When Brian Fallon was young, he sounded like an old soul. “In my head there’s all these classic cars and outlaw cowboy bands / I always kinda sorta wished I was someone else,” Fallon sings wistfully in “High Lonesome,” a rousing highlight from his 2008 breakthrough LP with the Gaslight Anthem, The ’59 Sound. While he was only in his late twenties at the time, Fallon’s voice was already weathered and roomy, like an old Cadillac that’s rough around the edges. Inevitably, the New Jersey native came to the attention of Bruce Springsteen, to whom Fallon was endlessly compared, and the Boss offered his implicit endorsement by appearing several times with the Gaslight Anthem on stage.
“Where do you put that in your life?” Fallon wondered aloud when I phoned him earlier this month. “What are you supposed to do after that? How can you live up to that?”
For Fallon, now 37, life after The ’59 Sound has occasionally been fraught with self-doubt and crises over his artistic identity. While The Gaslight Anthem went on to have a successful career, eventually signing with Mercury Records in the early 2010s and releasing three top 20 albums (including two LPs, 2012’s Handwritten and 2014’s Get Hurt, that debuted in the top five), the band was eventually ground down by an endless album-tour cycle that necessitated an indefinite hiatus in 2015. The following year, Fallon released a solo debut, Painkillers, rebooting himself as Americana-style singer-songwriter and dramatically dialing down the arena-punk bombast of the late-period Gaslight Anthem albums.
Judging by his sophomore solo LP Sleepwalkers, out Feb. 9, Fallon seems to have finally found his groove outside of the Gaslight Anthem. Retaining the rootsiness of Painkillers and adding a heavy dose of R&B and heartland rock — both of which were latent influences on his writing for the Gaslight Anthem but largely obscured by the band’s punk posturing — Fallon manages to both evoke the charming classic-rock worship of The ’59 Sound while also seeming more assured in the guise of the “mature solo artist.”
In conversation, Fallon is refreshingly candid about the peaks and valleys of his carer, as well as his (mostly positive) feelings about The ’59 Sound, which The Gaslight Anthem will celebrate with a 10th anniversary show at Governors Ball in New York City in June, the band’s first gig in three years. (Other anniversary shows will also be announced soon.) At this point, he’s grateful to have survived a bumpy, sometimes tumultuous decade in the spotlight.
How do you feel about The ’59 Sound 10 years later?
Well, I always liked that record. I don’t think I ever went through a period where I didn’t like that record. I wouldn’t be talking to you here about Sleepwalkers if I didn’t do that record. I don’t think any of us would be talking to anybody about anything if it wasn’t for that record.
We had a call, and we were just like, ‘Hey, are we gonna just ignore this?’ I know we’re on hiatus — we’re not doing anything, everybody’s off doing their own thing, and everybody’s fine. But if we let this go, that says something. That would come across as apathetic to me. I was like, ‘I don’t feel apathetic about this. How do you guys feel?’ They didn’t feel apathetic at all. They felt like, yeah, we should probably do something.
Then we thought, ‘if we play some shows, what happens? Do we have to start the whole thing up again?’ What realized, well, no, because of this record, we can do what we did in the beginning, which is [anything] we wanted. We just did what was fun, and if it wasn’t fun we didn’t do it. Later on it became more confusing. So we just said, ‘hey, we could go play some shows and play the record,’ We’ve never played the record front to back.
Your initial response to my question was interesting: ‘I always liked that record.’ It’s somewhat defensive. I sense that while you liked The ’59 Sound you also felt overwhelmed by the response.
Oh yeah. The record came out and got the highest attention it can attain when you’re a citizen of the great state of New Jersey.
You’re referring to Bruce Springsteen.
That’s it. You got bestowed upon by the king, and what are you going to do when your 28 years old or 29 years old and you’re just floating around in this punk band and you’re playing DIY punk houses and all of a sudden Bruce Springsteen is like, ‘Hey man, I learned your song in my spare time, being the Boss, in my Bossly duties.’ Where do you put that in your life? What are you supposed to do after that? How can you live up to that?
Since you’re still here making music 10 years later, you must have figured it out.
Well yeah, because you don’t have to live up to it. That’s the thing. I thought you had to. I thought you had to beat it or compete with it, because I was young and kind of dumb. But now I see that it’s not a competition, it’s the next thing. Eventually it’s a story. I’m 37 now. It took me 37 years to get it.
I think a lot of artists go through those growing pains when they experience success early on.
If you ever have a record enter the Billboard top twenty, they should hand you a book that says, ‘This is what you need to deal with, and here’s the stuff that you grew up with that’s going to rear it’s ugly head.’ [Laughs.]
The last three albums you’ve written are called Get Hurt, Painkillers, and now Sleepwalkers. Is there some sort of thematic connection here? It seems like you’ve slowly moved from turmoil to maybe a more relaxed kind of turmoil.
[Laughs.] Your subconscious, it will be heard. I can tell you that with Painkillers, I’m talking about how music is usually used as some sort of painkiller for people. Aanywhere you go, people will turn to music to console them, even more sometimes than friends or family. It’s a unique thing, and it doesn’t divide people like other things do. That’s kind of what I meant by that.
Sleepwalkers came from more of a dream state, kind of like the person that you present to the world. You know, you go to work and you’re whoever you are and you’re part of you, but you’re not the whole you. Because you don’t go to work and say, ‘You know what I really want in life?’ You keep that to yourself. The whole idea behind Sleepwalkers was about that world.
