Seventeen years ago, Brian Fallon and the rest of the Gaslight Anthem — guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine, and drummer Benny Horowitz — were just trying to hold onto the dream.
New Jersey’s communal culture of DIY punk brought them years of friendship and freedom from square jobs, but entering their late 20s, Fallon and co. had played in countless bands that flamed out or left them unfulfilled. Formed in 2006, the Gaslight Anthem was their final shot. "That’s why we called our first record Sink or Swim," Fallon tells GRAMMY.com.
They swam. That 2007 debut signaled a sea change: In the early 2000s, punk bands were not repping Bruce Springsteen. They were absolutely not namechecking Tom Petty. Here was a punk band from the same streets as the Misfits, Bouncing Souls, and My Chemical Romance, writing great songs draped in the Americana of their parents’ generation. By the time the Boss himself joined Gaslight onstage at Glastonbury Festival 2009, their sophomore album The ‘59 Sound had made them one of the world’s most acclaimed new rock bands.
The Gaslight Anthem mined its tried and true sound for two more albums,but half a decade of non-stop touring and creative pressure was starting to take its toll. 2014’s Get Hurt, a moodier record inspired by Fallon’s recent divorce, received mixed reviews. A year later, the band was on ice. They reformed in 2018 to perform 10-year anniversary shows for The ‘59 Sound but disappeared soon after. Fallon released singer/songwriter-oriented solo albums into the 2020s and kept in touch with his old bandmates, but it wasn’t the same.
On Oct. 27, the Gaslight Anthem releases History Books, its first album in nine years. It’s an earthy, battle-tested rock record from a veteran band that sounds hungry again, their first self-released album after an amicable split with Island Records. The title track features a duet with Bruce Springsteen, the pair’s first studio collaboration after years of friendship.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Fallon to discuss what years of (humble) rock stardom brought him: a hard-earned appreciation for Gaslight Anthem’s past and a new understanding of the demons rattling in his brain.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What made you want to get the band back together?
I don’t think it was anything other than being inspired to write. I wouldn’t say that being inside for two years didn’t have a hand in that. At some point, you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, I had this band and we played big shows. It’s fun. A lot of people like it. It sounds like a good idea… I gotta do this. I have something else to say.
When the band was inactive, how much did the four of you stay in touch?
We don’t call each other every day, but we stayed current on the things going on in everybody’s life.
The whole thing is more about being friends. We’ve been through things no one else has seen. We’ve slept on floors in another country in a youth center with bugs crawling on you when you’re sleeping. And the only people that understand that are those other three.
It’s been almost a decade since Gaslight Anthem released its last album, Get Hurt. Now that there’s some space to look back on it, why do you think the band went its separate ways after that album?
We all felt that strain. In 2015, you couldn’t really say, as a musician, "Hey, I need to not be on tour because I’m going crazy. I need to sort my mental health out." People would just be like, "We’re going onto the next band. Bye. Your career is over."
So when we pulled the plug, everyone was like, "Why are you doing this?" Well, so we don’t die. So we don’t hate ourselves, that’s why. We knew it wasn’t the band. We knew it wasn’t each other. I think we just needed to stop the landslide.
Do you think this had to do with being in the major label ecosystem? You came up releasing albums on punk rock labels, so I’m interested how you think it all compares.
I would love to sit here and tell you that the pressure is only in the major label world and that it’s the evil major label corporate overlords who do this to bands, but it is absolutely not. It comes from the smallest indie label of some dude in his basement, all the way up. My experience on majors was maybe even a little more sensitive. If you’re running a small label and you have excitement built up, you’re like, "Whoa! This is working on a big level!" You’re so excited that you’re like, "You gotta do this! You gotta do that!"
I’m not saying any of the labels we were on were like, "You gotta do this!," but there was definitely, "Well, if you don’t play this radio show, they’re not gonna play your record."
Now, people are a little more in tune to what’s going on, but [10 to 15 years ago] for sure, it was like, this is your only opportunity ever! Well, no, it’s not the only opportunity ever. There’s other opportunities.
Did it feel like people knew what to do with you at Island Records?
We had a real big champion at the time in the president, David Massey. He was the person who signed us. Bon Jovi and U2 had been on Island for a while and contemporary to us, was the Killers. Every time the Killers did something good, it gave us a little more freedom because they were the other rock band on the label. We liked [the Killers] and they liked us. They covered one of our songs ["American Slang"] at one of their shows in New York [in 2017]. It was like having a big brother on the label, paving a path.
