My Greatest Hits: Brian Fallon

The Gaslight Anthem frontman talks us through his career highlights, from finding his footing in New Jersey backrooms to playing Glastonbury with Bruce Springsteen

Bursting onto the scene from the basements of New Brunswick, New Jersey back in 2006, few bands have managed to capture emotion and energy quite like The Gaslight Anthem. Part of a rich tradition of New Jersey punk – building upon the foundations forged by Misfits and The Bouncing Souls – the four-piece are perhaps best-known for the master storytelling of frontman Brian Fallon, drawing upon the heartfelt narrative-driven Americana of the band’s state musical icon, Bruce Springsteen.

A prolific songwriter with an innate ability to craft lyrics that resonate deeply with listeners, Brian Fallon has made a name for himself as a world class musician. Seamlessly blending the blue-collar spirit of New Jersey with a poetic prowess, across the last two decades his career has taken him to many remarkable places – making many remarkable friendships along the way.

Following The Gaslight Anthem’s return and the release of their long-awaited sixth studio album, History Books, we sat down with Fallon and asked him to pick his own career highlights; from writing The ’59 Sound on his work breaks to sharing stages with his childhood heroes.

The Gaslight Anthem - Spider Bites (Official Video)

Forming The Gaslight Anthem 

“We went through several line-up changes until we renamed ourselves The Gaslight Anthem, and eventually it ended up being formed of two bands who came together. We had all come from the same scene in New Brunswick, and we had a lot of the same reference points, however no one else in the band was into Bruce Springsteen. Obviously, I was, but there were plenty of other things that we could use as touchstones. I think it was that combination of common interests and differences that helped create a sound that was truly unique to us. To be honest, it wasn’t difficult at all. I think we just had good songs, and that was the main goal. We played our first show in the back of a game store, the kind of place where people sit and play Dungeons And Dragons. It was called The Only Game In Town because it was the only store like that in Somerville, New Jersey. An interesting place to debut a band, for sure.”

Giving up our day jobs

“When we first started the band, it was a lot of working during the days and then going on tour. We’d come back from tour and have to find new jobs because we’d been fired from the old ones. We had to do that for years, and I remember writing part of The ‘59 Sound on my breaks whilst working a construction job. Being able to stop doing that was a big deal, but I can’t remember exactly when it happened for us. It was certainly after The ’59 Sound came out, and I think it was towards the end of the touring cycle, before we went in to write American Slang. Those moments passed us by quickly because we were so busy, so I don’t think we realised the importance of it right away. We didn’t get that moment where we could say, ‘Take this job and shove it!’ At some point we just sat there and said, ‘Hey, we haven’t been back to work in a while…’.”

Finding our stride on The ’59 Sound

The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound (Official Video)

“We were always trying to make the next right move, rather than trying to ‘make it big’. Every time we were faced with a decision, we would simply focus on taking one step forward very slowly. We found our sound and our purpose on our second album, and Ted Hutt [producer] helped us with that. He became part of the band for those couple of years whilst we were working on The ’59 Sound and American Slang. It’s interesting though, because we never had that moment where we looked at one another and said, ‘We’ve done it’. We so badly wanted that, but instead we just heard everybody around us saying it. There were suddenly all these people saying, ‘I think you’ve done something special here’, and it was like, ‘Oh, really? You think this could work?’. Even though we knew what we were doing was good, and we believed in it, we were the last to know what was really unfolding.”

Playing Glastonbury for the first time in 2009 

The Gaslight Anthem - Glastonbury Festival 2009

“I’ll never forget that day because there’s no way we saw it coming. That was the first moment where we realised that things were going to be different going forwards, because it seemed like we went from this band who some people liked to a band that a lot of people liked. Every band has that one show that people talk about all the time; the one that served as the propulsion. For Nirvana, they had the Reading and Leeds set and that show at Paradiso in Amsterdam… those are the ones that people remember. Glastonbury felt like one of those shows for us, and suddenly we could feel our world changing.”

The magnitude of it all must have truly set in when Bruce Springsteen joined you onstage…

“Before that day, we’d met Bruce in passing but nothing truly worth remembering. I remember before our set, the cops came. We were in the back of Glastonbury, so there were all these trailers and all number of sordid characters around, but I knew that those police were there for us. I was like, ‘Someone in my band is definitely going to international jail today, and we’re meant to play a set in five minutes!’. The door to the police car opened, and I was terrified… but Bruce Springsteen stepped out. He just walked over and said, ‘Hey, you want to play ‘The ’59 Sound’ together?’. I couldn’t believe he even knew it, but it happened. We walked onstage, and there was no real conversation about it. We just did it. 

“It’s still wild. I know that if I had to do that day over again for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have done it. I would have thrown up or gotten too nervous, but when you’re in that moment, it just happens. I used to ride BMX bikes, and we call that committing. When you go off a jump, you can’t think about it. You have to just commit and if you fall, you fall.”

Working on Handwritten in Nashville

The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten

“That was an interesting time because we really didn’t have anything to do with the country music scene. We didn’t know anybody in that scene, but Nashville was very welcoming to us, and we were able to just focus on the music 100 per cent of the time. We were by ourselves in this house in Brentwood, Tennessee – which is right outside of Nashville – and we recorded with Brendan O’Brien who made so many of the records we grew up on. That was also the first time we’d been in a world class recording studio, so it felt like a dream come true.

