Q&A: The Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan Remembers Bringing Down The Horse
The November/December issue of American Songwriter (featuring a certain top-selling British folk band on the cover) features a story on The Wallflowers’ most celebrated album, 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse. Before the release of Glad All Over, their first LP in seven years, Wallflowers frontman Jakob Dylan took time to reflect on an album that has only gotten better with age. He also weighed in on Glad All Over and the band’s new lineup.
I’ve read some really glowing reviews about the shows you and the band have been playing. Were you surprised at how quickly things came together in those shows after such a long hiatus?
Not really. We do something that we’re easily connected with one another. Simply, we’ve been rehearsing quite a bit. We were ready. We’ve been waiting. We finished recording in February and we’ve done a lot of playing since then. So there was no surprise; we were anxious to get out there and get started.
The new Wallflowers single is called “Reboot The Mission.” It’s a striking title and the song itself really jumps out with a sound that people might not associate with the band. Was it important for you guys to come back with such a bold statement of purpose?
Well, I don’t know that it was important or not. We just followed our nose and we were happy with the song. It didn’t have to be anything different. It just has to be believable. There’s no boundaries in rock music. In any of the stuff, you can do whatever you want to do. I don’t think that we’re that precious about it. We’ve got a lot of abilities and a lot of areas we still want to get to. If that song is jarring to some people, it’s only a song. It shouldn’t be that surprising.
How did the collaboration with Mick Jones, who plays and sings on the new single, come about?
Well, I’d seen him recently last year when Big Audio Dynamite played here in L.A, and I was knocked out. I was reminded of what a special person he is for rock and roll. When the band got together and talked about it, the kind of stuff we wanted to chase, we talked about some of the stuff that he was a part of.
We finished the song, and there’s a shout-out in the song to Joe Strummer. Jack Irons, the band’s new drummer, played with Joe. We’ve gone nearly all the way; at that point, we gotta see if we can’t get Mick to come in and join us too.
Does this band lineup, which is a little bit of a combination of old members and new, create a different sort of sound or is that something that you dictate as the songwriter?
I suppose that it’s always a combination of both, but this is the most sturdy and solidified that the band has been in quite some time. It’s really rejuvenating. Stuart Mathis has been playing with us for the last seven years or so touring, but we hadn’t had time to make a record together. And Jack Irons, he’s well known, of course, for what he’s able to bring to a group. He could bring it to any group, I suppose, but I think we have a really interesting connection in all the music we listen to. It was a real kick getting started. It was unlike any time we’d ever done it before. It felt very purposeful and energized.
We talked about “Reboot The Mission” and the album title is Glad All Over. Are there clues in those titles to the album’s lyrical or musical themes, or are you throwing us a curve?
I don’t think titles are necessarily supposed to sum up a record. Sometimes they can. Glad All Over is just something that I decided it was a good idea for us to put positivity forward. I didn’t feel the need to convolute it and puzzle anybody. The call for positivity is what I felt. That doesn’t at all mean that the record is or isn’t. It just means the big letters at the top I wanted to be positive.
It’s been 16 years since the release of Bringing Down The Horse, which is really one of the landmark albums of the 90s. Looking back at the time you were writing and recording those songs, did you have any idea the kind of success in terms of both sales and impact that it would have?
I don’t think so. I don’t think anybody can imagine that. Our goals at that point were to make a record and be able to go back on tour and go out there and bring music to people. I don’t think we had those kind of expectations. Other people around us may have been thinking that while we went in to make the record.
The band, at that point, we were putting ourselves back together. It was a new batch of songs and we felt that it was a good time. It felt a little jumbled but a lot of opportunity was there. But I don’t think we at all felt it could possibly do what it did do.
The album kicks off with two singles “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache,” that became huge hits. And yet the subject matter was a lot tougher than what you might expect from hit singles. There is a lot of heartbreak and pain in those songs; “One Headlight” even starts off at a funeral. Do you have any theories as to why those songs connected in such a way?
I don’t know. I think the guy who is so inside it wouldn’t really know. I think that records are made every day and put out every year. Some will have a chance to connect and some won’t get exposed. Some won’t strike a chord. And I suppose if any of us knew why that works we’d bottle it and we’d sell it and we’d be beyond-successful people.
People will speak when they hear music and they’ll identify with it. I play those songs nightly and I see the reaction people give back to the band when they hear those songs, and it is a strong connection. It probably has a lot to do with the time. People were more invested with music at that time. They had a stronger connection to it just in their commitment to it, because the business was so much different then, of still going to buy records and CDs at the time. There was an investment to it. They couldn’t be curious about it. It was just a different time.
Beyond that, songs just do what they do. It’s impossible to know why people connect to them.
Going back to those songs, I can see a theme that recurs throughout your songwriting career in the way that you empathize with those characters. The narrator in those songs in not at a distance; he’s right in the trenches, so to speak, with the people he’s describing who are hurting or damaged. Is that kind of empathy something that comes naturally to you when you write songs?
Well, it does occur to me. The songs, whether they’re meant to be taken literally, whether they’re narratives or not, my draw to writing songs is to be an observer and be right in the mix of it. I really don’t make much judgment in my songs. I just put all sides out there. My interest is in the human condition, more than anything, the puzzling nature of that, more so than telling anybody what to do or not to do. That’s just how songs occur to me. It’s pretty simple.
Because those two songs were so successful, I feel like maybe they typecast you guys as a dour, serious band, when there is a lot of raucous, fun stuff that can be found, even on that album with songs like “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls.” Do you sometimes wish that playful side of the band was more evident to people?
I think there’s been a sense of humor in every thing I’ve ever done. That doesn’t mean people pick up on that. I’m not a comedian, so that’s my goal either. The songs are the songs. I would hope that, in the end my songs or the band’s songs, they exist and anybody could play ‘em. I think that people who follow the band tightly have picked up on that there is a playfulness to it.
