Brian Fallon was in London when he got the letter. The Gaslight Anthem singer had already seen a whirlwind year: his band’s second album, The ’59 Sound, met with effusive praise, the venues they were playing were getting bigger, and they counted Bruce Springsteen and Social Distortion’s Mike Ness among their fans. Backstage at the Forum in London was quiet. Fallon was sitting with a towel around his shoulders, slowly coming down from the show. He studied the envelope: the familiar postmark from home; and there was something about the handwriting that struck a dull and distant chord.
Fast forward a few months. “Strictly speaking,” Fallon recalls sitting in his new home in Brooklyn, “that was the first song I wrote for the new record. I actually wrote the lyrics on the back of the bus in Norway, just after we’d left the UK.”
The song in question closes the excellent new Gaslight Anthem album, American Slang. It’s called We Did It When We Were Young and it really does give credence to the old adage about fame and success: ‘I didn’t change, everyone else did.’
“This letter, man,” says Fallon, almost audibly shaking his head in disbelief, “it was from an old, old girlfriend, one I hadn’t spoken to in years and years, and she was like: ‘I’m so proud that you’ve done what you wanted to do with the band, it’s so important to me that you’ve done so well…’” There’s a sharp, incredulous intake of breath. “…and I was like: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You cannot come into my life at all, there is no place for you here.’
“I was so shocked because things did not end well: it wasn’t like we’d kept in touch. I love that line in the song, ‘And my wife has some dogs in our yard,’ this image of holding the dogs back on the front lawn as this person comes near. You know: ‘Keep moving – go find someone else to haunt.’ Because I’m doing well now you think you can suddenly write me and say congratulations? Get out of here. I’m older now and we did that when we were young. In retrospect I should have called it Move Along, Nothing To See Here…”
Fallon’s happy enough, though. He’s given up his job as a carpenter, earned enough to buy an apartment in Brooklyn and, with his band’s third album, has made good on the initial promise of their punky debut, 2007’s Sink Or Swim, as well as the New Jersey style that dominated the following year’s The ’59 Sound. With American Slang, Fallon was determined the band should find their own voice – less Stiff Little Fingers and E Street Band, more Gaslight Anthem. Which might be why Brian found himself stymied by writer’s block.
“At the beginning when I sat down and started writing the album, I was stuck,” says Fallon, “I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted to do next, and there was so much expectation after what we’d done with the last record that I was like: ‘What do I do now?’ I’m not going to re-write the same record again.
“On their first few records, bands just emulate their influences and they put their own spin on it – but really it’s a continuation of what they were influenced by. Hopefully by your third record you should be figuring out who and what you are, and I knew we had to do that - and I was just kind of like: ‘Well, I’m on my own now,’” he explains in a hail of vocal tics.
Salvation came in the shape of producer Ted Hutt, and the almost wistful sounding Bring It On.
“This album wouldn’t have happened if Ted wasn’t there,” says Fallon, “I was scared. When you’re leaning on your influences you have someone you can compare yourself to – like: ‘Does this match up with this? Does it fit in, you know?’ So when I wrote Bring It On I thought I was insane, that I had absolutely gone off my rocker. I didn’t know what to do with the song. I was, oh my goodness, I looked at it and thought to myself: ‘There has never been any song on any Tom Waits or Springsteen or Clash record that sounds anything like this. I don’t know what to do because I can’t compare this to anything.’
“It was really awkward. It was like, if you asked me what it sounds like, I’d say Tegan & Sara and The Supremes together. It’s my band and even I didn’t understand it. So I kept the demo for two weeks before I played it to anyone, and that was Ted. He said to me: ‘You go with this, this is what the new record should sound like.’ And that gave me the encouragement to go with the rest of the record – and then it all spilt out… It’s like Keith Richards with Satisfaction. He hated it, didn’t like it at all when he first wrote it. Not that this is Satisfaction, but you know…”
At a fleeting 32 minutes and change, American Slang is, we suggest, an altogether wearier, almost melancholic-sounding record.
“I’m 30 now,” says Fallon, “so I think it just came as a natural kind of progression. I’m writing as an older person, and there’s something deeper to dig into. This is the record about someone growing up and dealing with what’s happened to them, and the things that everyone struggles with in their life – like trying to resolve your place in the world. I think that’s what American Slang is really about – letting go of the past and moving on.
