“It’s Their Band Now” — Brian Fallon on the Legacy of ‘The ’59 Sound’ and the Future of the Gaslight Anthem
“I was thrilled to be at rest, because I knew at the end of that four minutes I was going to be at rest.” That’s how Brian Fallon describes what was running through his head as he led The Gaslight Anthem through the final minutes of its set on the mainstage of the Reading Festival August 30, 2015. In July of that year, the band announced on social media that they would be going on hiatus after they walked off that stage. It could very well have been the last time anyone heard the band perform together.
The final song The Gaslight Anthem performed at Reading, what could have been the band’s swan song, was “The Backseat,” an anthem of striving and survival as much as it is a declaration of the group’s place in the lineage of Jersey shore street poets. It’s also the last song on the last album the members of the Gaslight Anthem recorded when their lives were still normal.
The Gaslight Anthem was forged in the fires of the New Brunswick punk scene, drawing influence from British progenitors like The Clash, the bruised, midwestern bash and pop of the Replacements and the fierce individuality of Washington, D.C. hardcore luminaries like Minor Threat. It’s first album Sink or Swim (2007) reflected as much. On The ’59 Sound, released just a year late, Fallon leaned into his love of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and other singer-poets of the folk revival heritage. The other members of the group, guitarist Alex Rosamalia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz, drew on their shared love of old soul, folk and country to expand the sound of the Gaslight Anthem into something that synthesized the roots of rock n roll into something familiar but refreshing; like the discoveries you glean from new mixtape of your favorite songs.
Within a year of The ’59 Sound’s release, the group would go from playing tiny clubs and bars to a hundred people, at best, to headlining some of the most iconic rock clubs across the States. Springsteen even joined them onstage during a string of festival dates to play the title track. The rock world’s attention was on these four punks from Jersey and it met a band that didn’t wear its heart so much on its sleeve as it had its heart grafted onto its arm with black ink and crimson blood. People clambered for that heart and the resonance it brought; the community it created.
Between 2009 and 2015, the group recorded three more albums and toured relentless, evolving from thumb-your-nose, wizened punks to elder statesmen of the rock world, carrying and even embodying some of the classic rock lineages. In 2012, New York Times Magazine dubbed Fallon the true, “heir-apparent of Bruce Springsteen.” As the roar and size of the crowds grew, so too did the pressure from all sides and the sting of the critic’s pen. The Gaslight Anthem, everyone’s favorite underdogs in 2009, somehow became the favorite punching bag for every writer, blogger and tweeter who either had a bone to pick about everything from the Springsteen comparisons to the band’s songwriting (too nostalgic); all which stemmed from leaning into pre-packaged narratives and refusing to commit the proper critical listening attention.
After almost 10 years of life on the road — which was growing ever more demanding from physical, emotional and spiritual endurance as well as time away from burgeoning families — Fallon’s divorce, and the pressure of being “The Gaslight Anthem,” Brian, Alex, Alex and Benny decided to hang it up after Reading. The band that just five years earlier was on track to achieving every rock band’s Camron Crowe, Almost Famous dreams decided that Neil Young might be wrong, that it might in fact be better to fade away than burn out. But the prospect of honoring The ’59 Sound and everything it did for their lives, and did to the lives of their fans, lit a spark for the members of The Gaslight Anthem. They performed their first shows in three years on May 27 at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., starting a string of a couple dozen tour dates that ended with back-to-back-to-back nights headlining in Asbury Park. I caught up with Brian Fallon a month before the start of the tour to ask about potential influences of the harDCore scene on Gaslight and to tease out any augury on the future of the band.
JS: So we’re here in the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., a month before you and The Gaslight Anthem play your first shows since going on hiatus. Being here makes me wonder. You all grew up with a lot of Jersey punk influences on top of bands like The Clash, but did records from the D.C. punk scene make their way to your record collections?
BF: Yeah definitely, I mean I had Minor Threat records when I was really little. Mainly the scene was something we always looked at and saw the whole Dischord thing; they had their own little thing and they did it their way and didn’t really worry about what anybody else was doing. It was kind of unique to their locale. They didn’t care about what New York City was doing and neither did we. We went to shows in New York but weren’t looking at them for any advice. We were just doing it on our own and figuring it out. Having people do it before us was cool.
