceptualizing and writing? That seems like when I talk to you a lot often time, that’s what you’re doing.
Miles: I guess so. I didn’t before doing this movie. I really didn’t like to write. It was sort of a last resort. I always try to put a buffer between me and the writing. But I was a co-writer. Normally, that was my best friend Madison, who I’ve been best friends with since I grew up.
Yoni: That’s who wrote As You Are with?
Miles: Exactly, who I’ve written a couple of other scripts with. But now I’ve had to just decide what movies I want to make. And, if I want to make those, then ultimately, no one is going to write them for me.
Yoni: And, when you say those, you mean a concept?
Miles: Yeah, exactly. A concept, or a certain kind of story, or… There’s also just, I think, in different times in your life you need the sort of the way that you make things needs change, because of the thing that you’re kind of reflecting on or dealing with, or maybe subconsciously is changing. Sometimes, that’s a lot more helpful to do with somebody else in the room. As You Are was very much about people, two best friends who were trying to decide if they’re…
Yoni: Is it romantic? Is it friendship?
Miles: Yeah. At that point in my life, when those were the things that we were sort of interested in talking about, it was really sick to have the other person who went through those things with you as young person there. And now, with this, which is really focusing more on sort of anxiety and depression as a horror concept.
Yoni: I see. It’s almost like method writing.
Miles: Well, maybe. But, I think it’s more like picking a certain studio for a certain sound or something. There’s something about an environment, or a sort of certain thought process. I need to be in the place right now of not being able to bounce ideas off of anybody else.
Yoni: Right, because the film is supposed to feel depressive and anxious. That’s a solo endeavor.
Miles: Right. For sure. That’s definitely, in a weird way, the best version of that possible. It’s been really sick, really fun.
Yoni: You’ve enjoyed writing it?
Miles: It’s the first time I’ve ever enjoyed writing.
Yoni: But you take a lot of jobs that you don’t write, like Dreamland. You didn’t write that, right?
Miles: Dreamland is the only one. I’ve only made two movies. That’s my second one. That was a script that was already written, and already conceived of, and then they sent it to me, which I’m really happy I went, and learned that process. But, I think that now, even if it’s not something that I write, it’s something that the concept I’m going to originate, or something I’m going to develop with another writer. Behind everything is something I want to talk about.
Yoni: Do you feel like with Dreamland you had your hands tied a little bit, because of that?
Miles: Theoretically, I should’ve had my hands tied a lot more than I did. When people come into a project, no matter what, with knowing it longer than you, or having their own feelings about it, that isn’t something that’s coming from me first. And, there’s always going to be a… This person is executing this thing, is taking this thing. There’s always going to be an element of translation.
Yoni: Shit can get warped and changed.
Miles: Yeah. The directors always make sure that that doesn’t happen. Kind of take all of those things in the script and then make them your own. And, that’s really how it was with Nick, the writer on Dreamland. He was really, really incredible.
Yoni: So, he was there through the process as well?
Miles: Oh, yeah. We worked on it after I signed on. It was contingent on a conversation with him that he would be down with some of the changes I want to make. And he was totally, not just down, but really excited by it, and was pumped. But he did all the writing. The most exciting thing is to be able to watch something and to know the seed of the idea. You know what I mean? To remember a moment, or a seed or something. Especially with movies, because it takes so long.
Yoni: It’s such a huge process.
Miles: It’s such a huge process that can fall apart so quickly and Dreamland is a miracle, because it never fell apart. And it could have, and it should have, so many different places. At the end of the day, even though we sort of went through everything, it’s a movie that, not only am I incredibly proud of, but I actually think is really good. That was huge. I needed to know how to do that… You keep finding, in all the accidents, inclusions, and stuff, you keep finding sort of prism versions of the same themes, and the same sort of things multiplied throughout. I know for a fact making a record is the same exact thing.
Miles: Especially given the sort of the culmination of all these different efforts and auxiliary groups and people to then have this artifact that has a beginning and an end.
Yoni: Absolutely. But, I’ll say this, with making an album, it seems like it’s just a little bit less moving parts. And, you can sort of keep hold of it easier. I’ve never made a film, but it seems like just a whole lot more. More people, more moving parts, more budget, more everything.
Miles: Well, it’s kind of relative, because as everything scales up in terms of budget, in terms of people, there’s things that follow with them. More jobs come in to take care of more things. You know what I mean? And that’s why very much there is this sort of managerial kind of thing that doesn’t exist as much, I don’t think, in bands or music.
Yoni: That must have been amplified a hundred fold from going from As You Are to Dreamland.
Miles: That just brought more management of people and stuff.
Yoni: Yeah. Just a bigger operation. My impression is that As You Are was more indie. And then the other one was more studio.
Miles: Yeah. Dreamland still wasn’t a studio movie.
Yoni: I don’t know what that mean, studio movie.
