Q&A: The Gaslight Anthem Look to U2 and Pink Floyd for Career Survival Tips
By David Grossman
The Gaslight Anthem know what you think of them. You’ve already filed them under Springsteen-Jerseycore and will listen to them based on how far that judgement will take you. For the most part, the New Brunswick band is fine with that. But lead singer Brian Fallon and the rest of the guys knew that their fifth album, Get Hurt, needed to travel beyond that. Not just the stereotypes: they’ll never kick the Springsteen name-drop, even though most of the band barely listened to him until they formed. But The Gaslight Anthem sound had to expand.
‘Expand’ doesn’t mean ‘change’, we’re a long way from The Gaslight Anthem’s EDM phase. But what does the new sound sound like? Quite nice, actually. There are effects pedals, synths, and even harmonies. There’s a solemn meditation (“Underneath the Ground”) on death that takes its cues from Bon Iver, of all places. The growth is unexpected but feels natural: Get Hurt shows that The Gaslight Anthem have enough confidence in their sound to use it as a foundation to leap from.
We talked with Brian Fallon on the phone about the history of bands changing their sounds, the importance of track listings, and of utmost concern, the state of his mouth.
Radio.com: Thanks for chatting with us. These media days can be long.
Brian Fallon: It’s not been that long of a day, actually. The worst thing that happened to me was that I went to the dentist today.
Well, I go a lot. Basically, I have to have my whole mouth restructured. For the last couple years, I’ve had a lot of issues with my teeth. Normal people have two or three roots in their teeth, mine have six, eight, nine. So the offshoot ones, they’ve never closed since I was born so they can obstructed. And when they do, it’s like, your teeth start rotting from the inside and there’s nothing you can do about it, you just gotta get them fixed, or get molds or implants. So today I had a root canal, like root canal number fifteen.
It’s okay, you get used to it. There are people who go through dialysis, so I have nothing to complain about….I was thinking though, when we were doing the cover of the record, I was thinking “We should have a picture of my mouth!” because it was a state of total disarray. It was being reconstructed: holes sticking out, teeth missing, it looked really weird. So I was like, “Just take a picture of my x-ray and put that on the cover!” And everyone else was like, “No, that’s a really terrible idea.” And I thought, that’s why I do this, that’s why I’m in a band: so I don’t make all these decisions by myself.
That’s a helpful counter.
I’ll definitely say that drummer Benny Horowtiz is the best at that. He’s like, “You know what, I don’t wanna do that, dude. I don’t wanna wear a clown suit.” “But why? It’s so cool, Bob Dylan painted his face! Why can’t we do that?” “Because we’re not Bob Dylan.” “Right. Good point. Let’s not do that.” So I just want to give a shout out to Benjamin Horowitz right now.
You’ve mentioned Bon Iver as an inspiration for this album, and you can really hear that in “Underneath the Ground”.
I appreciate that, actually, because I feel like we didn’t create that mark at all, which is cool. He’s really great at what he does, sonically. Those are tender things, very delicate. When we went into do it, our other records are, you know, “raah raaah rock n’ roll loud!” Those moments are tough for us to know when to put it on the record.
And “Underneath the Ground” is a song about death. Do you think that sound and that subject matter come together naturally?
Yeah, I think certain songs like that — they almost tell you what they sound like before you finish it. That one started just on the piano, by itself. It was just that little riff at the beginning. I don’t know, it had this weird thing. I was watching this movie where a guy was dead but he could hear people talking about him. And I was like, “Oh, that sucks! Uch. What would people say? He was such a good guy, but not really?” I think that impacts people heavily. You could be really angry at someone their whole life but then they drop dead suddenly, and you’re like, time for some second thoughts there.
You researched a lot of older bands — the Stones, U2 — for this album, specifically how they made changes in their career. Can you talk about how you did that?
My main thing I do, when I’m looking for any sort of inspiration, rather than listening to a certain record or reading a certain book, I watch documentaries. I love documentaries on bands. What I was looking for was, how do you take something that you built a career on, but now there’s a desire to do something different than that, how do you do that without abandoning or changing what you’ve done in the past, without ruining it all?
So I was watching these bands that were severely developed and made great strides. Like Pink Floyd lost their singer and their primary songwriter, and they got David Gilmour and went through this whole new thing. And The Rolling Stones, they went from a blues/Top 40 band, competing with The Beatles to going to all sorts of stuff, psychedelic, disco, you name it. And U2 — U2 were a big one. I love The Joshua Tree, and I equally love Achtung Baby. They did that really well and I wanted to find out how. So I watched the documentary on Stones in Exile, I watched From the Sky Down for U2, and I was reading the Rolling Stone special on Pink Floyd. Anything I could find on this band and their process, as much as I could.
