Jakob Dylan on The Wallflowers’ Return with ‘Exit Wounds’ and Why Being on Time Isn’t That Hard (The Interview)

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

It has to be hard to be the son of a rock and roll legend, no matter what career you choose. And rock history is scattered with the once promising, but ultimately unfulfilling, careers of the sons and daughters of some of the biggest names in the music business. All of that makes the career of Jakob Dylan all the more impressive.

Dylan, of course, carved out a name for himself as his own man early on with his group the Wallflowers — riding the massive success of group’s 1996 sophomore album, the T Bone Burnett-produced Bringing Down The Horse with grace and self-respect — before embarking on a mercurial, but ultimately satisfying, thirty-plus year run as the Wallflowers front man, thoughtful solo artist and, even, documentary filmmaker.

The Wallflowers’ new album  Exit Wounds, out now, is no doubt the group’s best since 2000s Breach, and certainly it’s the most fan-friendly since the heyday of Bringing Down The Horse, now nearly thirty years ago. Produced by Los Angeles rocker Butch Walker, and featuring some of Walker’s band, as well as Jackson Browne alum Val McCallum and singer Shelby Lynne, Exit Wounds is a mature, often deep meditation on the world we live in in 2021, with Dylan picking up not only the storytelling baton of Tom Petty, but the late rocker’s gift for melody, too.

Click here to pick up Exit Wounds on CD from our Rock Cellar Store
Click here to pick up Exit Wounds on LP from our Rock Cellar Store

The Wallflowers Exit Wounds (Jakob Dylan photo: Yasmin Than)

The Wallflowers Exit Wounds (Jakob Dylan photo: Yasmin Than)

Dylan spoke with Rock Cellar recently, and discussed why being on time is an underrated virtue, why it’s important to respect Clash fans, the making of Exit Wounds, and why he’ll always be a Wallflower at heart.     

Rock Cellar Magazine: You called right on the dot. You’ve got to be the promptest rock and roller in the world. 

Jakob Dylan: You know, it’s just not that hard.  I hate to say it. I get a lot of compliments on it, but you know, I admire being prompt in other people. I don’t have that hard a time doing it myself, honestly. 

Rock Cellar: We’ve crossed paths a few times. We played the London Calling charity gig at the Roxy, right before the dark times.

Jakob Dylan: Yeah. I remember that, yeah. 

Rock Cellar: Picking up on the idea of being on time not being all that hard, one of the things I really liked about you, was that during the sound check you were really intent on getting “Brand New Cadillac” right and doing it justice. It seemed important to you. Obviously, you’re well-known as a Clash fan, but not everybody is that professional, especially at those one-off charity shows. 

Jakob Dylan: You can call it professionalism, or you can call it fear of embarrassment. Look, you just don’t want to fuck up a Clash song when you’re playing to those fans. And “Brand New Cadillac,” while it’s not their song, necessarily, their version of it is the definitive, iconic version, and it’s seemingly very simple but there’s a lot of little things going on there. The audience would be like, “They screwed that up,” certainly the outro, if it wasn’t right. So, you don’t want to mess around with those songs when you’re playing it to an audience that is specifically there to see you not interpret it, not just do it, you know? 

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk a little bit about the lineup on this album of the Wallflowers. You’ve taken some heat over the years for the fluid nature of the group, but I was thinking about that. Because a couple of years ago, after David Bowie died, I did a piece with the people who had worked with him, and Mike Garson had a great line. He said, essentially, that the thing about David was that he was like a casting director. He picked the right people for the job and then just let them do what they do.

You’ve had many iterations of the Wallflowers over the years, and yet it always seems to suit the moment and the material. Obviously, it always sounds like the Wallflowers. You’re up front. It’s your songs and it’s your style. But what was it about this particular unit of people that helped you capture what you were trying to do? 

