Jakob Dylan Talks New Wallflowers LP ‘Exit Wounds,’ J Geils Band’s “Centerfold,” Lyrics & More

Nine years between albums can feel like an eternity in the music world. It might lead you to believe there will be no more albums at all. But bands have a sneaky way of coming back to life when you least expect it and sometimes they actually knock your socks off with what they give you when they do. And that is what Jakob Dylan has done with his new Wallflowers recording, Exit Wounds. It is almost perfect: Dylan’s voice is a pristine instrument that scratches with authenticity; the band is soothing on some songs, kicking up their heels on others; and singer Shelby Lynne has given Dylan the consummate harmony partner on the four songs she appears on. Saying this is the best Wallflowers album they’ve recorded is an understatement. 

With that being said, the only consistent, and remaining, member of the band is Dylan himself. Perhaps that is their secret. With the turnaround of artists, new flavors and tones sift in and out of the mix, creating fresh accents that allow difference within an oeuvre they’d established since their formation in 1989. Their second album, 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse, brought the accolades based on inspired songwriting that produced four hits, including the still-played “One Headlight,” and springy beats that caught your attention from the get-go.

Between 1992 and 2005, The Wallflowers released albums regularly. In 2008, Dylan dropped a magnificent solo album, Seeing Things, followed by 2010’s Women + Country. Two years later, The Wallflowers returned with a spiritedly wild album, Glad All Over, that harkened up Dylan’s early love of The Clash. In 2016, they celebrated the 20th anniversary of their best-selling sophomore album. And in 2018 came Echo In The Canyon, a video homage to Laurel Canyon featuring Dylan singing the songs of mid-sixties Beach Boys, Mama’s & Papa’s & The Byrds while talking with the artists who created the songs.

But The Wallflowers aren’t finished yet. With a load of new songs, Dylan decided to release them with a new incarnation of the band. “The Wallflowers have always been a vehicle for me to make great rock ‘n’ roll records,” he said in a press release. “My intention is always to make the Wallflowers record I want to make, using the musicians I have beside me.” Continued Dylan: “This was not the type of thing where it’s a rotating cast and you call a different drummer for each song, or you pull out the Rolodex and ring the local session guys. The record was made as a band – the five Wallflowers. It’s just exciting to have guys playing in a room together. That’s how you get the one plus one equals three factor. That’s the magic.”

The magic is definitely in the songs, as well as passion, yearning, love, humor and reflection. It is a trip worth taking with Dylan. From “Move The River,” “Roots & Wings” and “The Dive Bar In My Heart” to “The Daylight Between Us” and “Who’s That Man Walking Round My Garden,” it’s one stellar performance after another. Could this be 2021’s Album Of The Year? It very well could be.

I recently spoke with Dylan about his new songs, his songwriting, guitars, X’s John Doe and taking one genre’s undertones and making them new and inventive.

You have a new album coming out with The Wallflowers. The last album was a little on the wild side but this is going in a bit different direction.

Well, you always got to be trying different new things, you’ve got to stretch out. But at some point, you return to your home base, where it felt good and comfortable at the time. But this was never Rage Against The Machine, it occupied a different lane, you know, and whatever songs occurred to me I was going to chase those.

What about these songs made you want them to be Wallflowers songs as opposed to being just Jakob Dylan songs?

Well, I know that’s confusing for people and I’m confused half the time too. I just follow my nose and this time around it just felt like it was time. It’s been, what, eight years or so, and if you don’t tend to something and revisit it and maintain it, you could lose it. So it was the right time for me to uphold my end of the deal with this band I started thirty years ago. I want to make sure it stays alive and healthy.

How long had you been working on these songs before you went into the studio with them?

A couple had been hanging around for a little while. You always collect them and you try to be aware that songwriters think their newest songs are their best songs and that’s usually not true. Just because you wrote something a couple of years ago, you maybe hadn’t thought about it in a little while, so you have to have perspective and reflection. But I’d say a couple of them hung around for a while and we revisited them and revamped them. Most of these were written, I’d say, within six months of going in the studio.

