It would be logical to assume that music-industry success came easy for Jakob Dylan. Truth be told, however, at the start of his career, little was promised for the musician and frontman of the Wallflowers – not least because he was attempting to follow in the footsteps of his father, arguably the most influential songwriter of his generation. "I was hungry. I wanted more," Dylan tells Rolling Stone, looking back on the tumultuous months and years leading up to the Wallflowers' breakout smash of a second album, 1996's Bringing Down the Horse. With hit singles in "One Headlight," "6th Avenue Heartbreak" and "Three Marlenas," the Grammy-winning LP would go on to sell more than 4 million copies and make Dylan an overnight star in his own right.
Even now, with the album being reissued for the first time on two-disc vinyl on May 13th in honor of its 20th anniversary, Dylan is unsure exactly how or why Bringing Down the Horse struck such a chord with listeners. The musician, 46, admits feeling at the time he'd made a great record, but says the T Bone Burnett-produced LP's success was as much a product of good timing and record-label support as quality songs. "It could have been me or it could have been someone else. The pieces were just in place," Dylan says during a candid chat with RS, in which he reflected on Bringing Down the Horse, explained how he feels the music industry has changed since his band's career-defining album and revealed plans for his forthcoming covers album of duets with the likes of Neil Young and Beck.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, Jakob. I'm thinking you don't often reflect on an album you recorded two decades ago.
It has been a while. I haven't thought about it much, but I remember a lot.
The Wallflowers were dropped by Virgin Records after your self-titled 1992 debut album was a commercial disappointment. Was there a sense that the band's second LP was make-or-break?
I don't think there was a make-or break-feeling at all. I learned a lot after that first record about making records and about what I wanted to be doing. I don't know, though, if I felt after our first record that was the way I wanted the band to keep going. I didn't think everybody in the group was on the same page and was as focused as others. After Virgin Records [dropped us] we were playing shows and trying to get another record contract. And you have to remember this is when that stuff really mattered. It doesn't matter today, having record labels and all, but back then it did matter. I wouldn't say I was desperate. I just wanted to make another record. I wanted my band to be better. I didn't see any pressure though. I just wanted things to step up and get grander.
I'm sure even you couldn't have predicted the massive success that followed with Bringing Down the Horse, released after you signed to Interscope.
It was a good time to make records; the focus was different. You didn't have constraints like "You have one month to make a record." You just made records and worked on them until they were done. However long that might take and however much that might cost if the record company is interested, you just kept going until it was finished. I thought we made a great record so I wasn't surprised it was successful. Great records, though, are made every day, but they don't get to see the light of day because the proper machinery around it isn't there to elevate it and get it to people's ears. But I was really thrilled with the record we made. It wasn't easy. It wasn't quick. When we were making it, it was going exactly where I was hoping it would go. It was a very current-sounding record.
T Bone Burnett decided to produce the album after his wife handed him one of the Wallflowers' demos. He's obviously gone on to be something of a super-producer, but at the time he was still getting his feet wet.
T- Bone was certainly instrumental. But that wasn't a typical T Bone Burnett record. That was a rock record. He makes Americana records and they're softer. When we made the record we had a lot of traditional instrumentation, but I really wanted it to sound like a modern, current rock record. Honestly that was a different time for T Bone. Now he has a record-making company. And from what I can tell now, it's mostly about singers and a collection of songs and a crack band that kind of moves around the singer. That's one way to do things, but you can't do that when you work with bands. There's too many people to deal with and it's a whole different process. And he does his thing a certain way now, but back then I don't know what was in his mind; I don't know what he was looking for. He's an infinitely talented person, there's no doubt, but I don't know [if] it was the same controlling-mastermind situation that people would suggest.
What do you recall about the writing and recording process?
I didn't need help fielding songs or A&R'ing songs. I had all those songs when I showed up. You just start. You just go. I had "6th Avenue Heartache" around for the first record in '92 and we just didn't get the right take of it that I liked at the time. So I brought that song along for the second record. That wasn't a song he wanted to record at the time. I had to push for it. Like, "We're going to do it!" And if I remember, we only did it one time. That's the one take. There wasn't much focus on "One Headlight," either. I don't know what the label was focusing on. But those songs weren't really on anybody's radar when we were making the record.
I take it, then, that you had no sense either of those songs would play on mainstream rock radio?
I don't think I had any sense or idea what radio did or didn't play. I don't think we started making that record wondering about those things. I think the records evolve and then people start discussing what you have on your hands. I'm not in the record business, and I wasn't then, either. How do you sell them? I have no idea. I don't think bands should worry about that kind of stuff. If you end up with something that some people at a record company think they can work with, then that becomes their job. There's not a lot bands can really do about that stuff. Because record companies have to choose what they want to get behind. They could sell a blank CD if they wanted to and people would get excited. By the time the album was finished, the record company was excited about "6th Avenue Heartache." After "6th Avenue Heartache" had done well I think they were surprised they had a record they could keep working with. Nobody had been talking about "One Headlight" until that song got legs and went somewhere. And then they do what they do next which is say, "Well, what do we got next?"