When we got back together, we weren't really on Island, but they could have made us make a record [for Island]. We don’t own anything. I don’t own [the masters for] Sink or Swim. I don’t own ‘59 Sound. Nothing. So we wanted to own it, now. We wanted to do our own label, with [independent distribution company] Thirty Tigers, where it’s much more of, "You’re the label, you make the decisions."
How did "History Books" with Bruce come together?
I’m not one to shoot my shot, so to speak. Which has not been great for my career, I guess. But if somebody wants to do something for you, let them do it, you know? I never asked Bruce for anything.
We were talking and I was saying, "Yeah, we’re putting the band back together and working on some songs." He just said, "Why don’t you write a duet for us?" I was like, "What? Alright!" You have to understand that, for me, sitting here and saying, "Why don’t you whip up a duet for me and Bruce Springsteen?" – that to me is like saying, "Why don’t I write a book for Ernest Hemingway? Why don’t I write Jimi Hendrix a guitar solo?"
So I went away and I would say to myself, Alright, the next one is for Bruce. I’ll write the next song for Bruce. I just kept writing the songs to get them out, without the pressure. And at the end of it all, I just said, "Which song would Bruce sound good singing on?" Everybody just said "History Books." Cool! And then we sent it to him.
What did he say when you sent him the song?
He said, "Cool, I’ll get it done." He was in Dublin on tour and he just did it.
After knowing him all these years, why do you think now was the time he proposed writing a song together?
With the band back and writing new material, it was just the right time. I don’t think there was a time before this where it would have been good for us to have done.
Now, we’ve gone down a path enough to where we can embrace Bruce, New Jersey, our influences. We’re able to comfortably have that be our home.
When you’re around Bruce, do you get nervous?
Imagine you’re seven years old, you’re reading your comic books, and then all of a sudden Batman jumps out of the comic book in your room and goes, "Hey, you wanna go fight crime tonight?" It’s insane to be in the presence of a person that’s that famous, and that influential to you. It’s not a thing a normal person can comprehend. And I can not comprehend this.
Reading the lyrics to this album, I thought you were referencing your mental health a lot. Can you share what's been going on during the several years of your life?
It feels like everybody in America’s got things on their mind, especially the last couple years. I got to a point where the days felt like they were harder than they should have been. It’s like pushing a rock up a hill when you’re doing that every day, and you get tired. You’re dealing with stuff in your mind that you can’t quite… there’s not an event that causes you to feel a certain way. There’s no cause, so you can’t predict it. And that becomes extremely frustrating.
You turn to other things, or you get help and say, I don’t think I can do this on my own. I need someone else alongside me." That’s the point I got to. I got a therapist. There’s not a special rockstar line that people call, or if there is, I don’t have that number. I just went to the doctor and said, "I don’t feel right."
Did these feelings get buried during Gaslight Anthem’s more active years, only to come out during the pandemic when things got quieter?
I think it was coming anyway. Whether there was time to deal with it or not. The band slowing down before the pandemic was part of that, needing some time and space. That was why the band stopped, because it was like a steamroller. It’s like you have another mental illness, which is the anxiety of the pressure of feeling like you have to be excited. And that’s where the tidal wave starts… You feel guilty ‘cause you’re like, "I should be grateful. I’m in a band." And you are grateful, but you’re also struggling, and it’s freaking hard!
[Mental health] comes up a lot in the song "Positive Charge"… I wrote it about that struggle. But this isn’t the mental health record. I’ve been writing long enough where I can steer the boat so it’s not a diary entry anymore.
Back in 2021, you played a fundraiser in New Jersey alongside Jon Bon Jovi and Johnny Rzeznik from the Goo Goo Dolls. What was that like?
We were doing a benefit for the reelection of the Governor of New Jersey [Democrat Phil Murphy]. Jon Bon Jovi reached out to my manager and wanted me to play. Whoopi Goldberg was hosting. Insane stuff.
Jon Bon Jovi wanted to meet for dinner beforehand. At the same time, I was really thinking about the band. On the way in the car, I said to my wife, "I think I wanna get the band back together." I had not spoken of this prior, so this blew her mind.
We sit down at the table, and it’s Jon Bon Jovi and John Rzeznik. I didn’t expect them to be familiar with my band, because they’re giant songwriters. They were just genuinely interested in what we had done, talking about the songs they liked. When we left, my wife was like, "That’s a sign. If there’s a sign, that’s a sign."
I’ve met famous people who are completely off the planet. They’re just not interested in having a normal conversation. They just revel in the absurdity of their fame. I could relate to [Bon Jovi and Rzeznik] because the one common denominator is we all came from nothing. And now we’re in bands that achieved some amount of success.
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