Jakob Dylan and Tom Petty
Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
Jakob Dylan Talks 'Echo In The Canyon,' Tom Petty & Why You Can't Define California Sound
Along with former manager and record exec Andrew Slater, the onetime Wallflowers performer is releasing music documentary Echo in the Canyon, which arrives in theaters on May 24 and takes a close-up look at the outpouring of popular music that came out of Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon in the mid-60s.
Directed by Slater and starring Dylan, the film chronicles an essential few years as folk music takes on a more electric aesthetic, thanks to then-local figures like the Byrds, The Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield and the Mamas and the Papas. That core group, Echo argues, ultimately inspired "the California Sound."
But the film doesn't stop there; in addition to interviewing in-depth interviews with '60s idols like Brian Wilson, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Jackson Browne and Michelle Phillips, Dylan also speaks to famed L.A. transplant Tom Petty in what ended up being his final filmed interview, plus a few of his musical contemporaries (Beck, Fiona Apple, Norah Jones, Regina Spektor, Cat Power and others).
Together, the musicians reflect on a brief, hopeful, highly collaborative era that would ultimately determine the trajectory of folk music for decades to come.
Ahead of the film's release, Dylan called up the Recording Academy to touch on how Laurel Canyon came to be a 1960s creative hotspot, the lasting significance of Roger McGuinn's 12-string Rickenbacker, and why, more than 50 years later, L.A. will always be a city for dreamers.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about Echo in the Canyon. It comes out this week, but it's sort of already made the rounds at a few film festivals. What’s the response been like?
Yeah we did a handful of festivals. Here in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco. Because we have a lot of music in the film we were able to go to some of these festivals and actually perform as well which was nice.
A lot of the songs that are in this film [are on its soundtrack], and we made a soundtrack of songs that didn't make it into the film. So we have a band that recorded the record that's in the film and we've gone round playing a kind of mini-set, maybe six, seven songs at these festivals.
Can you tell me about your initial involvement with the film? You produced it with your manager, correct?
Andrew Slater, he's my manager. I consider him more of a partner. We've been together for a long, long time. Minus a small stretch when he was president of Capitol Records, when he wasn't able to work outside the company. This is something that we kinda came up with together after he'd stopped working with Capitol and I had just finished a round of touring with my band at the time. And we were both just trying to figure what was next. He wanted to try something different, and I wasn't really ready to get back on the treadmill of making another record. And we kinda got sidetracked with doing this.
It began with us just listening to a lot of ‘60s music and thinking it would be nice to do something that wasn't just a collection of favorite songs, more of a tribute to a time and a period that might be interesting to just record musically. But then it, also took on its own potential once we realized that, you know, there could be a film be made as well.
Right, I read that this project initially took on the form of a folk music documentary, but it kind of evolved into an up-close look at Laurel Canyon and its place in music history. Is that an accurate representation of what happened?
I suppose the beginning of it we were kind of exploring, not folk music, but just, you know, the electrification of folk music. People always think of folk music as really being East Coast. Back in the early ‘60s, late ‘50s, it was very rigid there. It was very... I wouldn't say uptight, but [folk] hadn't quite loosened up yet until, The Byrds really, Roger McGuinn, when he took the 12-string guitar and started playing with these folk songs and eventually migrated to Los Angeles. We did the interviews with all these people, and when you document your story and you think it's about one thing it becomes about something else once you get the interviews.
We realized that what we really wanted to do was tell a story about these artists coming to Southern California, which ended up being Laurel Canyon. It was no longer really about music or the East Coast or even the electrization of the East Coast music. It became more about the essential artists that were in bands in 1965 in Laurel Canyon and that became the story.
Why make a documentary about Laurel Canyon?
I think Laurel Canyon and these artists deserve to have a great piece of film that represents them. This speaks specifically about the communal aspects of the canyon not the notoriety of the Sunset Strip. It's something that's cinematic and appreciative of what they did.
I don't know that there was a definitive film made about that time specifically about the songwriters and them exchanging ideas. So that was the emphasis for doing it.
While talking to the musicians who lived there in the ‘60s, how did you start to see Laurel Canyon as differing, culturally, from other music neighborhoods of the time, like the Village in New York City?
I think that in the movie a lot of people mention that you wanted to come to Los Angeles because that's where the [music] business was. Laurel Canyon was the closest place that you could be that felt like the country.
In Los Angeles we have those main canyons that take you from one side of the hill to another. So people pass through Laurel Canyon, but maybe don't spend time there. Once you get up there, it's coyotes, deer, and trees and mountains. You certainly do feel like you’re in the country. You could be down at the Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip within 10 minutes.
I think that's maybe where it began, if you think of people like David Crosby who believes he may have been the first to go up there. I'm sure it was affordable then. People just kinda wandered from house to house to see one another. I think that songwriting was changing so much and there was so much excitement about writing something that they wanted to play for someone else. Los Angeles is so spread out, but here you had this concentrated area where people could feel like they were in the country and they could go to work in the evenings at these venues.
I think that's what I learned from listening to people talk. It had a country feel to them and a real community. They were playing music in it and they were sharing it and exploring it all at the same time.
