"It’s absurd that I have Bruce Springsteen's number. It's like me as a seven year-old having Batman's phone number": How a pizza date with The Boss played a part in The Gaslight Anthem's triumphant return

TheGaslight Anthem on the steps to a house
(Image credit: Casey McAllister)

Two years ago, faced with one of the biggest decisions of his adult life, Brian Fallon did what any of us would do in the same circumstances: he reached for his phone, and texted Bruce Springsteen. 

"I call it the Batphone," Fallon says with a laugh. "Because that's how absurd it is to me that I have Bruce Springsteen's number, it's like me being a seven year old kid and having Batman's phone number. And you don't want to use it unless there's a real problem."

The issue, in this instance, was that Fallon was considering resurrecting The Gaslight Anthem, the band he put on hiatus in 2015. It was with the rock n' soul punks - alongside guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz - that the singer/songwriter made his name, but that success came at a cost to his mental health, and revisiting old ground had the potential to re-open old wounds, and send Fallon back to dark places. Hence the text to 'The Boss', one of Fallon's biggest musical heroes, and also, coincidentally, one of The Gaslight Anthem's biggest fans. As it turned out, not only was Springsteen encouraging of the idea of getting the band back together, he also offered to guest on the album, if Fallon thought there might be a spot for him.

That duet, and more, can be found on History Books, The Gaslight Anthem's first album since 2014's Get Hurt. Brian Fallon tells us how things fell back into place. 

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The last time we spoke, in September last year, you were saying you were going to try to write, like, 40 songs for the new record, and then whittle those down: was that how things ended up working out? 
"Absolutely not! [Laughs] I wrote exactly 11 songs, and one of them didn't get finished, so that's why it's not on the record, because it wasn't very good."

And was that because you had a greater focus, where you just knew, Okay, this is what's going to work?
Yeah, they just all felt really good. You know, it's hard to know when to stop writing:  everybody in your management team will be like, 'You gotta write until you can't write anymore!' and I'm like, Well, you're collecting 15 per cent from your office, so maybe I'll just do what I feel like I should do. That's where you have to decide, like, when is the painting done? And the older I get, and the more experience I get, I feel that is such an art in and of itself. For like people to know, ok, nine songs is the record, or eight songs, seven songs, whatever it is, then you got to know, it's an instinct. And I think having a band is very helpful to have during that decision making process." 

Otherwise you're looking at your own personal Chinese Democracy, where the record isn't finished until someone snatches it out of your hands and releases it...
"Yeah, it's wild. I mean, there's that thing Bob Dylan does, where he says a song is never done, and he keeps changing it. I don't know about that. But you know what? I'm sitting here in New Jersey, and Bob Dylan's Bob Dylan. So what do I know?"

Did I read somewhere that, to test the water, you said you'd write four new Gaslight Anthem songs, and if the other guys in the band thought they were up to scratch, then you'd proceed to stage two, making a new record, and if they weren't, then the reunion idea would be put back in the closet?
"No! That is a lie from the deepest pits! They don't have choices with these songs, what are you talking about? I'm the one flying the Millennium Falcon here pal! [Laughs] No, I'm joking, of course they could say, 'Hey, I don't think this is good' about any song, but I don't think anybody was gonna say that about the first four songs we wrote: I mean, who wants to be the guy that kills The Gaslight Anthem reunion?

"Things in this band have always been gauged on my excitement. Like, when I'm excited, it tends to infectious for them, that's what they've said. I knew I wasn't gonna send them bad songs, I wasn't gonna send them anything that was not up to quality. Technically, yes, I suppose they could have had a vote, if they wanted to have a vote on not doing something awesome. [Laughs] But no, what you're referring to was me having to impress me before we all dived back in." 

By which point you'd already texted your pal Bruce for his thoughts, right?
"Yeah, I was super busy obviously, but I found the time to text him, I humbled myself. [Laughs] I called him because I was like, Look, I've never asked you for anything before, but like, this is the most important thing in my musical career. I gotta call you and he responded right away. I think I texted him on a Tuesday, and he said, we'll meet on Thursday. Which actually was his birthday, believe it or not." 

So how did that conversation unfold with your boy?"
Um, well, it unfolded... it's very odd. Because when you sit down and talk to someone like that, part of your brain goes into this, like, What am I doing here? You really go into this, like, I'm hearing what you're saying, but I'm recalling very little of it. It's like your first date with somebody, and you really love them, and you want to remember every memory, but like, you can't. Ut's so hard to remember everything when you're in that kind of environment, because you can never take away the fact that, that's one of the greatest songwriters ever to live, and one of also the most famous human beings.

