In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
The Gaslight Anthem’s frontman Brian Fallon loves to casually drop pearls of rock ‘n’ roll wisdom into conversation. Sometimes it’s a quote he read in a biography or lyrics from a song he likes. Right now it’s something the singer of The Hives once told him: “He said to me, ‘People will only remember five things about any band.'”
In other words, a band’s identity can be broken down to the bare essentials of collective knowledge about them. So here are five things most people know about The Gaslight Anthem:
- They’re from New Jersey.
- They got the Bruce Springsteen Seal of Approval when The Boss joined them on stage at Glastonbury.
- Their lyrics are packed with themes of old-fashioned Americana – driving classic cars to diners, kissing women named Maria, and dancing to songs on the radio.
- They’re from New Jersey. (Yes, this has already been mentioned, but it’s a very distinct part of their DNA.)
- Their crowning achievement is their 2008 album The ’59 Sound.
After almost a decade together, during which they released five albums, The Gaslight Anthem announced in 2015 that they’d be taking a hiatus and have been inactive since. The band is returning briefly on June 2, though, to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of The ’59 Sound at Governors Ball, where they’ll play the entire album. The record is also getting a deluxe reissue. And after that, well, it sounds like that might be it for a while.
“We have nothing planned. That’s not to say we’d never do shows ever again, but we don’t have any plans for a record,” says Fallon. “We were able to be real with ourselves and say, ‘Does anyone have anything to offer that needs to be said, in addition to what we’ve already said?’ And everyone went, nah.”
Fallon has since moved on to a solo career that’s been doing quite well, with two well-received records already under his belt. And while he was willing to play our ranking game with the Gaslight Anthem’s records, he says that, with a few years’ distance behind him, he’s more prone to looking back on the band’s output as a whole, and the unexpected international success it brought the Garden State natives. “The main thing now is wondering: How did we get here?” he says of Gaslight’s career. “Because all this could have not happened, easily.”
Noisey: What puts this one at the bottom?
Brian Fallon: Actually, after all this time and all that’s been said about the record, the only thing that puts it at the bottom is that I feel that some of the songs were possibly not finished, that they could’ve used a little more marinating in a practice room. We talk about it and we all felt the same way.
Were you under a time crunch?
Not particularly, no. We were really under a time crunch on American Slang, but not then. I don’t think we ever caught on with that record that we could’ve said to the label and the management, “Hey, we’ve started, and we’re in the studio, but we’re gonna go home for another six months, and then we’re gonna come back in the studio.” We thought that was a rockstar move that wasn’t cool. We were conscious about the fact that we were spending money being in the studio, but we never realised that sometimes that’s not a rockstar move, it’s just something you need to do.
Now, looking back at the record and listening to it, I think that some of the songs on there are 100 percent done and I think they’re great. I really like them. Some songs, I go, “Yeah that song may have gotten trashed in the press but I like it.” Big time for that is that song “Stay Vicious.”
And that’s the opener.
Right, and I listened to it maybe two weeks ago, and I like that song. I don’t really care if anyone else doesn’t like it. I made peace with it. I thought if that was a band’s record – just any band – and they put that song out, I think people would’ve reacted differently, but because it was ours it was more harshly received. But I also noticed that the fans now are far less harsh than the critics were. It’s so odd. If you talk to kids at shows, they’re just like, “Oh man, there are some songs on Get Hurt that are totally cool.”
Do you think that breaking up made fans appreciate that record more?
Well, we didn’t break up, but no, I don’t think that really happened. I think that some fans took a stance against the press. I think they felt like, “Hey, you can’t say that, that’s my band.” Which I thought was cool, someone sticking up for you. But in all honesty now that it’s all died away – no one cares now – you can make your decision listening to the record.
When I interviewed you about this record, you were sure critics would hate it, which more or less came true. Did it sting all the same?
Eh, I think we helped that along. We were in a weird spot where we didn’t know what to do as a band, and I think you can see that in writers or even in companies, where they make a product and say, “we should expand this,” and they mess it up. It happens in any creative process. Sometimes it goes right, sometimes it goes terrible.
If Gaslight doesn’t create anything else from here, are you happy going out on Get Hurt?
Yeah, because of time and distance, I view it more that the catalogue is what we’re going out on.
What memories do you have around American Slang?
Well, American Slang was coming out of ’59 Sound, so that was the most pressure we were ever under, and we had time constraints, because we had tours booked even before we went in the studio, which was a really dumb idea. But we couldn’t live if we didn’t do that. We couldn’t have been in a full-time band. So we were in a bit of a rush when we wrote it, and I think we did good under the pressure. I think we did really good. Because now when I hear it, I can remember who we were and what we were feeling at the time. You can feel the pressure in it. The record’s got a lot of push forward and it’s a little bit more aggressive than The ’59 Sound.
