It might not have been a ‘hold the front page’ announcement, but when The Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon revealed that the band were “returning to full-time status” in late March, not to mention beginning the process of writing songs for what will be their sixth studio album, it felt like a good-news day.
The New Jersey quartet – Fallon, guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz – had announced in July 2015 that they’d be taking an “indefinite hiatus” upon completion of touring commitments for their fifth album, 2014’s Get Hurt. And although the four musicians had regrouped in the summer of 2018 and played a series of triumphant, victory-lap shows celebrating the tenth anniversary of The ’59 Sound, their breakthrough album, there were no hints that this reunion might be a precursor to something more permanent.
“To be honest, we thought that was it,” Fallon admits to Classic Rock today, in his dressing room at Manchester Apollo, during his latest solo UK tour. “When we played the last show of that run, in Asbury Park, we played The ’59 Sound itself as the last song of the set, and I truly thought: ‘Okay, this is the last time I’ll ever play this song in this band again.’ I never thought in a million years that we would play again, ever. And I think everybody thought the same. And we felt okay about that.
“When we went on hiatus abruptly, that was kind of an emergency ‘pull the ejector seat’ thing. We did it because I was really, truly at the end of my rope, and I knew I had to go home and get right, because otherwise I was going to be in trouble. At the time, management were like: ‘Do you wanna do a farewell tour?’ And I said: ‘No, I can’t do anything.’ So we didn’t get to finish on a high note. And that was all we wanted from that 2018 tour. That’s where we thought the Gaslight Anthem story ended.”
Both The ’59 Sound and the follow-up, 2010’s American Slang, were certified silver for sales in excess of 60,000 copies in the UK, and The Gaslight Anthem began garnering plaudits as ‘The Saviours Of Rock’n’Roll’. Although no one but his closest friends knew it at the time, Brian Fallon was already feeling the pressure, big-time.
“In 2010, when we were doing American Slang, I couldn’t say: ‘Yo, I’m having a mental breakdown, and I need a break,’” he reflects. “Because then the whole industry would have been like: ‘Well, okay, then you don’t have a career.’ “If I’d said to the festival promoters: ‘Look, I can’t do this emotionally, I need to take a break, or I’m gonna have a problem,’ people would have been like: ‘Well, okay, but you’re not gonna get booked next year.’
"We were under so much pressure, all the time. No matter how much we achieved, there were always people around us who were telling us that if we didn’t do the next thing, we were done for. It sucked. As a young band, you feel like it’s a miracle that you’ve broken through, so of course you don’t want it all to go away. And at times I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. I was exhausted, truly exhausted.”
In the summer of 2013, a year after The Gaslight Anthem’s fourth album, Handwritten, charted at No.2 in the UK and No.3 in the US, Fallon poured his frustrations into a note on his band’s Tumblr account (opens in new tab) under the heading ‘Tonight You Have Broken My Heart’.
“We are The Gaslight Anthem,” he wrote. “We play Gaslight Anthem songs. We’re not the band you think we may be akin to. My name isn’t Bruce, It’s not Eddie [Vedder], or Joe [Strummer], or Paul [Westerberg] either… we aren’t them and can’t be them. We have to find our path, because that’s the only honest thing we can do.”
Fallon considered breaking up the band there and then, but was talked out of it. The following summer, when Classic Rock met with them in London to discuss their then recently released fifth album, Get Hurt, their frontman sounded at peace with Gaslight’s place in the world.
“Everything from here on is wide open,” he told me. “We have a past that is great, where we can play songs off the first four records for the rest of our lives and there will be people who want to hear them. And we have a future ahead of us of change and growth, and we’re not sure what form that is going to take.”
A year later, though, he’d had enough. Announcing their hiatus, the band’s July 2015 statement read: “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. We all feel this is the best decision we can make and it feels like the right one for us.”
“Things change rapidly in real time,” Fallon says now. “We were all dealing with the stress of having been in a band from 2007 to 2014 and never, ever stopping. We needed to step back. I thought I’d rather the band be dead, and be happy, than keep jumping through the hoops. People used to say: ‘Did they get in a fight?’ But that was never it. It was that we didn’t know what to do. In the past we always had a direction. I always knew like, okay, this is the new thing, we’re gonna do this. And then everybody would get excited about it. But this time I didn’t know where to go.”
It was something of a surprise, then, when in the spring of 2016 Fallon re-emerged with his debut solo album, Painkillers. His subsequent solo career might not have set the world on fire, but as a singer-songwriter, answering only to himself, he seemed content. And he was, he insists now, save for one gnawing sense of unfinished business.