How long did it take you in the studio to get them down?

I think we recorded it in two weeks. I continued to tweak and sing and do a few overdubs here and there but I’d say 90% of it was really just a couple of weeks.

So you were tweaking the older songs?

Well, if you have a song that you wrote four or five years ago and you want it to sit next to some other songs, yeah, you might adjust a few words or so because you want it to make sense with those other songs. They’ve got to feel good and sit together well. There’s usually a language that writers use in a block of time that is consistent so you just want them to feel good with the other songs. I wouldn’t say they changed drastically, certainly not in their arrangements, but you just want them to all make sense together. You don’t want to be too disjointed and have a song that you wrote a few years ago that doesn’t sit with the other ones very well. You’ve got to be careful.

Do you realize when you’re writing that the songs are having a theme or a connective thread?

Not too much, really. I think in hindsight you realize that because it’s just natural if you write songs, let’s say in a three month period, those songs are going to have commonality to them, in a language themselves; certain words and images are going to occur to you during that stretch, cause that’s who you are at that time. Then six months later you might be in a different side of the country or things might look and feel different, you might have different images in front of you, depending where you are. So no, usually it’s in hindsight that you realize it. I can listen to a record, say for example Women + Country. There’s something very distinct about it. I revisited it recently with somebody and I don’t recognize the language so much. It’s not what I’m doing now and I can’t tell you why that happened but that’s what happens over time, you move along and you can’t really tell sometimes until hindsight that things have a theme or a consistency. It’s hard to know.

So what do you see going through this album with these songs? The main connective tissue?

Well, I would say evolution, time. That’s exit wounds and you take them with whatever you do and they’re not all bad. I mean, if you have exit wounds then I’m assuming you survived so you’ve got some wounds you can talk about, you’ve got some scars that might be interesting. But you’re going to take them as you evolve and move on to the next place. As you walk up the ladder or sideways, wherever you go, you can’t take everything with you, and you’re going to be maybe disappointed sometimes that you can’t, but that’s life and that’s reality. And certainly right now you can say we’ve all got more than a few exit wounds depending on how you feel right now. But we’ve got exit wounds from what we’ve all been through recently.

What is something you did not want to infiltrate into this album?

That’s interesting that you ask that actually because a lot of times you make records and you’re not always sure what you want to do but you keep your collection of ideas you had in the past that you don’t want to repeat or steps you took that you don’t want to repeat. So it kind of becomes an elimination process. For me, this record, I just wanted the songs to be upfront and center. I didn’t want them to get lost in the studio. I didn’t want to worry about expanding the sound. I just wanted them to fit into my pocket. 

At different times you do different things. There’s a time for everything and on this record, I just didn’t want to get too bogged down with the record necessarily. Was it this kind of record or was it that kind of record. I wanted the focus to be on my songs and the melodies. They’re for whoever they find. I’m not reaching for anybody that might not already like what I do.

What is your connection with water – because you bring that up several times?

Well, it’s one of the elements and for a songwriter, water – it’s suffocation, it’s drowning, it’s freedom, it’s buoyant; it can do whatever you need it to do. It’s a pliable word and can represent a handful of things.

“Move The River” is a great song with different stages. I know you don’t like to talk about the meat of your lyrics so how did that song begin?

Yeah, it’s not always easy to talk about songs. Sometimes it can’t be defined but I can actually give you an idea about that song. It’s the only song on this record that I felt it unavoidable to represent and write about our last four years. The idea, if you can’t get around something or you can’t go through it, God willing you can just move it and that would be the river of sludge that came barreling, and still sometimes, barreling down on us. I think everybody can relate to that and I don’t have to get into politics about it specifically. But yeah, when you can’t get around it you just got to move it.

What part of that song came first?