"I recently saw this thing where the Queen had met Brian May, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck, and they were all explaining to her, like, 'I also play guitar, my name is Jimmy Page.' And she was just like, 'Oh, that's cool.' Because it's the Queen, it's just beyond. So I mean, a conversation [with Springsteen] just basically goes, however he wants it to go, but he was giving me good advice."

Positive Charge was the comeback single, and apparently the first song you finished for the record. What was it about that song that fell into place and made it the first building block for the album?
"Well, the thing about the band and like coming back to it, the one thing that made me feel not overwhelmed, is when I thought about what the band means to me, and what it means to other people. I said to myself, What would it be like if I was in the audience, what would I want to hear? And then when I was writing that song, I was definitely writing about myself and my own mental health struggles. But the other thing that was really important to me, it was like a letter to the band, and to myself, and to the audience. And I really felt their presence and their expectations, but not in a bad way, I felt their excitement and their joy in the room when I was writing it. I was thinking of all the big festivals and shows we played, these big, pinnacle moments in our lives, and the overwhelming feeling of love our audience has for the band. So that took away a little bit of pressure."

Speaking of pressure, the next song anybody heard from the record was the title track with Mr. Springsteen. That surely, is right up there as another career highlight.
Yeah, I mean, that was long time coming, and I think that it was the perfect time for that to happen. But again, that was up to him: he texted me after we met, I think maybe an hour later. I had gotten home, and he was very excited, and he was saying, 'We should do a duet we should do a song together. And I was like, Oh, yeah, it's up to you, man, sure. He was very, very excited, and I was excited for his excitement. Everything felt very natural about that. Like, you want it to happen, but then you're like, is this too much, because everybody compares us to The Boss? But it was actually really cool, it just felt like the right moment for everything."

I can't read reviews. I can't mentally handle that. I've got way too much anxiety

Brian Fallon

Was returning to the studio a relatively smooth process?
"Yeah, I mean our studio time isn't generally tumultuous. For a bunch of men in a room, surprisingly little ego goes into making records. We do really care about each other, and we listen to what each other says, so this time was very a much feeling of, I can't believe we're here, I can't believe we're doing this, and I can't believe that it sounds this good. I think everyone was just really overjoyed at being there. And we just knew other people would would like it because the excitement that we had was infectious."

Have you paid much attention to the reviews of the record? Or is that not something that you can allow to creep into your head?
"I can't read them. Like, I can't emotionally, I can't mentally handle that. I've got way too much anxiety."

Has that always been the case?
"It has always been the case... but I was an idiot before, and I used to read all of them, every little dirty detail. And now I know that for my own mental health that's not a good idea. So now I go, if there's people at the shows, and I've got a lot of interviews to do during the day, that's probably good, and I just leave it there." 

We've spoken before about the anxiety that being in the band brought on first time around: has there been any hint of that creeping back in?
"I think we have the tools now to be able to manage that stuff. Because, yeah, it could come back, you know, with the stress of touring and travelling, and sometimes not sleeping that much, that that's a recipe for disaster when it comes to anxiety. But I think we have better tools now. And also we have the loss of nine years of the band, so we know how that feels, so sometimes with things that before we may have been like, 'I don't really like that', you kind of just say, Well, it's fine, because at least we have the band."

Are there things, in retrospect, that you think you maybe took for granted first time around that this time around you're much more appreciative of?
"I think just the fact that we did it, and that we're still professional musicians. Like, when people ask me what my occupation is, and I can say musician, that's crazy. When you're in school and you say that you want to be in a rock n' roll band, that was like saying, I'm gonna go on live on the moon. It's easy sometimes to lose sight of just how few people get to live out their dreams."

So what's what's next on the calendar for you?
"We're gonna kind of shut it down for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then then get ready to go back at it in March. And then we start touring for the whole of next year, pretty much."

Are The Gaslight Anthem the sort of band that will be exchanging WhatsApp messages over the holidays about the excitement of going on tour or whatever, or do you leave one another alone to do family stuff and do what you need to do?
"Oh, we see each other more now than we ever did, except for the times when we were living together. I was just at Benny's son's birthday party, all of us were there, the whole family and all our kids. During the hiatus we were still in touch. We've been through so much that not only are those guys my bandmates, they're my friends, and the only brothers I ever had."

One final question: which of the three London shows next year are you flying Bruce over for, just so that I know which one to get tickets for?
"Hmmm... we'll see, that's yet to be confirmed. Do you need a flight too?"

No, I'm good, thanks, I live in Camden, I can walk up.
All right, no problem. Just a dinner reservation for three then. Hope pizza is ok..."

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.