Amid the peacocking, screamingly self-aware fashion, media and PR types who frequent Shoreditch’s achingly hip Ace Hotel, Brian Fallon cuts a pleasingly anonymous figure. Dressed in double denim and a check shirt, he looks like a regular John Doe, like he’s here to fix a leak in a fourth floor bathroom or roll new kegs into the cellar beneath the Polari bar.
Two years ago, in the summer of 2014, Fallon spent a day in that bar with his friends Alex Rosamilia, Alex Levine and Benny Horowitz talking up his band The Gaslight Anthem’s fifth album Get Hurt. He spoke to this writer about the group’s desire to move beyond their trademark sepia-tinged, romantic, soulful punk ‘n’ roll sound, about re-writing the narratives foisted upon the quartet since their 2008 ‘breakthrough’ album The ’59 Sound pushed them squarely into ‘Next Big Thing’ territory, about the importance of the band reclaiming and owning their own destiny after being distracted and disoriented by the expectations of (often well-meaning) fans, a rapcacious music industry and an increasingly hysterical media.
“Everything from here on is wide open,” Fallon concluded that afternoon, pronouncing himself “at peace” with both Gaslight’s status and indeed their future prospects.
Except he wasn’t at peace, not really. Because the nagging voices in his head didn’t fall silent, because the creeping doubts didn’t fade away, not when Get Hurt debuted inside the top 5 in both the US and UK, not even when he led his band into their biggest ever headline show at London’s 9,000 capacity Alexandra Palace. The tattoos on his knuckles may read ‘Stay Free’, but as the days wore on Brian Fallon began to feel increasingly confined and contained, like a stylus riding in a locked groove. Towards the end of 2014, with eight months of touring remaining on Gaslight’s docket, Rosamilia, Levine and Horowitz asked their band leader whether he’d had any thoughts about their next record, any idea where they should go from here, and Brian Fallon found himself saying “I have zero idea what to do next.” And as the four men let that statement sink in, and began to discuss its implications, they came to the sobering conclusion that perhaps their band – which perpetually celebrated the notion of hitting the highway in search of adventure and experience and bright new tomorrows – had finally ran out of road. On July 29, 2015, they made those feelings public, announcing an ‘indefinite hiatus’ to commence upon the completion of their European festival commitments. “We’d like to recharge and take a step back until we have something we feel excited about rather than going right back to making a record just for the sake of making the next record,” their statement read. “We all feel this is the best decision we can make and it feels like the right one for us.”
As one of the finest musical story-tellers of his generation, Brian Fallon has never been a transparently ‘heart-on-sleeve’ songwriter: such is his gift for sketching evocative characters – the girls with the ‘Monroe hips’ and ‘sailor tattoos’, the boys dreaming of ‘classic cars and movie screens’ – that it hasn’t always been obvious when he’s holding a mirror to his own life. So one might hear a lyric such as ‘Maybe you needed a change / And maybe I was in the way’ (Get Hurt) and not immediately recognise that the singer was referencing the breakdown of his own marriage last time around. But if one were to scan the lyrics of Fallon’s new solo album Painkillers for clues as to why the 36 year old chose to put his band on hold, the line ‘I lost most of myself pleasing everyone’ (from Nobody Wins) is perhaps the most significant.
“I haven’t analysed that lyric until right now, but sure, I can definitely see the parallel in my personal life and in the band,” Fallon says today, when the suggestion is put to him. “I wasn’t really thinking about the band per se, but I guess I must have been. With the band it’s like, ‘Do we just do The ’59 Sound one hundred times, is that our thing, like the Ramones do the Ramones thing?’ Because people seem to like The Gaslight Anthem that is the New Jersey/Bruce Springsteen thing – the fact that we’re the rock band that sings about the radio and the girls and the cars – but at the same time we’re all different people now from the band that made that record. And I can’t just do that because that’s what people want.”
“Gaslight Anthem isn’t a band that you can play in on 75%, it has to be 110% or it’s not real. With a band that’s all heart, if you’re not sure where your heart is at, you have a choice: you either stop it or ruin it. And we weren’t ready to roll the dice. We rolled the dice somewhat with Get Hurt, but I don’t know that we felt like it was 100% what we envisaged. I think we all thought that we were going to push the envelope a lot further than we ended up doing, and I’m not sure why we didn’t just go absolutely bananas on it. It felt good in a way, but none of us really knew what to make of it. None of us are saying that we don’t like that record, but we all feel a little confused about it, like ‘Oh, I thought this was going this way, but it went that way, and is that us?’ And we weren’t sure that we wanted to continue on the path we were on. So many bands have become a joke, and we weren’t prepared to do that, Gaslight is too important to us to have it become a joke. So we said ‘Well, if we don’t have anything, let’s just stop. And if we never have anything again, then we can be proud of what we did’.”
“I’m the kind of person that always wants to make everyone feel comfortable and safe, but I think during that period around Get Hurt I had to be like ‘Look man, you can’t live your life for somebody else, you’ve got to be the best you can, but sometimes you have to stand up for yourself.’ And that’s probably where that line came from. You have to come down to brass tacks, and ask yourself why you’re doing this. And when it doesn’t feel right in your heart, you have to step away.”
The Gaslight Anthem played their (for now) final show on August 30, 2015 at the Reading Festival. When Brian Fallon returned home to New Jersey his first thought was ‘Alright, a proper break, this is going to be awesome!’ And then he picked up his guitar and began writing songs.
“I was thinking ‘What are you doing?’” he laughs. “But this is what I do. I’ve always got something eating at me, and I have to get these things out. And also, not to lie to anyone, I have to pay the bills, I gotta work. None of us in Gaslight were ever driving Porsches!”
By mid-September, work had begun on Painkillers.