You once told me this album was when people started paying attention, but some were the wrong people. What did you mean by that?
I think that’s the moment when the switch flipped where people were like, “Let’s see if this band’s gonna be the next biggest band.” And that was the wrong attention, because we were still growing. So the spotlight was a little too warm.
For as much as you say this album was rushed, it has some of the band’s biggest crowd-pleasers.
Yeah, I love it, I’m amazed at what we did under pressure. To look back at it now, I think it’s very finished – an opposite assessment of Get Hurt. For as fast as we did it, it sounds great and the songs feel good to me even now.
What’s the optimal time for making a song? Do you feel better when one just pours out of you or do you like having as long as you want working out all the kinks?
I think that there’s always gonna be kinks. But the older I get, the more I feel I have to work. When you’re running on youthful energy, that’s something that’s magical and it’s not something that lasts. When you’re inspired and start spouting off about everything you do, that’s what you do when you’re young, but then the more you do it, the harder it gets. You have to realise that people are gonna compare you to what you did previously. They’re gonna identify with what you did previously. You have to take that into some consideration. Or you don’t. [Laughs]
Speaking of youthful energy, your first album, Sink or Swim, how old were you when you made that?
24 or 25, I think.
What were the band’s aspirations at that point?
If we could make a second record, that was the goal. [Laughs] And not even really that, because at the time we made the record, we were just trying to get that record done. I think we did it in a couple days. It was really not a planned-out record. There wasn’t really a lot of thinking.
When it came out, did you get any sense it was catching on with people?
No, we didn’t know. Because the shows were still the same. It wasn’t like there was a big jump in crowd. I don’t think we were in tune – maybe ever – with how things work as far as that goes. Perception is very difficult for us. Other people’s perceptions, we don’t understand.
Some of the themes you established here carried on, even into your solo work.
Yeah, to me, the things that I wrote about, it’s not like I picked up a blackboard and said, “I’m gonna write about diners and cars and radios and this and that.” I honestly just said what I knew and what I was talking about in my normal life, and the things that were my surroundings. That’s where kids with no cars would go hang out and socialise. I lived in a really small town where there wasn’t shows – I didn’t live in New York City. We went to the diner. That’s where all our relationships came and went, that’s where thoughts were spoken to each other, and new music and books were exchanged, that’s where you developed. I didn’t make that up with some James Dean movie playing in my head, it’s just what happened.
With those themes, the Springsteen comparison started creeping in, and I’m not asking you to shit-talk Bruce Springsteen, but it’s funny that you did legitimately come from a New Jersey working class background and worked as a mechanic, and Bruce has joked about the fact that he has never held a job in his life.
No, but there’s not, like, an authenticity game. It doesn’t give you any more points. It’s just something you observe around you, and whether you observe it firsthand or second- or third-hand, you’re still observing it and it’s shaping your outlook. So Bruce’s outlook was still shaped by that stuff because he was surrounded by factories in Freehold. I just happened to be shaped in a similar way a few towns over.
Do you stay in touch with him much, as either a friend or mentor?
Yeah, especially in the last couple years. He’s kept in touch, which is cool. Because I didn’t want to bother him. It’s not like calling your mom. You’re calling this very, very famous stranger. I don’t know what to do with that! [Laughs] What would you do if you had Elton John’s phone number? Would you call him? I’m not sure.
Things hit a critical mass for you guys here. What do you remember about this one coming out?
I remember it being the same way – it was the biggest the band ever was. I wasn’t sure which was my favourite record, but Handwritten was definitely a contender. Handwritten is one where the whole band was firing on all cylinders. We accepted our place in the world, we were playing in front of a lot of people, and there were a lot of people watching us. So we were just writing a record that was a good, fun record to listen to.
I feel like any band that comes from a punk background has this mentality in the back of their heads where they want to self-sabotage when they get famous. Did that punk guilt weigh on you?
No, I didn’t need any punk guilt, I just had nerves. I had straight-up nerves coming out. It’s like… I used to ride BMX when I was young, and you'd just have to commit when you go up to a jump. You’re just pedalling and pedalling, and you’re like, “I’m doing this thing,” and you envision doing the jump and completing it. And then you get in the air, and you go, “I’m gonna die. I’m gonna break every bone in my body and I’m gonna be laying here dead on a mountain. I’m gonna die with my BMX here and I should’ve worn a helmet.” That’s how you feel sometimes when you’re in that situation. So the band went off the jump and I said, “I dunno, this might be a little too hot for me.”
