Four albums and more than a decade down the line, the Wallflowers return on May 24th with Rebel, Sweetheart, the follow-up to 2002’s Red Letter Days. Recorded with veteran rock producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen), the album showcases more of singer-songwriter Jakob Dylan’s meticulously crafted songs, with topics ranging from the war in Iraq to failed friendships. The band — singer-guitarist Dylan, keyboardist Rami Jaffee, bassist Greg Richling and new drummer Fred Eltringham (Ben Kweller) — will launch a tour in support of Rebel at the end of April. Dylan speaks to Rolling Stone about songwriting, his secret sense of humor and not behaving like Axl Rose.
So the band’s got a new drummer . . .
Fred’s been with us for almost two years, and it seems like he’s been in the band for ages. Hey, maybe it took us fifteen years to get this right.
So this wasn’t a Spinal Tap scenario?
No, nobody blew up or disintegrated — although maybe that’s something for us to keep an eye on.
What else has changed for you since Red Letter Days?
What I do is pretty consistent, which is to write about what I see around me and how I see it. I did that with Red Letter Days as well, when a lot of things seemed bleak. We’re still definitely immersed in that same bleakness, but those are fertile images to work with. As a songwriter I let that all in.
You’re talking about the war in Iraq?
Yes, but this is not the tsunami record, it’s not the post-9/11 record, but all of that is the truth of the times. It’s unavoidable.
In the opener, “Days of Wonder,” there’s that line, “Happy birthday to the war.”
That specific line was written on the birthday of the war. I think it was pretty startling for all of us — when it started, we hoped it would be brief, and then there we were a year later. Even now, there doesn’t seem to be a way out.
How did you personally deal with the presidential election?
Obviously disappointed. I was trying to be a realist, so it certainly wasn’t a shock. I think a lot of people tried their best to make a difference — there were some artists who tried very hard. And after a certain point, the fight seemed insurmountable. But some progress has been made: When I was eighteen, no one was talking about voting — that was for the grownups. And being able to vote is a real benefit of being a citizen here.
Some of the material on this album is really catchy, straight-up rock — but when you listen more closely, the lyrics are surprisingly dark.
I’m aware of that, the contradiction of melody and lyric, but it’s not a conscious approach. Going into a song and knowing that you have a dark theme to write about and then specifically looking for
a minor melody — I’d never do that.
What was the writing process like for Rebel?
The writing happened pretty organically. There was a great immediacy with the material on my part, and the band was ready to go. And Brendan O’Brien doesn’t like to work in L.A., which was great for us, not to work in our town. So we recorded in Atlanta.
What was it about his style that worked for you?
We haven’t really done things this way since our first record: quick and live — which isn’t to be confused with not paying attention. You can get bogged down and lose the plot and get lost in the studio for months. But with Brendan, he likes to work quickly, and that works if you believe in your instincts. I would say that more than half the time, people’s instincts on an album are right, and if you [mistrust them], you end up wasting a lot of time.
I really took to the song “Here He Comes” [sample lyrics: “Here comes your drunken marionette/Dragging his mess of threads/There at the bar pulling smoke to his lungs”]. The image of a drunk puppet — there’s a real dark humor to that.
I’m glad someone picked up on the sense of sardonic humor in what I write. I think maybe it’s the nature of the songs that I write that suggest too much seriousness. But there’s humor throughout the record.
Well, a song like “God Says Nothing Back,” for instance, is very melancholy, about being shut out by the world, given no answers. Do you think there’s something in you, that you’re perhaps naturally a cynic?
Everything seems to be involved in those four subjects: God, time, love and death. I would never say I’m philosophical — that would certainly sound pretentious. That’s just what I naturally write about.
You’re a family man now. Do you find your family influences your music?
It’s not conscious, but I am raising three kids at a time when I certainly have concerns about where the world is headed. We’re living at a time when it’s possible that the world could just pop some day. I think the grounds for writing songs now are as thrilling as maybe in the mid-Sixties, when there was something in the air. I’m still a fan of simpler music, whether it’s about cars or girls — it can be wildly entertaining. And I certainly hold onto the right to someday write a song that’s about fluff.
You once said that, as a songwriter and musician, studying your craft should come before any concerns about being “original.”
That was something that occurred to me a while ago. The Pet Rock was original, you know, but after that holiday season, it kind of went on the shelf. You can listen to someone’s record and say, “Yes, that person’s innovative — but I don’t want to listen to that again.” I think about writing music that can be listened to again and again.
People who are original are dropped in from outer space. They’re not the people trying to be innovators — I’ve always thought that was a fruitless effort. I’m a fan of tradition. Steve Earle is doing his best work now, but no one’s calling him original.
You know, you have to be skeptical of records you buy these days because of the technology being used to make them. There’s so much pressure being put on the “tween” market, I guess they call it. Today it’s really easy to get by not knowing what you’re doing: If you’re an actress and you want to make a record, you can put one out. For those people who were so disappointed that they’d bought Milli Vanilli’s record because they didn’t sing on it, at least those were actual human voices they were listening to.
Is there any band in particular that you admire for its longevity, and its evolution over time?
The Who. Pete Townshend was clued into something early on: The sound will always evolve, but his perspective on things was what was going to change how the band would evolve. He starts out writing “Magic Bus,” and he goes on to write “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” I’ll listen to anything he puts out.
After years of playing live, do you feel pressure to play some of your older numbers just for the fans?
Is “6th Avenue Heartache” my favorite song to play every night? I don’t think so. But I’ve never really related to the idea that I can’t play yet because I’m not in the right headspace, or I can’t play this song anymore because I’ve stopped relating to it. When I’m at a show, I’m not there to see how an artist feels that night — you know, like the notorious stories about Axl Rose? In all these years, I’ve cancelled one show, because of extreme illness. You have to take your job seriously — and don’t pretend it’s not a job. Get over it. I prefer to play as often as possible, but you’re not going to be inspired seven nights a week. If you’re not feeling it, then go out there and fake it. Don’t be an asshole.
Um, wait. That said, I am always inspired [laughs]. I am always ready to go. The Wallflowers are always ready to go.