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THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM COME HOME – NO STRINGS ATTACHED


(They stoop to conquer. Benny Horowitz, Alex Rosamilia, Brian Fallon, and Alex Levine)



BRIAN FALLON, SINGER/SONGWRITER of New Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem – a band whose tattooed gruffness, last chance power drive and frank, bare emotions seem almost dictionary-definition working class rock band – is backstage in Boise, Idaho, at a venue with fluctuating Internet that keeps him off-camera.


This will not, cannot, protect him completely though from a question a decade in the making.

When we last talked Gaslight Anthem matters, around the release of 2014’s Get Hurt, Fallon had been talking about the need to change, to keep moving and avoid the genre limitations, like the bands he always admired. The story that followed finished with him saying “I would have probably used an orchestra if I didn't feel it was going too far. The next record I probably won't be so afraid to use it."


Well, the “next record”, the band’s sixth, is finally here, called History Books, and there’s a noticeable absence. There’s guitars, there’s drums, there’s keyboards but you promised us an orchestra, Mr Fallon. Where is it??


“Well I would probably say that I wasn’t afraid; I don’t think I promised to did I?,” he says, beginning to quibble and parse that previous quote. “Was it a guarantee?”


No, there was no guarantee, but …


“Okay I can say this, we used an orchestra … of keyboards. We sure did,” he chuckles, before shifting tack. ”You know how expensive an orchestra is? I probably didn’t know that in 2014. You’d have to get that guy who does all the folksongs with orchestras for the movies in that giant studio in Los Angeles … T-Bone Burnette. I guess I gotta get Mumford & Sons if I’m gonna have the money to do an orchestra.


“But then, I don’t really want to be in Mumford & Sons, so maybe no orchestra for me. You heard it here first. Unless I talk to Metallica and see if I can borrow one of theirs.”


Why the hell not? They’ve got fellow Jersey-ite and noted Gaslight Anthem fan, Bruce Springsteen, on this new record (more about him later) so at least one Metallica dude and his orchestra isn’t too much to ask.


“I’ve heard through the grapevine that Lars [Ulrich, Metallica’s drummer] is a fan so maybe I can get him to lend us some strings. And [guitarist] Kirk Hammett is welcome on any Gaslight Anthem record, anytime.”


More dreams aside, it does seem a little unfair to hold him to a vague suggestion nine years back, given that the band went on the euphemistically titled “extended hiatus” a year later, and we had probably all given up on getting another record. But carrying expectations and dreams isn’t that new to Fallon and bandmates drummer Benny Horowitz, bassist Alex Levine and guitarist Alex Rosamilia.


Truthfully, as good, and sometimes great, as Fallon’s solo records have been in the intervening years, there is more than a few of us who didn’t realise how much we needed a Gaslight Anthem album and its attendant injection of communal goodwill and spirit, of verses that hit a nerve and choruses that elevate, until this one arrived.



Which sounds kinda special and in keeping with a group whose comparisons with The Clash and Springsteen’s E Street Band go beyond musical. That is until you think about how that could translate into the kind of weight no songwriter or band could legitimately carry into the making of a new record.


“That would probably immediately stifle, ensure writer’s block immediately,” Fallon laughs. “But I will say at this stage of my life, I do remember that there is an audience listening and I did this time, for the first time, with the song Positive Charge, have them in mind as I was writing.


"Because you know, I think I needed the record as much as you or anybody else did. I think all of us [in the band] did. It was time to do it. And I was really excited about that.”


It wasn’t just us on his mind of course. Fallon has talked about coming out of his own dark cycle of mental health in the period before writing these new songs. Was writing a way to get out of that “funk” as he lightly calls it, or was writing what he did after he was free of it?


“I always think that writing is a way to sort of find out what you’re really thinking. For me I have such a hard time: I understand what I’m feeling, but why I’m feeling it and how to put it into words is very difficult,” he confesses. “Which is why I read so many books or poems or I listen to so much music because, like what you’re saying, when I’m stuck there have been records that have pulled me out of that too.”


It doesn’t take much to elicit the name of a record that did that to Fallon, though it might come as a surprise to those who remember an early Gaslight Anthem song called I’da Called You Woody, Joe, a tribute to The Clash’s Joe Strummer and how Fallon “carried these songs like a comfort wherever I’d go”.


“The first that comes to mind is when I was 18 or 19, I was going through serious depression, and I discovered the [Florida punk/post-hardcore] band Hot Water Music who had these very, very positive lyrics,” says Fallon. “There was one song where he said ‘how do you get out of bed? I get out of bed one leg at a time’, and I remember just repeating that to myself going to my construction job, at six in the morning and being like ‘I feel like I’m gonna die’, saying well, I could do this one limb at a time. And I felt better.”


And here’s the thing that can be missed by people who casually slide by Gaslight Anthem or just revel in the thrilling escalations: there is the undeniable power and the tempo of the band, the attack at the beginning of Positive Charge or the energy burst of Little Fires on the new record. And it’s great. But the thing that has always appealed to many of us about their songs is the tenderness and compassion and understanding. And this return album is suffused with it.