Yeah, L.A. is generally so spread out, to have a concentrated pocket of artists living close by to one another feels anomalous. How do you suppose everybody ended up living within walking distance to one another, even within the Canyon?
You know, I don't know. That's all I can gather on why they wound up there. There was Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas. She was very social, apparently. She had a house that everybody spent a lot of time and met at. Same with Peter Tork, from the Monkees. Everybody was just younger and it was before everybody was worried about these being jobs or how long they'd have them. I think that it was very exciting to be around one another.
It's really important to remember this was before people started thinking about themselves and their own futures. Most of these bands had multiple singers and songwriters. It didn't seem like people had started to think, “Well, what about me? I could do this myself.” The singer/songwriter job really hadn't been explored yet. So it was bands people were gravitating towards.
That's fascinating. Do you think that there were any dark sides to this enclave? Perhaps an overabundance of drug use?
No, I'm sure there were, but you know at the time I think the drugs were a little more simple. I don't think they had gotten out of hand yet. That's why the movie kinda ends just before psychedelia starts. I think [any drug use was] more recreational and more innocent. I don't think the gnarly stuff, in the stories, they don't really start until a couple years later. I'm sure if you wanted to make a documentary about the dark side I'm sure you could. [But this story] was really about the process of writing the songs and transferring the ideas to one another.
That is interesting. I did of course see that the movie is dedicated to Tom Petty. How important was it to you to have a conversation with him, to make sure he was in the film?
Well, Tom is important in that you kinda have three different generations that are in the film. You have the artists and the songwriters that were there [in the ‘60s]. We spoke to them. Then you have some people more in my generation who have been influenced by this music. Then speaking to someone like Tom Petty who was admittedly just a real super fan of these artists. They really influenced his music, profoundly. We all know that. Tom was playing that 12-string Rickenbacker in the ‘70s when nobody [else was]. It wasn't around, it wasn't a hip instrument. He was playing it because he loved that music. His knowledge of music was someone who was a teenager when it was out. When you find music as a teenager, you never discover music the same way. He was important to speak to because while he wasn't there, he knew that music really, really well.
Yeah, Los Angeles would not be the same without Petty. I can absolutely see his reverence for the musical generation that came shortly before him.
For sure! He said so. I knew that about him. I got interested in some of his music because I knew he was into it when I was a teenager. When I was growing up in the mid-’80s, when he still had that Rickenbacker guitar that he and [guitarist] Mike Campbell from the Heartbreakers were playing, I think I only knew of one other group that was playing that instrument which might have been Paul Weller and the Jam. Otherwise, the guitar was like an alien to me. That instrument does emerge with Roger McGuinn. He sees the Beatles use it on television. Then he gets one and that really starts the whole movement.
You mentioned that you spoke to a handful of your music peers for the film—Cat Power, Regina Spektor, Beck, etc. In these conversations with this younger generation of Laurel Canyon-inspired musicians, did you notice any common themes in what they said?
We don't categorize music too much. We like the best of most genres of music. What's similar about the music in the film as well as with those artists mentioned are doing is they are based in songwriting. It's not based on grooves, beats or certain genres of music. I think that we can all appreciate good songwriting and that's what the film is really exploring. It makes sense to me. Of course Regina, Cat Power, and Beck, they know that music really well. It's the kind of music that even if you're not aware you're really Byrds fan.
Yeah, it seems like Echo goes out of its way to discuss "the California sound." Do you feel like the early ‘60s Los Angeles sonic aesthetic is something you could put into words?
No. I don't think so. There are many different California sounds, I suppose. There is the Northern California from the late ‘60s, there's the ‘90s California sound. That particular California sound. I don't know if I could describe it sonically. It had a lot to do with the studios that were here, some of them are still here. You, of course, get a lot of the same players on a lot of those records, a lot of same musicians are on those records but I don't know if I would be the one to actually put it into actual words of what it. I don't even know if it is a sound. It's a mentality more than anything. A lot of it is hopeful and I think at that time a lot of it began to emerge as poetic.
Yeah, I would imagine that the politically eventful late ‘60s has a way of taking over the conversation when we think about that decade. What do you think it was about the early Laurel Canyon era that made its music sound hopeful?
What [the interviewees] suggest is that when they came to Los Angeles, everything was possible. Anything and everything, you could do it here. You couldn't do it in other places where they were from. Everybody had to come here. Not just because record labels were here but it was sunny out and it was beautiful and it was Beach Boys songs. They just thought this was where you had to be.
Keeping in mind the extent to which it’s changed in the last 50-odd years, do you think Los Angeles still emits that feeling of creative possibility for musicians—or anybody?
I think that if you're a kid growing up in a small town today I still think that you probably imagine your dreams could be had in Los Angeles today. I don't know if they can be. I don't know if you could actually afford it. I think that it holds this idiomatic place of, yeah there's a lot here and it's over congested and there's a lot of people here, but I still think everything is probably possible here as much as anywhere else anymore. Maybe New York as well, but you know it's a very large, spread out city and it's always going to bounce back, it's always going to be magical, it's always going to have it's moments. Then it'll duck back down again. I imagine if you lived in a small town somewhere you are still dreaming of going to Los Angeles or New York.