Jakob Dylan: Well, you know, there’s two different kinds of outfits out there, as you know. The version of a rock band that is, let’s say, REM or U2, or something like that, where you have these people who started out young and they go on that ride together for a long, long time. That’s very unusual. I kind of always knew that when I started that was very unlikely. I didn’t imagine when I started this band that I would be looking at the same people 25 years later.

The idea of the band was always to please me and my adventures and my songs. So, if I get in the studio with like-minded people and the right expectation and I’m guiding, it’s just not that hard for me to make the Wallflowers sound. Some might say that’s because it’s not that unique or something. Well, I think that’s because I’m not going to rely on a consistent group of characters and personalities, but it’s going to be my voice and my songs.

That’s going to be what’s consistent and that’s what the personality of the band is going to be. So, that’s not that hard to do. You put my voice up front, you create space for me so I’m not struggling to be heard, and it’s going to sound like the Wallflowers. It’s just not that complicated for me to do with a variety of people. But casting is right. I don’t tell people what to play. I mean, I have ideas, of course, here and there, and I can do that, but the best way to get things done is you cast the right people and then you’re just sorting through all good ideas.

No one has a shitty idea in that room. That’s what you hope for. So, you might argue about this or that, but at the end of the day, you’re arguing over nothing but good choices, and that’s dependent on the characters you put in that room. Chemistry is really important, and I’ve said it before about this record, I do think it’s a band record. It is a Wallflowers record. Because for a few weeks it was just us and our chemistry. It was the humidity, it was the traffic, it was everything we dealt with for those couple of weeks. And that’s a band. Whether or not that band goes on to go out on tour, or plays together for 20 years, is a different subject.

But for this record, it’s a band. It’s the Wallflowers. And that’s the sound that I can make when I’m with like-minded people. 

Rock Cellar: And it was already a band, too. I mean, it’s largely Butch’s band, so it is a group of guys who had a ready-made chemistry too. That had to have helped.

Jakob Dylan: Yeah, well, it’s a couple of them. [Keyboardist] Aaron Embry doesn’t play with them too often, I don’t think, and then Val McCallum plays guitar with Jackson Browne and Shelby Lynne. But the rhythm section, yeah, it’s the one Butch uses often. So I benefited from that. But I’ve worked with other producers before, and I’ve said the same thing I said to Butch. “I’ve got a couple guys in mind. But you’re the producer, why don’t you find who’s going to do it? Let’s see who you want to work with.” Because most producers do have a group of people that they rely on, because all the shorthand is already in place.

It’s hard to get five new people in the room and have it work, because there’s a lot of shorthand that’s not there, and there’s a lot of bullshit you have to sift through before people start getting honest. Butch had already done that with the rhythm section. And I’d played with all them, too, at different points. So, you could say that bringing in Val McCallum, who’s somebody I’ve known for a long time … so he comes in, and he’s an X factor. Butch is a fantastic guitar player. He was probably a little confused when I wanted Val to come in, but now they’re calling each other long-lost brothers. And that’s what you do. You hope to introduce someone to someone else, and hopefully they work together in the future, too. But that comes from personality, really. The playing we can all sort out. 

Rock Cellar: Do you — and this is something I hadn’t really thought of earlier, but just listening to you — do you ever find people trying to please you, as the guy up front, or to get the quote-unquote “Wallflowers sound,” and then you have to get them over that hump, to get them to do what they do? 

Jakob Dylan: Well, for sure. And that’s not their fault. When you recognize that, it’s important to just shut that down right away. You can’t fool anybody in a room. When you’re the person doing everything, you can feel when people are just saying, “Yeah man, this song — I’m loving this.” You can feel it. “No, you’re not.” [Laughter] “I didn’t ask you to love everything. That’s not why you’re necessarily here.” But I understand why they do that. If you’re really moved by it, you know. When you take four or five guys, you hit playback, you all get in front of the speakers, and no one is saying, “I love this.” Because they’re not. That’s what you’re looking for. [Laughter]

Rock Cellar: When you’re writing, do you have a different brief in your head for a solo record as opposed to a Wallflowers record, or do you write and then put the songs in the pile for the various projects you have in mind? 

