In retrospect, Jakob Dylan wishes he had some Herculean tale of vanquishing coronavirus depression that he could share to cheer folks up. But all he has on offer is Exit Wounds, a new sonic pick-me-up cocktail from his three-decade-old folk-rock band The Wallflowers; It was written and recorded pre-pandemic, was chiseled into chiming shape by master producer Butch Walker (who also played guitar, keyboards and percussion, and sang backing vocals), and features alt-country firebrand Shelby Lynne on four tracks, including the definitive opening anthem “Maybe Your Heart’s Not In It No More.” But our universally experienced Plague Year still gives him uneasy pause, he shivers. “I just tried to get through it like everybody else, and it’s been even worse than Groundhog Day. The day doesn’t ever seem to re-start—it’s the same dismal thing, over and over. So I was really glad to have a record finished.”
In his Los Angeles home, Dylan, 51, had heard of all the grand lockdown ambitions. “I think a lot of people thought they were going to write that novel, or write that record or screenplay or whatever,” he sniffs. “But I don’t think most people did that, honestly, because I don’t think the energy that was around was really conducive to being creative—I know I certainly didn’t feel super-creative.” Instead of tensing, he relaxed, knowing he had great new raconteur-poetic originals like the jagged rocker “Move the River,” a bluesy “Wrong End of the Spear,” and the whimsically worded “I Hear the Ocean (When I Wanna Hear Trains)” and the therapy-speak “I’ll Let You Down (But Will Not Give You Up).” Another mournful plaint, “The Dive Bar in My Heart,” conjures up the same forlorn feeling as that old Replacements chestnut, “Here Comes a Regular”—not an easy feat to accomplish. Dylan also had a few confidence-boosters, like director Judd Apatow featuring The Wallflowers’ huge 1996 smash “One Headlight” in a firehouse-singalong in Pete Davidson’s breakout big-screen role as The King of Staten Island. And the signature single, at 25, just being ranked at #1 by Billboard on its Greatest of All Time Adult Alternative Songs rundown.
“But I wouldn’t have wanted to write a record about the pandemic or the Trump era or any of that,” asserts Dylan, whose singing voice has grown nearly as deep, seasoned and reedy as that of his famous father, Bob Dylan. “I mean, I write songs hoping that I’ll sing them for the rest of my life, so I couldn’t imagine sitting down and writing about [Covid], or even thinking about it one more minute than I had to.” But the Grammy winner was happy to sit for a spell with Paste and discuss all things Exit Wounds. And he had much to say.
Paste: Lyrically, there are lots of various means of conveyance on this album. And you’re repeatedly addressing someone, maybe while looking in the mirror. And then on another level, it feels like a breakup album, or maybe sending kids off to college. And wherever the conveyances are taking you there are lots of dogs, wolves and birds.
Jakob Dylan: Yeah. Well, a lot of that is attributed to, I think, that when you’re writing records, you’re doing them a block at a time, so a lot of the same images are circling in your mind. But yeah, that is a lot of the record —it’s transition. And I don’t do that too much, but when you listen to other people sing, you have to use pronouns. And it never occurs to me to decide if they’re talking about themselves or someone else in a breakup. So yeah, you could say breakups, but you break up all day long every day with all kinds of things, not just with other people. You have to frame your songs in some kind of situation, and there are only so many ways to address writing a song, whatever your feelings are. It’s just like movies, where there’s essentially seven subjects. There’s not a whole lot more in music, unless you’re writing novelty songs. So you have to find a way to address the same things that everybody else is considering, and you’ve got to find a way to frame it in some kind of language that usually ends up feeling like a relationship song, which to me isn’t always—or is rarely—an actual relationship song.
Paste: In “Move the River,” your thinking is purely visual, in, “The sky’s the color of an ashtray / Full of Van Gogh’s yellow clouds.”
Dylan: Yeah. I’m sure it conjures up an image and a picture. But you can’t look at it too close—if you look at it too close, it disappears like a puff of smoke. You have to just keep it at a distance and then look at it, because if you focus on it, you ask yourself, “What does that mean? The color of an ashtray?” But you don’t have to be told what that means—you don’t have to look at one to know what that feels and looks like. I think you just know what that image is, and what it represents.
Paste: So these songs were written during the pandemic, or before?
Dylan: No, just before. We actually had the record finished a little bit earlier, but then we had to hold it during the chaos while we figured out what to do. We kind of finished right at the time when people had to decide whether to put their records out knowing they can’t tour, or if they weren’t touring anyhow, did they wanna just sit on the record for a minute. So we sat for a minute, and most of this was written before the actual pandemic.
