Headed to town in support of his debut, full length solo album Painkillers, I spoke with Brian Fallon about forging a new identity recording as a solo artist outside of his band The Gaslight Anthem, the folk roots that influenced his new songs, and the role of folk music in 2016 when it comes to social commentary…
Q. Does writing and recording in the solo setting take pressure off of you by allowing you to try new things or does it put pressure on by virtue of the fact that you’re solely responsible for wherever this goes and making the decisions that get it there?
Brian Fallon: It takes a lot of the pressure off.
I learned something from watching Ryan Adams & The Cardinals play. That guy would let all of the other musicians solo and do all of these cool things. And all it did was make him look better. I was like, “Ha! You get yourself with good people and let them play, it makes you look better! You can let it go so it’s all good, just let people play.”
It’s been fun though. All the people in the band are my friends. We’ve known each other for years so there’s no hired guns. It’s just everybody moving toward the same direction.
Q. Obviously, the first people to approach your new record are Gaslight Anthem fans. How hard has it been to try and create a new identity as a solo artist given the expectations that fans can tend to have?
BF: I thought that it was going to be harder. We have some great fans. They really understood what we were doing.
They understood that I’m not here to play Gaslight Anthem songs because it’s not fair. Those other guys – it’s important to me. That unity between the four of us very is important to me. It’s almost sacred. I would feel bad if I was going up every night playing “The ’59 Sound.” I’m sure the fans would be happy but I just can’t do it without the other guys. I feel it’s rude. I don’t feel right about it.
So I’m not doing it to be stingy and be like, “Listen to my stuff!” I’m doing it to be respectful to my band. And no matter what anybody says, I have to abide by what I feel is the truth. I’ve got to have some moral ground. It’s the punk ethic, you know what I mean?
Q. Was it freeing to write a record where you weren’t concerned necessarily about how the songs would fit within the parameters of a band? Because some of these songs, that make up Painkillers, were songs that you had that didn’t fit Gaslight Anthem and now that’s not a concern.
BF: With a band you have an idea in your head and then you give it to the band and it becomes something different.
With this, I almost got to see through the idea all the way through. So from start to finish you would start the picture and, at the end, the painting was what you saw in your head. And that was kind of cool.
It’s cool the other way too because sometimes those guys take it to places I’ve never heard and it’s all good.
Q. Butch Walker not only produced your new album but played some guitar on it as well. You also wrote a track with Dan Wilson (“Steve McQueen”). Both of those guys have moved now from more rock leaning bands in the 90s to production in the pop world. That said, they’re also both very much songwriters. What was it like working with guys who have a pop sensibility like that on songs that very much grew out of the folk world and solo acoustic roots?
BF: The thing is, we were meeting right in the middle.
The whole idea through this record, Painkillers, was, “Ok, not song wise, but sonically, let’s make it sound like the Tom Petty record Full Moon Fever. Or the Traveling Wilburys. Let’s do the harmonies, let’s do the acoustics, the twelve string [guitars]. Let’s get the record to sound like that – but the songs don’t have to sound like that. So I wasn’t trying to write Tom Petty songs, I was just trying to get it, sonically, to sound like that.
The thing about [Full Moon Fever] is that’s when he hired Jeff Lynne and he started writing songs with other people for the first time in his career. So I took that to heart and I said, “You know what, I’ve never written songs with other people. Let me try this out.” So I took Dan who I trust and I took Butch who I trust and we met right in the middle where it’s on the pop side of the fence but it’s also on the singer songwriter side of the fence.
I’m sure that now that I’ve done that, the next record will be much more in the singer songwriter vein and more pretty and sort of indie. “Indie” is a bad word – I’d say folk. Like folky, rough.
But I wanted to try that for this record and I wanted to make this the thing so I just went for it. And we had no butting heads on anything. We were really on the same page.