What would be the metaphorical helmet you’d put on if you could go back?
I would’ve realised that you don’t have to keep the schedule they give you. That’s what I didn’t realise. We never realised we could say no. I realised that when I read that biography Pearl Jam did, where they said they had the year of no. They went through and just told everyone no. “No, we’re not gonna do a tour. No, we’re not gonna do a record. No, we’re not working with Ticketmaster.” Not to be difficult, but to protect yourself from your own anxieties.
For me, it was less punk guilt, because we never claimed to be a punk band or a DIY band. We never made that claim so we never had to carry that cross. For us, it was all about, “Whoa, this is a lot of touring and I’m not so sure I feel that well, or maybe I need to go get my anxiety out. Because all these shows are supposed to be fun but they’re making me really nervous, and making me feel like maybe I don’t wanna do this anymore.” And, really, all that is is that you have to find the time to give yourself space to just be yourself and change as you grow, but you don’t want to change in the public. Because that’s a private thing.
And everyone suddenly has an opinion of you.
Yeah, and the other thing too is when you don’t have an opinion of yourself that you’re comfortable with, you’re not grounded in yourself.
Did you feel that way at the time?
Yeah, I feel that way all the time. Who keeps popping in my mind, weirdly enough, is David Lee Roth, who just seems like a very confident person. Just like, “This is what I’m doing and I’m making a joke and I’m kicking my legs around and whatever, and I don’t care what you think of me.” And that was never me. I just couldn’t be like that. None of us in the band felt that way. We got to this point where we didn’t know what to do, but everyone was looking at us.
How did it feel when you started getting media attention outside of Punknews?
It was very exciting. I still remember Chris Farren called me up and said, “Hey, Pitchfork reviewed your record and it wasn’t terrible.” And I go, “What? That’s cool. Do they normally slam bands?” And he was like, “Are you serious?” And I was like, “I’ve never read it. What’s up?” And that was my introduction into that world. So Rolling Stone called us and all these magazines were calling us, and Kerrang. It was really cool, and we were just having fun with it.
Where did you read about music before then?
This is the thing that’s so funny, because it’s true. I read biographies on bands that had existed for 30 years and that was music to me. I didn’t really care what was going on currently. I was just looking back on all these artists to see what they did and how they got to where they were. Because the new music that was coming out, I could just decide for myself. I could buy the record and decide: Do I like this or do I not like it? I didn’t really care what anyone’s review of it was.
This record was a huge breakout, but did it feel like it painted you in a corner a bit?
No, we were so naive! We had no idea, we were so unaware of ourselves. And I wish we could’ve remained that way, to tell you the truth. I wish we didn’t let in all the other stuff. When you’re just being yourself, some people are not gonna like you, and that’s really OK, but that’s so hard to do.
It was such a seminal moment of your career when Bruce played with you around this album. Did it feel like something was different after that happened?
I didn’t feel like something was different until I got off the stage and my heart was racing so bad. I was so pumped that he came out, because it was so unplanned, and I was so excited. And I remember playing in front of that audience and thinking, “You have no idea what’s coming up two songs from now. This is gonna be so cool and everyone’s gonna have a party.” It felt like everybody was winning. If you bought a ticket to this little tent off the side of the stage at Glastonbury, you just scored, because now you’re getting Bruce Springsteen. And everyone was elated. The whole audience was so, so happy and it was one of the best moments of my life. And then afterwards, I go, “Oh gosh, I think that this is different now. I’m not sure what that means, but this is not gonna be just chill anymore.” [Laughs]
It had both good and bad impacts on the band. It seemed like one of the more annoying ones was that for years after, at any Gaslight show, there’d be some dick in the back going, “Bruuuuuce!” Was that annoying to you?
Well, that wasn’t the most annoying part. The most annoying part was when that became all that people would talk about. It was like, c’mon, we’re putting effort into this and not just putting together our secondhand version of whatever you think we are. We’re not just resting on that. It doesn’t say on our album covers, “Bruce Springsteen’s favourite band, The Gaslight Anthem!” Everyone kind of criticised us as if we were resting on our laurels, and we were not. We were not trying to use Bruce Springsteen. I was kinda going, “That’s cool that that happened. Now how do we live up to this? How do we be worthy of this?” But all these struggles, though, they were silly. But we didn’t have the wherewithal or the common sense to know that.
When you look back on the overall career of the band, is The ’59 Sound the standout in your mind?
It’s one of ’em. I’d say it’s the biggest one because it was the last time we were free to do whatever we were doing without any thought. We just didn’t have any thought other than: We love this, let’s do it.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.