“But here I go, like a stone, baby, back out on my own”
Brian Fallon has a way with words. In fact, there’s a mutual respect – where Fallon thinks deeply about each lyric he writes and in turn, the words allow for malleable interpretations. When art is the outlet where you feel most comfortable expressing how you feel, you make sure every word, every stroke or every shading completey captures the emotion of what want to say. It’s a style that has been ever-present throughout Fallon’s work and one he continues to learn about.
2016 presented a new challenge and opportunity for Fallon as the Gaslight Anthem frontman took on another beginning with his first solo record, Painkillers. This path allowed Fallon to get deeper in his mind, ultimately resulting in one of the most lyrically-rich records of his career. There are some dominant lines within Painkillers; in addition to the aforementioned zinger from “Mojo Hand” you will find heavy hitters such as “Did I simply wear you down, with my nerves up so loud?”, or “Maybe someday they’re gonna love me back to life.”
Alternative Nation had the chance to speak with Fallon during a short break between tour runs, where we discussed everything from the stories behind some key tracks on Painkillers, the unknown future of Gaslight Anthem and the influence of almighty New Jersey.
One of the things it seems people gravitate towards with your music is the fact that you sincerely demonstrate how vital music is to you.
Yeah, I think so. I’ve definitely been at points where you have to do it for that reason. That being said, I’ve been at moments where I felt I would not be doing this right now if I didn’t really need to be.
You have a unique writing style where the songs are truly open to interpretation. Sometimes you can’t tell if the song is about you, someone you know, a story you are trying to tell, if it’s fictional or fantasy. Some probably fit into a few of those categories.
That’s an accurate assumption. I think if you write ‘I, I, I’ all the time, sometimes you lose yourself a little bit. You can lose your audience too. I try to see a broader perspective when I write songs; it’s not like I’m writing for my audience, but it’s almost as if I am writing to them. If there’s something that I feel is not something that they’ve experienced, meaning – if I’m writing a song and I think Well, that’s not something that anybody that I know what relate to – then sometimes I scrap that. It doesn’t mean anything to me if it doesn’t say something to people. I think that’s the whole point; it’s communication, and it’s not just me talking out to the world.
Is there a theme to Painkillers where music is both the drug and the remedy?
I didn’t necessarily have a theme. The reason I called it Painkillers was because I thought that’s what music does for people. I wanted to write 12 songs that felt like something you could put on, however you were feeling. I wanted it to be somewhat of a comforting record. It wasn’t a directional statement of any kind, it was more of it being a record that I would want in my collection. I feel that way about certain records – where the guy or the girl on the other end – that they understand what your basic life is. That’s what I wanted: just something you can put on and you think Well, that guy gets it.
Looking at the opening track, “Wonderful Life” which was also the first single – are you basically stating the current position you are in upon releasing your first solo record and then sharing what you went through to get there?
For sure. There’s a lot of endings and a lot of stuff before the record. There was a lot of me thinking OK, I am going from here. It was definitely one of those things where you are looking at the perspective and you’re saying Well, I find myself in this position, so now what? It’s difficult to start over for a second time. It’s hard enough to get it for the first time. If you ask anybody that’s in a band, the first time they get any kind of attention on their band, that’s a difficult thing to do and it doesn’t happen to a lot of people. To then try and do it again is more daunting.
When I first received the Painkillers record, it was a digital copy and it was out of sequence for some reason. The first song I heard was “Long Drives.” It was intriguing, because obviously the first thing I heard was the opening line to that song which is, “I built a room in the back of my mind for you.” That line grabbed me right away; I ended up having it in my head for the entire record. It almost made the whole thing make sense to me. That line is so strong that it made me think deeper about the other songs, coming at it from that perspective.
That’s pretty funny. That’s making me think about What if I had switched that? That would have been a good opener. I wrote “Long Drives” kind of isolated from the rest of the record. When I went back and rewrote that song, I started it as a statement the second time around. I had it during the first round and it was more of a confessional song. It had been around for many years, even before Handwritten. It was just sitting there and we couldn’t make anything of it in Gaslight, so I kept it aside because I thought it was too good to throw away. I couldn’t figure out why it doesn’t work in Gaslight. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but thought maybe in a couple years we would go back to it.