“I would agree with you. And I would feel the same. I do love the explosions and that kind of thing, I’ve always liked the punk bands, but I loved it when they had these tender lyrics and tender moments. I really took that to heart as a writer,” Fallon says. “Even for me, this record was I think the pinnacle of that. I said, guys, we’ve done all the punk records, we can still play fast I’m sure, of course, but we’ve always had [counter songs like] Navesink Banks, and Blue Jeans & White T-Shirts, Here’s Looking At You Kid, and National Anthem, let’s lean into this a little bit, because this is where we are strong.”



There wasn’t much need to convince anyone involved.


“Everyone was into it and the producer, Peter Katis [who has worked with emotion-facing bands like The National, Interpol, Death Cab for Cutie] that’s his strong point. I think that was a real bonus for this record.”


Doing it now might reflect the times we’re in, where Fallon was, or maybe just a reminder that there has always been this side of them.


“I think it came naturally, where we were as a band. The confirmation that I was moving in the right way was I looked at other artists I look up to and what they did when they were this age. I looked at Pearl Jam, well they did No Code or Wishlist and these are the songs that were like a little bit more in the mind and a little bit more in the emotion, and there was this thread of empathy that can only come by living, and by really, really suffering a little.


“That was a really strong part of where I’m at now. And even coming back together there was the empathy we felt for each other because we realised its precious being in a band and getting the success that we had, that was a dream when we were kids. I mean we have Bruce Springsteen on our record, for goodness' sake. That’s crazy.”


I tell him that this morning before the interview I’ve been alternating between History Books, Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis and the most recent The National album, Laugh Track, finding emotional and musical connections in their tone, their compassion and a strain of anger about the behaviour of some people around us.


“I would say that’s very accurate. Curtis Mayfield has always been in this band’s orbit. He’ s always been an influence on us, and The National maybe not, but The First Two Pages Of Frankenstein [the first of the two albums The National released this year] and the brand new one, I was like, whoa, this is great, I’m excited by them. It’s good company.”


There’s a point on History Books where Fallon sings “I hate the way that time goes crashing over like a steamroller, I wish that I could do my life over, I’d be young better now”. What is he saying?


“I don’t know about other people but I feel like life is ever present pushing forward and you’re like, come on man give me a minute here. It feels like as you are figuring one thing out, the next phase comes. It’s like, I was just getting good at being in my 30s and I’m 43 now, what happened?,” he says.


“And then when you’ve got children, it’s that constant pushing forward and you never stop. To bring it back to my own life, I’m saying I wish that I could do my life over and I’d be young better now: I would have enjoyed it, and realised the things I worried about then, they are not going to matter so much now.”


As if he, or any of us, would have listened to a future us pontificating wisdom. Yeah, whatever grandad. Let’s face it, we would never be better at being young because we would only have the wisdom from being young and wrong or right in the first place. Fallon agrees that it’s hard enough doing middle-age better, and we still don’t manage that most of the time.



But hey, it’s a nice idea. And it is a cue to raise to a piece of wisdom Fallon did take on board. The title track of History Books, which Springsteen sings with him, was Springsteen’s idea. Or at least it was Springsteen’s idea that they sing a duet, after Fallon had gone to him for advice.


“He was very, very excited about [the band reforming] and that day he texted me, you know you should write us a duet, people would love it, it would be exciting,” says Fallon. “And I was like yeah, all right, cool. And then the weight of actually doing that settled in a few days later, and I was like, oh my goodness it’s like riding a guitar solo for Jimi Hendrix. What am I going to do here?


“So I ignored it and wrote all the songs without thinking about which one he would be on, and then thought about which one we thought he would like the best.”


What was the advice he sought from the sage of the Jersey shore, a man who has his own history of forming, splitting, and the reforming a band? How do you pull that shit off?


“A band is this monumental force, like building Rome together: it really is difficult. The divorce rate for people I think is about 50 per cent; the divorce rate for bands is probably 90 per cent,” Fallon says. “You’re basically dealing with mostly emotionally troubled individuals, because that’s how they have the ability to feel enough to relate to people and write music and create art. There is a lot of emotional turmoil, some mental health, some substance health, some other things, then there’s egos and just the mechanics of it.”


In particular, Fallon wanted to know how you bring a band back together and not again make mistakes or create the situation that led to the band breaking up in the first place and then breaking up again. “That would have been the worst thing: get back together, go on tour, break up again and no new record.”


After the years of knowing each other – Springsteen had been tipped off about the band by one of his children and started showing up at gigs – this was the first time Fallon went seeking Springsteen’s advice. “You’re always hesitant. I’ve got his phone number, but how many times do want to use the bat signal if you are Commissioner Gordon? I’ve got to pick my moments.”


They met for pizza, as it turns out on Springsteen’s birthday, chewing over the variables “like two maniacs from New Jersey”, and FalIon’s telling of it has me imagining – mixing our television hero metaphors here – that it could have been some scene from Kung Fu with Fallon at the feet of the old wise man who looks down and says “well Grasshopper, when you can snatch this pebble from my hand then you will be ready”.


Cut then to the scene of the now-wiser Fallon wandering off into the sunset, a guitar instead of a bundle on a stick, over his shoulder, and ready to fight the good fight.


“You know what’s funny, I get that reference and I might be the last generation to get the reference,” Fallon laughs. “I think if I said that to my kids they’d like, what are you talking about?”


Tell ‘em to play History Books.



History Books is out on October 27.


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