Jakob Dylan on ’90s Nostalgia and “Exit Wounds,” the First Wallflowers Album in Nearly a Decade
The follow-up to 2012's "Glad All Over" perfectly captures our collective post-pandemic mood
If one thing distinguishes Exit Wounds from the previous six albums by Jakob Dylan’s longtime group the Wallflowers, it’s Dylan’s duets with the ever-soulful Shelby Lynne.
“It was very organic,” Dylan says by telephone from Los Angeles of the gorgeous pairings of the two ’90s-era rockers. “I’ve never gone into records and had a wish list of people that I wanted to work with, but Butch [Walker, who produced the album] and I were talking about the song ‘Darlin’ Hold On’ and how it would be nice to have somebody sing with me and, just coincidentally, Val McCallum, the guitarist on the record, plays with Shelby sometimes. So I didn’t know Shelby. But obviously I had listened to her and was a fan for quite some time. And I’m glad it happened that way. The better stuff is organic like that. It’s not enough to call your favorite singer to come sing with you. You might not blend well. You might not sound good together.”
Of course, Dylan and Lynne sound great together, and the pairing helps elevate the four songs Lynne appears on in a way that helps the songs — and the Wallflowers — break free of the tried-and-true rock and roll formula of guitar/bass/keyboards/drums that Dylan and company have relied on over the past 30 years in unexpected and rewarding ways.
“You ask me to come sing on your record, I’m going to need you to send me that song, and I’m going to sit with it for a little while and try to find my way before I flounder all over your studio,” Dylan says with a hearty laugh. “Shelby showed up and I think she was maybe done in maybe two takes. And by that point, it wasn’t even lunchtime. So, it was like, ‘All right Shelby, you’re here, you’re having a good time.’ We just kept throwing more songs up and she blessed us beyond expectation. It’s a character on the record that blends.”
It’s a trick the Dylan has employed before. The Clash’s Mick Jones appeared on “Reboot the Mission,” a number-one hit on Billboard’s AAA Songs chart from 2012’s Glad All Over, the Wallflowers’ last studio album, and Bruce Springsteen and other famous friends have popped up at concerts along the way during the group’s long career — usually on “One Headlight,” one of the defining songs of the mid-’90s, post-grunge era.
Dylan’s songwriting has matured in the nearly 25 years since “One Headlight,” and it’s because he takes his craft seriously.
“I’m always writing, but I can look back at songs I wrote 20 years ago, and I can think, ‘That’s a nice song, but I don’t relate to the person that wrote it,’ because I’m not that person anymore and the times are different,” he says. “You have to write with whatever the temperament is that you’re living with.”
While Dylan has seemingly always tried to keep the subject matter of his songs broad in scope and at least somewhat positive — “Even if it’s just a tiny bit hopeful, that makes all the difference as far as I’m concerned,” he says — there’s a thoughtfulness and world-weariness to the songs on Exit Wounds that captures our collective mood and feels like a perfect response to the lurching, chaotic events we’ve all experienced recently, even if the album was mostly written, Dylan says, pre-pandemic.
“You know, we were in another kind of pandemic before that,” he says. “So, that was on everybody’s minds. And it completely redesigned our DNA. So I didn’t write any songs about Trump. Like, hell no. I want to sing my songs for the rest of my career, and I don’t want to be carrying that song around. But at the same time, everything was different in my life during that time, so it’s in my music. I can’t help it. It’s unavoidable. But I prefer to write about things in a way that is timeless. So it’s not about the pandemic, it’s about how did we all feel living during that time? What happened to our relationships? What happened to our lives? That’s what this album is about.”
Dylan acknowledges that he’s been fortunate to work with some of the best rock producers in the business, including T Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin. But this time, he turned to fellow musician and longtime pal Butch Walker to helm the sessions for Exit Wounds.
“There’s endless different kinds of producers, and you’ve got to find the one that you respond to the best, and I’ve learned that I get better results out of myself when I’m working with somebody who does the same thing I do, and that was Butch, who is a singer-songwriter-performer even before he’s a producer,” Dylan explains. “That’s how I know him. I’ve played with him countless times, I met him on tour, so that’s how I think of him. But I’ve worked with a lot with producers, and I can’t really tell you what half of them do or don’t do most of the time.”
Dylan laughs at the admission, but it begs the question: Why have a producer at all at this stage of his career, with seven Wallflowers albums and two solo albums — 2008’s Seeing Things and 2010’s Women + Country — under his belt?
“I don’t need a producer, to be honest, but I do want one,” he confesses. “I could make a record on my own, but I believe artists just do a little bit better when they have someone with their same perspective, who pushes them and maybe cheers them on when they’re not feeling great or nudges them when they’re not doing their absolute best. Butch and I, while our backgrounds might be very different, what we like is the best of the best of everything. That’s a strong thing to have in common.”
Bringing in Walker turned out to be a smart move. Not only did Dylan have a trusted foil upon which to test out his new material, but with the Wallflowers having always been made up of a rotating cast of musicians, he and Walker wisely roped in some of Walker’s band as a tight, ready-made unit and added longtime Jackson Browne guitarist (and another Dylan friend) Val McCallum to the proceedings, giving the performances a cohesiveness that might otherwise have been lacking.
