The moment Jakob Dylan put himself out for public consumption as a singer-songwriter, he proved to be a determined, headstrong and, yes, highly courageous individual. Talk about an inhospitable work environment. Who could possibly live up to the inevitable comparisons to you-know-who?
Actually, the 51-year-old Dylan has more than distinguished himself over the course of a nearly 30-year career. And if you must compare him to his father, consider that Jakob’s signature song with his long-running band The Wallflowers — 1996’s deathless alt-rock standard “One Headlight” — has been streamed more times than nearly every track by Bob save for “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” As long as there are sports arenas and gas stations that spin durable rock hits, Jakob Dylan’s legacy is secure.
But he’s also more than a one-hit wonder. The Wallflowers’ catalogue is deep with ruggedly enjoyable proto-Americana albums that function as a shadow history of major-label rock in the past three decades. Dylan was an MTV star when the channel still played songs like “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache,” he weathered the record industry’s piracy nadir in the aughts with producers like Brendan O’Brien and Rick Rubin, and he’s carried on as an elder statesman who has rubbed shoulders with nearly every rock icon still standing.
“People don’t always know what to do with me,” Dylan said when I reached him last month. “I’m aware that I’m an anomaly. Because there’s nobody like me working … for a lot of different reasons.”
Ahead of the release of Exit Wounds, the first Wallflowers album in nine years due out July 9, Dylan candidly discussed the high and lows of the band’s career from the early ’90s to now.
The Wallflowers (1992)
I think we did it in just two weeks, and there were not a lot of overdubs. That wasn’t necessarily a choice, as much as that’s just how we thought bands did it. At the time, that’s how everybody was doing records. In hindsight, it’s certainly a great way to do your first record.
When you’re doing your first record, you’re not only bringing in your songs. You haven’t ever really been in the studio before and you haven’t worked with a real producer before. So, you’re really juggling and learning a lot, all at once. You haven’t really addressed a microphone before, you’ve never had to really dial in an amp sound. There’s a lot of things you haven’t done yet, so you’re doing it all at once on the floor together in a short amount of time.
There are a lot of rough spots on it, and there’s a lot of meandering. There’s a 9-minute song and an 11-minute song, I think. We were completely overly ambitious and probably full of ourselves, and that’s how you should make your first record. You want to believe you’re The Rolling Stones. I mean, you’re not. But you might as well believe you are because that’s what rock bands should do.
I think we sold 40,000 records of our debut. I’m sure it’s sold more than that since, but I didn’t think that was a failure at all. I had no barometer of what a successful number would be. 40,000 people is a lot of people if you ask me. I was just really excited to make a record and go on tour and play to people.
The only disappointment with that record was that the people who I really liked, who brought us there, they were either removed or dismissed or left, I don’t recall. That’s a bad situation for any group, when you come back from a tour and there’s different people in the offices. Because, generally, the new people don’t want to inherit other projects, especially if they haven’t done well. So, we were in kind of a pickle — we had a record deal, but we had new people who didn’t seem to really know what to do with us. So, we asked to be released.
I don’t blame them, I get it now, but I think the label — instead of saying that they let us go — probably smartly said that they dropped us. We didn’t know that, it just kind of circulated back to us after doing clubs for a long time, looking for another record contract. You have to put all this in perspective: Record contracts were really a lot more important then than they are now. There’s a lot more opportunities now. And there were then too, without a major label. But it was the more typical route you wanted to be taking.
Bringing Down The Horse (1996)
I never was that devoted to the radio or the climate to know what others were doing. But I didn’t think what we were doing was out of fashion at all. I thought it went back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. And that has always been present in music. It’s never been really in fashion or out of fashion. It’s a rock band setup: two guitars, bass, drums, and keyboards.
It took us a little while to figure out that we had a reputation, that I was really difficult. I mean, maybe I am. I don’t think it’s inappropriate for guys in rock bands to be difficult. I mean, what does that mean? Does that just mean I don’t do what you’re asking? That I don’t want to do an interview for Hard Copy or Us Weekly? Does that make me difficult? To some people, I guess it did. I just wanted to be in the band and tour and play. And I understood quickly, coming into it, that there were things coming my way that were just celebrity-driven, and I didn’t have any interest in being a part of that.
