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Interview: Jakob Dylan (The Wallflowers)

20 August 2021

Photo by Yasmin Than

In July, Jakob Dylan released his first album under The Wallflowers name since 2012’s Glad All Over, which was a release that Dylan has admitted was recorded with inner band turmoil and, therefore, maybe not the band’s strongest release. On Exit Wounds, Dylan partnered with hitmaker Butch Walker (Pink, Green Day, Taylor Swift) who produced and played guitars, keyboards and percussion on the album’s 10 familiar-sounding Americana tracks. With a new recording – and touring – lineup in tow, Dylan’s settled back into the comfortable sound that fans clamored to in the mid-to-late ’90s when songs like “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache” ruled the alternative rock airwaves and reviews for Exit Wounds have been overwhelmingly positive.

With a new record out but touring in flux due to the pandemic, Dylan had some time to hop on a call with me a few weeks ago to talk about the recording process, lyrical themes, and why chemistry is so important when writing and recording music.

Between The Wallflowers and solo albums, you’ve got a large catalog of songs. You could easily go out on the road and just play hits without ever having to write another new song. What is the push for you to record new material? Is it to remain creative? Is it to continue to give the fans something to buy?

JAKOB: You know, it’s actually just the thing I like the most about what I do. There’s a lot of things I like doing and there’s room for all of it. I still don’t know a bigger rush than working on a song, no matter what it takes to get it done, and showing it to whoever you’re playing with and then hearing it come out of the speakers. I live for it.

You’re right, I don’t need new songs or new records to go out and tour. I can just keep going with touring. New material is for me and for those people who do care. Certainly when you start out, you’ve got one record, maybe two. You don’t have a lot of songs to choose from when you’re playing a show. So, you want more songs. I’ve been in that place for a while. It’s my favorite part of doing this. More than any other aspect of my career, it’s just writing a song. That’s how it all started. It’s a maddening process to write a song because, as much as you like doing it, you don’t actually even really like doing it. What you like is having it done. You like when it’s finished. Doing it can be a horrendous experience at times. You can drive yourself totally crazy. I don’t have any other achievements that I’m able to do that feel as good as that.

Do you think you’ve played every song that have appeared on your albums live at least once?

JAKOB: Oh, no, there’s plenty I’ve never played. You know, they’re not the same, a record and a show is not the same. I put songs on record knowing I may never play them live because I still think about records as LPs which have these pivotal moments. A waltz may not have a place in your show but it would on a record if you’re trying to clear the palate for the next song. One song can set up another song. One song can be a come down to the last song.

The way I grew up listening to music, I still do it that way because it’s just so natural to me. You’re aware of writing certain songs that are needed for the record, they’re not stand alone songs. What about instrumentals? Nobody really does instrumentals any more. We used to do that. You might just have a cow-punk song in the middle of an album out of nowhere because it’s gonna create a different feeling for the entire record. Isolated? It’s probably not that great of a song, but it serves a purpose. You can’t do that with streaming and not even with CDs that much because the ride is different. When you’d sequence a CD, you just put your best song on the top and the lousy song went last because people didn’t listen to it in it’s entirety. It was just too much. When you have an LP, you have two sides, and you live with the side for a certain amount of time and the investment is different. There’s plenty of songs that I’ve never played live, and I had never planned on it, for certain songs.

We’re a similar age and I grew up on vinyl as well. Younger bands are now coming to that realization that vinyl is coming back and they sort of have two chances to make a first impression – side A and side B. You have to come out strong on both sides. It’s not 72 minutes straight like on a CD, where maybe the middle songs are a little bit boring. You really have to have to think about the sequencing these days. During the CD days, were you thinking a lot about the sequence of the songs?

JAKOB: Only when we would get done with sequencing something. It just became clear to me that, like, track eight is not a moment. It’s a number. And as you’re sequencing, you’re aware, as you get further down the sequence, these later songs are gonna be heard less and less. Listeners will definitely hear the first two songs. That’s how the CD starts. They may never get to track nine. I just do it because that’s how I hear music. I don’t think every song should be written as potential single or hit or a streaming song. That’s not the world I live in.