Paste: On the opening track “Maybe Your Heart’s Not In It No More”—and lines like “You used to rumble, you used to roar”—it sounds like you’re actually looking in the mirror.
Dylan: Well, you always are. I don’t really write narratives. I don’t really do that. So that’s how I’ve always known to do it, and what I’m drawn to do. I mean, you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and it would be an exercise to write those songs. And I’ve certainly done that. But I think most often you have to be inside those songs, you have to feel them. And it doesn’t mean that they’re purging when you write these songs, or that you’re not totally being honest. But when you look in the mirror, how do you not? Because if you’re not, please tell me how you do that. You’ve got to get the looking glass out of the house, I suppose, and I don’t know how to do that. So I don’t know how to write songs effectively that you’re not inside somehow —you have to have some kind of presence within your songs that is genuine, I think, for it to be at all powerful.
Paste: What’s the distinct character separation, then? Are you saying goodbye to the old you from the past? Are your kids heading off to college now?
Dylan: I mean yeah, sure—all of that’s true. But I’ve been doing this since … well, my first record was 30 years ago. And I’ve never been someone to say that you don’t want to repeat yourself, but you become more and more aware as you keep going that you’re often saying the same thing, but just in a different way. And I write songs throughout my life, so they’re gonna be affected by the normal transitions that you or anybody else is going through in life. And since it’s such a long time that I’ve been doing this, I think it’s normal to be asking yourself, “When I started doing this 30 years ago, did I make a deal or any pact with somebody that I’m supposed to do this forever, this way? And is this the only way to do what I wanna do, to be creative and have an outlet? And does it have to be performing and making records?” I mean, not many people do the same thing their entire lives—they just don’t. Your needs change. Your requirements change. And the goal of what you wanna do, which is expression, that doesn’t change. But just because you started doing this, whatever it is that you’re doing, when you’re 19, 20, or 21 years old, did you really say to yourself, “Well, I’ll be doing this this way for the rest of my life”? Most people don’t do that. And the goal is to express something, and that really depends on what your motivation is. Some people’s motivation is just to be onstage and be looked at, and they just need a song to do that, a vehicle to be onstage, so their records are just more ways to get out there and be on tour. So yeah, of course you start to reevaluate what it is that’s actually at the core of what you wanna do, and is it satisfying in this way, and do you wanna try something different. And when I say that, I don’t mean do you not wanna be writing songs anymore, because you can always do that—you don’t have to be in the record business to write songs. You could do it anywhere you want. Plenty of people are very happy, not chasing the record business, and there’s loads of opportunities. So yeah, Exit Wounds is a transition. And transitions, whether they’re good or they’re bad, whether they’re lateral or they move you up the ladder or down, they all take exit wounds with them. You don’t take everybody with you. Even the good experiences that you’ve had in your life, there’s gonna be some kind of heartache that probably comes along with it. And that’s all about transition.
Paste: Looking back on my life, I keep thinking I missed the Cameron Crowe turnoff someplace. I should’ve written a book, helmed a movie. But instead just kept doing what I enjoyed doing—interviewing musicians.
Dylan: Yeah. Well, that’s true—there are exit routes all along the highway, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t consider them all the time. You want to live a long, full life, you know? And everybody can get into a rut, and I’m sure you’ve asked yourself if maybe there’s something else to do. Maybe there is a book to write, or a screenplay. And you should. You know, I didn’t make a contract with anybody, ever, that said I had to do this one way forever. And I’m not just talking about music—I’m talking about your entire life. You’re allowed to change your mind. People will bring up things I said in interviews 25 years ago, and I’m like, “Well, I don’t know what the point is. I’m allowed to change my mind. These aren’t contracts that I set in stone that said I was always gonna feel this way.” And it’s ridiculous to ask any artist to be accountable for things they said even last week. You can be any number of different people from day to day, week to week. And everybody might seem to be held up to that expectation. But I have no problem now saying, when asked something that I flip-flopped on from 10 years ago, I’ve got no problem saying, “Yeah, I changed my mind.” I’m allowed to do that!
Paste: The way I always understood it was, you guys formed as a bunch of friends. But after Jimmy Iovine, at some point it became a business. And maybe now it’s back to friends again.