It’s not confusing for me why the second record did what it did. There’s a lot of reasons for it. It was a young company, Interscope, that was really behind us. And T Bone Burnett helped us make that record. I knew we were using classic instruments and that with dobros and mandolins and B3 organs and pianos, that you can sound like you’re doing a throwback record, which I was really worried about. I didn’t want to do that. I thought we had to take that sound into the future and make it modern. As T Bone Burnett had said at the time, it was a hyper folk record, and that is kind of what it sounds like.
I had “6th Avenue Heartache” written for that first record and we just couldn’t get a recording of it that made any sense or sounded good. I don’t think we were good enough to play to the song’s potential. And that doesn’t feel good, to be in a band, knowing that my end of the deal is I’m writing the songs and I feel like we can’t play the song very well. By the time we had gotten to Bringing Down the Horse, the group had mostly fallen apart, which is why there’s a lot of different musicians on that record.
I think that bands go through a typical arc when they get noticed for a certain song and the crowds get bigger and they start to feel like people are only coming to hear the one song. They have a mixed relationship with that song, and I certainly did for a while with “One Headlight.” But over time, you realize how unique that is, certainly today, that any rock band has a song that everybody knows. I don’t know if that’s happening anymore. I mean, as big as rock bands are today and as many people as they’re drawing to festivals, I don’t know that the general public knows their material. Those days may have come and gone, so I have a lot of gratitude.
That was a difficult record to make. I didn’t feel any pressure to follow up with the first one. But the follow-up record to the record people hear, you’re now aware that people are going to hear these songs. Before, you didn’t think anybody’s really ever going to hear them. So, you’re writing them for yourself and your band and maybe the small crowd you’re playing to. But once you have something like Bringing Down The Horse, you know whatever you do next, it’s going to be listened to. I can’t tell you exactly how that changes how you write and how you behave when making a record, but I knew that people would hear these songs, one way or another.
I felt like I was a better songwriter by that point. I mean, you’re only talking 20 songs later into a career. You’re not talking many, many records later, where it’s difficult to figure out what to write about. It’s only my third record. So, I thought I was getting a better grip on songwriting by that point. I had spent a lot of time staying away from anything that might be perceived as personal or having anything to do with divulging my background, and there was no reason to still feel like that. I felt that that was an unfair burden that I was giving myself.
I can’t tell you that I figured that out right away and suddenly changed my writing, but I was aware that to be connected to an artist that you like, you have to feel something from them that is singular and personal. Now, when I say personal, I don’t mean exposing their personal therapy sessions. But you have to feel those people that you’re listening to, and I wasn’t really doing that. I was actually spending a lot of time denying that I’m actually a real person with a background, and that was only going to get me so far. By Breach, I knew there was going to be scrutiny on some of the songs and I decided that I was just going to not care about it.
With “Hand Me Down,” I’m sure at times you’ve felt like hand-me-down. That’s a universal thought, I believe. I still don’t believe there was anything about that song that is singular to me. It’s easy to draw the connection to me and think that I’m addressing that, and I possibly am. But who hasn’t felt like that? Who hasn’t felt like they haven’t been noticed? Who hasn’t felt like a backup plan? Who hasn’t felt like a plan B?
Red Letter Days (2002)
The original guitar player that I started the group with, Tobi Miller, had gone down the path of being a really strong record producer. So, we brought him in to produce. And I think part of that was for me to go full circle. I guess I probably felt a little bit of guilt for not being able to carve out a better place for him in the band. He certainly wasn’t on anybody’s list of big producers at the time but that didn’t matter to me. I just thought I was very connected to him and we essentially started the group together many years before that.
That record is difficult for me to listen to. I don’t think it sounds as good as the other records. There’s a sheen to that record that confuses me. That was at the peak of us not really understanding the studio. The electronica stuff? You try to make room for other people to put their ideas in, and I felt okay with that at the time, but I don’t think it holds up. I do like the songs on it quite a bit and I play some of those songs still. But as a record, I feel like we may have veered off the path a little bit.
We went to Atlanta for a month to make that record with Brendan O’Brien. I think it’s good for bands to get out of town. And Atlanta is a nice place to make record. And I’d known Brendan’s work. I like Brendan’s stuff a lot.