For younger people coming up now, if they’re starting to get into vinyl, they should only be excited because you just have a lot more opportunities to create stuff, and then you get to take pressure off every song being a really important song. It just frees up what you can do. There’s great reasons to do that. If I was young and just being discovered right now, I’d find that really freeing and exciting, don’t worry about every song having to have streaming potential. That’s just the world we live in now, a song at the time. I’m not holding out for old days, that’s just how I know how to do it. I like to think I could do it any which way I needed to. But, certainly, if I’m writing my own record, I’m going to resort to those tools. You have to allow yourself to put things in there for a listener who hopefully listens to it in its entirety. You’ve got to give their ears a rest at some point in you record. It can’t be a barrage the whole time.

Do you spend a lot of time searching out new modern music or do you stick with old classics that you’re comfortable with?

JAKOB: It’s a bit of both. There’s old classics that you’re never going to discover. We’re at the point, certainly with rock n’ roll music that is 60 years old or so. I mean, there’s just so much to get to. If we didn’t write any more songs, we’d never get tired of discovering older ones. But, I probably listen to more of that older stuff. I just don’t really have a clear lane into discovering new music. I don’t really spend much time on the computer. I don’t really subscribe to the streaming services. I hear people doing it and I get it. It sounds like fun, I suppose. But, my association with music is a different experience. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. There’s no filters anymore. So anything that shows up on your computer seems worthwhile and important, but it might just be coming from someone’s bedroom. You can waste a lot of time checking things out. A lot of good stuff is made in someone’s bedroom. I just feel it’s a function of the gadget. Most music you find today is through a gadget. I’m just not that gadget heavy or interested or focused. I use it as much as I need to but it’s not something I use for enjoyment so much.

I’ve been going back and discovering ’60s and ’70s albums that I didn’t know existed, or albums that weren’t the most popular from bands that I did know and are new to me. It’s been a joy to listen to that stuff. I listen to plenty of modern bands but there’s something special about that era of music.

JAKOB: There’s a lot of reasons for that. First of all, you can’t discount that there was just things in the air that were different. We live in a different climate right now, our brains are different. When you wrote songs in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, you were closer to the source of the original ways of rock and roll songwriting. We hadn’t turned over every phrase and every chord yet. There was a lot of exploring to do. We’re doing that now, too, but, we’re very congested. That’s the only way to put it. It’s good news that everybody can do it now, it costs nothing to make records lately. You can go to Best Buy and outfit yourself with a studio in about an hour.

But the records you’re talking about, there were gatekeepers to some degree. Getting into the studio was a big deal. It was expensive and you had to really prove yourself to somebody that you had what it takes to be in there. The musicians did. The songwriters did. The engineers did. Everybody did. It wasn’t for everybody. Training was needed. When I say gatekeepers, that sounds bad, but that’s the only thing I could think of to term it, which is, you had to work really hard to get into a studio. It cost money and it was time. You had to have your shit together when you got there.

The nature of computers and all that, we’re always just one Undo button away from starting over. And the records you’re talking about, that wasn’t available. If you screwed up your part, it sucked for everybody. Everybody had to go redo the whole track. So everybody’s mentality was different. When that red light came on the studio, your palms would sweat. We didn’t huddle around the computer and look at shapes and keep undoing and undoing until we were happy. It was a different chemistry in the room. It matters a lot to be in a room together making music because the humidity matters. The traffic on the way there matters. Everything matters in the studio when you’re doing it together. That combination of what everybody’s doing, what mood everybody’s in, molecularly, there’s something that happens. That’s what I respond to the most.

I don’t want to be one of those people who just talk about how the old days are better. Sometimes, they certainly were. But we’ve got to move on. I try to take advantage of every opportunity that there is today. I wouldn’t exclude myself from doing any process if it makes the music good. I’m not brand new. I’ve learned a lot. I could probably still learn a whole lot more. I kind of have my rhythm and I’m kind of set in a certain way that appeals to me and that I think works for me. I build every experience off that knowledge I’ve already gained. Most of that knowledge comes from when you’re younger. We develop habits, musicians do, that usually form when we’re younger. We learn a lot of new things later, but we do have a pocket that we feel good in. Mine just happens to come from the age I grew up, which was LPs were a different medium for the reason I already told you. You’ve got the first song and the second song. How do you close out the first side? What’s your first song on the second side? It was exciting to think of them that way. I still do.

When you’re recording now, are there things you learned when recording your early records that you still incorporate or have you transitioned to recording digitally and using all modern equipment?