Miles: At this point, it doesn’t mean anything. It was still a low budget movie. Which is still a high budget movie if you’re coming from where I was coming with As You Are. When I made As You Are, I was 22 when we started shooting. And, I had a crew of people who have been doing it a while, in Upstate New York. Eventually I won their trust, and it ended up working. But it was a really tough experience. And, I also was sort of profoundly sure that I had been utterly bullshitting my way up to this. And, there was a moment in mind where I was like, “Can I go to prison for this?” Because I just convinced this guy to fund my movie, and I graduated college six months ago, from a school that didn’t teach us how to set up a light. You know what I mean? I don’t know what is going on. Given that that had worked, and I had found my confidence in it, I wasn’t intimidated by that part of it, because everyone around me sort of just… The crew was so amazing that they were just pumped. They were like, “Oh, dude! You’re super young. You must be really excited about this.”
Yoni: That’s interesting. I just can’t imagine doing something that big a scope. The Annapurna thing, that’s your next directing project?
Miles: There’s a couple of other things that I don’t know if they’re going to shoot first or not. I’ve scripted different stages. But with this, it can be like, “All right. We’re going to shoot in two weeks.” And then, they’re like, “This is never getting made. You’re never making a movie again.”
Yoni: Is that about money, pretty much?
Miles: It’s about money. It’s about what’s in the newspaper that day. It’s about so many different things. And there’s no way of predicting it. It’s really crazy. We had a movie that we were trying to make, that me and Madison wrote right after we made As You Are. It was a year before the election and it was about the opioid epidemic. And it was like people were talking about the election coming up. No one was really talking about that. We were like, “Yo, guys, we’ve got the script. Once the election is done, people are going to start talking about this. It’s going to be in the news. This is super shady, and this is a really cool take on this. This isn’t just us making a movie about junkies…” Anyways, that was sort of like, “Nobody wants to see that.” And we tried making it at a tiny scale. Finally, couldn’t get it made. And then, a year and a half later, everyone was like, “Do you guys have an opioid script?” It never lines up, whenever people are trying to shoot at that sort of moving target. Movies take too long. If you want to do that, be a stencil artist. Anyway, you guys have been having fun on tour? It’s been good?
Yoni: Yeah, you know, it’s good. Low attendance a little bit. I don’t know, man, I think I’m in a mid-life crisis, Miles. I think I’m in a mid-life crisis mode, but carrying on.
Miles: But does that happen whenever you just put a record out?
Yoni: I have anxiety when I put a record out, always. I think, now, I just need time to sort of figure out what my next iteration is as a person and as a creative. We had a phone conversation maybe three weeks ago or something like that about this stuff, if you recall.
Miles: Yeah, totally.
Yoni: I’m a creative, that’s not going to change. I’m going to do creative things in one way, shape, or form. But I don’t know exactly what it looks like. Is it like going into another album, or is it like working on songs, or is it like working on somebody else’s music? But whatever it is, I don’t know. Or all of the above. I don’t know. I just needed a breath, I just needed to be like, OK, here’s what I really want to do and do it. Rather than feeling just like I’m just constantly rushing into something.
Miles: You can’t let it become reactionary.
Yoni: I don’t feel like I’ve ever done that. I mean look, I’ve done the opposite. I shoot myself in the foot by making shit that no one wants to hear. You know what I mean? Or that’s like outside the box to the point where it’s challenging for people to hear.
Miles: Yeah, but do you feel like you have a choice in that?
Yoni: It’s just who I am.
Miles: I think the first thing you can do is let go of the anxiety of what is going to come out of it and know that regardless of what it is, it’s the same thing that you’ve been doing throughout, since I’ve been listening to your work. You know what I mean?
Miles: Which is also the thing that even if you feel like the audience on this tour is not what you wished it was, that’s still consistently the thing that makes people listen to the records and get affected by the records, and hit so hard by them. And I think there is this thing sometimes, especially when things are coming out, contemporaneously, that sometimes there’s sort of incision point into culture… I feel like Silver Jews was an example of that. There’s this sort of incision point… It doesn’t have the broadest reach initially, but the second that it actually hits you, and can cut through, then it goes really deep, and it’s like devastating in positive ways. But I think that as time sort of goes, that incision point starts to sort of widen as it starts to soak into the culture and all of the… Even think about… I think one thing that I actually feel really good about with the video, is that I think that, for me at least, it really captures the way that I always felt about the music, part of what I always felt like your music was doing. Which was this attempt to grasp at self-knowledge through this self-mythologizing in certain ways. You’re going to keep finding that and regardless of how that ends up coming out, you know?
Yoni: I think you so very eloquently said, and I hope you’re right about is incision points at all. But I think part of the self-mythologizing has gotten kind of weird in a way because listeners are going back to former selves of myself that I’m not anymore. I can’t always relate. What would be healthiest for me is to make work, and however long that takes me, it takes me. Make work and just leave it behind and move on to new work. But in this job, I have to carry on, holding the flag for 15-year-old albums, and songs, and selves that I was a long time ago. It’s almost like in Mario.
Miles: But which one?
Yoni: I guess like Odyssey or Galaxy. There’s this bad guy that is your own shadow and it’s 10 shadows of you. You have to run super-fast through the board, otherwise these shadows catch up to you. I almost feel that way. That I don’t identify with those former selves so much but I have to sort of carry on being them. I feel like the healthiest thing for me would just to be live more of a working life, a studio life, where —
Miles: But maybe that’s what this moment of fear leads you to. I think that for art it forces a different sort of attack plan. You know what I mean? There is a cost to the short game.