“Musically we’ve moved on too,” says Fallon. “We kept talking about soul music in interviews and that was never represented in our records. So we started looking into that old backbeat that ran through a lot of classic soul. It’s kind of a lost art – strange rhythms in these incredible tunes. We knew that could help set us apart. It’s important to us that a lot of the bands we love wouldn’t have written a song like Queen Of Lower Chelsea. That’s not something you would find on a Social Distortion or Springsteen record.
“It’s got that kind of pulsating Straight To Hell vibe to it. Actually, that had started out as a very fast song, and we were playing it and playing it, and halfway through the writing process I just said: ‘This isn’t right, these lyrics don’t go with this song.’ I just didn’t want to do it anymore so I took it home and rewrote the entire thing and took it back and said: ‘This is how it should go’ – and they were all: ‘What?!’ Strange looks all around the rehearsal room, you know. And I got them to try it and it really worked out, thankfully.”
In recent interviews, Fallon has talked about the Gaslight Anthem finding their own identity – it’s obviously been on his mind – making their own way in the world. A newfound philosophy that’s even made it onto the album’s sleeve: a collage of pictures taken by the band of their immediate surroundings. It’s a nicely understated spin on New York, one of the most photogenic cities in the world.
“That actually came from the idea of saying: ‘Does this make us happy?’” suggests Fallon. “Yes, yes it does. Cool – then these are the songs. That feeling that we had from the whole album. So we carried that idea and all went out to take a picture of something that you might see everyday and that means something to you, and that kind of symbolises where you are in your life. We all took pictures on our own cameras and put them together, and that was the cover of the record.”
As one of the last great rock’n’roll bands, I suggest to him that there’s a singular lack of bars and dancing girls on the sleeve. “Ah, I know, busted. There is an Irish coffee on there, though.”
Famously, and in a move that must have garnered you an entire legion of entirely different fans altogether, people as disparate as Bruce Springsteen and Mike Ness – both lauded in their own very different musical circles – have said incredibly nice things about the band. They’ve been on stage with both too.
“With Bruce at Glastonbury, that was the first time he sang with us,” says Fallon. “He literally just showed up alone before we were going to play. I mean, he just popped in and asked if he could play with us. We were like: ‘Oh, okay, you want to do a song with us?’ I mean, he must have minions, but there were none with him that day – he just dropped in. Pretty unreal.
“We went out on a small tour with Social Distortion and sort of became friends. Back when we were starting out they meant a lot to us as a band. Then later on we had an off day in Virginia and they were playing a show and Mike was like: ‘Want to play a song with us?’ It’s amazing that’s he’s been so positive about us. You have people say things about you and that’s fine. With Bruce being kind about us, it’s almost too big. It’s unreal, you can’t even fathom it – it doesn’t seem real that this guy likes your band. But with Mike, he’s closer to where we are. You can almost reach out and touch him and that’s such a big inspiration.
“The Social Distortion thing – the way they’ve always carried themselves as a band – was a big part of me figuring out that we could stand on our own two legs as a band. And having Mike say that about us and our songs, it really means something… It has more impact. With Bruce you just end up pinching yourself, and at the end of it you think: ‘That didn’t really happen.’ But with a guy like Mike, you can kind of wrap your head around it and go: ‘Wow! I’m an acquaintance of Mike Ness!’ – that’s pretty cool. That really brings it home for you.”
Fallon has to go and rehearse for his forthcoming American tour (“We’re headlining, I’d rather do smaller rooms than follow someone else’s rules. We’d play with Social Distortion or maybe The Hold Steady – but no one else”) before coming back to the UK in the summer. He is, by any standards, in a good place.
“It was cool not having to go back to my job after the last tour ended,” he says happily. “It was only in November of last year that I could really say I can go to the supermarket and buy some food and do whatever I needed to do like a normal person – that the band was starting to finally pay.” He sounds blissful, like a man who’s come through something and is better for it. “And getting an apartment, crazy, I never expected that, any of this.”
The Gaslight Anthem’s album American Slang _is out now on SideOneDummy Records.__ _
SINCE THE …SLANG DAYS
The band signed to Mercury, and released the album Handwritten in July 2012.
A limited edition box set was put out in June 2013. It was called Singles Collection: 2008 - 2011.
In December 2013, The Gaslight Anthem put out the Live In London DVD, followed in January 2014 by The B-Sides compilation.
A new studio album is due in the summer of 2014.