"I kind of stumbled upon writing a record this time," says Wallflowers singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jakob Dylan, explaining the origins of Red Letters Days. For the dual Grammy Award-winning band, their fourth album gradually took shape last year in the midst of an extensive tour schedule in support of 2000's Breach.
"I kind of needed a distraction from the road so I naturally started writing," says Dylan, 32. "I really took advantage of the schedule and by the time I looked down there were a bunch songs. I just woke up one day and realized we had a record."
As the itinerary rolled on, the band likewise seized the opportunity to document the fresh-from-the-oven material. Along with original member, keyboardist Rami Jaffee, bassist Greg Richling, and drummer Mario Calire, Dylan recorded a series of free-flowing demos in backstage dressing rooms, closets, and arena loading docks - "pretty much anywhere there was a power source," says Jakob with a laugh. "It got to be pretty entertaining. We even set up microphones in a shower."
When it came time to bring his dozen new originals into the studio, Dylan turned to an old friend, original Wallflowers guitarist turned producer Tobias Miller and his partner Bill Appleberry (Adema). "The key was bringing those guys into the project," says Dylan. "I just wanted to work with someone who understood me and Tobi is somebody I've known since I was 10-years-old. He and Bill believed in the songs and thought we were really on to something. It allowed us the freedom to make the kind of record you always thought you were going to make when you were a kid."
Recorded in a series of LA studios and mixed by the renowned Tom Lord-Alge, Red Letter Days also found Dylan taking on more guitar duties than he had in the past. The space in the line-up provided further instrumental inspiration in the form of such guest guitarists as Pearl Jam's Mike McCready.
"Mike just happened to be in town when we were working," says Jakob. "I've met him a few times over the years, but when it came to playing on the record he really showed how much he understands the dynamics of being in a group. He brought a lot to the table."
The liberated spirit that dominated the writing and recording sessions shines through in the album's overall bright tone, its variety of moods, and urgent performances. Making itself dramatically known, Red Letter Days moves easily from the warm, melodic "When You're On Top" to the cool, piano-centered "Closer To You," the riff-powered "Everybody Out Of The Water" to the haunting "Health And Happiness," the driving declaration of independence of "Everything I Need" to the rich, organically textured "Here In Pleasantville."
Along the way, Dylan brings alternately raw, gritty and soothing vocal turns to his songs, defined by expressions of discovery, silver-lining reflection, hard truths, and overarching optimism. "This has not been the greatest year for anybody, really," says Dylan. "While it hasn't always been true in the way I've written in the past, on these songs I really tried to be hopeful - because I needed to be hopeful. With any kind of music or art, you have an opportunity to put an energy out there that's going to be positive, or you can state the obvious, that things are not good. Every time you walk that line, you make a choice. And on this record, I needed to believe that things will be better."
That same sanguine sense of purpose, according to Dylan, has carried directly over into the band itself. "I think I'm having a better time being in this group since the very first line-up, which was when I was 19-years-old and we didn't know what the hell we were doing. We got very far of track from that for a long time," he continues. "Now the priorities are there and we're all here because we believe in what we're doing. Recording Red Letter Days became a huge lesson for us - that records do not have to be torture to make. I think we've got a really healthy situation. I'm not very Zen about these things, but now there's definitely a good vibe."
* * * * *
The youngest of five children, a 12-year-old Jakob Dylan came home determined to learn the electric guitar after seeing the Clash perform during their glorious "Combat Rock" tour. In high school in Los Angeles, the then teenaged Dylan soon formed a band with, among others, classmate Tobias Miller - with whom he had long shared a passion for the Clash and the Jam. After graduation, Dylan took a brief detour in 1988 to study art at the Parson's School of Design in New York City, where he also ended up writing what he calls his first real song - "6th Avenue Heartache." Later that year, he returned to Los Angeles and recruited Jaffee and Miller to launch what, by 1990, would become the Wallflowers. Two years later, the young band released its self-titled debut on Virgin Records, earning critical praise in the pages of Rolling Stone and Musician. Extensive road work followed, with the group undertaking tours with 10,000 Maniacs, Cracker, and Spin Doctors. Following a series of line-up changes, the Wallflowers moved over to Interscope Records and in 1996 released the T-Bone Burnett-produced top 5 breakthrough, Bringing Down The Horse.
Certified quadruple platinum by the RIAA, the album ushered in two-and-a-half years of near non-stop touring, during which "6th Avenue Heartache" became an alternative rock hit and "One Headlight," a top 10 Billboard "Hot 100" hit, earned Grammy Awards in the "Best Rock Song" and "Best Rock Performance (Group)" categories.
Following the 2000 release of the RIAA gold Breach, the band hit the road for an extensive US club trek and a memorable five nights opening for the Who at the venerable Madison Square Garden in New York City. In addition to contributing their version of The Beatles' "I'm Looking Through You" to the RIAA gold "I Am Sam" soundtrack, 2001 saw the band embark on headlining tours of Japan and North America, highlighted by a string of U.S. dates opening for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.
Today, Dylan reflects on the ten-years since the release of The Wallflowers and simply sees a band on a mission to make its music. "Taking risks and having records that go left and right is all part of what I want us to be," he says. "There is that saying that 'it's not a race, it's a marathon.' I'm not even into that. I don't see anybody in front of me or anybody behind me, and there is no finish line. You just keep going."
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