But I remember that, sonically, it sounds very similar to those Bruce Springsteen records that Brendan was making at the time. To be honest, there were times when I was singing and I was thinking, “Take my voice off, and this sounds like The E Street Band.” And it’s just not the instrumentation. You’re at the studio, you put in that drum kit and that B3, and you keep them all in the same place. You don’t move them around every time a new band comes in the studio. There’s a sweet spot for a drum kit, there’s a sweet spot for a B3. So, we just left that stuff where it previously was, which I think was the E Street session. So, we not only had the same instrumentation, I think our gear was in the same spot. And there’s certainly a connection you could draw between my own writing and Bruce’s writing. So, that doesn’t surprise me. But that was a good experience. I like that record quite a bit.
Brendan is great. Brendan came on tour with us that summer. He played guitar for that summer. So, he’s a musician first. There’s a lot of different kinds of producers and I’m not going to tell you which one is best. I can only tell you which ones I respond to the best and which ones I don’t respond to. I don’t respond to the vibe people. I don’t respond to people who are just music fans who think they have better taste than everybody, who can guide you because they got great ears. I prefer to be in a studio with somebody who knows a bit about songwriting, who knows how to play the instruments, and who maybe can work with the control board.
Glad All Over (2012)
No matter who’s in your band, it’s a complicated effort. When I went to make those couple of solo records, I just wanted to be left alone, really. And I didn’t think the songs I was writing, as they came in, applied to a big drum kit and electric guitars. Sometimes, I make a Wallflowers record and sometimes it’s the, quote-unquote, “solo record.” I know it’s confusing but I’m confused all the time anyway. So, what’s the difference?
When we came back together, I think everybody with all that time off looked forward to making another record. But it was a contentious record to make, to be honest. When I made the solo records, none of that stuff was really discussed and the band just took a break. We never broke up, we just stopped working. But I think when we came back together, there were issues and resentments that we hadn’t really sorted out.
I never wanted to write every song on all the records. If somebody else wanted to write, I welcomed that. But I didn’t imagine people would be experimenting with writing for the first time on the floor with me, and that’s what seemed to be happening. And I let that happen, but that’s why that record is very disjointed. There’s a few songs that stand out to me as being very strong. Honestly, those are the songs I brought by myself, that were finished, completed at home.
I don’t think Rami Jaffe’s heart was really in it, being on that record. I think he already had one foot out. He had spent some time playing with the Dave Grohl thing, and who could argue with that? I think that interested him more. Simply put, I don’t think the band was getting together that great when we got back together. So, you can hear it in the record.
Exit Wounds (2021)
I don’t need somebody to make my record. I’m not a pop star. I have ideas of what I’m doing and I needed somebody to help me get there, I need another set of ears. And I trusted Butch Walker and I thought that he understood what I do in my music. We’re not making just a paint-by-numbers rock record. I am the point, I am the centerpiece, I’m what’s in the middle. Otherwise, our instrumentation is not that unique to what I do really. What might make it unique to you is the songs and the singer. So, I think Butch got that, he knew that pretty early on, and he created space for me to come up front.
Writing songs, it’s all-consuming. You get this song stuck in your head and for the next 48 hours, all you can do is think about that one lyric that’s not working for you. And you’re not that fun to be around. If people are talking to you, you’re not hearing anything. You go to sleep with it and it haunts you and it bugs you.
I don’t always want to be in that place. When it’s time to write a record and get my stuff together, I tend to work really well when I see what we’re doing and what my job is. You say we’re going to make a record in four months? Well, that’s great. That’s plenty of time. I know what I’m going to do.
These songs are written before Covid, but we still had the dumpster fire of everything else that was happening before that. While I didn’t write specifically about those four years of … I don’t even want to say it. I’m so happy not to hear the person’s name lately, I don’t want to say it out loud. It informs your work because it informs what you order on a menu, it informs what radio station you listen to, your mood. It was like a blanket over everybody. So yeah, it’s throughout all these songs, without a doubt. But you honestly believe in perseverance. I don’t want to sing songs that don’t have an escape hatch and hope in them. I try to put that in most of my songs, and I genuinely always feel that way.
My goal is to write songs that I would want to be singing for the rest of my career, and I don’t want to sing anything about that shit. I don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to talk about it any more than I had to, and I didn’t want to watch any more of it. We should all try to move on. There’s a lot of work to be done, there’s no doubt, but I kind of knew that time moves really quick and it wasn’t going to last forever.
Exit Wounds is out July 9 via New West. Get it here.