JAKOB: Both. Whatever moves you. Do you know what a Nord keyboard is? It’s this red keyboard that everybody uses because it’s compact and you can take it anywhere. It’s a synthesizer basically. It sounds so good. If you put it up against a Hammond B3 and you play that and then you play a Nord through a computer, if you’re being honest, it’s really nearly impossible to tell the difference at this point. I know when I’m on stage and I look over and I see a B3, I feel a lot better than when I look over and I see a keyboard sitting on a stand and somebody’s legs. It just creates a different mood for me. I do try to take that into the studio. I don’t get too hung up on vibes and tapestries and stuff but you are creating some kind of setting for yourself to feel good and fearless.

We made our first record in ’91 and we, along with our producer, went to a rehearsal space for two weeks. We worked really hard on those songs. Then we went to the studio and the studio was just this place we went to to record what we were able to do. It wasn’t a place to explore and spend lots of time and money. Now we’ve got the microphones. Now we’re going to record what we’ve just rehearsed the last two weeks. It was pre-production. People don’t do so much of that any more. I still think that’s good, not just because that’s the way I did it.

To answer your question, I take things I learned when I was younger and I’ve learned a lot of new things. The opportunities later is that you get to dig through all your different experiences and figure out which ones you liked and which ones you didn’t like. I’ve got no problems with computers if you use them effectively. I’m not a hold out for 2” tape or any of that organic stuff. Ultimately, I don’t really care as long as it sounds good. I do know that you feel different depending on when you show up and what you see in a room. You bring me to anybody’s studio and I see a drum kit and a B3 and some amplifiers, I’m excited. You bring me in there and I just see a computer and some keyboards, I’m just not excited.

When you have mixes of the record, do you try to listen to the songs the way listeners are going to listen? Like, through headphones, in the car, through stereo speakers.

JAKOB: That’s a tough one. You work so hard on the stuff and you listen to it in a HiFi studio and everything sounds great. You have to realize that reality is people are listening on earbuds or on the laptop. You’re working really hard on the songs and, I hate to say it, but a lot of times it’s not really worth it because most people do not go home and put these records on a great stereo system and a tube amp and cables out of the floor, and designate an hour to listen to your record. That’s not really how people do it any more. Mixing is tough because you do have to play it for yourself somewhere where you trust the speakers and you know what’s going on. All speakers are different. Cars are different. Every room is different. Walls make a difference. You just have to have a way in your brain to trust the system that you’re listening on.

If you take any song, you go into a studio and you blast it on the speakers, everybody sounds great. But that’s not how we listen to music most often which is funny because we make music in these complexes that have all these built-in speakers and then we listen to them on toys, basically.

How involved are you with the artistic direction for the album, the album artwork and stuff like that?

JAKOB: As much as I can be. I’m also okay giving someone else the option to make a decision if it’s not where my instincts lie. We’re all good at different things. In a lot of bands, there’s somebody who’s just in charge of the art work. There’s somebody who’s in charge of all the set lists. I know where my strengths are and I don’t enjoy pretending like I have an instinct in an area that I just don’t feel anything for. Hopefully there’s someone else around to help, be it a t-shirt design or whatever. Everything works best when you have a small number of people who are as talented as possible. Then you’re just choosing between good choices.

I’ve always enjoyed liner notes and “Thank You” credits. How do you feel about “Thank You” credits? Do you put them in the liner notes on your albums?

JAKOB: I would say, on this record and probably increasingly as my records have gone on, there’s less and less credits. When I see on the back of a record that a keyboard player has listed that he played a Moog, a B3, a piano, an upright piano, a Korg. I’m like, “Why don’t you just say you played keyboards?” I’m not somebody who’s credit driven. I’m not worried about getting credit for certain things on records. I think our first record had “Thank You” credits and I remember it was like everybody was saying, “It’s like we’re getting Oscars”. Everyone was thanking everyone that ever gave them a carpool ride and then, as you go, you think, “Who really made the record? I made the record with these four or five people and we’re listed.” I think that’s good enough. I don’t thank the baker down the street. Did they really help me make the record? But, do what you want to do. Thank whoever you want. Maybe it sounds like an asshole to say so but I made the record, we know what we did. Thanking your family, no offense, I have family too, but I made the record.

Speaking of credits, Butch Walker produced Exit Wounds and played on it along with a few people who also play in his band.