Q. Well you just mentioned Petty and I’ve heard you say that part of your warming to the idea of a solo album in the first place involved thinking about other artists who had tried it without doing themselves a disservice. Tom Petty obviously managed that but who are some of the other artists you feel like accomplished that particularly well?
BF: I think Ryan Adams did it great. He was in Whiskeytown. Jason Isbell did it. Isbell is a great example. He was in Drive by Truckers and then his own thing.There’s other guys. Noel Gallagher did it. A lot of people did it really well.
Peter Gabriel! He was in Genesis and then busted out. And he came up with some of the most interesting stuff I’ve ever heard from anyone. It just shows that sometimes people have some ideas outside the box (which is not to say that people don’t have ideas inside the box).
Joe Strummer! The Clash and then the Mescaleros. Streetcore? I mean, killer records.
Q. The critical reception to [the 2014 Gaslight Anthem album] Get Hurt was what it was and I’ve heard you say that stung a bit. But you really took some chances on Painkillers and this time that reception went the other way and it’s been praised. Do you feel like the combination of both of those experiences made you a better songwriter or a stronger artist?
BF: It definitely taught me some things.
I say things about Get Hurt but I don’t mean that I feel this way. I feel that that’s the way other people felt in the press. I don’t agree with them. I still think that Get Hurt – I think some of the stuff is good on there. I think some of the stuff is awesome actually.
But some of the critics didn’t get it – like Pitchfork didn’t get it – and they didn’t like me and they went after me for it. But they went real personal with it. They kind of slammed me as a dude. I was like, “You’ve never met me so how are you going to make assumptions about what my intentions are? That’s a little bit ridiculous.”
So what it taught me is to absolutely not regard whatever anyone else says about your intentions and what you’re doing. And it taught me to be stronger. I don’t look at them with any sort of malice or hatred, I look at them almost in gratitude and say, “You know what? You spawned me to be a better writer. Thank you very much.”
Q. Has this touring experience, especially with [Gaslight Anthem guitarist] Alex Rosamilia in your band, given you guys the opportunity, during the Gaslight hiatus, to look at that band experience differently having been away from it for a bit? Have you guys talked about that at all?
BF: Sure. We talk about it from time to time. But it’s more one of those situations where it’s [only] been like a year. It’s not been that long.
For us, it wasn’t really like a sour thing – it was more like, we just don’t have any new ideas. So when we come up with new ideas, then [Gaslight Anthem is] back on the table. But, for now, we’re just kind of cruising along with this and seeing what happens. But it’s definitely something that comes up a lot. We talk about it all the time. And we talk fondly of it.
The one thing that I know, that I can parallel, is that it happened so fast. We released our second record and boom we were on stage with Bruce Springsteen. Like, what? That’s insane. That doesn’t happen to people. They get time to develop and time to find their footing. We didn’t have a lot of time to find our footing.
So, actually, this time, we’re sort of going through a lot of the same things and appreciating what we missed the last time. Because it’s a slower thing and less pressure. So it’s been nice.
I’ve been taking it as a nice little like… I don’t know, like I got a redo on life. I felt like, “Oh, thank God. I’m getting to check everything out. I’m walking around listening to the sound of the guitars, looking at the audience being like, ‘This is alright. This is cool.’”
Q. There’s a lengthy lead up to this question. I promise I’m going somewhere with it. There’s a lot on this record that draws from folk music. Your mother sang folk and taught you about that tradition. You’ve never tried to hide the influence that Bob Dylan or Springsteen have had on you. To me, one of the most important things about folk music, historically, is the way that it’s never been afraid to speak up in a song and make a point politically or push forth a stinging social commentary (regardless of what kind of career consequences it may have had). I feel like maybe we need that now more than ever… but I’m not necessarily sure we’re seeing it…
BF: I’m kind of agreeing with you. And you know what’s funny enough? I just cracked the spine on my journal. So I’ve got some fire to spit at people. I’m ready.
