BRIAN FALLON WRITES songs that make people remember why they loved rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. The Gaslight Anthem‘s singer-guitarist has the narrative skills of Bruce Springsteen and the throaty charisma of Joe Strummer, and it’s easy for listeners to emotionally connect with Fallon’s tales of lost loves, deceased friends and life’s losers in need of one small act of grace.
But Fallon has a hard time comprehending the impact of his music when fans tell him how much it means to them.
“You can’t grasp the weight of what someone else thinks about your work,” he said. “You hear it, and you understand it, but to actually receive it is something I can’t quite do yet. … Like with Joe Strummer, there’s no way anybody could feel about my stuff like I felt about that. And it’s not a false sense of humility. I would love to walk around feeling like that because it would help me feel better during the day,” he laughed.
Still, Fallon understands how music can make you feel not alone in the universe since he penned “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” — an ode to Strummer on The Gaslight Anthem‘s 2007 debut, “Sink or Swim” (XOXO Records) — that features the lyrics, “”I carried these songs like a comfort.”
The title “Sink or Swim” came from the feeling Fallows had about this being his last chance to make it and he tightened up his songwriting.
“Something changed inside my head where I just got incredible focus,” he said. “And I don’t really know whether that was by necessity or just growing up.”
The album was an underground sensation, and it led to The Gaslight Anthem‘s even more confident and remarkable 2008 album, “The ’59 Sound” (Side One Dummy), which frequently sounds like the roots-punk Americana of the Replacements with smidgens of “Just Like Heaven”-era Cure. But it’s still Fallon’s chronicles of loneliness, despair and darkness at the edge of town that gives The Gaslight Anthem its huge heart and soul.
Yet even with the success of “The ’59 Sound,” Fallon said he’ll never lose the sense of being an outsider whose one chance is about to be taken away.
“I don’t think that feeling’s going to go away anytime soon,” he said. “That’s a permanent fixture around my house — it’s like furniture.”
» EXPRESS: The first person you thank on both albums is Jesus, and you cover “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” on the benefit record “All Aboard! A Tribute to Johnny Cash.” How important is spirituality in your life?
» FALLON: My father was a deacon, and [the church] was a big deal to me and my family. … I’m old school, very matter of fact with that stuff. The other guys [in the band], not really; they have their own different thoughts about things. I’m alone in that ship. But it’s real serious to me. … I think that when I end up an old man I’m probably going to end up like Johnny Cash, writing songs about impending doom and stuff like that.
» EXPRESS: How did your interest in Christianity jibe with your rebellious punk-rock phase?
» FALLON: I don’t think I ever went through a rebellious phase. I never did the misguided rebellion; I never did things just to do things. I always felt like I had to have a reason.
» EXPRESS: It also feels like Christianity is more common in modern punk and metal, whereas in the ’70s and ’80s it was totally uncommon in those scenes.
» FALLON: It is and it’s not. There’s bands like your Underoaths and those kinds of bands — I don’t know those guys, and I don’t have anything to do with those guys, and I don’t subscribe to the same magazines as they do, if you know what I mean. I’m a different thing. I got this really old, matter-of-fact view on things. That’s a little harder to deal with. I have some staunch things that I think and I’m old enough to not really care what people think about that. And [I’ve] been tried and tested in ways that a lot of people can’t ever comprehend and won’t ever know. To me, I have a lot to prove to other people. So, sometimes in the punk-rock-community pool someone will start talking to me about philosophy and existentialism and stuff like that, and I just tell them matter of fact, “Look, man, you’re swimming around in a fishbowl. This is what’s up — and see you later.” And sometimes they don’t like that. It’s like their grandfather telling them how it is. But I don’t care; that’s what I believe. I’ll debate stuff with people all day long, but at the end of the day, this is what I know, so how you gonna tell me what I know isn’t true?
» EXPRESS: What do you see as the main differences between your approach to Christianity and someone like Underoath’s?
» FALLON: They deal with a lot of topical issues. That’s the kind of thing where I’d expect a kid to go, “How far in making out is too far when I’m in high school making out with a girl?” It’s like, come on, man; use your brain, just figure it out for yourself. That’s not the type of question you need to ask the guy from Underoath. We’re just dudes in a band — what do we know? I don’t want to say this in a bad way, but it’s more like the church camp kind of Christianity. Which is fine; a lot of kinds need that togetherness and the “Let’s all do this together.” Where I’m more the “I’m going to leave my house and talk to God for 40 days, without food, in the desert and we’ll see what happens.” That’s my kind of Christianity. And maybe those kids are the same way, and maybe they just do this communal thing when they’re not on their own.
» EXPRESS: Young people tend to want to look at someone who’s charismatic and in a band to help lead them; it’s pretty common.
» FALLON: You’re always looking for that, but the idea isn’t necessarily to find someone who’s human to lead you. I think suggestions are great, and you take pieces from all over the place. Because you’re talking about people, and you can pretty much count on that everyone’s flawed to some degree. So, if you can grab pieces from different things, that’s the best way to do it.
» EXPRESS: Finally, you’re opening for Bruce Springsteen in June. It’s great that he’s still following the music scene and tapping bands he inspired, like The Gaslight Anthem and Arcade Fire, to open for him.
» FALLON: Hes’ really into it, and his kid kind of helps him with that. But he’s definitely aware of what’ s going on. I think that’s cool, especially with how big he is; he could ignore the world and no one would be the wiser. He’s a very cool guy. Very down to earth, very regular.
Photo by Lisa Johnson