JS: D.C. proved you didn’t have to go to New York to be a punk.
BF: That was the whole thing; you didn’t have to go anywhere. You could just do it in your own area.
JS: Walk me through the germination of The ’59 Sound 10th Anniversary Tour. How did you guys come to the decision to come out of hiatus for these shows?
BF: We all knew that it was coming. We weighed out the options. Do we ignore it? We could’ve just ignored it but we felt like that said something to the people who were invested in the record, that grew up on the record and let it become part of their lives. We felt it would be disrespectful, in a way, to not acknowledge it. We were cautious about it. There were a couple months of conversations before deciding fully to do it. It was not an easy, overnight decision to make.
JS: I can imagine that one of those considerations had to be all of those people wondering if there will be more new shows and albums that we can make part of our lives.
BF: For the public, when you open one door, some of the public, not all of the public, but some of the public feels like the house is then open. The thing is, the house isn’t open. Just the front room is open. Even to do that we had to weigh all those things out. We just decided that no one needs to tell us what to do and other people’s expectations don’t need to dictate how we do things. And money doesn’t need to dictate how we do things. I mean we got ridiculous offers for festivals and we just said no. We only did one festival and that’s the one we chose to do and that was it. That was the catalyst one. We were sort of like “Alright, we could do this. We could do this festival and then what are we gonna do? Are we just going to do a run of festivals? Are we going to do a run of shows?” I, myself, was pretty against doing a run of festivals. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have done it. I would have backed out. “You can just get somebody else to sing”…I just didn’t think that was the way to do it and we all agreed. Plus, we’re not really a festival band; To do one or two is fine but to make a whole run is not really the vibe.
JS: There’s something about the intimacy of a space like the 9:30 Club, big as it, there’s something power about the congregation that happens there.
BF: Yeah and getting people to see it in the way they’re accustomed to seeing and the way I feel is the proper way to present it.
JS: People get to see that you’re real human beings and not just little, tiny figures they only get to see from across a field.
BF: That was the whole problem with the band in the end. The size of it all just got ridiculous. I went on stage feeling like I could just tell jokes or do anything but and it wouldn’t matter one way or another. I know that that’s not true to people in the audience — some of them — but it’s just how I felt. It got to — I’m not going to entertain you. “Scream for me Cincinnati!” is not my thing, I don’t do that. But the funny thing is at a point where it gets that big you have to make that decision: am I going to be a showman or show woman? Is my personality going to now change to accommodate these venues and am I going to invent this person that I’m not? That just seems absurd and opposite to what I was doing in the first place.
JS: So, you think if the band continued on the same course it had been, you would have had to make sacrifices to your personality and the way you perform?
BF: Among other things. Once you get to that level and that size of a band, there’s a machinery that takes over. That’s true in any kind of thing you do. You can no longer service the amount of people that are coming and you have to change in order to do that. I wasn’t interested in that. I don’t think any of us where interested in it; Just at least not enough to do it.
JS: How are you all thinking about re-entering these spaces as The Gaslight Anthem for the first time in three years?
BF: I’m not. It’s much more intense to other people. I don’t think at all about the past or how it was, I only think about what we’re doing then. For me, the first show we play will be the only show we play. And then the next show we play, that will be the only show we play. I don’t have anything to add to those records that we did. I’m proud of those records and I don’t see anything more needs to be said. I don’t have anything worth saying that I feel is valuable…You have to know if you’re making a painting, that the painting is done; and start a new painting.
JS: Is that how you feel about this idea of “The Gaslight Anthem”?
BF: For the way I feel, we’ve done five records that I feel good about and I don’t have anything to add to that. I don’t have whatever the next record is. No amount of money could force me to change my mind on that one. You bring up the DC bands and I think it’s a good point. If you look at Fugazi; they stopped. “We don’t have anything else to say.”…It’s not in defiance of anything or rebellion against expectations. The Gaslight Anthem will play when it feels good to play and when it doesn’t feel good to play [Pauses.] I mean to not acknowledge the record that people really grasped on to and let us have a career off of and brought us into our home and into our lives, to not acknowledge that, to me, felt really weird. I think it would be fun, rather than ending it at Reading and Leeds — which is fine — but just to do that and not do anything else seems weird…And if somebody asks what we’re going to do next, I’m going to say “Nothing, go home.” I’m going to start working on solo record number three, the guys will work on what they’re working on and we’re going to be parents and husbands and citizens of America.
