On July 28 last year, Brian Fallon decided to break up his band. The day should have been a glorious one for the Gaslight Anthem. The quartet were due to play a second sold-out show at a 5,000-capacity venue on Pier 26 in New York’s Hudson River Park, and friends and family from neighbouring New Jersey had set the evening aside to cheer on their boys. The show was to cap off a remarkable 12 months for Fallon’s band, coming exactly one year after their fourth album, Handwritten, debuted at No. 2 in the UK and No. 3 in the US, cementing their status as one of the success stories of the decade. But, for once, things didn’t go according to plan.
The Gaslight Anthem Autumn Preview
A year ago Brian Fallon was ready to quit, thinking his band had become walk-on players in the shadow of their influences. It was time to reinvent themselves and their sound.
Halfway through the show, as Fallon addressed his audience, a low rumble of noise spread throughout the crowd, building steadily in volume. It sounded as if the audience was booing the band, but the sound was more insidious: the audience were shouting “Broooooooce” in anticipation of a guest appearance by TGA’s spiritual mentor, Bruce Springsteen.
As Fallon registered what was happening, his heart sank and his mood soured. On one level, the 33-year-old knew he’d brought this upon himself. For years, Fallon had cited The Boss as an influence, and TGA’s breakthrough album, 2008’s The ’59 Sound, with its sepia-tinted vignettes of small-town American life, was an identifiably punk rock take on Springsteen’s classic Born To Run album. The connection was solidified when Springsteen joined the band on stage at the following year’s Glastonbury festival to play the album’s title track, returning the favour by inviting Fallon to guest on No Surrender during his own headline set. In December 2011 the two artists shared a stage in their native New Jersey, when Springsteen made a surprise appearance at Gaslight’s Asbury Park show to guest on the title song of their third studio album, American Slang. To Fallon, it now it seemed as if even the most loyal of his band’s fans considered the Gaslight Anthem to be merely walk-on players in their own story.
As he drove back home to New Jersey in a quiet rage that evening, Fallon decided he’d had enough. As he ate up the miles, his mood became more reflective. When he arrived home, he pulled out a laptop computer. Later that evening Fallon posted a note on Gaslight’s Tumblr account 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. If you’d like to hear their songs they are readily available and the former two tour quite often. You should go see them, they put on great shows... It’s truly amazing to watch them at their craft. But again, we’re not them. We have a different set of rules. We’re on a different course, because 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. Which is where I find myself now, proud of what we’ve done, and where we’ve come from, but it’s time to find the next thing. Time to create a new sound, time to create the next Gaslight Anthem. We will always play those songs, but we will never be that band again.’
Eleven months on, Fallon has no regrets about those words he wrote last summer. Had he not written them, he maintains, the Gaslight Anthem would no longer exist. Sitting in the restaurant of an achingly hip East London hotel, TGA guitarist Alex Rosamilia and drummer Benny Horowitz (bassist Alex Levine is in NJ with his pregnant wife) nod in agreement as their friend quietly relates how he was prepared to walk away from the union they established in 2006.
“That show was uncomfortable, everybody knew it,” says the gregarious Horowitz. “Something happened that night. You know how a relationship can have a hundred problems but you end up flipping out about something minor that it’s not even one of the problems? It was one of those, a tipping point. I got home that night and someone texted me: ‘You know Brian posted a Tumblr?’ And my first reaction was: ‘Oh shit.’ So I read it, and thought: ‘How can you argue with that?’ It was a really positive step to where we had to go next.”
For Fallon, the question last summer wasn’t so much where the Gaslight Anthem should go next, but what exactly his band stood for, and what his expectations for the group were. He had begun to believe that the narrative surrounding the band was being shaped by outside forces, an unnerving feeling for a musician whose roots are in the DIY punk scene. Every conversation and promotional interview Fallon conducted around the Handwritten album revolved around the notion that Gaslight, with their new major-label deal, their new creative alliance with super-producer Brendan O’Brien (AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen) and their newly pumped-up sound were ready for their ascent into rock’s premier league. “It’d be great to be as big as Foo Fighters,” the singer told this magazine back then. But deep down, Fallon wasn’t at all sure whether this was really what he wanted.
