Photo: Yasmin Than
Jakob Dylan Opens Up About The Return Of The Wallflowers & Their New Album 'Exit Wounds'
Much like his famous father, singer/songwriter Jakob Dylan is a master of ambiguity and double meanings. For example, take the title of his GRAMMY-winning band the Wallflowers' first album since 2012, Exit Wounds.
"There's an image that people might have of the exit site of a bullet or an arrow, and I don't really feel that way about the title," Dylan, who has won two GRAMMYs and been nominated for six, tells GRAMMY.com. "I think that it's more about transition. I think anytime you transition from one thing to the other, you're going to have exit wounds, and you're going to give other people exit wounds."
As transitions go, Dylan recently made a big one into filmmaking: He produced the 2018 film Echo in the Canyon, which chronicled the history and lasting impact of the Laurel Canyon sound of the '60s and '70s. Despite branching off into new territory, his intention has always been to return to the band he started 30 years ago. The inspiration just had to be right.
"Once the dust settled, I waited. I don't feel compelled [to] make a record if I'm not inspired," Dylan adds. "I'm always inspired to tour and play. I'll do that as I wait for material to come." With the help of his band and producer Butch Walker, Exit Wounds, which arrives July 9, befits the band's legacy.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Dylan to discuss his return to the Wallflowers with a revamped lineup, what it was like working with singer Shelby Lynne and how the lessons from the band's self-titled 1992 debut still resonate.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
You got to record some classic songs for the Echo in the Canyon soundtrack. What lessons from that experience carried over to the album?
For those songs, I was able to be an interpreter. I wasn't the writer. I got to put most of the weight on being a singer, which I hadn't really done before. And I found that I could do different things with my voice than I imagined before. I knew that I still love being in a band and playing this music.
You have times you feel like maybe you want to try new things but singing those songs, those great songs, Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds, the Mamas & the Papas. It just got me excited to have my own songs to sing.
And we don't need any more songs, necessarily, but I want more songs for myself to sing. I want to be excited when I go out and play shows. I want new songs for those who want to hear new songs. In that regard, it was motivating to just keep doing what it is I do.
I like being in the studio. I like creating songs. That rush never gets old. And if you've got a good song, you're off to a great start. That's what I've always tried to have when I begin.
Despite playing with a different lineup, you've said that it's very much a band record. Why do you think it feels like a Wallflowers record?
That's up to you, but for me, what is the band? I don't know. Does a band have to be together for 20 years to be a band? Does a band have to only work within its own confines of each person to be a band for a length of time?
I think if you put five people in a room and they make a record together for a month, that is a band. And you're working together, you're feeling each other out, you're leaning on each other's strengths and it's cohesive from the beginning to the end.
And it has a particular sound that only those five people could create together, bouncing off one another. That's a band. Whether or not that band goes out and continues and tours the next four records, it might not. But for the time that it existed, that is a band, as opposed to making a record and having a grab bag of 50 different musicians coming and going.
Five people together making a record: That's a band to me.
Does the Wallflowers' material have a special essence that the solo material doesn't have?
Yeah, I suppose it does. You could say it's instrumentation, but when I know I'm making Wallflowers records, certain songs occurred to me. I can't tell you why. But as much as I've worked on this band for 30 years or so, there are times I want to do something different.
Sometimes, that just means if I tell myself it's a solo record, I'm free of accepting the guidelines of what I find the sound of the Wallflowers is. I'm able to do different things. And when I work on the Wallflowers, I have a sound in mind and it's a continuous sound that they've been carrying for 30 years, and I can change it and enhance it, but at its core, it does a certain thing. But it's usually led by the songs that start showing up to me.
I don't start writing and thinking, "This is going to be a solo record or a Wallflowers record." Once the songs come in, they just kind of tell me what they want. And sometimes they don't want to be within the sounds of the Wallflowers. Sometimes they want to be more. There's room for everything. There's time for everything. If there's nothing else, there's time for more than I do.
For the Wallflowers, it's something that I do, and I started that sound a long time ago. I had to do it with almost anybody. It's my voice and it's my song, and it's traditional instrumentation, guitar, bass, drums, keyboards. I can make that sound like The Wallflowers with almost any different group of people. That's the sound that lives in my head.
What makes this particular lineup special or unique?
I always think it's the songs that get over or they don't. I think with this particular group of guys, I think that everybody understood that we're all here because if I'm not going to get over and these songs aren't reaching people, then there's no point in being here. And we had a good understanding of that.