As his new songs began to coalesce, Fallon started to consider who might he best entrust with the task of recording his debut solo album. Frank Turner was among those who suggested Butch Walker as an option, Walker having added production duties on Turner’s Positive Songs for Negative People album to a formidable CV which includes work with Taylor Swift, Pink, Fall Out Boy, Katy Perry and Weezer.
“I didn’t know Butch Walker, but I knew that he had done a lot of pop records and rock records so in my mind I was thinking the recording might take forever to get perfect,” says Fallon. “And then I met him, and we talked about Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty and I was like, ‘Cool man, you get it.’ So he was like ‘Okay, let’s start recording today, let’s make some demos.’ At this point I hadn’t even hired him as the producer, it was our first meeting, but I played him four songs, we worked on two of them, and at the end of it he says ‘I might keep these for the record.’ I was like ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, we did these in an hour!’ And he said ‘No, trust me, this is how you make records’.”
The pair decamped to Nashville to record at Walker’s Traxidermy studio, and, with the aid of drummer Mark Stepro and bassist Catherine Popper (who plays alongside Fallon in his side-band Molly and the Zombies) “blasted” through the album in just 14 days: “one song a day – boom! – finished,” says Fallon with a laugh.
“It was the fastest I’ve ever worked, and the easiest, since Sink Or Swim, back when I didn’t know that you could spend 50 days on vocals or getting a drum sound.”
The resulting album is exceptional, a mature, confident set of forward-looking songs which sees Fallon revisiting his love of folk and Americana while tipping a hat to long-standing influences Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. That he has chosen to introduce the album with the optimistic A Wonderful Life, a song which would have fitted perfectly onto Gaslight Anthem’s American Slang album might confuse those still pining for his old band however, since Fallon has been so vocal about his desire to steer Gaslight away from such territory. Naturally the singer is not blind to this fact.
“I was aware that people were going to say ‘Well, this sounds a lot like Gaslight…’ Of course it does, because it’s me! But part of the reason we stopped Gaslight is that Gaslight can’t do that anymore, because that’s not Gaslight, that part of Gaslight is 100% from me. So doing it on my own is me returning to what I love about music. I definitely paused for a second and was like ‘Do I change this?’ And I thought ‘No, because this is what I want to do, and that’s what I feel in my heart so I’m just going to be honest and do it.’ I think if Gaslight did that song it would sound different… and I know that because I’m in the band! But I also thought it’s going to sound like Gaslight because that is me and this is me and that’s okay.”
The fact that Fallon can do a song such as A Wonderful Life on Painkillers is also an indication that the singer-songwriter is finally finding a sense of peace with who he is an artist.
“Yeah, it’s like, this is me, for better or for worse,” he says. “You have to let all those guarding things go, because it’s not going to help you. When you’re holding so tightly to create what people’s perception is of you, you just can’t control that. And when you let go and just do the things that you love, hopefully that’s what people connect to the most. And being able to let go of that is hugely freeing. Because you’re fighting against yourself all the time, do you know what I mean? That’s the hardest thing you can do, fight against yourself, and I was doing it for so many years, and it was tough.”
“I used to get irritated even when people would be like ‘Oh yeah, you guys are from New Jersey…Bruce Springsteen.’ I’d be like ‘Oh, man, we want to be our own thing’. And then you think ‘Wait, why should getting compared to one of the best songwriters on the face of the planet irritate you?’ I mean, these sound like such stupid problems when I say them out loud, but to me they were giant problems inside my little world, and I had to deal with them. I had to rewind and just think about why I got into this and what I love about music – the writing and communicating with people - and that seems so much clearer to me after that.”
“I think there’s me in all the records, of course, but I will say that it was a lot easier for me to speak on this one, to just sit down and think ‘I’m just going to write songs, where they’re about feelings from 10 years ago or whether they’re just stories, it’s all going in there.’ I just let myself, for once, write and not consider whether people were going to look deep into it. Because no-one was really digging around into my personal life until the last record, but on Get Hurt it seemed like everyone was digging around, and it got kinda personal. It’s not that I’m particularly trying to protect anything, it’s just that I’m not the kind of guy to put everything out there on the internet or in the media. And it took me months and years to get over that, because I had a certain anxiety about the prospect of people really looking into my life, so that threw me for a loop, for sure. I had crazy anxiety, and I actually had to go and talk to someone, talk to a doctor. It would have been easy to go to the doctor and say ‘I feel this way, give me a pill to make it go away’, but I was more interested in getting to the root of it, because I thought otherwise this might be a problem for the rest of my life. So I thought, ‘Let me go talk to somebody and figure this out.’ And I did, and I got enough figured out to where I could continue on.”
And what did you learn about yourself in that process?
“Well, I learned that what people say about you doesn’t define you. And I also learned that sometimes it is your fault. Sometimes it’s somebody’s else’s fault, sometimes it’s the world’s fault, but a portion of every fault is yours. That’s what I learned, for me. I wasn’t looking to find some great truth to spread to the world, because I realised I know nothing, but for me, I thought ‘You’ve gotta sort yourself out, because you can’t sort anybody else out.’ I thought if I could figure out what I want to improve, that’d be a great start.”
Painkillers is also a great start for the new, happier, healthier Brian Fallon, not a spectacular reinvention but an album that serves as a wonderful reminder of the simple beauty of three chords and the truth, and a reaffirmation of why this humble blue collar New Jersey native has dedicated his life to his art. In closing today, Fallon says “This is renewing my faith in the whole music thing, reminding me it’s still important and still does what it’s supposed to do.” Sometimes you have to look in the rear view mirror before you can move forward.
Brian Fallon’s Painkillers album is out today, March 11, on Island Records. Brian Fallon & The Crowes kick off their first European tour in Manchester on April 5.