Yoni: There’s a cost, a physical cost, a psychological cost.
Miles: Totally. And that is short game. That’s the stuff that’s gratifying to you in that moment, or to me in that moment.
Yoni: But I’m over it. It was when I was like 20. I’m 40 now and I want to make work for when I die. You know what I’m sayin’? I don’t necessarily get anything out of the ego boost of people applauding. In fact, I think it has a detrimental effect on my psychology. I think I’m better suited with just being around people that I love and being in a routine or somethin’.
Miles: I realized that about myself in college. And was like, I can’t be a musician, I can’t be on tour. I grew up a little bit like that with my parents. I was like, I need to have, to start creating routine that I can live by or otherwise I’m not going to be able to manage my head.
Yoni: I’m curious about how you grew up. Your parents, since they’re artists, that they were sort of…
Miles: We toured. I grew up from a really young age, touring with them. So, they would tour mostly in Europe, mostly in France.
Yoni: But doing what? Poetry readings?
Miles: My mom was a multi-media performance artist, is a multi-media performance artist. So, at nine, I started running her projectors and laptops. And then when I was 12 or 13, I started playing guitar for her. She would do these shows where she would have projections, she’d do live painting, live cooking, and singing, and crazy free jazz. I don’t mean, not like dinner theater. Like out, feminist, freaky-deaky, like headstands, out shit. Especially for the time. Back at the time, we were getting chased out of feminist clubs in London because of her work. We would go every summer, every winter, it was a lot. And then I moved to Berlin for six months when I was 13, to live with them there. I’d been in Albany. They just took me around everywhere. So, I was never really in a place for more than a month. But my foundation was in Albany. We had a house in Albany. So I sort of grew up feeling like oh, well, family is a bunch of people making art together in the same place. And that’s still what I feel and that’s why I love being on film sets. But besides that, it also put this other thing in me, I want to be in one place. I don’t like that feeling anymore. Getting those routines came with a lot of personal freedom because it got rid of a bunch of anxiety. I mean that and my meds got rid of that. And my dog.
Yoni: You’re on a SSRI or something like that?
Miles: Yeah, I just started it six months ago and I honestly am bowled over by it. It’s been really great. I got my dog at the same time and that shit was amazing. But I had also been in such a bleak zone for the year and half before that I did it, I wasn’t really sure that anything could feel good or better. And I was really nervous. I forever had been super nervous about taking any kind of antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds or anything like that. But finally, I was just a point of like, come on, something’s got to give. But sort of all of the sudden, I feel at least comfortable enough to be able to write the movie I’m writing about now, specifically about that. Do you take them?
Yoni: I did. I actually got off of them in January.
Miles: How was that? What was it like going off of them?
Yoni: Just very difficult. But it was also very difficult for me to go on them. I don’t know what your experience was with that. So, if you were easy going on them, you’ll probably be easy going off of them.
Miles: I was totally easy going on them. What was it like? I don’t know if we’re on the same one though.
Yoni: I was on the Zoloft.
Miles: I’m Citalopram.
Yoni: OK. I don’t know what the difference is but —
Miles: But when you took it, did you feel something?
Yoni: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. I think that it just sort of took the edge off. It’s not like smoking weed and all of the sudden you’re chill. Nothing like that. Not like a Xanax or anything like that. No, no, when I say it took the edge off, sort of long term, I could notice that I wasn’t having acute panic situations or things like that. But I didn’t love it. Because I felt like it sort of dulled me.
Miles: No, totally. I also smoke a ton of weed on top of it so that definitely chases the effect. But this combination that I got right now, it’s killer.
Yoni: Right. You could be in a study.
Miles: I love my girlfriend, I smoke a ton of weed, and it’s just really mellowing it out.
Yoni: I felt like my job or mission in life, I don’t want to make it sound like… Job sounds so, I don’t know, utilitarian, capitalistic, whatever. But my purpose or something is to feel things and translate that to something that other people can feel. So they can feel something, and relate to it, and have an emotion, and whatever. I felt like it was dulling me to where it felt like, I feel a little murky in the feels.
Miles: Well, I think those are super important differences though. Because I think there’s feeling murky and that is a nightmare and the dulling of the senses thing is not manageable. It’s not manageable for you in your job. It’s not manageable, I think, for people. It’s not a manageable way of treating an illness. But I also don’t think you have to be suffering if you’re going to talk about suffering.
Yoni: I’m not about that. But I also feel like I just want to be in touch with myself. You know what I mean? I want to know myself and that’s part of what I do, I guess, or what I am. Your life and mine are both sort of… We chose more uncertain pursuits. We chose the things that we have to sort of climb the mountain and come back with what we’ve discovered or something. And with that comes that uncertainty, and with that uncertainty comes anxieties and fears, because for obvious reasons, I guess. But that’s what life should be in a way.
(Photo Credit: left, Ryan Back; right, Natalia Mantini)