Other than Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, few musicians are as associated with New Jersey as The Gaslight Anthem. That’s why it was such a shock to fans when singer/guitarist Brian Fallon packed up and moved to Brooklyn as the band began work on its third album, American Slang.
While you could take The Gaslight Anthem out of New Jersey, it’s simply not possible to take Jersey out of The Gaslight Anthem. Like their 2008 breakthrough, The ’59 Sound, American Slang merges Springsteen’s dead-end anthems with the punk rock of The Clash.
But The Gaslight Anthem isn’t interested in simply recreating past glories. They’ve grown as songwriters, mixing up their tempos, making the soul influence in their music more prominent and writing more personal lyrics. We talked with Fallon about moving across the river, turning 30 and his plan to conquer hockey arenas.
Why did you decide to move to New York?
People think New Jersey is like New York, but the Jersey Shore towns where I grew up are pretty slow. I realized I was writing the same things a lot because I hadn’t changed my scenery. I wanted to be somewhere where I was like a foreigner. Being from a small town in New Jersey, going to New York was like going to Mars.
Was it hard to leave New Jersey behind?
No, because I was never really leaving it. I was just moving away from what I felt was my safety net. New Jersey is a weird thing. If you’re from there, everyone wants you to champion it. You’re expected to talk about certain things. I see that with us, Bouncing Souls, Bruce, Bon Jovi. I’m planning on moving back there, but I needed to get away.
Did you feel the association with New Jersey was limiting you?
No. I feel like our band came from a community with a lot of other bands who all played in basements and small venues. When we got bigger, I felt like everyone was happy for us. It was like we were winning for everyone. Now that we have these opportunities, we can go home and give other bands opportunities, like bringing them on tour with us. I feel like we’re doing it for everybody back home.
How do you feel like you’ve changed as a songwriter from The ’59 Sound to now?
Instead of using stories and characters, I can be more direct now. I don’t know when I started writing more in the first person. It just happened subconsciously. I think it has to do with getting older. I used to write about breaking out and touching the big wild dreams I had when I was kid. When I got older, it wasn’t about huge crazy dreams of getting out. It became about local things, like caring about my friends and the everyday struggle that was right in front of my face. It’s not like when you’re a kid and you get your license and you drive across the country for no apparent reason. When you’re older, you realize what’s important is the people right in front of you and your community.
I’m 30 now and there’s huge difference between 23, or even 25, and 30. People are getting married and having kids and getting divorced. You still feel like a kid but there are adult things happening. When my friend got divorced, it struck me, like ‘We’re just kids. This doesn’t happen to us.’ But then it’s like ‘This is really happening’. That was the inspiration for the song “Boxer.”
What else did you do differently while working on this album?
With the others, we’d go in with rough skeletons of the songs, play them live, then add on to them very minimally. A lot of times, we’d do one guitar or vocal take. With this album, things slowed down, so there was space for things like organ and piano and different kinds of vocals and harmonies. Our songs weren’t as fast, but they were getting wider. We never had time before to think ‘What do we want our songs to sound like exactly?’ Instead, it was ‘Let’s get the best take and get out of here because we have to go on tour’.
Did you feel a lot of pressure to follow up the success of The ‘59 Sound?
This was the first time we knew people would listen to our record and judge it, and even be waiting to judge it. I never knew before that people would even listen, so it was all about what we liked. Waiting to see what would happen with this one was super-scary.
How did you deal with that?
We just had to go back to being insular and do it for ourselves. I know that sounds like a pat answer, but it’s true.
You have an incredibly rabid fanbase that knows the words to every song. When did you realize how seriously people took your band?
When we released an EP after our first record, I noticed that people were starting to sing along to more than one or two songs. Then kids would come up to me and start asking me about our lyrics and I was like ‘Wow. You must have really read these’. The first time it really struck me was when we went overseas and kids that didn’t know English knew all of our lyrics. How much time does it take to learn a song in another language?
You measure yourself against some pretty big influences. Where would you like to see The Gaslight Anthem go?
We always set the goal super-high. A lot of bands say ‘I want to be a small indie band.’ We want to play all over the world and be as big as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Those are the kinds of guys we look up to. I want to play the places they play and have all these people singing along. The only problem is that no matter how successful we are or how long our career is, none of us will ever feel we belong alongside Tom Petty. But if you set goals like that, even if you fall short, you still wind up somewhere good.