Dylan: Well, it is. And even looking back on Jimmy Iovine and those kinds of days in the record business, I don’t think bands are treated like that anymore. I don’t think labels actually nurture artists the way they used to. That’s changed since I’ve been at it, until now it’s unrecognizable. I come from a time where your first record? Nobody ever thought that was gonna catch fire at all—it was maybe the second, probably the third. Nobody made it big right away. And especially when you’re young, a band’s gotta learn how to do a lot of things when you get in a studio. You’re raw, you don’t know how to use a studio, you don’t have any technique. Sitting in a garage and playing all day long is not the same thing as going into a studio and making a record, so you need a minute to learn how to do all the different jobs. And it’s hard to figure that job out until you’re presented with it. So it doesn’t really recognize itself anymore. And as far as back to being friends, look, it’s good to work with friends, sure. And it’s good to work with people you don’t always agree with. But having a tremendous amount of contention isn’t worthwhile, to be honest. I’ve never really subscribed to that, that making records should be similar to breaking your head against the wall. I mean, maybe it can be done that way, but I don’t see why it should, and it certainly didn’t have to be done that way. You’ve heard stories, people talking about great records and how they almost killed each other. And I’ve seen versions of that, but while being in that situation, I’ve thought, “I don’t think this really the way that you do this. This doesn’t make any sense.” Because you can have different ideas, of course, and that’s where a lot of the good stuff is. But fighting over these records and music like it means something more than exactly what I said—music—it seems kind of preposterous to me at times. So I think that a lot of the better stuff does come out of joy, so I don’t see a great space for adversaries in the studio.
Paste: Butch Walker is such a masterful producer, and it sounds like he respects both you and your dad. And it’s like he connected the two eras because the way he miked your voice here almost taps into your father’s Daniel Lanois/“Oh Mercy” period.
Dylan: You’re saying the production? I’m not sure, specifically, so I wouldn’t know—Butch would know better than me. But the similarity I think you’re talking about is, Butch is aware, and he and I I are good friends, and he knows my records and knows my music, and I think he realized early on when we started working together that to really progress and do something with any real presence, it was really gonna have to be around my vocal, really. We weren’t gonna get lost in parts and too much sonics, because I just happen to carry the kind of voice that, if it’s not sitting up front and kind of dominating the space, well, then we lose something, and I haven’t been effective that way. So we discussed it, and he did a really good job of clearing out the space and just putting things around my vocals. And I’ve had good experiences doing that that were worthwhile, and I’ve made records where I think I got lost in the records—my voice. And then the tones get lost and the words get lost, and I just don’t think I’m as effective that way.
So you’d have to ask Butch how he did that, but he just put the right mic in front of me. And he can do all kinds of different things—it depends who he’s working with. But I think he realized with me right away that we’re just gonna have to clear space for my vocal to sit in front, so you could hear what I’m saying and the melody comes across. I’ve made records where I’m treated like the guitar player, where my voice just gets kind of tucked in and buried, and you have to strain to hear it. And I gravitate less to those, not because I’m trying to clog up all the space, but because at that point, you’re shifting away from what I do. And you’re not gonna hire me to play bass on your record, really—I’m a songwriter, and that’s my asset to any project I’m a part of. And that’s what I work hard on. And when I show up to make records, I don’t show up with a couple of ideas and jam on the floor like some people. I work hard on these things before I get there. And when you do that, when you’re a songwriter, whether you’re working with a piano or a guitar, they have a natural cadence and rhythm. They have something natural that comes along with them, when a songwriter sits and does that. And a lot of people would just start subtracting, and just keep the melody and the words. But that can often be a mistake, so when I would bring the songs in, we wouldn’t really tear them apart—we just dressed them as they were, as I usually came in with just an acoustic guitar.
Paste: A weird kudo to you, though. You correctly used punctuation marks, in ‘round, and darlin’, for example. Odd in this Guns ’N Roses era, huh?
Dylan: Well, you know, I like to be on time. And I think punctuation is pretty valuable, too. So I’m glad you noticed. I care about it. I dunno if anybody else does. And hey, look, it’s rock ’n’ roll—you can do whatever you want. But I just follow my nose, and if that makes sense to me, I run with it. But I just gravitate toward doing that, for whatever reason. But I am glad you noticed.
Paste: Are you a big book reader? Because it was interesting to note that bookstores survived during the pandemic. I certainly supported my local one.
