The Gaslight Anthem: Turn On The Bright Lights
Brian Fallon, frontman of the New Jersey punk rockers turned stadium-rock upstarts, The Gaslight Anthem, discusses the band’s imminent ‘experimental’ record, what he thinks of the naysayers, and lights. Yes, lights.
“We were playing a show sometime last year and I was looking around thinking, ‘Is something missing here?’” recalls The Gaslight Anthem’s frontman Brian Fallon. “We were opening for some big bands but something wasn’t quite right with our set-up. So I started jumping up and down and moving around a bit more. Nope, that wasn’t it. Then it struck me: there’s no light rig. That’s what the deal is.”
It’s mid-July and Fallon is speaking over the phone from his home in New Jersey. The band just returned from Canada, where they played the Toronto Urban Roots Festival, and now he’s at home thinking about the steady evolution of his band… and light rigs. “Ever since the early days, we would play these tiny little places and they’d get jam-packed full,” he ponders in his rich New Jersey brogue. “We should’ve moved up to bigger venues before that and we never did it. We were just kinda dumb. We didn’t realise what was happening because we were so preoccupied with doing the thing.”
‘Doing the thing’, in The Gaslight Anthem’s terms, means putting out four acclaimed LPs, one EP (which is Fallon’s favourite item in the band’s quiver), a live album, a live DVD and a B-sides record. They’ve also circumnavigated the world several times and amassed a formidable cult-like following along the way – all in the space of seven short years. And their fifth effort, Get Hurt (the one Fallon’s on the phone to discuss) is due out on August 15 in Australia.
It’s perhaps telling of the band’s humility that the foursome – rounded out by guitarist Alex Rosamilia, drummer Benny Horowitz and bassist Alex Levine – have only recently started thinking about lifting the visual aspect of their live shows to fit the bigger songs – and bigger venues – they’ve been playing.
“It seems like we’re always a year or two behind ourselves,” offers Fallon. “We were late learners. So I’m looking at light rigs right now. They’re sending me across all these things about what the lights do. I’m like, ‘That looks cool’. As long as it looks cool, I like it. Light it up, that’s what I’m saying.”
On the subject of bigger songs, the band’s upcoming second major label release is no shrinking violet. It’s been well documented that this record was going to be Gaslight’s ‘weird’ and ‘experimental’ album (Fallon has drawn comparisons to Pearl Jam’s No Code in this context), and the outfit have made good on their word. From the chief riff of album opener “Stay Vicious”, it becomes immediately clear that The Gaslight Anthem aren’t fucking around. But despite initially sounding like a markedly different band, the chorus drops into one of the wistful, jangly, catchy-as-hell melodies fans have grown to love.
“I think ‘Stay Vicious’ nailed it,” replies Fallon when asked which of the album’s tracks best embody Get Hurt’s mission statement. “I don’t know if it nailed it as a ‘hit song’ or anything like that, but it nailed it in terms of like… ‘That’s weird’. It’s just different.”
Fallon also cites the record’s eponymous track – a dark, drifting and emotionally charged heartbreaker – as another solid example of what the group set out to do. “Every time I hear that song I just think, ‘Y’know what? That’s awesome’,” says the frontman. “It sounds like a Gaslight Anthem song, but at the same time it doesn’t sound anything like The Gaslight Anthem. That makes me feel good – I feel good about that song.”
Historically, the band have always struggled with labels. Their 2007 debut LP, Sink Or Swim, was a dynamic punk record that won them a slew of diehard fans. Their follow-up, 2008’s The ‘59 Sound – arguably the definitive Gaslight Anthem record – expanded on the sound from their first but drew on a few more melodic, bluesy and soulful influences.
The next two records were widely thought of, in the punk and alternative community at least, as being neither here nor there – trapped somewhere between the tiny, sweat-drenched punk rock venues they were used to playing and the arenas and stadiums they aspired to. But with Get Hurt, the assimilation of the band’s punk roots and their higher aspirations has been pulled off far more convincingly – with more energy, vigour and urgency to boot.
Where Fallon would typically write songs on an acoustic guitar, Get Hurt saw the frontman switch to an electric (he also wrote “Underneath The Ground” on the piano – a first for him) and take a much more detailed approach to the songwriting process. “For this one, I made really clear and elaborate demos,” he explains. “I said, ‘Look, I really wanna do something different. And rather than have you guys guess, I would rather make the songs really clear and you guys can change them from there’, which they did.”
Fallon was quoted in Rolling Stone earlier this year as saying that he wanted to see how far he could push the record “without pissing anyone off” – a quote he says was taken slightly out of context. His intended meaning was that he doesn’t want to exclude existing fans with Get Hurt, and he certainly doesn’t seem keen on the idea of intentionally pissing anyone off.
“If people really love your band, that’s something special and kinda precious, and you should respect that,” he elaborates. “Some people get attached to a record and when the band deviate from that, they don’t like it. I understand that. With [Get Hurt], I didn’t wanna be like, ‘Everything you love about the band is no longer the band’; I didn’t wanna do one of those moves. I don’t think that’s cool.”
As far as getting taken out of context goes, the past few years have seen Fallon inadvertently anger some members of his fan base – particularly the band’s original, more punk-orientated fans who reside on the internet.
“I don’t know what it is, man,” he says in earnest. “I get taken wrong a lot. Sometimes I’ll say something and kids won’t like it for some reason.”
But whilst the frontman is trying to not let the negative talk worry him now, this wasn’t always the case. Fallon admits that he had to take a bit of a time out from the digital world last year. “For a while it got really tough,” he says. “It was just too much. I’m not here to try and make anyone angry, but some people were just getting real mad at what I was saying. I’ve realised that some people just aren’t going to like what I say and that’s OK. So much of it just gets lost in translation.”
Despite the growing pains – which are par for the course for any punk band that have ever tried to expand their sound – Fallon seems confident in where the group are at right now. And speaking of right now, the frontman is currently enjoying some downtime at home in New Jersey before the touring (which kicks off in September) begins.
Time at home also gives Fallon ample opportunity to nerd-out. He sounds slightly embarrassed when he admits that all he does is “sit around and play guitar all day long” and watch movies and documentaries about bands – he’s always trying to learn. “I’m obsessed… I probably need deep therapy,” he laughs, and quips that until he writes a Gaslight Anthem equivalent of Tom Petty’s acclaimed Full Moon Fever, he’ll never be happy. “But then what happens if you do write a Full Moon Fever?” he ponders. “We’d be wrecked. We wouldn’t be able to do it again.”
At 34-years-old, Fallon’s beginning to find he’s enjoying his home comforts more and more. He sounds jovial as he talks about the newfound merits of the chair he’s sitting in and of the TV shows he never gets to watch. Still, he says the lure of playing live music hasn’t faded, nor the reasons he started playing music in the first place.
“You love seeing those faces every night, seeing that you can make people happy,” he says. “It reminds you that you’re not a piece of crap, you know?!
Indeed, Fallon has much to feel good about. Get Hurt is at once a bolder statement of intent and a more assured record than its predecessor, Handwritten, and perhaps the band’s most virile document since The ‘59 Sound. And whilst the frontman certainly sounds confident in the record and is keen to release the group’s newest sounds ‘pon the world, he still finds himself philosophising on their upward trajectory.
“It’s a tricky thing you gotta do here,” he says. “You gotta stay relevant but stay the same. That’s what everybody wants.”
Get Hurt is out August 15 through EMI.
The Gaslight Anthem are on tour right now. Check out all the dates here