Posted June 20, 2016 by Jeff in Tunes

Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon Goes It Alone

Brian Fallon credit Danny Clinch
Brian Fallon credit Danny Clinch

With Gaslight Anthem singer-songwriter Brian Fallon established himself as one of modern rock’s true craftsman who writes and sings like a punk rock Springsteen. Earlier this year Fallon released his first solo album Painkillers. Produced by Butch Walker (Taylor Swift, Keith Urban), the album evokes the alt-country sounds of Tom Petty or Jason Isbell with tunes such as the title track and “Smoke,” the latter of which shows off Fallon’s distinctively raspy voice. Currently touring with Gaslight Anthem guitarist Alex Rosamilia, Horrible Crowes cohort Ian Perkins and the Zombies’ bassist Catherine Popper, Fallon spoke to us via phone from his New Jersey home.

What attracted you to the world of singing and songwriting growing up?
As a career, I’m not sure. As a hobby, well, you don’t choose what you like; it chooses you. It was what I fell into. When I was really young, Bob Dylan. To me, that made it look doable. It was completely lost on me what he was saying when I was 10 or 11. I just thought of it as words and music. I don’t totally understand his music now but that’s part of the draw.

You were in a number of bands prior to Gaslight Anthem. What were those experiences like?
Usually, they were awful. There was a lot of trying to get a band together. It was like [the song] “The Summer of ’69.” That’s what everybody misses about that song. People want to play in a band and they don’t realize that it takes work to get to the point where you can do it as a career. It was a very difficult time. [Gaslight] seemed to be a good experience because it worked.

Gaslight Anthem had such a great run. What prompted you to take a break?
I think that we did have a great run. We reached that point where I didn’t know what would come next. We thought, “That was really fun, and even if that was the last thing we did, that was good.” We didn’t want to ruin it. Sometimes, people keep going and it’s just awful. Nobody wants to see that. Often, right before the band says [it’s going to take a break] there’s a collective yawn going on so you think it’s time. But then at the point you say it, everyone revolts. It’s like, “Wait a second, weren’t you just yawning two seconds ago?” It’s not always like that but sometimes it is when bands get to that stage. You get to feel like you’re a dinosaur. We were still doing well but it if you walk around the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and you’ll find tons of people who said, “That’s enough.” They become legendary. I wonder if some of those people had not died or broken up if they would have become legends. What would the Clash have done during the ’80s? They probably would have sucked. What would Pink Floyd do now? Probably not a lot of good stuff. It’s magic when it’s over.

When did you started writing songs for Painkillers?
I think I started writing them a couple of years before Gaslight took a break. I had put some of them away. I had three songs, I think. They didn’t sound like Gaslight. I decided to hold onto them. All of a sudden, I was without a job. I had to do something. I was going to see if Welsh Farms was hiring.

How could you tell they weren’t quite right for Gaslight?
The demos were pseudo country songs. That’s where it didn’t fit in. One of the real secrets of Gaslight is the drumming. It’s rock drumming. It’s just wild. Benny [Horowitz] isn’t the kind of guy you want to put in a cage. He would be bored out of his mind. That’s the only time I ever put songs aside. I didn’t do that before.

When I did the solo record, it did sound different to me. It’s me and I’m writing those things.

I feel like I can still hear the country in some of the songs. How’d you end up going in that direction?
I think everyone does that when they make a solo record. It just creeps in. “Hey, that guy’s making a solo album . . . did he go to Nashville?” It’s the typical singer-songwriter thing to do. We’re not that different. When the songs were stripped down to the core from when I was very young to now, they were always these nursery rhyme-y country songs. Even the fast, heavy Gaslight songs started out as country ditties in my head. That’s what everyone starts out as. When you’re playing that Johnny Cash rhythm, it’s natural to play by yourself. It has a drumbeat and a melody. It has everything there and you don’t need a band. I think that’s why it’s the natural fallback.

You recorded with Butch Walker. What was that experience like?
It was cool. He’s awesome. He’s a real knowledgeable guy. He can play everything. He’s been around. He’s lived through different shades of himself and shades of music. He’s done the metal thing and the singer-songwriter thing and the alternative thing. I thought he was good guy to ask about this. He was in the same position I was in 15 years ago, so I thought he would be a good mentor. Plus, he really liked Tom Petty so that was good enough for me. I walked in and asked if he liked Tom Petty. He said he did. I asked, “What era?” He answered, “Jeff Lynne.” I said, “Me, too.” That was it. We were fast friends.

Most of the songs feature backing vocals. How did that work?
Most of that is me and Butch and the drummer right around the microphone. We didn’t layer them. We just sang harmonies. We were trying to be the Traveling Wilburys. Butch said they did it like that. We were learning our parts. It was like Peter, Paul and Mary. I had never done that before. I had been in a punk rock band and there were no harmonies.

They provide a nice contrast to your raspy voice.
That’s always the thing. If you have a voice like mine and you’re stuck with that Tom Waits thing, you have to dress up the music pretty. It has to be a juxtaposition unless you’re doing something really heavy.

Talk about what prompted the theme of “Wonderful Life.” It’s about wanting more than just to survive.
It’s probably being 36 and feeling your clock is ticking and you better do something that’s worth something. It’s that middle-aged thing. I bet you everybody over 40 just gasped. You get to that age where you’re not 22 anymore and you start taking stock of your life. That’s what me and the people I’m closely associated with have felt and feel so that comes out in the song.

“Among Other Foolish Things” sounds like a traditional ballad. Talk about your approach on that song.
That was one of the last songs I wrote. I was watching Wes Anderson movies. I wanted a song that sounded like it could be in a Wes Anderson movie. That riff at the beginning sounds like Wes Anderson music. I wanted a Kinks-y song like that. I just went for it and that’s what came out. I was just learning how to do those melodies at the time so it’s funny that came out that way.

I like the song “Steve McQueen.” What exactly inspired it?
It’s just about Steve McQueen being cool. Growing up in Jersey, there’s not a lot going on. You’re always left with this picture of movies and some life just outside of town that’s bigger than yours. Foolish as that might be, it’s done Bruce Springsteen really well and it’s done a lot of us really well. Bon Jovi. It’s looking over the horizon and imagining a bigger life. I guess he represented that. He was driving a car and smoking cigs.

You released your first album nearly 20 years ago. What keeps you going after all this time?
I think the feeling of not quite achieving anything close to what you wanted to do. Everyone who is writing songs is trying to go for something. I think Bruce is trying to write something that stands up to Elvis. And Bob Dylan is doing whatever he’s doing. I’m just trying to write something that fits with those guys. I don’t think I have yet.

I’m still spinning the wheels.

I think it’s great that you’re still devoted to songwriting at a time when the emphasis is on singing.
I just read this article in The New York Times that argued they should classify music as songwriting and entertaining. It’s completely legitimate. If you name anyone on American Idol versus someone like Jason Isbell, who’s a real songwriter. That goes back to Bob Dylan versus Elvis. Elvis was just an entertainer and somehow time has given him credibility. Elvis didn’t write his own songs. He was a face who was a great entertainer. Then, there was Dylan who could write songs. It would help guys like me. You’re no less legitimate, but you’re an entertainer. It would help me win a Grammy, I’ll tell you that for sure. If someone dresses you in the morning, then you’re an entertainer. That’s fine. Everybody needs that, but it’s not in the same ball field. It’s a little different. Until then, we will carry this thing.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.