Jakob Dylan strikes a philosophical pose in Rick Rubin’s studio.
Photo: Annabel Mehran
“The people I admire most had the guts to do this kind of record,” says Jakob Dylan with quiet intensity. As he talks about his first solo album — the stark, resolutely acoustic Seeing Things — it’s readily apparent the 38-year-old leader of The Wallflowers has had an epiphany. “This record was really about not having the process be part of the studio environment, but just recording performances and have that emptiness become the character sound of the recording,” he explains. “The idea of exploring sonics, what instrumentation to use, what mic to use — that stuff was not gonna be allowed. The only points of discussion would be, is that a good performance and could the song itself be better?”
Dylan first addressed the central theme of Seeing Things — the unease of contemporary existence, but couched in timeless melodies and language — on The Wallflowers’ latest album, Rebel, Sweetheart in 2005, but he now feels that the expert but dense production of Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Stone Temple Pilots) obscured the intent of the material. “This time I didn’t want to get lost in the quagmire of sonics,” he says, “because if it was gonna achieve what I was hoping for, with the songs being all there really was to discuss, anything else was gonna be a distraction.”
That accounts for the nakedness of Seeing Things, which contains little more than Dylan’s close-miked voice and a pair of fingerpicked acoustic guitars. This is an eloquently simple, stunningly immediate record. On the vivid evidence of this album, there’s no longer any question that the father did indeed pass on the gift to the son, even if the younger Dylan has taken until now to reveal it in its pure state.
Fortuitously, Dylan and his band switched labels from Interscope to Columbia (coincidentally his dad’s home for most of the past five decades) just before producer Rick Rubin took the top creative post at the company, uniting the artist with the creator of Johnny Cash’s celebrated American Recordings series, as well as Neil Diamond’s similarly unadorned 12 Songs. “Once I started discussing it with Rick,” says Jake, “his quick response was, ‘Cool, let’s go do that.’”
Seeing Things was recorded at Rubin’s West Hollywood home studio by Jason Lader, who shares Dylan’s enthusiasm for capturing the moment, despite his extensive experience in the digital realm of pop music. (Gwen Stefani, Maroon 5 and Justin Timberlake are in his discography.) But the New York native began his audio education with 2-inch tape, and his varied experiences during the six years he’s worked with Rubin — on projects ranging from Jay-Z’s Black Album to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Stadium Arcadium, and more pertinently the two Diamond projects — have gradually led him back to the organic side of recording. He’s particularly gratified by his recent experiences co-producing an album project for Elvis Costello & The Imposters and producing the second solo LP for Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis.
“More and more of the work I’ve been doing lately has been dealing with live performance,” says Lader. “We did the Elvis Costello record in six days because it was 100-percent live. I’ve been to the other extreme — I made my living for three or four years editing drums and tuning vocals. It’s been great for me to be doing the exact opposite. We actually did Jenny’s and Elvis’ albums to analog tape and we never left the analog realm, which was awesome. We recorded Jake’s record to Pro Tools, but it was treated the same way. It was simply about getting a great feeling and a great performance.”
Lader ran Pro Tools through Rubin’s Neve 8088 board, which was originally housed at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. He recorded Dylan’s vocal with a Shure SM7 through the board’s preamp, an old UA 1176.
“I find singers feel really comfortable with that mic,” he says, “because as soon as you put one of those big, shiny tube mics in front of them, they feel like they’re in a studio. There’s something about the black Shure that puts them at ease, and they sound really great. That’s all I used on the Elvis’ and Jenny’s records. Jake’s voice has such a unique quality to it. If the songs and lyrics are good, and if the artist can perform, then it’s easy.” He miked the guitars with Neumann KM84s using UREI LA-2As, with minimal EQ. The only comping involved full sections — a verse from one take, a chorus from another — in the old-school analog manner. It was as simple as that.
After five Wallflowers albums, the three more recent employing modern technology, it appears Dylan is going in a new direction — I should say an old direction — and it’ll be intriguing to see what transpires with the band’s next project. “What appears to be your advantage in the studios now is deceiving,” he says, “because they allow you to do anything that you can imagine, but all that really does is lead you down a path that gets further away from just playing music.”
Lader agrees: “I think digital technology has had a negative impact on music in a lot of ways,” he says. “I think people have taken it way too far. People I’ve worked for have had me do all this stuff to fix everything and make it perfect. But then you look at what they listen to, or what they like, and it’s not perfect. With Jakob’s record, because of the live nature of things and bleeds, we were forced to leave things that you’d normally want to make better, and you actually grow to love those moments when something’s a little out of tune or one note’s off; those are the things that give a record personality.”
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