With Get Hurt, we just named it that because I think we were all getting hurt in some way or another. We were pretty banged up at that point. The band was real banged up. We were beyond the scope of our own cognitive awareness. It’s funny, because you listen to people talk about being successful and how it doesn’t give you what you want and all that stuff. I never had any expectations like that of success. I never thought it was going to fill this void in my life. I don’t think any of us did. We were banged up in a different way.
That thing went like a rocket, really. It was Sink Or Swim to [playing with] Bruce Springsteen, in a year and a half. And you’re just like, ‘What happened?’ I don’t think we ever had time to catch our breath. There was no minute to catch our breath. We were sort of swatting away any kind of flies that would come in the ointment at the time. We were just like, ‘Well, we have to deflect this.’ It feels like you’re running and swatting and being chased by bees. We were just looking at each other like, ‘This used to be fun, this is not fun, this is the opposite of fun right now.’
The band went on hiatus shortly after that.
The easy thing would have been for it to be like, ‘I hate you,’ or like the other guys to be like, ‘We want more money,’ or somebody to say ‘I’m the one that really is the band’s leader,’ something like that. Then we would have a blow up and then we break up. That would have been the easiest thing to happen. The more complicated and convoluted thing to happen was, ‘We’re still friends and we like this band and we like this music, but we hate doing it right now because it’s so, so hard.’ I can’t tell you even why now. It’s been three or four years. I can’t tell you why.
You seem to have more perspective on that period that perhaps you did as it was happening. Is that common for you? Do you often write songs that mean one thing in the moment, and then something else later on?
Sometimes they’ll tell you exactly what they mean right away, like The ’59 Sound. I was clear on what that was. American Slang was much more difficult. Like, ‘What am I talking about? What am I feeling? What’s going on?’ Even with Painkillers, I felt great about the sound, but I couldn’t necessarily tell you what the painkilling was — you know, what was going on in my head.
This record is the complete opposite to that. I struggled for such a long time when I got home from tour. I knew I wanted to make a new record, I knew I had an idea. I knew I had the basic sound in my head, but I just struggled to get any kind of thing on paper. When it came out, it was like I could see it for miles. It was the clearest thing I ever saw. It was like, ‘I’m just gonna write about what I know, right now. I’m gonna write about my family and my friends and exactly what I’m afraid of what I think about. I’m gonna write about right now. I’m not gonna worry about the past or the future.’ That was a really bizarre feeling, because you don’t usually get to do that when you have a career that’s 12 years long. That’s something you do when you’re first starting, on your first record.
On Painkillers, I think you’re pretty clearly trying to recontextualize yourself as a singer-songwriter, as opposed to the leader of The Gaslight Anthem. Whereas with Sleepwalkers, you seem more comfortable making a more band-oriented record that doesn’t sound like the group you’re famous for.
That came from a lot of conversations with Ted Hutt, who produced the record, and also a good friend of mine, Matthew Ryan, who is a songwriter. We have one of those relationships where we talk about process all the time and the psychology of it. He was talking about what you just said, like how with Painkillers, I was branding an identity. Who am I when I’m not in this band? I don’t want to tread on anything that’s [Gaslight Anthem’s] territory. I grew up on folk music, I love that, so let me try that and strip everything back. Because that’s what you do when you’re not sure what to do, take it back to basics.
But on this record, it was like, wait a minute, that sound that I’ve created, be it Horrible Crowes or the Gaslight Anthem or Painkillers, the part that’s me is mine. I did that. It comes from inside of me. So when people say, ‘well, you’re sorta sounding like the Gaslight Anthem,’ I’ll be like, ‘yeah, part of [the songs] do, because that’s me.’ But there’s another part that can’t sound like [those other bands], because there’s an element missing.
A common thread in conversations I’ve had with singer-songwriters is figuring out how to age gracefully. Because it’s hard to sound authentic when you’re in your 30s and you’re writing about people in their 20s. But you also don’t want to slip into some adult-contemporary coma, either.
Oh, I railed against it! I was like, ‘I’m writing about young people stuff. I’m 37, I’m not old!’ And then I was like, ‘oh wait, I’m a father and a husband and I have responsibilities.’ I’m not gonna write about the minutia of that. I’m not gonna write about cleaning the house, you know? I do that, but I don’t want to write about it. So what you have to do is you is go on that trip of self-discovery and find connection. That’s what you do. My younger writing was always about connection. It was always you and me and us versus the world. That is the common thread — it’s the us against whatever our problems are. That is the unity that will never go away, no matter how old I get.
I don’t drive in the car every night anymore to all these crazy places just to explore. But it doesn’t mean that my sense of wonder has diminished at all. I look at my kids and I feel like the world is completely new in their eyes and I’m getting to see this whole other perspective, like re-learning the world. So you find a different kind of magic as you get older.
I think the greatest artists have learned that lesson, about being comfortable in your own skin and looking at aging as a way to discover new material.
You look at Tom Petty or Neil Young and they’ve got a catalog, so it blurs the lines of when they wrote what. But you know, when I was writing this record, and I was dealing with that topic that we’re talking about, I discovered that Neil Young didn’t write “Rockin’ in the Free World” until he was 42. And you’re like, that’s his heaviest song ever! I thought he wrote that when he was 20, and he didn’t. And Tom Petty didn’t write “Free Fallin'” until he was 39. “I Won’t Back Down”, “Free Fallin,'” “You’re So Bad,” “Running On A Dream” — that was all after “Refugee” and all that stuff. That was when he had the kids, the house, the whole successful career. It was like, wow, okay, there’s a whole other angle here.