Those songs, I guess, laid such an impact on people’s perception of the group, whether it’s the videos or the songs. I’m fine with that. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. If I’m thought of as being serious, there are worse things. I am a serious person, so I don’t mind it.
That’s a healthy attitude to have that you don’t worry too much about the perception of you guys as a band or you as a songwriter.
I don’t mind. The last thing you’re comfortable with people knowing actually is the truth. Anything else, whatever it is, I invite all of it. I’m not too worried about it.
Bringing Down The Horse’s songs are full of great, quotable lines. For example, there’s the refrain from “The Difference”: “The only difference that I see/Is you are exactly the same as you used to be.” When you write a killer line like that, is there an immediate sense of accomplishment, or as you mentioned before, because you’re inside of it, you can’t really notice it until after the fact?
Well, there’s all different kinds of purposes for writing songs. Sometimes you want to make sense; sometimes you don’t want to make sense. It’s really about an average of 3 ½ minutes of putting words together that just needs to conjure up something to somebody else. What the artist or the songwriter is putting forward, half the time, is never gotten anyway. I don’t think that’s the mission anyhow.
All those songs, I knew what they meant to me when writing them, but you lose the map at some point. And then the map doesn’t even matter anymore. It becomes stories that can be reinterpreted and reinterpreted a dozen different ways, and I hope they can be. You know, it’s rock and roll. A great portion of rock and roll just begins with a great line.
You mentioned the songs meanings changing for other people over time. Do the meanings change for you through the years?
No, I suppose I always kind of stick with the thought I had when writing them. I remember the writing process of most of them. It’s a mystery, whether it’s those songs or any songs I write today. For the most part, writing songs is totally a mystery, it’s a wild goose chase. When you’re finished, sometimes you just have to sit back and you just gotta wait for it occur to you what happened.
What I do remember is I remember the process of writing those songs. When you’re talking about Bringing Down The Horse, I was ambitious. I still am, but I wasn’t looking to fit in anywhere. My heroes were writing big, epic songs. That’s what I was trying to do. I wasn’t trying to write anthemic, angst-ridden songs at that time in the mid-90’s. That wasn’t really ever my calling. I was always trying to find characters and I did want to be epic. I thought that I could get a grip on that.
The album had the big singles but it is a really complete album in terms of quality from start to finish. There’s no filler. Do you feel like the success of the singles sometimes makes people overlook the quality of Bringing Down The Horse as a whole?
I don’t think the record’s been overlooked. There certainly was a handful of songs that became well-known all over. The fans never said any more about those songs than the other songs, as far as what meant something to them. So those that were listening to the whole record, I think they were invested in the whole thing.
Bringing Down The Horse sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday. It doesn’t sound dated at all. Were you guys consciously trying to avoid trendier sounds of that era so that the album would stand up well through time?
Yeah, I think it has stood up well. I hear those songs occasionally and I’m surprised too. I think T-Bone [Burnett, the album’s producer] said to me at the point that it was a hyper-modern folk record. And he was kind of right. I do remember being aware that we were using a lot of these organic instruments like dobros and mandolins and pedal steels and acoustic guitars, but I wasn’t interested in making a throwback record or an Americana record and we didn’t want to record it that way.
You can counter different sounds and different things. We were in a certain channel already, and I do remember thinking if we mixed it organically, and we kept chasing that, it probably would sound dated. I wasn’t interested in making a throwback record from the 60’s or 70’s. I didn’t have any interest in doing that. And that was one of the reasons we had Tom Lord-Alge, who was a very current mixer at the time. We thought that he could counter a lot of these acoustic sounds with something that sounded really fresh and up to date.
The mixing of an album is something that fans might not consider. Can you talk about that a little and how it relates to the success of not just Bringing Down The Horse but of any album?
As with any knowledge, it’s crucial. Every step of the way can ruin a record and all the work you put into it. That record, particularly, Tom Lord-Alge was really an artist involved in that record. We had a lot of choices to make in mixing. We recorded the record mostly live but we did a lot of overdubbing and sorting things out in the mixing room.
We have multiple mixes of a lot of those songs led by wildly different instruments. I have mixes somewhere of “One Headlight” that are completely different instrumentation. Tom Lord-Alge was really crucial in sorting out the best. I think as he said simply, “Here’s what I’m gonna do. Whoever plays best goes loudest.”
There’s many different opportunities to be had in mixing. One, of course, is sorting out the instruments and shaping the songs, but you’re putting it through a filter that is going to give it an overall sound which could be the difference of listening to an MP3 or listening to vinyl. They’ve got a job to do there that someone like myself can’t do. You have to depend on someone with really great ears and creativity to help that be sorted.
You mentioned the different mixes that you have. Have you ever given any thought to re-releasing the album in an extended form including some of those different choices?
We certainly could. We could wrack our brains. There’s a handful of people who were there. I was there the whole time. You know it’s one of those records that has just taken on a lot of different lives and a lot of different stories. I’m told stories from people about making that record that I don’t remember. It’s one of those things where everybody involved found themselves to be an important part of the process because it ended up doing so well. I was one of the few people there that was actually there the whole time. My recollection of it is pretty good and there’s a lot of good stories that could be told about it and there’s a lot of alternate mixes.
It was a time of getting a lot of people at their best. It was a record company that was at their best. It was a band that was just beginning to learn how to be at their best. You had T-Bone Burnett who was becoming his best. And you had Tom Lord-Alge, who mixed it, was really crucial to that process, he was at his best. It doesn’t mean these people are not at their best still. At that point we were catching everybody, including the songs, I guess, were all at their peak. It was a perfect storm of characters that really made it all happen.
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