JAKOB: A couple of them. It’s not all his band. The rhythm section he plays with quite a bit but the rest of them, they are different players. Val McCallum, I don’t think they’ve played together before. I don’t think all of them but that’s something I would do though. It’s good to do that. You have to have chemistry when you make a record. When you show up with new people all the time, you waste a lot of time getting to know one another and feeling each other out. You get confused. Am I letting that part stay because I want you to feel good that you’re contributing? Or do I really like the part? So you waste a lot of time. But, when you work with people you know, you have a lot of shorthand and you’ve played together and have a good chemistry. I’ve done sessions with great, great musicians and I haven’t been able to use it because we didn’t have chemistry in the room. Great rock and roll records aren’t necessarily made by great musicians. They’re really made by chemistry. If you have something like Butch offered, and I knew these guys, I played with them at different functions, that’s a good start.

I don’t know Mark Stepro, who played drums on the record, personally but he’s from Columbus, Ohio, where I’m from. And we have a lot of mutual friends.

JAKOB: He’s fantastic.

He also plays with Aaron Lee Tasjan.

JAKOB: Oh yeah, I’ve met him a few times. I didn’t know he was from there but he’s real good.

When you’re writing lyrics, are you pulling from current life experiences, or do you have a bank of ideas and lyrics that you pull from when you’re ready to put an album together?

JAKOB: Well, it’s both, I I wouldn’t say I’m not an autobiographical writer because I’m in all my songs but I’m not somebody who thinks my story, my feelings, my thoughts are enough to be interesting on their own. I do admire the craft of song writing. As far as a bank, you’re always collecting ideas. If it’s a really good one, you should write it down. But if it’s really good, it won’t leave you. It’ll haunt you. You change, thematically. Certainly, from the last original record I wrote, which is 2012, to now, I’m a different person, everybody is. Not just because of recent circumstances, just because you’re different after 8 years or so. You don’t just think you changed, you did. So that gets into your songs. There’s certain languages you use in a block of time when you’re writing a record.

My thing has never been a purging effort even though I guess I have to call myself a singer-songwriter. I’m always worried – the song is important, it’s important to me, but is it important to the listener? There’s a lot of other things we’re going to have to put on the record or in the show that are also really important. It’s not just the song. It’s not just me expressing what’s on my mind. I actually don’t really appreciate people who do that consistently. It’s almost like they want bonus points for being honest and I don’t think honesty really has anything to do with making records. It comes from an honest place, sure, but you’re allowed to be totally complicated and abstract as you want to be. Being honest, there’s a place for that, I suppose it’s just not what appeals to me the most.

There are some common phrases, words, themes – a couple of songs with lyrics about drinking or wine or bars. And then there’s a couple of songs that mention trains. Are these things you were actively thinking about when writing lyrics or did they just happen to appear in songs?

JAKOB: I think a lot of songwriters will tell you the same thing that when you’re sitting down and working on 12 songs, there’s just a certain common language that is swirling around in your brain and you don’t know why. You don’t worry too much about why it’s happening but you know later, 10 years later, you’re going to listen to the record and you recognize this language you no longer use. And it wasn’t on purpose. But those are images. You say drinking. Drinking means a lot of things. Wine. Wine means a lot of things. It doesn’t mean just one thing. When I hear songs, when somebody says “wine”, does that mean you’re celebrating? Does that mean you’re miserable and going down the rabbit hole of depression? Does that mean you’re sitting in an airport waiting for a flight? It means a lot of things and it can be used endlessly with different expressions. It’s interpretive, of course, but I’m aware of that. There are certain words that come around a lot on certain records, but that’s okay.

Exit Wounds is getting some great reviews. Critics and fans seem to be really enjoying it. Do you pay attention to that kind of stuff?

JAKOB: I am aware of things being said about the record. Anybody who tells you they don’t care about their reviews, they’re not being honest with you. Bad reviews don’t feel good and good reviews feel great. You believe the good ones and you think the guy who didn’t like it just didn’t get it. I don’t write the songs just for myself, they’re for people to hear and I like the feedback. A lot of times, even an okay review might be really helpful to you. You might agree with some of that. They might point out the things you didn’t want to admit but they’re right so now you know it’s coming across to people. I’m curious and I am aware that this record has been well received, certainly more than some of my other ones.

Does getting good reviews for a new album give you the liberty to add new songs to the live show and know that they will go over well?