“Someone in the press called us ‘The Saviours of Rock’n’Roll’. And I was like: ‘I don’t want to be the saviour of anything.’ Maybe I did at one time – my fault, my bad – but I’ve realised what that now takes, and I do not want it. And the real reason, truthfully, that I didn’t want it is that I didn’t think I could do it. I don’t think that this band is that band.
“New York was a little out of control, because it was the first time that people got under my skin. [Afterwards] I was like: ‘Whoops, I shouldn’t have said that.’ So then I thought: I’m going to shut my mouth now. Something in my mind was telling me: ‘It’s not about them, the press or Bruce Springsteen, it’s not New Jersey or the audience. It’s not them, it’s you.’ I had to step away. I was thinking: ‘Why am I so mad?’ I was thinking: ‘Dude, you’re successful, people like you, what the hell is wrong with you?’”
The truth began to emerge for Fallon. He realised he’d begun to dislike the persona he’d been nudged into adopting: the forelock-tugging journeyman musician standing on the shoulder of giants. He’d begun to dislike his own songs – at one point he felt he “hated” them, he’ll admit today – and to resent the path on which TGA were travelling. As the black clouds began to clear, he gathered the band.
“I said to everybody: ‘I’m not putting out another record unless we have a reason to,’” he recalls. “I said: ‘We don’t have to have a fight, but I’m going to walk away and I think you guys should too. Because we can’t go out there and fake this. We can’t ruin what we’ve built.’
To his surprise, Fallon’s bandmates were in total agreement. For the next few months the four men forgot about being a band and simply reconnected as friends. In the process, they fell back in love with the one thing that had brought them together in the first place: music. And in doing so they found a path towards a future for their band.
“I had never listened to Led Zeppelin or The Beatles or Pink Floyd or Hendrix,” says Fallon, a note of disbelief in his voice as he says these words. “I’d heard ‘the hits’, but I’d never sat down with the records and really listened to them all the way through. And when I did, I was saying: ‘What if we took all these little elements of bands that have changed over the course of their careers, bands that had made giant career shifts, and applied the ideas to our songs?’ It was exciting and inspirational to me. I mean, remember the first time you heard Led Zeppelin III for the first time? Or Queens Of The Stone Age’s Rated R for the first time? Then I got inspired to start writing and just decided to see what came out.”
The end result is Get Hurt. Recorded in Nashville with Irishman Mike Crossey (Jake Bugg, The 1975), the dozen songs on album five are more soulful and considered than those on Handwritten, while retaining a familiar grit. If not a wholesale reinvention of the Gaslight Anthem’s sound – the idea of embarking on a total rewiring of Gaslight’s DNA would be “disrespectful” Fallon notes – it’s a fresh take, and a re-drawing of boundaries. The trio’s pride in the album is palpable.
“We were just tired,” Fallon says now. “We wanted to do something different. We’d gotten to a point musically which is the kiss of death – being happy with what you’ve done. I was mad that people weren’t seeing the progression from, say, The ’59 Sound to Handwritten. But actually that progression was subtle. So then the question was: ‘Do we want to do something significantly different?’ And the answer was: ‘Yes.’”
“I’m not the same guy who wrote The ’59 Sound, and I can’t be that guy forever,” says Fallon. “But no one else knew I was tired of being that guy. Over the last year I realised that it was up to us what people said about us, because we’re the ones that create the thing that they’re talking about. So if we want to change it, we had the power.”
“Everybody had been saying we were going to be the next big thing, and I knew iwe weren’t. But maybe I bought into that for a while. Until I had the realisation that this was not my destiny, that maybe instead of changing the world we were just going to be a band, and get old, playing music.”
And has that realisation made you happy?
He takes a moment to consider both the question and his answer.
“I think we’re in a clear and sober place,” he says slowly. “Everything from here on is wide open. 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. But we’ll have the freedom to explore that. So more than being happy, I think we’re finally at peace.”