The Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon talks us through the band’s long-awaited return and the making of their latest release ‘History Books’.
Featuring the lead single ‘Positive Charge’ and collaborations with Bruce Springsteen and PUP’s Stefan Babcock, Fallon talks lyric writing, finding the right sound and why now was the perfect time for to get the band back together.
Read The Gaslight Anthem, ‘History Books’ | The Album Story below:
(Click ‘View Fullscreen’ for digital feature or scroll down for text only version)
TEXT ONLY VERSION BELOW
Benny Horowitz was working outside when his phone lit up, the name of Brian Fallon flashing on its screen. Laying down his tools, The Gaslight Anthem drummer answered the call from his long-time friend and one-time bandmate. The voice at the other end of the line was excited in a way Benny hadn’t heard for a long time. Inside his house, through the window Benny’s wife watched him gesticulating wildly at her. “It’s Brian!” he mouthed at her, pointing at the phone. “He’s calling about music! He’s calling about the band!”
Brian Fallon made two other calls on that day, dialling up the numbers of both Alex Levine and Alex Rosamilia, as autumn gave way to winter in 2021. On each, he opened up his heart on how he’d been feeling for the past 18 months or so, and finally expressed a desire he’d kept secret from the world: he wanted the band – their band – back in his life. And not only that, he had written some new songs, too…
This, following the announcement of their hiatus in 2015, was how The Gaslight Anthem was finally reborn. And this, as Brian Fallon sits down with Rock Sound to reveal, is the story of how ‘History Books’ – their first album in just shy of a decade – came to be.
When The Gaslight Anthem originally called time on the band in a surprise statement, they did so admitting that they need to “take a step back until we have something we feel excited about.” Their rise in the six years following their breakout with the beloved 2009 album ‘The ’59 Sound’ had been rapid, continuous, and for its members, oftentimes little short of head-spinning. That had posed a challenge to the purity of the band that “grew up with nothing, not even musical skill”, as Brian jokes today. 2014’s ‘Get Hurt’ – the band’s fifth album, which the frontman has stated “puzzles” him even now – came to embody the confusion that had enveloped the band.
“I think everybody learned so much from being away,” says Brian, who in the intervening years released a string of impressive solo records. “The main thing that we all learned is the value of it. It’s an invaluable thing, to be able to go in your bedroom with your friends and create music.”
The frontman likens the quartet being in a room together again as “like getting your superpowers back”. “I know it sounds so dumb, and everyone says it, but there’s this weird psychic sense that only the four of us share,” he says. “It’s such a bizarre thing. We’ve all been in rooms with other musicians, but it’s never the same. What is that magic that happens when a band gets together and plays a song that changes everything? A song that really touches people?”
‘History Books’ is the quartet’s bid to bottle that magic. “We didn’t want to make a ‘classic’ Gaslight Anthem record or a ‘return to form’ Gaslight Anthem record,” Brian begins. “If you said that to me, that would mean something that sounds like ‘The ‘59 Sound’ or (2010 follow-up) ‘American Slang’. And we’ve already done those records. Going into this, we knew we wanted to make something that is obviously The Gaslight Anthem, but The Gaslight Anthem of today, and not The Gaslight Anthem trying to recapture something from 10 years ago. That was the main order of the day. And I do think we succeeded with that.”
About that he is undoubtedly correct. With nary a beat skipped, ‘History Books’ stokes the fires of Gaslight’s dormant sonic spirit, yielding a familiar warmth from new flames. An altogether slower burn than some fans craving the reckless punk abandon of their youth may have yearned for, it confirms a belief that had long been brewing in Brian that there was nothing that The Gaslight Anthem couldn’t do. “I started to see less and less need for me to not do this thing that I and everybody else worked so hard for,” he says.
“The one thing about every band that creates a meaningful legacy is that they are fundamentally them,” he adds. “And this record is really about taking ownership of us.”
It’s fitting that ‘History Books’’ headline-grabbing collaboration on its title track and lead single should arrive in the shape of Bruce Springsteen. Not only because Brian Fallon considers his fellow New Jersey native one of, if not the defining musical inspiration of his life. Nor, too, because the ‘Born To Run’ legend has been a long-time champion of the band, dating back to the ‘‘59 Sound’ days, which saw them unite onstage at Glastonbury 2009. But rather, because without Brian seeking The Boss’s wisdom and counsel, ‘History Books’ might not have arrived at all.
“There was a lot to consider about getting the band back together – mechanical stuff, the business stuff, all these daunting things – and I didn’t know where to start,” Brian explains. “Bruce and I have been friends for a long time, but I’ve never called him for help – calling Bruce Springsteen for help isn’t like calling a plumber, you know? – but I thought, ‘This is important enough.’ So I picked up the Bat Phone, and we went for pizza – on his birthday, no less – and he talked me through every little thing from his experience getting the E Street Band back together. At the end of the conversation he said, ‘And you need to write us a duet for the record, too.’ I couldn’t believe it. And it was a pretty good card to play when calling the guys back up – ‘Hey, Bruce Springsteen says he’ll be on the record, too!’ (laughs)“
“He ended up recording his part while he was on tour in Dublin, and he calls me while I’m in America at about 7am asking, ‘Brian, did you get the song? What do you think?!’ I was like, ‘What do you mean, ‘What do I think?!’ You’re Bruce Springsteen, it’s pretty good! I think you’ve got a future!’”