JS: Would these shows let you gauge how people still think of Gaslight if you ever wanted to return?
BF: I would, but I already know the answer and I don’t need the answer because I’m not asking that question…You know there’s a thing that gets funny, and we all do this…We see something we like and we want it and when it stops we want more of it. And the thing is, it’s never quite what you remember once you get it again. It either becomes a new thing and it becomes good in that way. Like if you take a relationship. You separate for a while and if you meet again at some point you find that the relationship is changed because you are both changed; and you carry on with a new relationship. Or you realize this is why we stopped talking in the first place. I find that more often than not, it tends to be the latter.
JS: It’s like the idea that a flower in a vase is beautiful because you know it’s temporary, it will wither.
BF: Like if you look at The Replacements and the way they did that [reunion]. I thought that that was brilliant…I thought they did really well and they played really well and they didn’t do the thing where they fall over. They made it through the sets that I saw. Then they went, “Ok that’s it. We’re done.” Then there was all this talk of if there was new music or not; that made me more apprehensive than anything.
JS: That has to be part of the pressure on you. The new tour has to lead to new album in some people’s minds.
BF: Right, then you go to go: “Is it good as Tim? Is it as good as Let It Be?” How are you going to do that? Then you’re already setting yourself up for expectations…No one is just going to be like, “Cool there’s another record.” They’re going to be “Oh this has to be the best!” That’s no way to make a record.
JS: Had you guys played together at all since Reading?
BF: No. We were being really careful about that. We decided if we played together, there has to be the kids there, we can’t isolate the kids. That was another thing we had to decide: How big of a venue do you play? We got an offer to do one that was like seven to eight thousand in one of the cities we’re playing; and we declined it. Financially it was stupid because it was stupid money. But you would take on the same problems and it would feel weird. Then I would be like “I wish I didn’t do this, I wish I didn’t do this” and then I have to do the show anyway. If we do a place like the 9:30 we can do two shows, stay in the same city and control the amount of people so where its big enough that people aren’t feeling like they’ll get shut out. I mean, people will always feel like they were shut out but we’re playing in a radius where someone could drive. We never wanted to close the door on the live thing either. Like what if someday Paul Westerberg calls me up and says “Hey, do you want Gaslight to do a couple of shows with The ‘Mats?” Yeah, I do. I don’t want to close that door. What if that happens four years from now and there’s not an anniversary. The other thing is I don’t want to be the anniversary band. I know American Slang is going to turn 10 a year and a half later and I don’t want to do that.
JS: I think some of us understand what The ’59 Sound means in your career.
BF: Yeah! That was the one everyone said “You guys are — “
JS: — The next Bruce Springsteen.
BF: Yeah, which we’re not. But we are The Gaslight Anthem and that’s cool!
JS: You said earlier that you don’t think about the past, but I have wondered for a long time; Have you made peace with that? Have you been able to move away from the epithet of “The heir-apparent of Bruce Springsteen”?
BF: No but you know that’s the funny thing? Since that time…I’ve spent some time with Bruce…We were out once getting pizza at a local pizza place like where my mom used to take me when I was four. He was sitting there talking to me, giving me some pretty good advice about being in a band and everything. He also gives me a lot of fatherly advice, he helps me out. I remember sitting there thinking “This is the best dude. This dude rips. He’s so cool and his intentions are so much more pure than anyone at his status could be.” I also remember thinking, “This is my guy, I don’t care what anyone says. I’m not going to let anyone ruin it.” So now I make a joke: where everyone goes “You’re the next boss,” and I say “I’m not the next boss but I might be the assistant manager.” That’s the vibe! I don’t want to be the boss. I don’t want to be him because he’s him and I’m me and I don’t want that level of famous because it’s just too much for me. I’m not capable or strong enough as a person to handle that sort of fame and what it entails…You just have to know your limits. I decided after a while, like with the Bruce thing, rather than run away from where I’m from and what I love [Pauses.] If I shut all the people and the press out, when I’m alone and in my bed room, what did I love? I love the Replacements, I love Black Flag, I love Bruce Springsteen, I love Bob Dylan. Why should I not embrace who I am because someone else is saying something about it?
