BRIAN FALLON DIDN’T need a hardscrabble childhood or harrowing stories to prepare him for the role of heading New Jersey’s thinky punkers the Gaslight Anthem — the band whose 2009 involved selling out clubs, packing festivals and sharing the stage with their own fairy godfather, Bruce Springsteen — but the 29-year-old singer has channeled years of hard work and the support of family and friends into a class-transcending lyrical voice and the backbone of the group’s third album, slated to be released on June 15.
“We’re calling the record ‘American Slang‘; that’s the best description of us,” said Fallon.
“It’s kind of like this offhanded backstory that no one gets to see. It’s not popular stories — we came from regular things, not extremely bad, not extremely good. … None of us were, like, really, really broke. I never feel like any of us had it worse than anyone else.”
Fallon’s parents split before he was born. While his grandmother hovered, he was raised by his mother, Deborah — a former folk singer-turned-hospital publicist who greeted the first of Fallon’s elaborate tattoos with, “At least you’re not on drugs” — and his stepfather, Gary, a Nestle factory worker.
The two pushed Brian toward an instrument and, after a teacher showed Brian how to play Guns N’ Roses‘, “Used to Love Her,” the 11-year-old was hooked.
“I was like, “Ohhhh,'” said Fallon, laughing. “I wanted to learn the chords of how the song was played, and then I would try to write these songs that were about things that I knew absolutely nothing.”
Ever the good boy, after graduating from high school with “upper side of average” grades, Fallon’s plans, to forego college and join a band, found support from his stepfather.
“He’s been there the whole time,” said Fallon. “He’s just that kind of guy, a real blue-collar guy, and it’s unusual for a guy like that to support an artistic type of thing. Right off the bat, he was like, ‘You don’t want to do what I do; you should pursue this, and, in the worst case, if you fail, the factory is waiting for you.'”
And the Jersey family followed suit.
“When you’re a musician, a lot of time people help you out; they take pity on you,” said Fallon. “Family members will kind of come around and are like, “Listen, I bought you a bunch of groceries because I know that you’re a screwup.”
Still, success didn’t come easy for Fallon, or for any of the members of Gaslight Anthem, who spent their time playing shows with different bands and working odd jobs.
“Nothing really panned out,” said Fallon. “When you start getting into 25, you’re like, “Aw, I haven’t really done anything with this.” … Finally, we were like, “You know, you’re like the only guys in town we haven’t done a band with; maybe we should start a new band.”
The Gaslight Anthem expressed its last-ditch, all-in sense of desperation in its debut album title, but 2007’s “Sink or Swim” quickly won over European and American ears.
And the success wasn’t taken lightly.
“It makes it more focused and sensible,” said Fallon. “Most of us are married or have longtime girlfriends, and we have our own places. We’re not interested in the party; we’re doing it because we love it, and we’re doing it to prove a point. We have something to say here.”
Fallon and the Clash-loving quartet earned high praise for 2008’s “59 Sound,” mixing Americana-rooted stories — deathbeds and a girl named Maria, old cars and white T-shirts — with hard-driving hooks and fist-pumping choruses. They’re familiar images, borrowed from the libraries of classic songwriters and universally translatable.
Or, this is how the Gaslight Anthem used to sound.
“I’ve kind of abandoned all of that,” said Fallon. “There are no names and none of the old stuff. I feel like I’ve said a lot of what I had to say about that old stuff. I’m moving on. … [‘American Slang’] is a hyper-literal album. These stories are coming out of my life and the reflections on the things I’ve gotten as I’ve gotten older. It’s more autobiographical, definitely more direct. Not so shrouded in mystery. I’m not trying to confuse anyone with a trail of images on this one.”
“I think I have a better focus on what to say to people. Now, I have a reason to tell people things, instead of crying on someone’s shoulder. I just kind of got ahead on it [life], and I know where it’s going.”
» Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW; Sat. Jan. 16, 9 p.m., $15, 800-551-7328. (U St.-Cardozo)
Written by Express’ Nathan Martin
Photo courtesy Ryan Russell