By Ryan De Freitas
It had once been a long-standing tradition in the Boston area that every year, right around Christmas, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones would host the Hometown Throwdown: a multi-day, alcohol-fuelled, punk rock celebration of the year that was. The Throwdown of December 26th, 2007 signaled the Bosstones’ return from hiatus, and would be the first in five years. But, no matter how significant an event this return would be for the Bosstones, the most pivotal moment that night would not involve the hosts at all.
A little band from New Jersey called The Gaslight Anthem were opening the show that night. And, before doors would even open, their destiny to become one of 21st century’s biggest punk bands was set in motion.
“I have a very clear recollection of it all,” Gaslight frontman Brian Fallon reassures me. Now an established solo artist in his own right, we’re talking today about the early days of the band because, in addition to releasing his own record Sleepwalkers next month, this year marks the tenth anniversary of The ‘59 Sound, the record that made those Jersey upstarts one of the most beloved punk bands of the modern era.
Fallon credits an impressive memory to the fact that he never got lost in “the fog” of everything, meaning he avoided the sort of over-indulgent rock star lifestyle that might have made this interview a hell of a lot more difficult.
“I remember in soundcheck that night in Boston we ran through ‘The 59’ Sound’, the song, for the first time ever.” He continues: “I remember playing it and instantly knowing that it was better than the rest of the songs we had.”
Having seen a modest wave of mostly underground buzz for their debut album Sink Or Swim released ten months prior, Fallon was then spending a lot of time wondering what the future held for his band.
“When you’re building everything,” he says, “you don’t actually know if you’re going to get anywhere. We were still trying to figure out if we were worth anything or if, after Sink Or Swim, everything was going to just fizzle out. But [playing that song for the first time] really inspired me to keep going.”
With the eventual title track to a second album in the chamber, Fallon was inspired to write more songs while the band toured in early 2008. But by the time it came to begin rehearsals for the studio time they had booked in Los Angeles, they weren’t anywhere near ready. “We only had seven songs,” he remembers. “And two of those got ditched real quick for not being good enough.”
So each day after the band were done rehearsing the material they did have, Fallon retreated to where the band were staying and raced to complete the record. “I just sat at this little table with my acoustic guitar literally writing there and then what we were going to rehearse the next day.”
That immediacy lent itself to the album perfectly. You don’t get the sort of sincerity or the audible in-the-moment energy that define tracks like ‘High Lonesome’ or ‘The Patient Ferris Wheel’ from a band cursed with the freedom to overthink things. But once the album was written, Fallon had his doubts.
“I knew I loved the songs,” he says, “but once we got to the studio I started to wonder if it was really good enough now that we were making a ‘real record’. This was the first record on a real label, at a real studio, with a real producer… it was much different to what we had done the first time.
“I didn’t feel extremely confident. My attitude was that the songs were good, but we had to record them in a way that made them great.”
So they did. For a moment, the record looked more uncertain than ever when Fallon got sick and lost his voice in the week leading up to vocal recording; the inevitable result of a New Jersey immune system exposed to Californian climates for the first time. But looking back today, the singer cites that as a blessing, and possibly the moment the potential of the record first became apparent to him. “I got better a few days before I had to record my parts and it made me think, ‘Oh, maybe this is meant to be’. Then I heard how it sounded on studio speakers – something we’d never been around before – and it dawned on me that, ‘Okay, maybe this could be something pretty cool.”
“Pretty cool” is a slight underestimation of what The ’59 Sound became. Shortly after release, the album drew more buzz from the online punk forum circuit that had propped up the success of Sink Or Swim, but this time bigger publications such as Rolling Stone, Kerrang!, and Pitchfork got on board, heaping praise on the album.
A year later, with their profile greatly increased and venue capacities on a steady upward trajectory, the band were joined by Bruce Springsteen on stage at Glastonbury Festival for a performance of ‘The ’59 Sound’, with Fallon being invited to return the favour for ‘No Surrender’ during The Boss’ set at London’s Hyde Park the same weekend. Sales of the album doubled as a result.
It’s no secret that Fallon is a huge fan of Springsteen – to the point where it’s even been immortalised in parody – so it’s also no surprise that he views that weekend as one of the crowning moments of the album’s cycle. In fact, he says it was so defining that from then on he “started looking at life as the time before that happened, and the time after it.” But the album’s success was becoming daunting.
“It went from zero to playing with Springsteen.” Fallon almost laughs as he says that, still in disbelief that it ever happened. “How was I going to do that again? I wasn’t even sure how I did it the first time. I was like, ‘Maybe this is a bad idea, I’m not gonna live up to this thing.’
“It made going into the next record, American Slang, really tough. When you hit something in that way, all you want to do is hit it again. But you can’t, because the first time you did, it was an accident.
“I think The 59 Sound [album cycle] was the last time that things felt pure for the band. After that it was all, ‘Are they going to be the next Springsteen?’ ‘Oh, you guys should play this arena and sell your tickets for $800 a piece’. All that stupid stuff came after. That time was the last time we got to just be a band and have fun with it.”
Until a few weeks ago, The Gaslight Anthem weren’t a band anymore, and hearing Fallon talk about how the purity of the band was corrupted by success begs an irresistible question: is that success what eventually lead to the breakup of the band?
“Right from the beginning,” explains Fallon, “we always said that if it stopped being fun, or if our hearts weren’t in it, we wouldn’t do it anymore. We weren’t ever planning to be one of those bands who dies ugly or one of those bands that start putting out half-hearted records then just fall off the planet. Sometimes, you just have to put it down. That’s just the most humane thing to do after a while. If you don’t, you can’t keep up and it all becomes really bloated and gross.
