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Brian Fallon Reviews Every Gaslight Anthem Album

Brian Fallon felt a powerful impulse. He wanted to reconvene with The Gaslight Anthem, the New Jersey arena-punk band he co-founded in 2006 and then put on indefinite hiatus nine years later. Since then, he had launched a successful solo career as an introspective singer-songwriter. But at heart, Fallon still felt like “a rock guy,” he says. And now, he needed his band back.

But was this the right decision? Or was he just nostalgic about his past as a budding rock star whose band rose to commercial prominence in the early 2010s and then quickly flamed out? Fallon decided to reach for “the Bat phone,” as he puts it. In search of some guidance, he texted his most famous friend and biggest musical influence: Bruce Springsteen. The Boss quickly responded, and during a summit at a local pizza parlor, he urged Fallon to reignite Gaslight. Surprisingly, Bruce’s demeanor during the tête-à-tête was more “enthusiastic fan” than “wise sage.”

“He was so excited at the end of our meeting that he texted me like, ‘You’ve got to write a duet for us!’” Fallon recalled with a laugh during a recent interview. “I was like, ‘What do you mean? You want me to write a song that you sing on?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah! It’s going to be great! People are going to love it!’ He was so pumped. I’m not sure if he was more pumped than I was.”

That song ended up being “History Books,” the title track of The Gaslight Anthem’s recently released LP, their first in nine years. Coming on the heels of a 2022 reunion tour, History Books picks up where the band left off after 2014’s Get Hurt, effectively centering their signature penchant for brawny songs with outsized, heart-rending choruses. An unrepentant fan of classic rock and ’90s alternative bands, Fallon has long since abandoned the punk pretenses that marked GLA’s early work. Instead, he’s dedicated himself to making the sort of meat-and-potatoes rock that resides at the midpoint of Springsteen and Pearl Jam, a relentlessly earnest approach that regards the “Anthem” part of the band name with extreme literalism.

In our interview, I asked Fallon to reflect on The Gaslight Anthem’s career, and he responded with his usual forthright candor. There have been many ups and downs. But now, he insists, the band is in a better place than ever.

Sink Or Swim (2007)

Recorded in three days in Bayonne, New Jersey. It was at My Chemical Romance’s management offices. There’s a studio in the back there, and we had to be there when it was closed. The label we were on was just a friend — meaning it really wasn’t a label. There was this element of are we allowed to be here? It was definitely fun, because it was the first time we’d ever been in a real studio making a real record. Everything before that was either 7-inches or demos. So, for us, it was like, “There’s time to set up an acoustic guitar track? Sweet!” I remember very distinctly reading about The Killers, who had just come out with the second record, Sam’s Town. And I was sitting there like, “We’re going to end up like The Killers!” And we’re just making this sticks-and-glue record.

My grandmother had recently passed away, and her effect on me was pretty heavy growing up. Most of the time, my mom was working, so I would spend a lot of time with her. It was a typical American “No Dad” family. She would play movies all the time and she had posters on her wall, everyone from Rita Hayworth to these old radio shows, like The Shadow. As a kid, I’d be sitting there in her house, looking at these things. There would be Rita Hayworth as Gilda, and I was like, “What is this?” I would invent these stories in my head of high drama, and it just all coalesced into this thing.

We had one or two songs, and then we just wrote the rest in this blur of a winter. It was the fall time, like September or October, when we really started to get everything together, and then we recorded Sink Or Swim in February. It was before the record with “Radio Nowhere” came out. I know that it was the year before that. We all pushed each other a little bit, whereas before you would just write a song and someone would come in with it and be like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” The most important part of the show was the hang. But with this band, the most important part of the show was the show. And the songs. There was a definite air of this is going to be a real attempt and if it doesn’t work, we’re going to get jobs.

We had a talk about whether we could have acoustic songs on the record, which sounds insane but we were a punk rock band at the time. I was like, “Well, The Jam has an acoustic song.” Then somebody would be like, “Well, The Clash doesn’t.” I was like, “Yeah, but we’re not The Clash.” I’m glad that we did it, because it gave us permission to bring in the punk and the Springsteen for the rest of our career. I know it’s hard to imagine now, but back then, the people that we played for were really punks. And for all the anarchy and freedom the punks have, there’s a lot of rules.

The ’59 Sound (2008)

That was the first record we actually left home to make. For us, being from New Jersey, Los Angeles was essentially the promised land. I remember feeling very electrified. We had a real record label and a budget. We were all staying together at this really strange place where I believe Lemmy was living for a while. It was called The Oakwood. There was all these kids that were trying to be famous, and they were rude as hell. They would have their sunglasses on and they would spill stuff on you.

We were all together, all four of us in one apartment with one bedroom, and it was insane. There were cigarettes all over. Those pictures of Guns N’ Roses living in 1987, that’s us. All literally on the same couch. It was complete bedlam. We were just there by ourselves. There was no one else with us. There were no parties. We didn’t know anyone. Occasionally, [our label] SideOneDummy would have a taco truck and we’d go and hang out with them.