“I think the thing about Nashville is it really depends on how into country music you are. For us, it just was another city, so we could focus wholly on the record we were making. We didn’t know anyone there, and there was no one trying to visit the studio and see what we were working on. Back then, everyone was trying to come over all the time, and we’d be working on a record whilst people were just sitting on the couch. It was a nightmare when we were working on American Slang, because it felt like everybody we’d ever met in our lives was rocking up and sitting on the couch whilst we were trying to make a record. That’s not my thing at all. I’m not the party guy, I don’t like the entourage.”

Playing with Eddie Vedder 

“It happened at a festival in Pensacola, Florida back in 2012. I grew up listening to Pearl Jam, so the only thing crazier than Eddie joining us would have been if it was Kurt Cobain. I wouldn’t be a musician if it wasn’t for Pearl Jam, and I was listening to them before I even knew about Bruce Springsteen or punk, back when I was 10 years old. 

“It all came about thanks to Danny Clinch, who was there photographing Eddie. He said to me, ‘If I can get Eddie to come on stage with you, do you think you guys would play ‘State Of Love And Trust’?’. Pearl Jam were due to play after us, so I was sceptical, but Danny asked him. It was a case of Jersey helping Jersey, and Eddie joined us onstage. The rest is history, but there was no practising or anything like that. I just looked over to the side of the stage and there he was. Truly starstruck.”

Working on my debut solo album

Brian Fallon - Painkillers

“When it came to who I was outside of The Gaslight Anthem, nobody had decided what that was yet, so I could get in there first and figure out what I was going to do. I didn’t really have a plan, but working with Butch [Walker, producer] to figure that out was a unique experience. We ended up in Nashville again, because that’s where his studio was. It was just me and my wife down there in a house, and we found out we were having our baby girl right at the start of recording the record. Being there working on the album was already exciting, but that news made it even more exciting. It was nice to have that space to ourselves, even though people like Alex Rosamilia, Cat Popper, and Butch were around during the working days. In a lot of ways, it felt like starting over.”

Going back to music lessons whilst writing Local Honey

“Before my third solo album, I began taking guitar and piano classes and took a course in lyric writing. I wanted to get better, and I’ve always thought that there’s room for improvement in anything that I do. I try not to forget to be a student, because a lot of people view themselves as complete. Other people view themselves as teachers, but I’ve never viewed myself as either of those things. There are not enough lifetimes for me to learn all the things I want to learn, and it’s part of my nature to always be searching. I’m so curious about music, in terms of what it does to people and how it’s made, because it seems like it’s the last bit of magic left in the world. It isn’t something you can boil down to atoms and molecules, there’s an element of the divine in it. I’m still mystified by the power of art and music.”

The Gaslight Anthem returning to full-time status as a band

The Gaslight Anthem - Positive Charge (Official Video)

“I set myself a challenge to write four new songs for The Gaslight Anthem back in 2021, because I needed to know that getting the band back together wasn’t just some fleeting feeling that I had. I had watched a lot of other bands that I love get back together, release middle of the road records, and go back out on tour playing the old hits. I didn’t want that for us, so I needed to be certain. If I did it and it wasn’t right, it should just stay where it is. We weren’t hurting anybody by not doing anything, but we could hurt everything if we put out a bad record.

“I also wanted to have something to show for it, especially since it had been so long. I didn’t want to pitch the idea of getting back together and then leave the other guys waiting six more months for me to come up with some songs. ‘Positive Charge’ was one of the songs that came about in that process, and when that came together, I knew that we had a solid foundation to build something from.”

Did the certainty that you were doing the right thing by reuniting settle in more whilst you were out on tour in 2022?

“Yes, especially because we were writing while we were touring. There was a lot of planning, and a lot of excitement. We had gone out on the road in 2018 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The ’59 Sound, but those shows had felt more like a holdover from the hiatus. It was a weird time, because we weren’t doing anything new, we were just celebrating the past. When we returned properly and did that tour, I think everybody was feeling the excitement in the room because they knew it was going to continue, it wasn’t just a one-off. I’ve been able to go through life with these four people, and the things that we’ve seen and done together are wild. To be able to come back and still have the creativity and drive that we have is amazing. I feel extremely fortunate.”

Collaborating with Springsteen on ‘History Books’

The Gaslight Anthem - History Books (ft. Bruce Springsteen) - Official Video

“Obviously, it’s a dream come true. The story behind how it happened is a relatively simple one though, because Bruce just texted me and said, ‘I think we should do a duet’. I jumped at the chance, of course, but it was hilariously easy. I remember seeing the rest of the band and saying, ‘Well, Bruce wants to be on it’, which felt insane.

“In this blessed modern age, Bruce was on tour when we were working on the song. We sent him the files, and he recorded it whilst he was in Dublin. Luckily, it’s simple to record nowadays, and you can send things back and forth with no real hassle. It’s funny, because people have said that The Gaslight Anthem are ripping off Springsteen since day one, but it’s tough to say that when you have the approval of the source. It truly doesn’t matter to us anymore because we have the ultimate stamp of approval.”

The Gaslight Anthem start their 2024 UK tour in March. Find tickets here

Photo credit: Taylor Hill/Getty Images