You also got to work with Shelby Lynne on four of the songs. You've been a fan of hers for a while, so I imagine it was a special experience. What was it like to work with her and develop a musical chemistry?
It's not enough to just call in your favorite singer to sing with you. You have to have some kind of chemistry and purpose together. Sometimes you can just swallow each other up. So as much as I admire Shelby and I admire a lot of people, you run the risk of just not working, not sounding good, wasting each other's time.
Shelby's a giant on her own. Her own records, she takes up a lot of space. She has a very unique voice, she's a contralto, and she has a really strong identity to the songs she writes. But she can wear a lot of hats, and she was able to switch gears and back me up versus what her normal ability is, which is to be the person out front.
I have a very strong kinship with her musically and I admire her greatly. And I appreciate very much that we sounded good together because I would have been pretty devastated had we not. I've done that before. I've had people come in and sing, and it's disappointing when you just have to face the fact that you don't sound good together.
Fortunately, I think Shelby and I sounded great together when we started.
"Exit Wounds" to some might conjure a negative and unpleasant meaning, but you see it in a more positive light. Why do you think it's important to make that distinction?
I like words that are pliable. I like words that have multiple meanings. [The phrase] "exit wounds" to me is not negative. There's an image that people might have of the exit site of a bullet or an arrow, and I don't really feel that way about the title.
I think that it's more about transition. I think anytime you transition from one thing to the other, you're going to have exit wounds, and you're going to give other people exit wounds. That's what life is. You don't get to be the same thing forever and not move along without some kind of pain. And sometimes that pain is required and it's necessary and it makes you a better person or takes you to a better place.
Collectively, I think you could probably say the entire planet has a lot of exit wounds. Whether you lost somebody or you changed in the last year, you're somebody different now. You got to say goodbye to whatever it was you were. And maybe you're better now. And maybe you're not, but either way, you're taking some exit wounds with you and that's how you evolve.
That's how you change. And it's unavoidable, but it is not negative. It's not meant to be standing up on a battlefield and walking on after some horrific situation. That's not how I see it. I think you can attach that meaning to the current times, but I wouldn't. And I don't really mean to project that. I think it's more about transition.
How does songwriting help you make sense of the world?
I haven't yet. That's certainly not my goal. I just went by my songs, they're conversations, and you're working through them, but there is no end game. Nothing is resolved. I write mostly about the human condition and what I feel about it.
I'm in the thick of it as you are or as anybody else. I explore those ideas in my songs, why we do good things, why we do bad things. Why do we do bad things when we know what the right thing to do is, we do the wrong thing. These are all things that you explore in the song, and these are conversations.
"Maybe Your Heart's Not in It No More" is one such conversation, one with your muse—your motivation. Why is that conversation important?
It's what's in your mind that keeps you moving and that drives you. It's possibly a conversation you could have with your own muse when you're asking yourself and your muse, if you're still in sync together and if you are still doing what you hope to be doing. Are you still inspired?
What were you hoping to convey on "Who's That Man Walking 'Round My Garden"?
It's tied in traditional music really, in that you're protecting something. You find something in your life that's worth protecting, your ideals, a person, whatever it is. And you find it worth protecting and you find that it's been toiled with or messed with or compromised. You might ask yourself: Who is that, or what is that, that is doing such a thing?
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the band's debut. What do you recall of those sessions?
We were very young, and we felt we were one of the greatest rock 'n' roll groups in the world. And although it turns out that, at that young age, we certainly were not, it's the right attitude to have.
And we had a producer, Paul Fox, who allowed us to feel that way and have that kind of attitude, which is important in music and rock 'n' roll. And while that record is flawed, I'm very proud that we did it that way. I think just two weeks' time that we rehearsed and had our songs together and we sound like a band.
And I'm glad we came up when we did. We played it live with very few overdubs. We just thought that's how bands do it. We thought that was the whole point. No one told us yet that you could spend six months in the studio exploring. It's good to have that experience where you're relying only on your own abilities and not the studio as an additional instrument.
What advice would you have for newer bands?
Records should not be a burden to make. There should be a lot of joy in making them. And you can have a good time making a record and do great things at the same time.
I think a lot of young bands are taught that records are supposed to be really difficult to make, and that's totally inaccurate. They can be, and you can get great results doing that, but it's not required. You can have a good time making a record and do stuff that you find to be meaningful and deep.