“I don’t think we had gotten there, but we all felt like it was going there. We felt like a disappointment to everyone. It was always like, ‘Well, you guys never became the Foo Fighters or sold out Wembley Arena so whatever.’ If we were playing an 8,000 capacity room, but only sold 7,000 tickets, people were bummed. Then we realised that those weren’t our goals, those were other people’s goals for us. It became so critical and we just realised that it wasn’t fun. So we hit the brakes and got off the train.”
Fallon’s first solo effort, Painkillers, had the feel of a man trying to distance himself from the weight of his back catalogue. Mostly acoustic, the album drew comparisons to the work of other once-punk singer-songwriters such as Frank Turner and Chuck Ragan. In places, the songs sat far closer to well-produced country music than the ramshackle punk’n’roll to which listeners were accustomed.
To call it a crisis of identity would be a stretch, but Fallon was actively trying to avoid what might have been expected of him, rather than following his natural instinct. “I was writing stuff that came from people wanting me to be one thing while I wanted to be another thing,” he admits.
Sleepwalkers, however, is unmistakably Fallon. Longtime collaborator Ted Hutt –the man whose studio speakers the singer first heard The ‘59 Sound through – is on production duty once more, harnessing the grit and charm of Fallon’s songwriting perfectly, while still ensuring that each song sounds as huge and radio-ready as it can around that. And as he throws his voice behind every syllable, Fallon himself sounds like a man rejuvenated. The wide-eyed sincerity and boundless enthusiasm that became his trademark is as present as it ever was, and there are even a few lyrical callbacks to the past, sung willingly and knowingly. For the first time in a while, he’s not shying away from his legacy. “I don’t feel like I’m dragging around the dead body of the past anymore,” Fallon says, relief evident in his words.
I ask whether he’s aware of the juxtaposition between past and present, releasing a solo album just a few months before playing anniversary shows. And, tellingly, he takes a moment to consider before answering. “I think if you’d asked me that question years ago, I’d have been weird about it. I’d have missed the whole point. But the person I am now, who I’ve been able to grow to be, I don’t think I have to run from the past to be able to look to the future.
“I couldn’t have planned what happened. I couldn’t have planned the band taking off, or Bruce coming to play with us. You could see it in interviews from the time, but the Bruce stuff used to weigh on me a lot. But I don’t have to live up to that. That’s what other people put on me, telling me I gotta be the next Bruce Springsteen, but I don’t. I know now that I have to be Brian Fallon. It’s cool that Bruce Springsteen thinks I’m cool. It’s awesome! But it doesn’t mean I have to live up to ‘Born To Run’.”
That clarity has brought Fallon the confidence and freedom to remain true to who he is as a songwriter; aware of his achievements, while staying safe in the knowledge that he isn’t simply trying to recreate the past.
“I’m a father now, I have two kids, I’m doing that whole thing. I’m growing up and I know where I’m at,” he says. “I haven’t lost my sense of wonder, though. That’s the biggest similarity between The ‘59 Sound and now, I think. There’s still a sense of wonder about it all. Back then when I started out, I had the right approach to writing because I was so free about it. I only wrote what I loved and didn’t worry about what anyone else thought about it or what might happen. I feel like I’ve gone back to that.”
Given the grand narratives that Fallon weaves into his songs it makes perfect sense that on the ten year anniversary of the record that changed his life, he’s become truly comfortable in his skin once more, putting out a new album that harnesses the same spirit and energy of his former-millstone, while remaining a true portrayal of the man today. It’s almost a Gaslight song in itself. “It’s a great story,” he agrees. “I wish I was smart enough to weave it that way from the start!”
As our conversation draws to a close, and Fallon toys with the narrative significance of it all, I can’t help but think about what the next chapter might be. Wouldn’t it be fitting if when the members of The Gaslight Anthem meet for tour rehearsals later this year – probably in the same sort of New Jersey practice space they used in the good ol’ days – they reignite a spark that leads to more than just an anniversary tour?
Fallon isn’t so sure.
“I can’t say that [the anniversary tour] is all that’s in the future. I don’t like to say never.” For the first time today, his words are hesitant. “But it’s all about what you can do at the time. If you’re asking me right now what I think I can do – and what I think the four of us can do – we can play these shows. It’s a different thing when it comes to records.
“Whenever someone mentions a record, that’s when I step away. And the reason for that is because right now, I can’t see what a new Gaslight record would sound like. When you take the records that we’ve done that I’m very proud of – and I’m proud of all of them, even the later ones – I don’t know what I would add to that right now.”
Given that Fallon has only recently made peace with what Gaslight achieved, his answer is understandable. He is, however, quick to affirm that he isn’t entirely against the idea. “If I woke up tomorrow with an idea, then I would love to go and do it, but I have to feel like my whole heart is in it.”
It also becomes clear that even with all the open-mindedness and inner peace that maturity has brought Fallon, there are some wounds that haven’t quite healed.
“The thing is, you can look back and remember how great it all was and think about the good memories, but there were a lot of bad memories too. You have to be able to accept all of it to be able to do it. I can accept the parts that I feel good about… but the parts I don’t feel good about, I can’t accept. And the one thing I’ll never do is go out and fake something.
“I would rather go out from time to time to play shows and recognise how awesome that time was. Not one of these celebratory never-ending classic rock world tours or anything, but if it ever struck us to go play some shows, we would go play some shows. That’s what this is about, doing things that are fun and that we believe in.
“If something more happens, great! But I can’t see it. And if it doesn’t, then what I do see is a beautiful band who released some really beautiful records. That’s enough for me. I feel content with that.”
Fallon’s view, while maybe not what Gaslight fans what to hear, is more than justified. Whatever happens, Fallon gets to enjoy burning the candle at both ends, and we all get to enjoy seeing him do it – even if only for a short time.