When Brian Fallon started to write his latest album, he received a crucial piece of advice from his friend, singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan. “[Matthew] just said, ‘Don’t run away from anything that’s you. Everything you love, just take it all in and put it in there. As long as you love it, then it’s cool.’”
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“That helped,” says Fallon, thinking about his friend’s advice one year later. “That really helped.”
Three years after announcing that his band, the Gaslight Anthem, one of the precious few ascendant major label revival rock bands of the past decade, were going on an indefinite hiatus in 2015, Brian Fallon has finally relearned how to be himself. On his latest solo record, Sleepwalkers, his third non-Gaslight album to date, he’s grown fully comfortable re-embracing many of the sounds, styles, and sentiments that he became best known for as the heart-on-sleeve soul-punk prophet who, as lead singer of the Gaslight Anthem, set his mix of contemporary heartbreak and early-onset nostalgia to a playful template of 60’s classic rock revivalism.
“For the first time,” says the singer, “I’m okay with being me.”
After emphasizing his early folk influences — from Bob Dylan to Ryan Adams — on 2016’s Painkillers, Fallon returns to his rock and roll roots on his latest album, Sleepwalkers, which doesn’t shy away from the type of first-pumping choruses and anthemic sing-alongs that Fallon is best known for. On the new record, songs like “If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven” and “Forget Me Not” are feel-good roots punk anthems that would have sounded at home on Gaslight Anthem’s 2010 classic American Slang.
“When you’re starting a new project, the last thing you want to do is to give people just a slightly different version of what they were listening to before,” says Jared Hart, lead singer of the Jersey punk band the Scandals and a friend of Fallon’s. Hart, who knows what it’s like to go solo after being part of a beloved band, can relate to Fallon’s earliest attempts to distance himself from Gaslight. “As a solo artist,” Hart says, “you want to give something different to fans that’s a little bit outside your box, and I think Brian tried that, and I think he did it really well.”
“If I’m making music and it’s not with the band, am I not allowed to play songs that I would have written with the band?” Fallon says. “I really came to terms with the fact that each record that I or anybody else does is something that is intrinsically them, that which makes them them.”
Fallon points to some of his fellow artists — like Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver — as artists who manage to sound like themselves regardless of what genre or group they’re working with.
Over the last year or so, Fallon has perhaps come to terms with the fact like Vernon or Finn, he has also crafted a distinct sound and voice that, regardless of the project or genre, remains uniquely his.
“Brian’s been lucky enough to curate a specific sound,” says Hart. “Sometimes when I hear a lyric on the radio, I’ll text Brian and say, ‘did you write this song? Because this sounds exactly like you.’ Most songwriters would kill to have a specific style over the entire catalogue that grows and matures and is not just regurgitated. Brian’s been able to do that over different genres, whether it’s punk or rock and roll or country. He can change styles to whatever sound he’s feeling that day but you always still know it’s him.”
“No matter how much Pink Floyd or War on Drugs I listen to, I’m not going to sound like that because I don’t know how to do that, and it’s just not inherently me,” says Fallon. “My job, I feel, is that I’m carrying on the whole songwriting tradition that everybody started way back before Dylan, and that Dylan and the Beatles and all the big bands made popular. They did this thing where they were like, ‘our gimmick is that we just write songs, and we want to get really good at songs.’”
In January, the Gaslight Anthem announced that this coming summer the group would be returning to the stage for the first time since 2015 for a series of shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of their classic album The ‘59 Sound. Released in the summer of 2008, The ‘59 Sound was Gaslight’s second LP and their breakthrough moment after spending several years in New Jersey’s New Brunswick punk scene.
That album, a collection of bleeding-heart tales of coming-of-age heartbreak and restless nostalgia set to a mix of muscular arena rock, bouncy r&b and Jersey seashore punk, instantly became an iconic Great Recession-era soundtrack for a generation of millennial teens and young adults who had grown accustomed to finding solace in their parents’ record collections and hiding from the realities of adulthood.
Over the following five some-odd years, the Gaslight Anthem would release three more albums and eventually sign with a major label as the band went from playing bars to large clubs to theaters and headlining festival slots. But after spending the first half of 2015 touring behind their fifth album, Get Hurt, which received exceedingly lukewarm reviews, the band suddenly announced that they’d be pressing pause.
Today, Fallon is still processing the Gaslight Anthem’s decision. “I got a little distracted there for a minute,” he says of the recording of Get Hurt. “We were in that point in the band where I imagine the Replacements got to when they made [their final record] All Shook Down, where it was like, ‘is this a Paul [Westerberg] solo record or a Replacements record? The vibe is different here. It’s not bad, just different. Something’s missing.’ And I felt like we kind of hit that point. We were all lost in the shuffle a little bit and we didn’t know where to take things next.”
The decision to get the band back together for this summer’s anniversary shows is, for Fallon, part of his larger project of embracing his musical identity and learning to worry less about what others think of him. “What I’ve learned doing Sleepwalkers is that, as my friend [singer-guitarist] Tim Barry says, he has the best quote ever: do it for the lovers.”