How did they do it?
One thing I realized was that none of them hated what they did prior. They were very proud of the work they had done up until that point, and what they wanted to do was say, “Okay, we’re going to change what we’re going to do, we’re going to create, experiment.” And I found that strand running through the whole thing! It was just from a desire to see what they were capable of. They were looking around and saying, ‘We do this. We’re limited to these chords and these instruments and what they can amount to. Let’s see how far we can take things to communicate how we’re feeling.’ That was a big thing for me. I was like, ‘Wow. Really gotta start looking around your head and see what’s there.’
And that lead you to Bon Iver and The National?
Yeah! Those guys started out ahead of us. We’re a very traditional band. Guitars, drums, vocals, cool, done. The National and Bon Iver are just a mesh. Prior to that, I think early Mark Flannagan, The Afghan Whigs type of stuff is similar to me, in some degree. There’s Nick Cave in there, there’s Mark Flannagan in there. And when I hear those guys, and when I hear The National, it reminds me of that. All of these people, they know what not to put on a record. Whatever it is, that’s what it is, and let the rhythm by hypnotic. Same with Bon Iver. Very hypnotic, it repeats the same thing.
There’s a line on the album, “You say I’m hopelessly devoted to misery/ but I don’t want to be devoted anymore”. Do you think hope can be punk?
I think so. If you look at some of the bands when I was growing up, take The Clash. “Stay Free”? I think that’s a very hopeful song. Early hardcore stuff, the melodic stuff that was coming out in our neck of the woods and Oregon, was actually really positive. “This is trouble, but it’s not gonna hold me down”. Almost like a soul message, from the ’60s. That real self-power thing. And for me, it also comes out of gospel music. I don’t know if it’s punk, but it’s definitely where I’m coming from. And that line was like, “I’m just sick of being miserable”. The Hell with this! Enough!
“Jealous cowards try to control /Rise above! /We’re gonna rise above!”
Totally man, Black Flag! That’s pretty positive. Being adversarial can be positive when you’re focused on yourself. Like, this is holding me back, I need to get rid of this. Whatever it is: could be booze, smokes, a bad attitude.
One motif I noticed that keeps coming up in the album is dreams, like the type where people are asleep.
I can’t remember a dream in I don’t know how many years. It’s become a thing: why don’t I remember dreams? Everyone else has dreams. I seem to limited myself. I can’t see beyond what’s in front of me, I’ve been searching around for that, in a longing way. “There are red violins playing in my dreams” (lyrics from the song “Red Violins”). You know how people say that they are playing violins for themselves, that they have sympathy for themselves? That song is like a shill for sympathy.
There are songs where I’m marking myself, which is weird. Why am I so self-defeating? I don’t know. I don’t like me. Can I be you? Let’s change!
I’m doing pretty good right now.
Yeah, you seem happy!
How important are tracklisting to you?
Oh, very important. You can make or break a record that way. The whole band, we sit around and agonize over the track listing because we want it to feel — especially nowadays, because kids attention spans are really short — if you can get someone to listen to your record front to back, it’s almost like you have to make a point, start a discussion. And every song is a different point that should add up in the end. So track listing is a tough thing. If it doesn’t work right, I think it can really wreck a record.
Were there any tough decisions on the listing for this record?
Yeah, like we didn’t want too many weird songs next to each other, also how do we define that this is something different? If we opened with “Rolling and Tumblin” or “1,000 Years” I feel like people think it’s just more of the same.
Especially with the different-sounding songs, has there been any difference between playing them in the studio and playing them live?
In the studio, there were a lot of options available. You could take a guitar and run it into ten amps at the same time. We didn’t really worry about playing them live in the studio, we were going to figure it out later. We had to just try things out. We actually bought FX pedals, which I’ve never really messed with before. That’s for other people, I don’t understand. We had to be like, okay: is this song going to be on a click track or not? There’s a lot of harmonies on the record, which there hasn’t been in a while from our band. So the other guys had to learn to sing. I can’t sing four parts at the same, so they needed to, and they did! That takes a long time. Harmony is tough, man.
Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, you listen to those guys and you go, that’s real talent man. But, in some ways, what I learned from Social Distortion was: sometimes it’s not talent. Sometimes it’s just sitting there and doing it over and over and over again. I would watch those guys, and before every show Mike [Ness] would just sing every song, over and over again. And you’d be like, “Aaah, that’s how you do it!’ Sometimes it’s about putting the nose to the grindstone.
Get Hurt is out August 12. Pre-order the album now.