“When I finished [2020’s] Local Honey, I remember feeling like I had finished something that I was really trying to complete. So then I was like: ‘Okay, well, if I don’t have anything more to do here, what do I want to do next?’ And I started to think: ‘Well, maybe, you know, I could write a rock record again.’ And I started to look at Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam and U2 and Red Hot Chili Peppers, these bands that have many iterations and many lives, and I thought maybe there’s a place for The Gaslight Anthem again.
“At one point I was thinking: ‘Is rock music only for the young? Should we get out of the way?’ There’s beautiful young rock bands that excite me so much – Wolf Alice, Illuminati Hotties – all these young bands that are doing very cool music, and I was thinking: ‘Do I still have a place?’ But I think that there’s also a lane for the experienced older brothers, because that’s what Bruce is to me, and Pearl Jam is to me, and Foo Fighters is to me.
“There are two kinds of bands,” he continues. “There are bands who have a lot of hits, and then they go out and play those hits for ever, and then there are bands who adapt and grow, and their audience grows with them.”
So into which those categories do The Gaslight Anthem fall?
“I know that our audience is ready to grow some more, and they’re ready to grow with us, and whatever I give them, they’re going to appreciate it, as long as it comes from my heart. I thought: ‘I can’t ignore that, I have to see that through. Because I don’t feel finished yet – I don’t feel like I’ve done my best work.’”
As Fallon remembers it, there were no big heart-to-heart discussions with Alex Rosamilia, Alex Levine and Benny Horowitz about reuniting, the old friends just fell naturally back in step. And he insists that the group will approach their second act with appetites renewed, and no fears.
“Being at home throughout the pandemic, obviously everyone had nothing but time to think, and at times I would wonder whether I’d ever be able to play live shows again,” he admits. “I’d be thinking: ‘Oh man, remember when we played Ally Pally [London’s 9,000-capacity Alexandra Palace] or the [17,500-capacity] PNC Arts Center in New Jersey, and you looked out and felt all the love from the people coming back at you, and you’d think this is why I wanted to be in rock’n’roll in the beginning, to make music that would affect people and lift them above their circumstances.’ And I thought: ‘You know, if I have the opportunity in this short life that we have to write music again in a big band that is truly special to people, why would I not want to do that?’”
Regarding the writing for what will be The Gaslight Anthem’s sixth album, it’s very early days. Today, Fallon says he and his bandmates are hoping to write around 40 songs before whittling them down to a manageable track-listing for the follow-up to Get Hurt.
“I don’t think that we’re necessarily trying to reinvent any wheels,” he states. “The idea is just to play music that we’re excited about; that still is the essence of the Gaslight Anthem. I think I’ve had enough distance from the band to know what the band is, and what the band is not. And I feel good about fitting back into what the band is. I don’t think anyone is going to be shocked, but I think we’re going to make the very best Gaslight Anthem album that we can.”
The band returned to European stages in August, on a tour that included shows at London’s Wembley Arena, Edinburgh’s O2 Academy and Dublin’s National Stadium. It was an ambitious undertaking, and one that speaks to the band members’ hunger for what lies ahead.
“I truly can say that I feel grateful, because I know what it feels like not to be grateful,” the singer and guitarist says quietly. “Honestly, I feel excited like a kid when I think about how many people want to see this band again. When I was in my teenage bedroom, playing my mom’s broom as a guitar, I dreamt of playing venues like Wembley, so when we get there… man… my head is going to explode.”
In parting, I wonder aloud whether, in stepping back into this band, Brian Fallon might have put himself back in a 2015 headspace. How, then, is he going to be able to be at ease this next time around?
“There’s always that danger,” he admits, thoughtfully. “But I think we’ve all learned from our mistakes, and we’ve learned to recognise certain warning signs before these things happen. There will be chances to say ‘Let’s stop’ if we need to, if we see the same dangers coming into view. This time we have control.”
And is there a new ceiling for the erstwhile Saviours Of Rock?
“Oh, I would never say that my ambitions are small,” Fallon says, laughing. “I don’t want to sound like I’m not up for a challenge. If someone tells me we have the opportunity this time around to headline the Reading and Leeds festivals, I’ll say: ‘That sounds awesome.’ We’re not bringing this band back to play garages.”
The Gaslight Anthem's US tour kicks off on September 13 at the Roseland Theater in Portland, OR. Tickets are on sale now (opens in new tab).