“I don’t like the idea that records are supposed to be torturous and difficult to make,” Dylan says. “Like, no. That’s just a bunch of garbage that they teach you when you’re coming up, that romantic side of it that you’re supposed to be having a difficult time. So, this is — I can really say maybe the first time — yeah, at least one of the few times I can say I think we worked really hard on that great set and also had a great time. I think you can do that. I think, you know, I wanted to just — I wanted to be, like, in a close-knit situation that was friends, and that I knew the people.”
Of course, Dylan is the most famous progeny of Bob Dylan. While his pedigree no doubt opened a few doors along the way, being the son of one of the preeminent artists of the latter half of the 20th century could easily have been a weight too heavy to carry. That Jakob Dylan burst onto the music scene in the mid-’90s and did it with aplomb — and seemed intent on carving out his own identity on his own terms — endeared him to rock and roll fans both old and young.
Still, the group had a rocky start: the Wallflowers’ first album was solid, but a dud in terms of sales, and the group were dropped by Virgin, though they hit their collective stride in 1996 with Bringing Down The Horse. With grunge sputtering in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, not to mention night and day rotation on the then-all-important MTV, a new crop of rootsy rockers became ascendant. Sporting a sound built on old-school pop, folk- and alt-rock not all that far removed from Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers (Petty guitarist Mike Campbell even contributed the epic hook to “6th Avenue Heartache,” the Wallflowers’ break-out hit) along with Dylan’s teen idol good looks, the group was on the fast track to stardom by the time the second single from Bringing Down The Horse — the aforementioned “One Headlight,” which went on to win two Grammys and earn a spot on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Pop Songs” list — was released.
“I don’t want to sound like the ‘get off my lawn’ guy, but I am grateful we came up at that time,” Dylan says, reflecting. “Back then, you were not supposed to explode on your first record. Maybe that was expected of your second. Record companies then, they gave you time. They knew it was going to be a ride and that the investment was probably seven years. You got to take some chances and build something. These things are all gone now.”
In fact, the belated follow-up to Bringing Down The Horse, 2000’s Breach, was arguably a stronger album than the one that put the Wallflowers on the map, even if the timing wasn’t that great.
“Breach came out literally on the day that that version of the record business — the Napster thing — was happening,” Dylan recalls. “Breach was the peak of it. It was the most downloaded record when it came out because everyone was curious not just about us, after Bringing Down The Horse, but about the free downloading thing. But you arrive once. You get introduced one time. And that was Bringing Down the Horse for us. The next records, they usually tend to get better. But they have different purposes. Breach is not as commercial a record. It doesn’t have those singalong choruses, but that’s what’s going to make up the body of my work. They can’t all be Bring Down the Horse. And even if I could do that again, I don’t think I’d want to. It would be too boring.”
A lot has changed since Breach. Napster and the piracy boom that decimated the old record industry model gave way to the streaming era. In the meantime, Dylan made solo records and even the Laurel Canyon documentary Echo In The Canyon. But having had the enviable position of coming along during the last wave of old-school rock and roll bands, does he have a perspective on what it might take for a young band to make it in 2021?
“I’m not that in touch or in tune with how a young band today is going to make it,” he confesses flatly. “But forget about the business. There is no record business. It’s a streaming business. It’s something else. The record business we’ve been talking about is long gone. And that’s why a lot of people just don’t bother forming bands, or, if they’re already in the business, making records anymore. And that’s a shame, because it’s us who have missed out. Those younger artists who need time to develop, they’re not being given the opportunity to do that, because they have to have jobs. So, we’re the ones, the listeners, who miss out on that. But you know, no bitching and moaning. We move on and we go to the next thing. For kids who are coming up today, it’s probably really exciting. And that model we just talked about probably sounds pretty stupid to them. They can’t relate. Because even if they do get a record deal, they’re doing 360 deals. It’s a different thing. So, I make records and touring’s my business and the older model worked for somebody my age. But there’s probably a lot of great things about the new model, if there is one. I think it’s just everybody free-falling and just throwing up flares and trying to get noticed. So I feel very fortunate to have come up in that last wave when you could have people who don’t even know who your band is know your songs. But those days are long gone.”
And if there’s a yearning nostalgia currently for all things ’90s, Dylan remembers the decade more for the long tour bus rides, endless hotels and early morning radio interviews than for any festival appearances or even camaraderie with other bands along the way.
“I came across a lot of people during that time, but I don’t know that my band ever really was a part of the scene,” Dylan says, reflecting. “First of all, when we were up and coming, there weren’t a lot of those festivals. You had the big one, Lollapalooza, I guess, but every town, every city, was not oversaturated with festivals back then the way it is now. But we weren’t really a part of any scene, and I never felt much camaraderie with other bands. I can’t tell you why. I don’t think I’m an outsider of any kind, but no, I don’t look back and think about certain people in those days. I always felt like we were kind of on our own island.”
Still, Dylan says he has his own sort of nostalgia for the ’90s music scene, even if it is from the inside looking out.
“I opened for the Rolling Stones, and I opened for the Who,” Dylan says, audibly perking up at the memories. “There are a lot of things I got to do that the next person didn’t get to do, so, yeah, I get the nostalgia. I had plenty of good times, too.”
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