I would say, “It’s not a good idea to cross it, it may not have another side.” When that line occurred to me, I realized I had a song. And that’s all you need, you know, and then you can work backwards. You have to have a point you can hang your hat on and when I had that line, and I think that’s the second half of the first verse, I thought that would be the opening line of the song. But I did not know how to get to the “Shadow of a lost plane.” I’m telling you too much cause you probably don’t want to know all this garbage that songwriters think about (laughs). Actually, when I first wrote that, “It’s not a good idea to cross it,” I thought not only is that the first line of this song but it’s probably the first line of this record. But it didn’t work out. But if you ask me to recall, I do remember having that line and realizing that I had something there. [“Move The River” is Track 6]

You have the wonderful Shelby Lynne on here and I have to say that your voices are perfect together. How long has she been on your radar?

Oh, probably since they gave her the Best New Artist when she’d already made like four records, whatever year that was. They gave her a Grammy for Best New Artist and she’d been making records for years already. But I’m glad to hear you noticed that we sound good together because when you have a guest singer come in that you admire, you don’t know if you’re going to sound good together. It could be your favorite singer in the world and it could mean the world to you but as soon as you roll tape you just know, man, we don’t sound like we have a special blend. 

She’s cool, though. Shelby is amazing and she has a unique voice. She’s a contralto, which is the lowest for a woman’s voice, really. I have a very low voice. My voice takes up a lot of space and so does hers. So that’s kind of unique and kind of cool for us to sing together. Obviously, her singing is unlike anybody else’s and when I heard her sing those lyrics back, I was transported and had an immediate feeling of, I wish I’d written that song, and then take a step backwards and realize I did, because when someone else does your song, it goes to a different place.

Your songs can be so serious lyric-wise so what is a fun Jakob Dylan written song?

(laughs) We’ve got plenty of rock people out there entertaining and saying stupid stuff. I don’t think that’s really my thing but I think some of my songs are funny. I think most of them are. On this record, “Who’s That Man Walking Round My Garden:” “I got your back, I got your front.” I think that’s funny. Maybe someone else thinks that’s serious, I don’t know.

When you first started writing songs, were you more interested in a rhyming rhythm or more stream of consciousness?

No, my stuff is not very stream of consciousness. I’ve learned not to look at it too closely but words are important to me, the sound of words. Every word that you can think of has it’s on inherent melody and I like playing with those. It’s not always what it is you want to say to something. Sometimes how you say it with the word choices are really, really important and they’re really important to me and I really work hard with these things and I edit myself extensively, just because of my instinct. I don’t know why that is, I’m not always happy that is true, but the words are important to me, not that you understand what I’m saying but the beauty of words and how they go together and how they interlock is very important and interesting and I’m very curious about that and I can’t help but chase that. 

Stream of consciousness? No, I say go to work. Write your long-form policy for someone else to read. When you’re putting a song together, I admire the precision of songwriting. I admire that’s a great idea and now lock it in and let’s bring it to life. Don’t just let it sit there undefined, let’s work on it.

Do you like collaborating with other people or are you more comfortable with just yourself?

I collaborate but I do better on my own. I’ve written a lot of songs with people but you can’t write songs with three or four people, like they do in some places. That’s like think tanking, like writing movies. I don’t understand that part of it. You can write songs with one or two people, usually one works okay, but ultimately, I work better alone. The songs I’ve written with other people, they do a certain thing but the stuff I’m probably most pleased with in terms of my own work, is something I’ve done on my own.

When you go into the studio, your songs are pretty well done then?

Yes, that’s how I work best. I’ve tried it all different ways but if I had any advice for anybody, well, it’s not even advice: do what works for you. What works for me is having my shit together when I show up. I’ve written songs on the floor in the studio and they usually kind of sound like you’re hurried. There’s a lunchbreak coming, there’s the end of the day. I need time. I don’t want to be hurried. You could spend your whole life in the studio polishing stuff but if you don’t have a good song, it’s just not going to matter. If you write songs in the room with everybody cause you need a song today, usually it sounds like that to me. You know, it sounds cool, you got good sounds going, I like the groove, but I’m not really hearing a memorable song. Sometimes you have to do that, you don’t always have enough songs and you find yourself in that situation where I don’t have a song but let’s go write one. That works too sometimes. But I prefer to know what I’m doing before I get there.