That Hammersmith Odeon video had come out, and I was obsessively watching that. I was like, “We’ve got to do this. It’s got to be like this.” The studio that we went to was called Mad Dog Studios and I think Lucinda Williams’ husband owned it. I remember everybody being like, “This is definitely a step up.”

I remember writing “The ’59 Sound,” and I remember being done with it and being like, “Okay, this song is a lot better than the rest of the songs.” I knew that it was better, and then when we played it, I knew something was different. Then we recorded the songs, and all the people around us — like [producer] Ted Hutt and our manager and the people at SideOne — started to get nervous. It was like everyone knew something was happening. It started to feel like, “Oh my goodness, this could actually go somewhere.” Later, we got played on KROQ, and we were like, “This is nuts. This is for the Foo Fighters. This is not for us.” But we were ready for it. I was not trying to shun it at all. The punk thing that we did, we did it so hard, and it sucked. It was so bad. We slept in the worst places. All of our accommodations every day were painful. Our van was painful, it was overly packed. It’s just your typical band on the road. It was like all those photos you see of The Replacements freezing in the winter. That’s us, we did all of that. We were like, “No, this is awesome. We’re going to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band.” The only one that felt some punk guilt was probably Benny, because he came from the hardcore scene. He might have been like, “Are we lame now?” I was like, “Dude, you know what’s lame? This room. Let’s get out of here.”

American Slang (2010)

I call it the Recovering The Satellites record. Counting Crows had August And Everything After, and then Recovering The Satellites — except for “A Long December” and maybe one or two other songs — it’s all about being successful. American Slang is like, “Everybody likes us. What does that mean?” [Laughs.] You’re such an idiot at that stage of your career. Just overly self-analyzing, and reading every review of the band.

By that time, we all had apartments. A lot of us moved to Jersey City and I moved to New York. I was in love with the city, because I could never afford to live in the city. I’m thinking, “We made it!” Meanwhile my apartment was essentially one room and a closet that was turned into a kitchen. But I was like, “We freaking made it! Get ready Manhattan, we’re coming!” I imagine it was like if somebody from Iowa just all of a sudden was dropped into Los Angeles.

The songs could have ended up being terrible with the sort of mindset that we had back then, because we were all just trying to define everything. Who are we? What kind of band are we? What do we mean? Are we going to be Bruce Springsteen or are we going to be The Replacements?

It was partly turning 30, too — you’re not a kid anymore. We had some success, but we didn’t understand what that meant, because we weren’t rich. It wasn’t an overnight success. It wasn’t like we released Dookie. We just released this punk record that people kind of liked. Though, to be fair, there were magazines — especially in the U.K. — being like, “This is the second coming of rock ‘n’ roll,” or whatever. We were like, “Uh, I don’t know about that.”

When I look back now, I am so relieved that the songs retain their quality. I remember nothing but pressure about that record.

Handwritten (2012)

Except for the new record that we just made, that was the most fun I ever had making a record. It was so awesome. It was every ’90s dream that I had of grunge because we got Brendan O’Brien to do the record. He produced some of my favorite records of all time, and I would incessantly ask him questions. “What was it like recording BloodSugarSexMagik?” “What did Jeff Ament smell like?” I was obsessively punishing this man with every question I could think of, and he was so gracious. Every single day I asked some new stupid question about Chris Cornell, and he was just humoring me the entire time.

When American Slang came out, that was definitely the changing moment where we were like, “We’re not a punk band anymore.” We had just signed to a major label, so things were different. We got a publishing deal and we were like, “Whoa, I could buy a house.” You definitely had this feeling of, “Did we actually make it as a rock band?” Maybe not a famous band but we made it, we’re not going to work at the gas station anymore. And that was mind-blowingly exciting to us all.

We were in Blackbird Studios in Nashville, and Taylor Swift was in the next building over. Kings of Leon were recording the album with “Sex On Fire.” It was all famous people all the time, but none of them were peeking over their fences at us. We were all peeking over the fences like, “Is that Don Henley?”

Brendan really taught us a lot. He wouldn’t settle for anything being not in time or out of tune or anything like that. He would just make you do it 100 times. We all became a real band, because we would sit in the room and just play the song over and over again. And if one guy messed up, you had to play it again. It was the most connected we were as a band since the very beginning. No one was pulling in a different direction. We were all on this trip together. It was like grunge college.

After that record came out, and “45” was on the radio all the time, we’d look out at the audiences and be like, “I cannot believe that we did this.” It was wild, to be able to look out and see that this thing that we built was working. It was a point where you definitely felt like this could go on forever. We could be a big band now.

Get Hurt (2014)

Everybody hits that point where they go, “I’m not really sure what to do right now.” And you want to go against it, and be like, “No, just ignore that, keep going.” I don’t really know what we were doing there. It was sort of like everything that was working, we decided to change. Like, “Hey, I write the songs, so why don’t you guys bring in some songs?” It was like everything was backwards.