I ended up sharing it with Butch Walker, and he felt the verses didn’t really connect with the rest of the record. He suggested going back and trying something else with it. I agreed. I then rewrote it and it ended up being sort of a mission statement, focusing on starting from here and the long drives representing whatever the future is. It seems like it’s going to be a long haul. So that opening line, along with all the verses were brand new. It’s a lot to explain to somebody that you are going to do this solo thing and get them to recognize it as its own identity.
Another thing that jumps out at me with your writing style – and specifically this record – is how precise you are with the words you select. Do you make a valiant effort for there to be value to every single word in the song as opposed to any filler or rhymes? The song “Mojo Hand” made me think this. Specifically the line, “like a stone, back out on my own.”
That definitely is my writing style. I look far into the lyrics; they always reflect what is going on at the immediate moment. You really feel like that. You feel like you just get thrown out into the world and you think Alright, here I go. It literally was October and it literally was chilly. It’s exactly what was happening then – that was it. And that was the last song we had recorded for the record. It was the end and all the musicians had gone home. So, Butch and I did that song completely on our own. We played all the instruments ourselves, we just had to do it. I wrote it at the very end of the record and given the overall circumstance, I was feeling like OK, I guess this is what’s in front of me.
A lot of people have really taken to “Rosemary.” What do you find to be special about that song?
That song sums up the whole idea of the record. It’s also a rock song. I knew that it was similar to Gaslight, and I thought it was familiar and something people would recognize. But the lyrical content is extraordinarily sympathetic: it was written from someone else’s point of view and it was written as an understanding. It was based off a conversation with a friend of mine – where I was listening to what she was saying and sort of speaking from her point of view. I was almost giving her validation into the world because she is not a public figure. She’s not a musician or a writer and doesn’t get to throw that stuff out into the world. I felt like her story was something that needed to be said, so I gave it a voice of whatever I could. I felt like I was giving a voice to someone that didn’t have one; I also felt other people would feel like that song was theirs as well, so that was one of the first songs that was not for me. I can certainly relate to it, but it was for other people.
That’s really interesting. There are certainly a lot of doorways to allow that to happen.
You have to keep your head open and not only think about just what you think. You can get trapped in that if you are always writing from just your point of view and your own specific thoughts. Songwriting for me is a lot like an argument. I find as I get older, I’ve gotten better at arguments and the reason is because I’ve learned to listen to what the other person is saying and put myself in their shoes so I can see what I’m doing that’s causing any kind of distress to them. It’s a different way to come into songwriting, because it allows me to be sympathetic to the rest of the world. That’s a heavy thing.
How does being solo now allow you to be different as a songwriter as opposed to writing for a rock band?
When you’re by yourself, you can get more down to it – you can get to the heart of the matter. When you’re in a rock band, rock music is broad and it takes up a lot of space. When you are writing a rock song, I feel it has to speak to a wider idea. If you are talking about specific details in a rock song, that’s a tough thing to do. Even the biggest rock bands do these broad statements. Look at “We are the Champions” by Queen or “Baba O’Riley” by The Who – these are big, broad statements of a song and that’s because the music dictates that. I feel that when you are on your own, you can get real direct. You can say: This is just me; this is what happened to me; or this is what happened to someone else. You can lay all the details out. You have more time, too, because the songs are slower. You have more time to analyze what the lyrics are and they don’t just blow by you.
You mentioned Butch Walker. The response I usually hear from artists working with him reminds me of what I hear in regards to working with Brendan O’Brien: everybody seems to have the best experience and the greatest things to say about Butch and what he did for their music and their record. For you, what was it like working with Butch Walker on this record?