On your first solo album, Seeing Things, you capture an old Appalachian feel, more like the undertones of the bare bones of that music. When did that kind of music begin to matter to you?

Well, it’s always mattered to me but I’m not a purist of any kind. I wouldn’t really want to do that. I don’t hold out for any bygone eras or styles of anything but I’ve listened my whole life to bluegrass to country to folk to rock & roll to punk music. I’m just a big mess of all of it inside me. But yeah, I prefer to flirt with those things. I don’t want to totally get in bed with them and have something that is exclusively that. That’s not my strength and there are people who have devoted their whole lives to playing that music. How can I do bluegrass music when I’ve got Ralph Stanley records in my collection? Like, I don’t deserve that, I don’t have the life that would lead me to making pure bluegrass music. But that doesn’t discount me from liking it and I’m allowed to like it and I’m allowed to play it. But just be careful what’s believable. You have to be believable. It’s not enough to just want to do something. You can but I think it’s smarter to be aware of how you are getting over and if it’s working. If it’s not working, maybe it’s not your thing.

The song “Will It Grow” from that album has those undertones of that old kind of AP Carter music. It’s pretty metaphoric but did it start off with only one meaning?

No, that one is a song I could say that feeling is impression, and the reason it reminds you of the Carter Family, it’s the language you’re responding to; it’s almost dustbowl language. And it’s just because I like that stuff. That makes sense to me to put yourself into the shoes of not a character but this time and place. And there are words I can get away with in a song like that that maybe in a rock song it wouldn’t work. But what’s the specifics of that song? I don’t know, I guess life. Will it grow or will it exist or continue. I don’t know, it’s been a long time ago (laughs).

The Wallflowers first album, looking back, what was right and what was wrong?

There was nothing wrong about it. It was completely overly ambitious and we were probably super arrogant and thought we were the best band in the world. If you don’t feel like that when you make your first record, you’re wrong. You should feel like that and we were given freedom and space to do what we wanted to do and we felt empowered. Yeah, I can listen to it now and I can hear all kinds of youth and stuff that I of course would do differently today. But you can’t go back and change your high school yearbook photo, you know. It’s there, I’m not going to remix it for anybody, I’m not going to go back and update it for anybody. It’s a great impression of where I was at and the people I was with at that time.

Do you consider “One Headlight” a positive song?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, we can get there, right, even if we’re hobbling. But I think all my songs are positive. I truly do. They may not look like it at first but it only takes one line, one word sometimes, to make a song turn on it’s head and make it positive. So you can listen to the whole three and a half, four minutes of the song and it seems that maybe it’s not positive but look out, there’s always one moment where I’m sure to express some positivity. It doesn’t take a lot.

So would you say hope is prevalent in your songs?

I think hope is always abundant in my songs. Always. 

What was the most interesting thing you learned about Laurel Canyon or it’s music while you were making Echo In The Canyon?

I knew a lot about that music, which is what drove us to make a film about it. If you saw it, hopefully you understand it wasn’t a movie about Laurel Canyon, as some people misunderstood. It wasn’t really about that. We were really talking about 1965 when these bands got together and basically sailed up to the stars and imploded like rockets. That’s what we were kind of getting into but more than anything it reconfirmed to me a good song is really pliable. I got to be a singer and interpreter and I didn’t have to do the heavy lifting of writing the songs. And I liked that. When you have those songs and you’re singing “Never My Love” and singing those Beach Boys songs, I mean, 80% of your work is done. You’ve got a great song, just try to stay out of the way and not screw it up (laughs).

You are playing this big beautiful black guitar on “Roots & Wings” on Jimmy Kimmel. What can you tell us about that guitar and how long has it been in your life?

