Ready to rock: Brian Fallon, second from left, and the band.
To some, Brian Fallon - the centre but certainly not the whole of Gaslight Anthem - is a New Jersey bloke who looks like he probably works construction and sees bands on a Friday night, so there’s something on while he downs another beer.
That he writes intensely passionate songs and sings them with even more intensity, in a band that has the push of the Clash and the earthiness of the Replacements, is one thing that surprises people. Another surprise for those folks is just how good Gaslight Anthem – Fallon, Alex Rosamilia, Alex Levine and Benny Horowitz – are.
A band with soul and power and yet a good portion of subtlety, lyrically and musically, they announced themselves in 2008 with the Springsteen-meets-Clash force of their second album, The 59 Sound. Then two albums later, with 2012’s Handwritten (which took some of its cues from another iconic band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), they finally forced their way into the mainstream while still sounding like they could play that Friday night bar.
This would be the point, then, when commercial sense would have you work that furrow a bit longer, extend the “Gaslight brand” with a repeat dose of Handwritten. But after two years (and one excellent solo project for Fallon), the coming album is striking out into new territory. Not wholly new, not abandoning everything, but expanding the palette with more grooves, more riffs, different instruments and a sense of adventure.
"We didn't want to lose ourselves when we changed," Fallon says. "A lot of bands say: we hate our old records or that's not us any more blah blah blah. I don't feel that way at all. I feel very passionate about all those records that we've done."
The “but” unspoken in that answer, comes in something he told Fairfax Media 18 months ago: "I think if you don't go out and challenge yourself, put yourself in awkward situations, you can forget really easily and ... you kind of check out and become Eric Clapton in the white suit.”
This new album is probably exactly what happens when they say that to themselves.
"A lot of people ask us: you had a lot of success on your last record, why would you change it now? And I was like: I don't think there's anything else to do,” he says. “Unless you're the Ramones and you invented a style, completely unique to yourselves, then you can’t not change forever.”
And the reason, at least in part, is who has come before them. “We are the Tom Petty and the Bruce Springsteen and the Bob Dylan kids, and also the Clash and the Replacements kids,” Fallon says. “When you look at those bands, they have always changed and we are the product of that environment. We had the sense that maybe now is the time because we had gotten to a place where we were comfortable and being comfortable is really a killer, like a shark in the water.”
They’ve avoided the shark with a surprising injection of the kind of swaggering riffs some classic rock bands would have enjoyed having and some classic punk bands would have enjoyed mocking.
"Some of it’s like [Led] Zeppelin, you know," he chuckles. "I'd never really listened to that kind of music before and I started to pick up other records like that and I noticed a lot of my favourite songs had riffs in them, even Nirvana. I was like, ‘we don't have any riffs, we need riffs’, so I was trying to write riffs inside of [what are] essentially folk songs.”
He pauses and then, with a big laugh, adds a final note for those who pigeonhole him or his band. “I would have probably used an orchestra if I didn't feel it was going too far. The next record I probably won't be so afraid to use it."