Jakob Dylan: Well, you know, look, it’s confusing to me, too. I can’t tell you why. Some people have said, “Is this not a solo record?” I don’t know. You might want to call it that, if you wanted to. I don’t know.

But the Wallflowers is just something that I started a long time ago. I’ve always loved bands, and I still don’t think there are a lot of things out there cooler than running around the world in a rock band. So, the Wallflowers, it’s my sound. It’s what I created, and I have to go back to it. I had to go back to it, otherwise it becomes nothing to me.

It’ll just disappear. And I don’t want that to happen. So that’s a hat that I put on when I want to play electric guitar and I have these ideas for songs. You know, on solo records, you can do whatever you want to do. You can have 50 different players, you can have trombones, you can do whatever. It’s a different scene. But I don’t really feel that it’s appropriate to redesign the Wallflower sound when I use it. I think there’s a sound that I use — if I’m going to use that name the Wallflowers — that comes with it. It’s not my bag, with that group to put a fiddle here and put a kettle drum over here. I won’t do that.

Rock Cellar: When you’re working, are there reference points, or points of inspiration, maybe even that nobody else can hear? And did you learn anything, maybe, from spending all that time on Echo in the Canyon and losing Tom Petty, who you were close with, and all the things that you had going on in the last few years? Did any of that seep into the record that people listening maybe wouldn’t hear, but that you know is there?

Jakob Dylan: Well, yeah. I mean, the short answer is yes. We all do that. Everything that’s going through your mind on the way to the studio might find its way in there, and it’ll be that combined with something else, combined with something else that is then pretty far from what the original influences were. They just kind of disappear because they’ve been combined with other things. But we all do that. And sometimes that’s a terrible thing. It often doesn’t work out well.

But I can tell you one time it worked out really well for me was when I was driving to the studio when we were making Bring Down the Horse, and I heard “You Don’t Know How It Feels” on the radio, Tom Petty’s song. And my mind was blown that there was no cymbals, and I thought, “That’s awesome. We’re going to do that today.” So, “One Headlight” has no crashes. And it came specifically from hearing that song on the way to the studio that day. That could’ve been a disaster, but in hindsight it became part of the hook of that song, because it has this ride that never really explodes without those cymbals. That could be a huge mistake sometimes. But sometimes it works.

Rock Cellar: And nobody else would ever have paired those ideas.

Jakob Dylan: But, you know, that’s okay. And then, of course, there’s the opposite, where people read too much into stuff that’s meaningless to you. But that’s part of the ride. That’s part of the fun. That’s part of the adventure. 

Rock Cellar: Do you ever reflect — when a record’s done and you go out and you play the songs live, and they take on a completely different life — when you’re singing them, and do they ever start to mean something different for you? Because they obviously mean something very different to the audience.

Jakob Dylan: Well yeah, and they rarely mean the same thing. Well, a song is pliable, and it will change over time. That, again, is why I prefer to dance around ideas in songs, because then they can live forever. If you write something that’s very specific, it won’t have a place later.

An example of that is “For What It’s Worth,” by Buffalo Springfield. That’s just as powerful today as when Stephen Stills wrote it. You and I know why he wrote it, and it’s very specific, but he didn’t bog it down with timelines. So, you can sing it today and it’s just as effective. So, I don’t really have songs that I look back at and think, “Oh, I don’t want to sing that anymore.”

Honestly, for some artists maybe it sounds insensitive, but I’m not going through an emotional cathartic ride when I’m performing. But I’m enough of a professional that I can show up and sing a song and I can do it for you because you like the song. I’m not going to say to you, “I can’t sing that song anymore because I’m not feeling that right now.” I’m able to just hit the notes and give my best shot.

I don’t have to be emotionally invested every time. It’s just a song. You can’t overthink it.

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