Jersey by Gaslight
YOU GET the feeling that The Gaslight Anthem are a little bemused by all the attention. For the first few years of their existence, the band never really caught a break. These four punks from New Jersey spent their days working their asses off for cash to keep the group going, and their nights gigging in people’s houses and youth centres. The title of their 2007 album, Sink or Swim, summed up their predicament, writes JIM CARROLL
A year later they released a second album (The ’59 Sound), and everything suddenly changed. For the first time, punters and pundits were paying attention, and The Gaslight Anthem found themselves playing to bigger and bigger audiences.
A sure sign of success came when they began to attract superfans. At some shows last year, a grinning Bruce Springsteen would come running on stage to join them. It was kind of surreal.
The change in fortunes came down to The Gaslight Anthem finding the right sound, says frontman Brian Fallon. “With Sink or Swimwe were kind of fishing for a sound. There’s acoustic songs, there’s fast songs, and it was a process of learning. With The ’59 Soundwe went in a very distinct way, and I found out what I wanted to do musically.”
The ’59 Soundremains a hell of an album, a band using all the classic songwriting cards and drawing a cast of characters, their dreams and nightmares. Musically, The Gaslight Anthem were born to run, but that punk snarl from their grounding in the hardcore scene gave them an edge.
“We took it all very slowly and were very suspicious of the whole thing at the start,” says Fallon. “It wasn’t really success on a level that a lot of people think it was. We didn’t all become super-rich overnight, but it did break open the doors.
“We didn’t change as people, and we’re always going to be the same four guys. We grew up rough and hard-working, and we’ll never forget where we came from. I think I’ve figured out my opinions and values and standards, so success doesn’t make me any different as a person.”
The biggest change came with the venues. “When the album came out, we were still on the lowest rung of all. It was all 100- or 200- capacity venues, people’s houses and youth centres. We didn’t move onto real clubs until halfway through the tour. It was almost as if our audience said to us that we couldn’t play there any more, and to move up a level.”
Fallon got his own musical education in similar makeshift spots. “Yeah, I was one of those kids. We’d go to all those punk-rock shows and go a little crazy. Those venues sure were something. They didn’t have proper stages or security, and the kids just tore them apart. Too many people were trying to get into a small spot.
“I liked that New York and Florida scene, bands like Avail, Hot Water Music, H20 and Madball. They were the guys who showed me that, yeah, I could also do this.”
When success arrived, it wasn’t in the US. The Gaslight Anthem were lauded in Europe first.
“It seems to me that whatever happens musically in Europe happens about four months later in the United States,” Fallon says. “Our label, Side One Dummy, told us from the start that a band has to be an international band, that we couldn’t just concentrate on one place and forget about the other. You had to be the world’s band and treat every area as if it was your home patch and the most important place to you.
“We were really excited when stuff happened over in Europe, and we made sure we did our time there. But it’s natural for you to want people where you live to like you too. And they do, but it’s so much bigger in places like the UK. We can play in Brixton Academy in London to 5,000 people and we then play a smaller venue over here.”
Their new album, American Slang, just might change that. Musically the band are still pell-melling down the highway, but Fallon’s songwriting has become more considered and rounded. The scenes may be the same, but the old characters are gone.
“I didn’t have to use characters this time, because it’s about things I’ve directly experienced myself,” he says. “It was a lot different and probably easier, because I didn’t have to think about storylines and character set-ups as much. It was less like writing a movie and more like writing a diary.
“These stories are coming out of my life and how I think about things as I get older. It’s more direct and there’s less confusion because I know now what to say to people. I suppose I know where I’m going now.”
Many of the new songs are inspired by books and films.
“From the very start, movies and books were always important for me when it came to writing. That’s something I picked up from Dylan and Springsteen. A lot of people just stick with other musicians, but there’s plenty of inspiration on your bookshelf or in your film collection.
“During the writing of American Slang, I was trying to educate myself on classic American movies that you really should watch but which I never got around to seeing. I dug in to Martin Scorsese’s movies a lot, Chinatownwith Jack Nicholson, that sort of thing.”
He also loaded up the bookshelves. “It was stuff like Dante’s Inferno, and a lot of Jack Kerouac. With Kerouac, I really got into the travelling and the idea of not having a valid explanation for the constant travelling. As a touring musician, I suppose I appreciated the constant need to be on the move. His lifestyle was quite different to mine, though. I don’t do drugs, I’m too focused, so that side didn’t resonate with me.”
These days the touring is a lot different to how it used to be when The Gaslight Anthem first hit the road, and Fallon sounds pretty happy about that. With the rest of this year and probably 2011 given over to touring, a little comfort is appreciated.
“Touring is a lot easier now,” he reports. “In the beginning it was hard, because we’d no time or money to find somewhere proper to sleep or eat right. Now, it’s a little better, because you feel you’re not losing your mind because you can’t sleep. These things matter.”
- American Slangis out today