Thank you for noticing. I like my guitars (laughs). That is a 1966 Gibson 355. It’s very unusual that it’s an original guitar. How long have I had it? I’ve probably had it ten years but I can’t remember. I used to play a lot of Fender guitars, I still do, but not too long ago I started playing more Gibsons live and that’s been my go-to guitar for some time.

I love playing guitar but my abilities on the guitar are really about requirements because I want to write songs and I’m in the band so I need to have a certain dialogue with everybody. But I was pretty aware early on with guitar that I probably had limited abilities and it wasn’t a matter of putting in the work. Some people can pick up a guitar and it really sings right away, you know. I didn’t chase it that way. I used it as a tool to learn how to write songs more than anything.

What was the first song you remember hearing where the lyrics really stood out to you?

Oh, wow, give me a minute on that … You know the J Geils Band and that song “Centerfold”? There was a situation where I was in grade school and listening to that song and it didn’t occur to me what centerfold was. I think I was too young to really know what that meant. But there was a controversy at the school because a teacher had played it and then I had to go listen to it and I realized there was nothing about it that seemed controversial to me. And I thought that was a shame that we’re overpowering the situation of a teacher actually sharing music with students. And I’m talking I’m like nine years old or something. I guess what I’m saying is that they drew attention that this was an inappropriate song. I didn’t know that. None of us knew that. So you actually made it inappropriate. You shined a light on what was inappropriate about it. I guess lyrics, they didn’t matter to me at first but once I heard that was what it was about, I guess there is a lot of power in these lyrics, you know. 

I love the older J Geils Band, the more bluesier incarnation

Oh yeah, they were punk rock, they were great. They were truly misunderstood. Those hits are great, by the way, but they were more like Dr. Feelgood and they were a punk band. They sounded like the Rolling Stones and the E Street Band kind of lumped in together.

I didn’t realize you did a song with John Doe

Did I do a song with John Doe? You know what, I love John and if we played together, I’m confused on what that recording would be. But if you find something, don’t let me discount it [Doe’s 2002 Dim Stars, Bright Sky solo album]. I’m sure I did, I love John. He was the real punk. He was the good punk. I’m not talking about mohawks and all that shit that came up afterwards from Orange County over here in California. John was like LA punk, leather jackets. They had rockabilly influences and they had western wear and obviously, the Knitters came shortly afterwards. Those guys, they totally knew, and I’ve talked to John about that, and as soon as the mohawks showed up, they didn’t understand, the violence and all that. The original punks made their own clothes and inventing as they went and they had a lot of camaraderie and they were outsiders and misfits and it wasn’t dangerous. John was in that original wave with the Blasters and a handful of others out here but I always loved X and he is a remarkable singer.

What about The Wallflowers touring this year?

We had a tour but it was postponed. And I was not in charge of that postponement. I’m disappointed not to be out touring and playing. I tour every summer, I always have, and we missed last summer, of course, like everybody. I have some sporadic shows but I’m not getting on a tour bus for a few months. And you know what it’s like? It’s like, if you’re not touring this summer, which I do think it’s healthy and I think people are just eager to go see shows, it kind of feels like the school bus is picking everybody up and a lot of us don’t get to go. So I’m disappointed. I want to play.

Is your musical quest basically the same as it was when you were starting out?

I think so. When you’re starting out you haven’t done anything yet and the possibilities seem endless. You get down the road a little bit, you have new things to do. Yeah, you go out and do these adventures but you usually circle back to where you began. But I don’t know a whole lot more than I used to know. You think you do but the more you learn the less you know. I still feel like it’s similar, yeah, but there’s realities that are true – you’ve got to be able to put food on your table too and those things you’ve always got to keep an eye on. You didn’t worry about those so much when you’re younger but they go hand-in-hand and I try to make that work year in and year out.

 

Portrait by Yasmin Than; live photos by Mary Andrews 

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