Dylan: Yeah, they did survive. And that’s where I spent a lot of my time during this—you could somehow go in and look at the books. So I still do that, I still like it. And I’m glad that you mentioned bookstores. Because you can go online and buy books all day long, but there’s nothing [like] just standing in a bookstore. You get a lot of ideas and a lot of inspiration out of bookstores, for sure. I read a lot of autobiographies, I must say. Allison Moorer had a really great book about growing up—I really liked her book a lot. And there was a great Richard Avedon book that I went through. And you know, I was scheduled once to have Avedon take my picture many years ago. And for whatever reason, it didn’t happen. And I don’t know why it didn’t happen—I just remember being disappointed. And now I’m more disappointed than ever. But I liked Flea’s book a lot [Acid For the Children] —it was great. And I thought Jeff Tweedy wrote some good books recently, too [How to Write One Song, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)]. Those are really good.
Paste: You recently said that once Wallflowers touring kicked in after your “One Headlight” breakthrough, it actually did feel like Groundhog Day, over and over again.
Dylan: Oh yeah. It’s a cliche. You’ve got two hours onstage, then you’ve got 22 hours of doing whatever in the hell you can come up with, for the most part. But ya know, it’s different for everybody. I like to travel, but not everybody likes to travel. And that’s also really helpful and inspiring for writing—movement. You’ve gotta be moving, and that’s either on foot, or that’s in the country, or that’s in the world. And referring back to the pandemic, being inside, trapped inside—I don’t think that’s the most creative space to be in. And it’s not the same for everybody. But I like to move, and I’ve always liked touring. I came up traveling, then I put my band together, and we’ve been traveling ever since. I’ve always looked forward to doing it, and I always expect that I will do it. And travel has infused most of my records. But songwriters have that, you know? Especially when you write a block of songs in a six-month period—you’re in a similar headspace. Your day-to-day visuals are changing, but the actual chemistry in your brain has a consistency to it, and the language is gonna have that consistency. And then the next record may not, you know? And you’re aware of that when you’re writing, you’re aware of, “Gee, I keep going back to a plane. I keep going back to that, and I’m not even sure why.” So somewhere in your subconscious, maybe you wish you were on a plane—I’m not sure.
Paste: Since you once studied fine art at Parsons School of Design, did you jump over to any tangential arts during Covid, like painting?
Dylan: Oh, no. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say to you that I’d studied art so much. I took a stab at art college, and I did that when I was on the fence, because that world was very appealing to me, and being in a band was very appealing to me. And maybe I began that process, hoping that maybe I would be more interested in art to save myself from a lot of problems later. Look, doing what I do, and starting when I was young, it would have been easy to get some advice saying, “Maybe you don’t wanna do that—have you thought this through?” And I certainly did, but I had an impulsive drive to do it, even with that advice. But I think I wanted to believe that I could replace the urge to be in a band and write music by doing fine arts, but the passion wasn’t nearly similar.
Paste: “One Headlight,” now 25 years old, was just ranked #1 on that Billboard ranking, and it was recently used to great effect as a firehouse singalong in Judd Apatow’s King of Staten Island. The track still holds up.
Dylan: Well, yeah, hopefully. And that’s what I’ve always hoped to do. And you don’t know why. But I think everybody wants to do that. But when songs become hits, there’s all kinds of avenues they’ve got to pierce, and when they hit on all cylinders? You don’t know why.There are countless songs where you don’t know why that happens. So I couldn’t tell you why that song happened. I couldn’t tell you that I worked harder on that song than anything else I’d written. I thought I had something interesting when I began to write that song. But it was really not on a large scale, but I do remember thinking that that’s what I was hoping to do. And all the elusive things that I’m interested in in songs did come across in that. And I don’t wanna say that it was effortless, but when you write a song, you do get on a track, and it just moves, and you don’t really know why. And that did happen with that song, and I could say that about a lot of songs, probably. But it’s easier for me to recall that because that song gets discussed a lot, and it’s been such a great song in my life for me, for a lot of reasons. So I’ve been able to think about it more than other songs. But that’s a song that you can’t look at too closely. Songwriters are always striving to learn and do different things, and you are aware of where your lane is and what you’re good at. And I don’t if it always comes across to other people, but I know where my lane is. And people always ask what “One Headlight” is about, and I think when I was younger, I used to try to describe what it’s about. But I’m okay now just saying, “I can’t tell you what it’s about, because it may not really be about anything.” So it doesn’t really matter what it’s about—it’s the fact that it’s hitting on all cylinders that moves people, and that’s the part that counts the most.