“The reason that we stopped doing things with the band were much more involved with record making and the constant cycles that were expected of us,” Fallon adds. “It was never about playing shows or about us hating each other, so the decision was pretty simple. It was like, ‘Is it fun to play The ‘59 Sound?’ Uh, yeah it is, so let’s go do that. We’re thinking of it as a celebration because truthfully, I would not be sitting here talking to you about Sleepwalkers, and I probably wouldn’t have ever made Sleepwalkers, if there wasn’t a ‘59 Sound, so we thought we should acknowledge that even if, for right now, that’s all we’re doing.”
Gaslight’s breakthrough album was very much on Fallon’s mind during the recording of Sleepwalkers, which marked the reunion between Fallon and longtime producer Ted Hutt. Fallon and Hutt recorded the album in New Orleans in the summer of 2017 with Fallon’s new, slightly reconfigured, backing band, which includes longtime accompanist Ian Perkins.
“Ted went, ‘Look, the one thing I can tell you is that when you walked into that studio for ‘59 Sound you were so pumped and you had absolutely no reason to believe that anyone would love your music, but you loved it and you believed in everything you did. That’s what you need to get back to,” Fallon remembers. “And that advice just gave me permission to stop thinking, ‘Okay, what are the kids going to think? What is the press going to say? Are they going to make fun of me?’”
One of the moments Fallon — who is open about the fact that he is affected by critics and journalists make of his music — says he was particularly worried he might get made fun of for was the album’s title track, which features a loose r&b horn section courtesy of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Why did he fear ridicule?
“It definitely does remind me of something I would have heard on Greetings From Asbury Park,” says Fallon, who’s had a deeply conflicted relationship with the comparisons to Springsteen that have followed him over the past decade. “At first I wondered if people were going to be like ‘of course he did that,’ but then I just thought, ‘Yeah, of course I did that because that’s who I am.’ I just said to myself, ‘I love Greetings From Asbury Park.’ It’s one of the best records ever, and you can’t run from that stuff.”
“As Brian grows up and he realizes his place in the world, his music has grown up with him,” says Hart “It’s been an extremely natural progression, and it’s been interesting to watch him grow and expand on what he’s built so far.”
On his upcoming world tour, Fallon is further cementing his newfound role as tamed-down singer-songwriter by ditching his normal cadre of associated punk bands as his opening acts in favor of country/folk singer-songwriters Caitlin Rose and Ruston Kelly.
On Sleepwalkers, a tasteful rock and roll record about, among other things, the crushing pressures and blissful highs of raising children, Fallon tried to inject the same type of literal high-stakes that he once infused into the life-or-death adolescent young-love-turned-sour hymns of the The ‘59 Sound.
“It all goes back to what Ted Hutt was saying to me, that if you write it down on paper — there’s this punk band that’s going to make a record called The ‘59 Sound, and they’re going to talk about 1950’s stuff and namedrop Miles Davis and Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seeger — no label would sign that. But I believed in it, so I did it, and on this new record I similarly was like, I’m not going to change the names on this record, I’m going to write about the years I’ve had with my kids. I’m going to write about this thought of: what are my kids going to do when I’m dead?”
There’s still plenty of open-wound heartbreak on Fallon’s latest. “And all we wanted,” he signs on the aching “Etta James,” “Was absolutely everything.”
But on Sleepwalkers, Fallon displays a clear-eyed, newfound sense of compassion, grace and sympathy, a change he chalks up largely to becoming a parent.
While discussing his new song “Her Majesty’s Service” (the chorus of which plays around with a refrain of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”), Fallon opens up about a larger goal he had when writing this record.
“I was trying to write a little bit of an anti male-rock song,” he says.
“It feels like so many rock songs are always about this sentiment of you did me wrong. I listen to a lot of soul and rock and blues, and it’s always you did me wrong or I’m going to put a spell on you or whatever. But this whole record is more of a positive relationship record rather than you did me wrong and blah blah blah. I’ve had enough of that for a while. I’ve had enough of that in my personal life. I’ve had enough of that in songs. I’ve just had enough. So for this record I just thought, I’m going to kick the can around and turn things around and be like well, instead of saying you did me wrong, I’ll be like you did me right. I thought about that angle: instead of dragging somebody down for what they did wrong, what about praising them for what they did right?”
Fallon’s newfound tranquility can be heard on songs like “Proof Of Life,” where the 38 year-old singer-songwriter finds peace in parenthood, in giving and passing on love to others rather than lamenting its wrongful absence.
“As long as you know how I loved you,” he sings gently in the gentle acoustic mid-tempo song, “That would be the proof of life when I am gone.”
“Those of us who are parents right now are literally raising and are responsible for the next generation of humans in the world, and to me, right now, looking at the state of everything, that’s scary,” he says. “I feel like I’ve got to do my job right or this is going to get worse. So I’m trying to teach my kids to be loving human beings to other human beings regardless of whatever difference they may have.”
“If I can convey that to my two small children, just how much I loved them and taught them, then I’ll know I impacted the world in a better way,” Fallon continues, before realizing that the main principle he’s been trying to teach his children is the same exact lesson he’s had to learn himself — as an artist, an adult, and a father — over the past few years.
“That’s my thing: if I can teach them that no one defines you but you. That’s my life goal.”