It was like that for me, too. Butch and Brendan are similar, and then they are completely different. They have this unique style of making things sound pretty big. Butch is a different kind of producer because he is less concerned about whether or not something is perfect. Brendan is a perfectionist – which is a strength of his – but also, there’s a strength to Butch’s approach that is more like just getting the feel for the song, and then its right even if it’s not technically right. Brendan is really heavy in his work – it’s a good heavy. And Butch is quick. He likes to keep the vibes up and keep everything moving. He gets his hands on everything, which is great. That’s a cool little thing there between both of them.
Like you, I’m from New Jersey. To me, New Jersey is a very strong place. There are a lot of people that have this heavy pride, blue collar, I’m-going-to-work-harder-than-everyone-else attitude that is completely natural. I recognize that in your approach. Would you agree?
I think so. It comes from being from a place that is like that. Detroit is like that, as is Boston. New Jersey just doesn’t have that instant recognition to someone that hasn’t been there before. The people tell the story of the place. I was born here, and it for sure influences what I do and who I am. I don’t necessarily hang onto it as much as some people do because you can get stuck if you don’t let other things in.
I notice it more now being on the outside, given I don’t live there anymore. I see people like Bruce Springsteen, Danny Clinch and other acquaintances I have and it makes me think about it. I often wonder what it is about New Jersey that has this unique influence on people?
I don’t know. It’s a struggle. It’s a love hate relationship, too. Bruce’s whole thing was leaving New Jersey. But he lives here and he loves it. I think there is a feeling that you do have to work hard because you are in the shadow of New York City. It’s always sort of looming, for you to feel crushed under its presence. You are always second fiddle to New York City and some people get really annoyed at that. It does provide a great bed for you to feel you have to work a little harder than the next guy who may live somewhere else with more opportunity. That just comes with the territory. I imagine if you lived in a suburb of Los Angeles you would always feel like Well, we are not Los Angeles.
You are now almost ¾ a year deep in your solo career. At this point, how is it different from being in a band?
It’s definitely a different thing because everything falls upon me. It’s a different dynamic; a rock band is more of a production. With this, I don’t have to follow any rules – I can decide tonight’s show will be acoustic if I want to. I can just decide at any moment what the vibe will be. For this very moment though in my life, I am having trouble with rock music. I’m not seeing the new thing. I’m not seeing anyone put their foot forward and release something interesting that’s their own thing. I’m sure there’s somebody out there doing that and I just haven’t come across it yet.
Does that make you want to keep playing solo as opposed to playing in a rock band?
Now it does. When the idea first came, it was basically out of having nothing to do. The band had decided to take a break and I thought OK, well, I’m kind of out of job right now. What am I going to do? I didn’t know what I was going to do for a while. Then I thought about how I always wanted to do this thing that was more into just songs, folk music and Americana music. That’s what I started out as doing. You can hear it on Gaslight’s first record, Sink or Swim. There are songs on there where you can see where I was coming from and the band was coming from a different place. I [think] now I have a different perspective and more miles under my belt to do it.
Is it a bridge for you from Get Hurt to Painkillers? Is it your personal next chapter?
I wouldn’t say so. When Get Hurt was over, I put that book on the shelf. The band was taking a break. That record and tour cycle was done. It was a lot, so I just put it away. I wiped the slate clean for Painkillers; I didn’t want to make any parallels. It was a conscious thing to do that and start from square one again. I’m going to ride that out because right now, there [are] no plans for Gaslight. It’s only been about a year and there’s nothing really different in that. That cooling off period will probably go until something changes or until something says to us OK that needs to be done. But for right now, I don’t know what that thing is. I don’t think any of us do.
You have a few shows coming up here in the U.S. then you’re heading over to Europe. Other than that, what’s next for you?
I’m probably going to start writing some new songs now. It’s that time again. I’m feeling that thing where I want to start working on some new songs. I have some things I want to try, and new things to say. I think it’s time to get moving on that.
Brian Fallon “Mojo Hand”
Brian Fallon “Rosemary”
See Brian Fallon on Tour:
edited by Dave Maxwell