The Wallflowers were playing small clubs in L.A. and then Bringing Down the Horse drops and suddenly you're playing huge venues where fans are yelling for you to play these massive singles. What was that transition like?
Once you've got a record like that, yeah, you've got a song or two that are motivation for fans to go to shows and you're aware of that. And that's good. That's what you want. That's what all bands are looking for, really. Records, in traditional senses, are promotional tools for your shows so you can go out and play and have people come to your shows. There was instantly a visible change going from clubs to larger venues because the songs allow you to do that.
Growing up with your father, I'm sure you were no stranger to the world of celebrity, but I get the sense you didn't necessarily feel comfortable with the attention that was thrust upon you around that time.
I mean, look: For obvious and instinctual reasons, I wanted to be in a band. But whatever band I was in was always going to be my vision. I didn't think it was the right idea for me to go out there with my own name and try to sell a rock & roll record in the way that Sting does or something. I can't compete with those kinds of people and definitely not at that time and at that age. So yeah, in a lot of ways, I invented the Wallflowers as just myself to have a band to be in — not unlike what Chrissie Hynde does with the Pretenders or Robert Smith does with the Cure. It was something for me to do and a place for me to ... I wouldn't say hide out, but it gave me structure and it gave me the chance to not have to put myself out there as an individual. And that part of it was good for me: For a record to break that much and to be in an outfit with other guys was helpful. But it didn't really change the fact that those songs and those records were hoisted on my back.
Did you feel there was pressure on the Wallflowers to deliver another commercial smash with the third album, 2000's (Breach)?
I may be naive about that, but I didn't go into the next record thinking that. I never focused on that. I never let that enter my mind. I don't think I knew how we did it the first time with Bringing Down the Horse. I didn't bring any tools with me for Bringing Down the Horse that I could implement on another record that might get the same results. You just take the batch of songs you have and you go in. The band had changed by that point, too, so different possibilities were there. And the next record was different. If anything, rather than chasing any kind of continued commercial success or concern going into a follow-up record, my bigger concern now was I understood that if you write these songs and they connect with people, these songs will be attached to you for a very long time. So be sure you like these songs you're putting down on tape because you may be up there singing them for a long time.
On that point, do you still enjoy performing material from Bringing Down the Horse?
Every band goes through stretches where you somehow resent your success and you don't want to lean on those things too much. But then your head turns around at some point, and you're filled with tremendous gratitude that you have these songs. Which really most people will never have in their back pocket. That has a lot to do with the material itself, but it also has to do with the fact that you just can't do that anymore. I came up at a time where songs could permeate everywhere; whether it was the radio or wherever, we all knew the same songs. There were a lot of rock records that did well in those couple years. There's a lot of rock bands today I'm friends with who are very envious of the chance to have songs everybody knows whether they're a fan of your band or not. That has more to do with the time or anything.
Does it frustrate you to see rock bands today without those commercial possibilities?
Well, yeah. But there are other things to be happy about today that didn't exist then. It's six of one and half a dozen of the other. Bands do very well today: They fill lots of seats without having any hit songs. But I don't think there's going to be a rock band this year that has three or four singles off a record that everybody knows.
In the years since Bringing Down the Horse, you've recorded a pair of solo records, though they were noticeably less mainstream.
Those solo records are different things; they're different-sounding records and don't have the same commercial appeal or possibilities that a rock record might have. And I think rock bands make better rock records than solo artists do. Not having the band around me or the band name just gave me a different freedom but there was also a different agenda in those records. They were never going to have the same kind of appeal that a Wallflowers record might have.
Do you view your solo records and Wallflowers material as coming from a different musical space?
The Wallflowers is me, and if I go under my own name, it's me. It's the same thing, ultimately. It's really dictated on the songs I have and how I want to record them and would they sound better with a full-band sound. In many ways it's the same person. It's just what outfit do I want to put on.
Any new projects in the works?
I've been working on this covers record recently. I wanted to take a break from the cycle of writing and recording my own music, so I've been working on this record of covers — music from the mid-Sixties. It's all duets with lots of great people. Just finishing that up. We'll see where that takes us.
Songs from the mid-Sixties, huh? Are you covering your dad?
[Laughs] No. There's still a lot of music to get to. I don't have to go there just yet. It's cool stuff. I got a lot of great people to come and sing and play guitar. Neil Young is on a couple songs, Beck is on a couple songs. It's something I'm really excited about.