JS: Continuing to look on that time, do you remember what you were thinking about when you were writing The ’59 Sound? In the sense that all art is trying to convey something, do you remember what you wanted to convey?
BF: All the music I grew up on [Pauses.] When I was a really young kid and found The Clash and later on in my late teens/early 20s when I really got into Bruce, what that did for me is make me feel like I was not by myself and I could do it. When I listened to The Jam I looked at Paul Weller and said “I can do this. Anybody can do this.” It was inspiring in a way that I wanted to do that for other people. I think the whole thing was to put out music that would hopefully inspire people to then create in their own way or just live a little more inspired. I also did not want people to focus on the artist. I always felt like I was the conduit. That’s where the hero worship and big stages come and [Pauses.] At the end of the day, no matter what you paint or write or sing, you will never be able to take credit for it if you’re being honest. When you sit down at that cold, dark table and you try to write a song: It’s hard and you’re scared. That’s what the truth is…You’re making something out of nothing. How do you do that?
JS: Is it weird to sing these songs of almost youthful abandon 10 years later as a father of two? Like is it weird for you to watch Paul Westerberg sing “Bastards of Young” as he’s pushing 60?
BF: It could be but I don’t think we were ever young people; the people who wrote those songs. I think that applies to [Pauses.] I don’t think the spirit being that’s in you, that’s outside your body [Pauses.] Whatever thing is conscious in us, that doesn’t change. It learns and it develops but it still feels that frustration. I think that’s why a song like “Bastards of Young” still makes me feel the same way I did when I was listening to it on headphones while I was skateboarding to work at the Boston Market. I don’t think that ever changes; the spirit stays the same.
JS: Looking forward to this tour but also looking back; I’ve watched the tape of Gaslight’s last show at the Reading Festival. Watching that tape of you closing the set, and maybe Gaslight’s existence, on “The Backseat” and anyone can tell that there are so many emotions going through your head. Can you take me back to that moment? What was going through your head?
BF: I was thrilled to be at rest, because I knew at the end of that four minutes I was going to be at rest. I didn’t have to do the thing anymore. I just put everything I had into those songs, into those two sets, in a way that relief was tangible at that moment. Relief was in sight; I was on a desert island and could see shore.
JS: Was there anything more than relief? That had to be an intensely complex emotional moment.
BF: Partially, at that moment, I was letting the band go to the audience; Because it’s not mine any more, it’s yours. I still feel that way. And that’s why we’re playing shows and we’re doing them they way we’re doing them because it’s like “This is yours now. It was mine, and I’m fond of it, but its yours.” I will give it to you in the capacity that I can. These are your memories now; I’m going in some other direction.
JS: The Gaslight Anthem didn’t leave it all in “The Backseat” at Reading, but when that day comes what do you want people to remember this band for, what do you want people to carry from this music?
BF: Truthfully — this is going to sound like I made it up but I didn’t — whatever they want. Like I said, it’s there’s now. I’ve gotten all that I’m going to get from it. I have my own definition of what it is, I appreciate it and it means something to me that it might not mean to other people. I can’t describe what it means to me to other people nor do I want to. Legacy is a thing I didn’t think about when I was doing music…
JS: Then, in some way, this tour is like the ultimate “pass the torch” moment. This is me telling you: This is yours.
BF: When we were doing the designs for merch I was like “I don’t care what I like. What do we think the people who come to our shows will like?” That’s what it should be! It’s not about me. I’m happy to be there, I’m not going to be phoning it in! I’m happy about giving it to them. I don’t look at it like it’s a bad thing. I’m happy there are people there to take it. Like if you asked Ian [MacKaye] the same way how he felt about Fugazi; “Whose band is Fugazi right now?” I bet Ian would say “Not mine, Not Guy’s. It’s their band.” It is! It’s their band! They’re maintaining the house, they’re trimming the garden because their memories do it. It’s become part of their lives now. So, it’s hands off for me.