JAKOB: Well, sure. I’m not new. I’m not young. When you’re starting out, everybody wants to play their newest material because they’re excited about it. But, it’s a show and you better be understanding that people are coming to see you play. I’m not going to work myself out of business by only playing the songs that I want to play. I’ve asked people to come see the show. It’s a show, I need to be aware of what would work for them. But bands always want to play their newest songs on tour and they usually do it for the first few weeks of the tour and then they realize the songs aren’t going anywhere. Maybe there’s a small percentage of fans who are glad you’re doing that, but you try to have a little bit of perspective. I wouldn’t play this whole new record on stage. I’m going to grab a few songs that make sense with the 20 other songs we’re going to play because we have a lot of records.

The 2018 documentary, Echo in the Canyon, that you worked on and hosted was a great exploration of the ’60s Laurel Canyon scene. You covered not only the bands and the music, but the culture as well. Honestly, while I learned a lot, I think the thing I remember the most is that Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees and Frank Zappa hung out together during that time. Those two don’t seem to have a lot in common so I was fascinated by that.

JAKOB: I’ve got plenty of friends that we don’t do anything similar at all, music or not. It seems funny to think about Frank Zappa and Mickey Dolenz being friends but that doesn’t surprise me, certainly because we all know the history of The Monkees. They were actors. Peter Tork was a pretty wild character too. That’s not surprising. I also think, they probably also jammed together, that’s what makes music really great. Having four people get together who all play the same thing and come from the same place, you already know what that’s going to sound like. So, that cross breeding is really good for music.

I grew up watching The Monkees TV show but have been diving into their catalog recently and there’s some really great material that never made it onto the TV show.

JAKOB: The Monkees are great. They got the short end of the stick for a lot of reasons. The television show and they were confined to the contract and they couldn’t do certain things. They also took a lot of heat because they didn’t write their own material, they often didn’t play on the records. Well, neither did The Beach Boys. The Byrds didn’t get to play on their records. That was just the way the system worked then. As much as everybody loves those records, I do too, you hear “Last Train to Clarksville,” it’s just great. Does it matter who wrote it? Not really, to me. Who sang on it? I don’t know why that was a problem for people but I think they suffered from that. When they did get to play on their records later, the light was off them. That’s too bad because they were great; great singers, great performers.

What was it like for Jakob Dylan to be in lockdown during 2020?

JAKOB: I was fortunate, I wasn’t really working during that time. This record, we could have had it out last summer but we held it. I didn’t have to do the Zoom stuff, I wasn’t doing much online stuff. I was just trying to stay alive and healthy like anybody else at home. I didn’t write a novel, I didn’t take up a hobby. In the beginning, people had these ideas of what they were going to do with a one month shut down. After six months, people get depressed and it wasn’t a very creative time. I didn’t feel creative. For the most part, I think we’re mostly out of that. Things are looking a little screwy again but we’ve kind of integrated back into a life like we used to have.

We have a piano and, at the start of lockdown, I thought maybe I’d learn to play it since I would have time on my hands. I never touched the piano in the last 18 months.

JAKOB: I have yet to talk to anybody who says, “Yes, I did write that novel” or “I did build the garage.” The reality is, you get depressed. I can’t create things when times are so dark and depressing. Trying to get through the day was enough.

Was this the longest break you’ve had in your career? Between Wallflowers records and solo records and touring, I know you’re usually pretty busy.

JAKOB: Yeah, probably. The last Wallflowers record was in 2012 but then there was the Echo in the Canyon movie and that took me a while and we made a record for that too. I did shows for that. I tour every summer, minus recently. I don’t feel the pressure to make records unless I have good ideas. Yes, I wish we had made more more records but I guess I don’t really regret that. It’s just the ride that I’m on, I take it as it comes. But, I’m never not busy. The main thing is that I can tour and I really like doing that, it’s a great part of how I make a living so I have that without new records or with new records. But, I don’t want another stretch to be as long as the last one was. And it got longer because we held the record a year because of the pandemic.

Well, Jakob, It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. The album’s great and I hope you’re able to get back on the road soon.

JAKOB: I really appreciate that, that’s really nice of you. It’s a good lesson – good energy going in, good energy coming out. If you make a record with certain good energy, you’re going to be happy. I’ve made records with different climates in the room that were contentious and it felt like that on the other end, the way they were received. This record was a joy to make, we worked hard and I think, from what I’m gathering, that’s coming through and people have said really nice things so far so I’m pretty pleased.