Here’s something that nobody knows: Brendan was going to do that record. What happened was our label and the band was like, “No, we’re not going to do another record with Brendan.” Especially the label. They were like, “No, fuck Brendan, you can’t work with him again.” They had some beef with Brendan. And my band was like, “He didn’t listen to us. He only listened to you.” I was like, “Yeah, but I’m listening to you, so whatever I’m saying, he’s getting it from you, too.” There was a little divide there. I didn’t make the call that I probably should have made, which is to put my foot down and say, “No, we’re going to go with Brendan.” Instead I said, “All right, we’re going to fire Brendan.” And that was the biggest mistake, because Brendan is still pissed at me about that. That ended my friendship with Brendan. I don’t think he ever got over that. But I was like, “Dude, I want to make a record with you, but my band doesn’t. What am I supposed to do? I’m in a band, man.” At the same time, I was going through a divorce. I had just gotten a house and now I’m giving the house away. That shit is weird. It’s like you get to the mountain top and then your life falls apart.

With all this said, there are still songs on Get Hurt that I really enjoy playing. We still play the song “Get Hurt” — that’s one of the best pop-oriented songs that the band ever wrote. I love the song “Stay Vicious.” I know some people really hate it but I don’t care, because to me that’s a Soundgarden song in my head. That song rips.

Every band has the time where they fall apart a little bit. Some bands don’t survive it. We got to that stage in our career and we tried to Achtung Baby it and it didn’t work. That’s just the truth. Generally, when you watch a band’s career — if they have a career that’s longer than five years — they go on this arc and then all of a sudden, the band becomes not cool anymore. Everybody has it. Green Day had it, Pearl Jam had it, everybody had it. And then they either come back up or they disappear into the ether. We felt that coming. Benny and I got together, we were in the back of the bus, and I was like, “Dude, this sucks. It’s not fun. I can’t do it.” He was like, “Yeah, I can’t do it either.” Then we called the other guys and we said, “Does anyone think this is fun anymore?” Everyone was like, “No.” All right. We need to shut this down. Then everybody was like, “Permanently?” We were like, “No, but we need to shut it down for now.” None of us thought it was going to be forever but we didn’t know how long it was going to take. Apparently, it took nine years.

History Books (2023)

At the end of the pandemic, after we were stuck inside for two years, I was like, “There’s no way that younger me would let 40-year-old me sit here with this thing in his back pocket that he could do called The Gaslight Anthem and just let it go.” I started thinking about the Foo Fighters and all these guys that are all doing things that I still think are cool, but they are not young. Or Lucinda Williams, who I think was 10 years older than me when she did Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. I was like, “There is still an avenue for us.”

Then I used the Bat Phone for the first time in my life — I’m going to text Bruce. I was like, “Dude, I need your help.” I’ve never asked him for anything in all the 10 years that I’ve known him. I’ve never, ever called him and been like, “Help me out” or whatever. And he hit me right back and was like, “100 percent. Let’s go.” We went to a pizza place and he laid it out for me. He’s like, “Listen man, you can do a solo thing and that’s cool. Your solo songs are great. And I can go do a solo thing. But if I go out with The E Street Band … ” And you know how he sells it, he says it like [affects a Springsteen voice] “The Gaslight Anthem!” And it’s this big thing, like a wind gust blows through the pizzeria and I fall off my chair. He just pumped me up. I was flipping over tables by the end of it, like, “We’re ready to go!”

In the very beginning, before I called anyone, I said to myself, “I’m going to try and write four songs.” Because I didn’t want to come back and do a tour and have everybody get excited again, and then as soon as you do a tour, everyone thinks you’re making a record. I really tried to prepare myself beforehand and make sure that I was 100 percent in, because the way that the Gaslight Anthem works is if I’m 100 percent excited, I can get everybody else excited. It’s just the way it works, because I have enough excitement for everybody.

I said, “Look, I’m not just talking here. I got songs, and I think they’re good. Here’s four of them, not just one.” I think that helped a lot. “Positive Charge,” that was the first one. The second one was “The Weathermen.” The third one was “A Lifetime Of Preludes.” The fourth one was “Autumn.”
When we were on tour, we knew we had those songs, and every day we were jamming together, so we were writing more songs. It worked. Every day was just confirming it more that it was the right decision.

When I was writing for myself, I thought I had to do a certain kind of thing, I was like, “Well, I got to put on my singer/songwriter boots over here and write some singer/songwriter stuff and don’t rock too hard, because you’re not allowed to do that.” I don’t know why. If you try to boil it down to the truest sense of who I feel I am as a writer, I’m a rock guy. I like songwriter stuff and I like doing it, but the big thing that really closed the gap for me was that I realized there is nothing that I can do in The Gaslight Anthem that I would need to go and make a record solo for, because we left that avenue open back on Sink Or Swim when we did “The Navesink Banks” and all those songs. I don’t see why there has to be a difference. There doesn’t have to be a difference.