Q. Well, that’s where I was going with that: As someone who is so well versed in the folk tradition, do you feel that’s still an important role for folk music to play or music in general to play?
BF: 100%. I think that’s it not happening anymore and I think that Saint Joe Strummer would be bummed.
So I think that you can still write about the natural topics of life: the love and the loss and the work and the raising children and divorce and that maybe people struggle with things. But I also think that there’s a responsibility for a social commentary on the landscape.
And I think that’s something that I’ve found in folk music. In the original songs… When people talk about Bob Dylan, they talk a lot about the hits. But when I talk about Bob Dylan, I talk about “No More Auction Block” – talking about the slavery and talking about “Hurricane.” Talking about that kind of thing. And I think there’s a lack of that.
I would give a lot of credit to Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos for keeping that method alive. I think even Sharon Van Etten. I think that bands like Tegan and Sara, even though they’re not a folk band, they’re carrying that tradition and carrying that torch and I’m proud of them for doing that. I think Against Me! is a big one. I think a lot of these bands that are out there pushing the envelope, even bands that’s no one’s ever heard of… Like Dillinger Four. I don’t know if people have heard of them. But they’re a great band that’s pushing that envelope. And I think they’re important to have.
But I also have found an interest, recently, in that kind of thing. And I’m wondering if there’s gonna be some political songs on my next record? I’m not gonna do a whole political record because I’m not into that. I’m more of like a social commentary of the heart, a la Pink Floyd. They never wrote like, “F the government.” They wrote, “Not now John, we’ve got to get on with this.” Or like, “Mother.” The beautiful thing about Pink Floyd is they took political topics and made it hit home. They related it to the person that was suffering.
I don’t see any need for me to write a hateful song against Donald Trump because there’s no point. He will never receive it and it will never change anything. But what will change something is if I write a song about the guy who lost his job because of some referendum or some guy who went to jail because they couldn’t find an extra judge or whatever. You know what I mean? These things are where my heart lies.
To tell you the truth, I know people always compare me to Springsteen and sometimes I hate it (but I do love Bruce). I’m not Bruce. And I don’t write Bruce’s songs. But what I am inspired by, he had that record The Ghost of Tom Joad. And that record was all about the Mexican immigrants that came over and they were getting shot at a border trying to get away from some kind of lunacy. They were trying to find freedom and build a life for themselves.
The point I’m trying to make is that this is the country where people used to say, with open arms, “Give me your poor, your tired.” That’s what it says on the Statue of Liberty! I see that lady every day. And that makes me mad. So I think that maybe I will write some songs about it.
I understand the country and the politics – but it’s people over politics. And if you don’t understand that than it’s a lost cause.
Q. I think you’re in an interesting position by virtue of the fact that you attract a bit younger fan base and can maybe expose fans to something they haven’t heard. You offered a lot of contemporary examples but, knowing the folk tradition the way you do, who are some artists you’d suggest people get better acquainted with?
BF: I would look at… There’s a lot. I prefer the contemporaries now because I believe that, though what Woody Guthrie said is still true, it’s an old truth. It’s a truth that’s a fundamental truth and a foundational truth but there are current truths that need to be addressed.
I think start there and start with those old hymns, those old spiritual songs that a lot of these guys, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, were covering. Find those original songs. Go read about Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters talking about the legit stuff. Robert Johnson. Some of those things that they were struggling with… You find Odetta singing about that stuff.
Just go google Bob Dylan’s influences and then go buy all those records.
– Jim Ryan ( @RadioJimRyan )
(Details on Tuesday’s Brian Fallon & The Crowes concert at Park West below)
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Brian Fallon & The Crowes
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
*** This concert has been moved from the Riviera Theatre.
Tickets purchased for The Riv will be honored ***
Doors open at 6:30PM
Show starts at 7:30PM
Must be 18 or older to attend
Also performing: Ryan Bingham, Paul Cauthen
Click HERE to purchase tickets