Further features arrive in the form of Mates Of State’s Kori Gardner – a collaborator on Brian’s 2020 solo album ‘Local Honey’ – alongside PUP frontman Stefan Babcock, who jumps on the barnstorming ‘Little Fires’. “Stefan and I are good friends; we write songs together sometimes, though nothing that has seen the light of day – yet,” teases Brian. “I love his writing, and PUP are just so good. They’re like a punk Talking Heads. I’m so inspired by what they do. And I feel a responsibility to try to help elevate great bands. Not that PUP needs my help, but it’s cool to bring generations together and feel like we’re all in this together.”
Many a band is distinguishable by their frontman’s voice; Brian Fallon, with his husky, well-worn timbre conjuring images of the sort of smoky bar back rooms in which Gaslight cut their teeth, is no different. Yet few are as distinguishable solely though their lyrics as Gaslight are in those penned by its leading man (and yes, the obligatory Gaslight mention of the ‘radio’ is present and correct on the big, bluesy ballad ‘I Live In The Room Above Her’).
“The one talent I have is not playing the guitar,” Brian laughs. “It’s writing Gaslight Anthem songs, and knowing when they’re good.”
When he came to deciding to take action on the idea of reforming Gaslight that had nagged at him for 18 months, the frontman challenged himself to write four new songs in an intensive two-week spell. Something concrete with which to excite his bandmates; something to ensure that the feeling wasn’t fleeting, too. But more than that, something to give Brian the belief that this could once again be real. All four tracks find a home on ‘History Books’.
The colour and character that came to define the band’s work enrichens the album from front to back. There is a melancholy to ‘Michigan, 1975’ (‘I’m losing my desire for being alive’) and ‘Empires’ (‘It all came so easy once I went numb’), but even in those darker moments it is hope, Brian says, that is the prevailing spirit of the record. When he sings ‘I wish I could do my life over, I’d be young better now’ on ‘Autumn’, he hears not sadness, but a precious, cherished joy in the impermanence of life.
‘Positive Charge’, with its chorus of ’How I’ve missed you, and feelin’ good to be alive’, encapsulates ‘History Books’ message. “I was writing to myself, and how I’ve felt for the past 40 years,” he says. “Whoever I was as a child, I feel like I lost that person. ‘Where did you go?’ – that’s me talking to myself. But it’s also me talking to the band, and our fans. That song was in the four that I wrote before anyone other than my wife knew about my idea to get the band back together. It’s me imagining what it would be like to stand onstage with my band again, and see the joy on people’s faces that our music brings them. It’s me being so happy to have myself back. That could be the theme song to the next era of this new chapter of The Gaslight Anthem.”
THE TITLE AND ARTWORK
“Not every rock song needs a story – it can just be an awesome song,” says Brian, teeing up the story behind ‘History Books’’ strikingly simple monochrome cover photograph, daubed with a flash of yellow lettering announcing the record’s title. “I can give you a long, meaningful story for every question you want to throw at me, but when it comes that… (laughs). I was in the studio one day and just said, ‘I want the cover have a girl in a high school varsity jacket running through a field. And I want to call it ‘History Books’. Because it sounds cool.’ And the guys were like, ‘Yeah, that does sound cool.’ So, there you go!”
Perhaps sensing that to be a disappointingly surface level explanation coming from a songwriter of notorious depth and heart, Brian scratches a little deeper in attempting to unpack his own emotional response to looking at the image.
“I do think the title and the photograph feel like this record,” he begins. “It moves me when I look at it. I think the girl is moving away from something; like she’s leaving something to go to the next thing. If I’m really trying to think about what it means, that’s what it is to me. But the thing that strikes me most is the vastness of everything. Everything is wide open. And maybe that is subconsciously what I was feeling: that every possibility is open, and anything can happen now.”
What’s evident in every inch of Brian Fallon’s voice is that ‘History Books’ represents not the belated closing of a chapter in the Gaslight Anthem story, but instead the opening of a new one altogether.
“You burn your hand on the stove, and that inspires you not to touch the stove again,” says the vocalist. “And when you lose the thing that you worked so hard for, that inspires you not to lose it again.”
The journey Brian has been on since the announcement of Gaslight’s 2015 hiatus is one of professional improvement (“Not having a band to fall back on with my solo records has definitely made me a better songwriter”) but one of personal wellbeing, too. The burn-out that brought Gaslight to a halt back then has been replaced by recharged batteries; the pressure of being in an arena-headlining band, and the anxiety that such a platform bred in a music industry still some years removed from much-needed discussion about mental health, has dissipated with age, experience and understanding. The space to breath has yielded new perspective. All else aside, the Brian Fallon that leads The Gaslight Anthem today is happier and healthier than he has been in a long, long time.
“I could sit here and tell you that ‘I’ve grown’ and ‘I’m confident in my band’ and blah blah blah,” says Brian of what affords Gaslight a more stable future than when he and his bandmates put the band on ice. “But what’s really true is that I went to a doctor and said, ‘I think my brain is broken. Everything in my life is so hard all the time, and I have a fear of everything, and I don’t know how to fix it.’ I got the help I needed for my mental state, which allows me to not see everything as life or death. Because everything was life or death back then. I’m not ashamed to say I have my daily medications now, but I feel alive again. I can make my own decisions, and I’m in control of my life. I’m not run by fear any more.”
“Everybody says these words and they seem to like mean nothing but it really does feel like a new beginning,” he adds. “And not a new beginning that doesn’t want to be part of the past, either. It’s a new beginning that is like willing to take the past with it, and say, ‘Yeah, that was awesome then, and it is going to be awesome now, too.”
And the biggest lesson of the past to take forward into that future?
“Oh, that’s easy,” answers the frontman in a flash. “Appreciate everything. That’s it. Appreciate it all.”