For a long time it felt like we may have heard all we were going to hear from The Gaslight Anthem. Releasing five albums in just seven years, the New Jersey four piece rewrote the rulebook on punk infused heartland rock. Few begrudged them their self-imposed hiatus in 2014, punctuated only by a handful of live dates and short tour in support of the anniversary of their seminal record ‘The ‘59 Sound.’ That’s not to say they haven’t been missed, and after close to ten years away, the news of their return was embraced by a fanbase whose lives had shifted as much as the bands in the intervening years.
“It feels good to be back,” beams frontman Brian Fallon over Zoom having just dropped his kids off at school. “I honestly don’t know what the press has said but the people who follow us online seem to really like it. And we really like it. So that feels good. We played a couple of shows in New Jersey for the release, and people seem to be reacting to the songs pretty well as far as I can tell.”
There is a fine line between giving fans long enough to miss you, and being forgotten. And with Fallon stating that the band wouldn’t be back until they had something they felt was worth sharing the timeline was open ended. But it’s a break that seems to have paid off.
“For us, it was a good thing, for sure. For some people it’s tricky because if you’re a singles artist, or you get very popular in the mainstream culture, taking a break can sometimes be the worst thing. Even if you’ve had a career for a while you have to stay current…people forget about artists because there’s so many new ones.”
Thankfully, the band’s fanbase is a patient one. “When you have more of a cult fan base, it can be a good thing to take a break,” explains Fallon. “Because I think sometimes because you give people a chance to rest and you sort of recharge your batteries a little bit.”
Their new record ‘History Books’, is a bold return. Instead of trying to reposition themselves for a new time, they have doubled down on what makes them so great; the biggest surprise being they have made one of their best records after being away for so long. It’s hard to imagine how they got here, and like most good things the factors behind its creation were pretty organic.
“One day I was sitting on the couch just sort of playing the guitar and the first little bit of ‘Positive Charge’ came out and I thought, “that sounds like a Gaslight Anthem song,” laughs Fallon. “I kind of got excited for a second, like, “oh, maybe we really could do this again.””
“It was something that I guess I had slowly been thinking about in my head and then it became reality once I heard something come out of my own fingers that sounded like it could be the Gaslight Anthem again, because it had been a long time since I had felt that.
“There’s such a specific feeling with the Gaslight Anthem that I’m not sure I’ve ever had in any other band. It’s this thing that you kind of can’t control.”
On ‘History Books’ Fallon faces mortality head on in a way he has never done so in the past. “We struggle for each other / And on and on and on and on it goes / We circle ’round the sun until someday we won’t,” he sings on opening track ‘Spider Bites,’ a massive sounding rock song that flicks the high-beams on the open highway. “(Our own mortality) is one of the things that we face the loudest,” he says. “Everything we do as we get older is basically realising that life doesn’t go on forever, but also that sort of makes it sweeter.”
And it’s true, there is a gilded optimism framing even the most painful moments in the record as the band touches in with their fanbase, like picking up the phone to an old friend after too long. “I almost feel like every record gets more personal,” Fallon muses. “I also feel it gets more common with the audience that we have, because I feel like a lot of us are running around the same age.”
While listeners to ‘History Books’ will be in no doubt that they are listening to The Gaslight Anthem, a number of seismic changes have taken place behind the scenes; changes for the good. “It’s been like a second chance” says Fallon, “and there’s so many things that we’ve done differently. We made choices by owning our own record label, and taking responsibility for our business and who we work with, and who we won’t work with.”
Even for the uninitiated, the music industry is viewed as an often toxic environment, never mind for those who have experienced its brutal nature first hand. “As a band, we definitely feel lucky to be where we are. But back in 2008 the music industry was very much like, “you shouldn’t complain about your mental health, because you’re lucky to be here, we’ll just replace you.” And I think now we would be like, Oh, really? Well you’re fired. Whereas before it was terrifying as a band to think that you could just be gone because you were exhausted.”
There’s certainly been a lot of talk in recent years of positive changes within the music industry, with a renewed focus on the wellbeing of artists, but does Fallon see evidence of those changes?
“I think it’s better than it was, but I don’t think we’re there yet. The one thing I would say to another band is there is always someone else. If you’re afraid of your label, or your manager, none of them matter. You can find another one. The people that you’re playing in front of and that support you are who matters. And now with the power of social media, you can really spearhead that by yourself. Which is awesome.”
While their new album still kicks ass when it needs to – see ‘Positive Change’ for a perfect example – there is also a palpable contentment to the group; a cohesive unity that translates into a focussed but highly resonant record. The band seem to be riding a wave of optimism, embracing the opportunities that once again lie ahead.
“I’ll tell you, I feel completely different right now than I used to,” says Fallon. “I used to dread tours. I didn’t hate the shows, but I hated the touring. And now I’m not excited to leave my family, but I’m definitely more excited to be on tour than I was before. There’s a much more positive outlook on it this time around.”
The Gaslight Anthem have always channeled the wild eyed, yet honey glazed opportunity of America. Their songs have a hard worn Hollywood glamour and evoke lives touched with a little more magic than our own. But it is a romanticised version of a country that differs greatly to reality.
“I think the mindset in our music and songs is much different than the America that we see just like looking out the window,” says Fallon, acknowledging that it is the dream-like Americana of his band that resonates with so many fans this side of the Atlantic.
“When we were kids, there was still that element of the American dream; anything is possible. You could see it in the TV shows that were around. Now it’s like: I don’t know about that.”
“But there are things that the kids have in their control that we didn’t have. They have a lot more access to be able to do their thing online with social media without really anyone else’s approval, which is sort of cool. And I think that will help them in the future.“
From their earliest days The Gaslight Anthem have been compared – often lazily – to fellow New Jersey legend Bruce Springsteen. It has been a hard tag to shake and no doubt tiring for a band who have long carved out their own unique niche. “The truth is really that I love Bruce and I’m very heavily influenced by him,” says Fallon. “But we’ve just grown as a band and sort of become this thing now. I don’t even know that we think about how we do it, we just take in everything that we love. And some of that stuff is what we grew up on like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Dinosaur Jr. and that grunge stuff.”
But when a call comes in from the Boss (as it did in the form of a request to write a song for him and the band to sing) you don’t say no. “I think we just kind of embraced it. And just owned all aspects of it,” says Fallon about the title track of the new album. “It is kind of funny that we finally got Bruce on the record, but it sounds like Bruce singing a Gaslight song instead of a Bruce Springsteen song. It all kind of brings it all full circle, how much we love him and how much we’re our own band at the same time.”
Their time away and renewed appreciation of the lives they have left has played no small part in allowing the band to worry less about perceptions. ‘History Books’ is both a guide book and letter of appreciation to their younger selves. “One of the things that I love and enjoy the most about getting older is you care so much less what people say,” explains Fallon towards the end of the call. “So you’re allowed to let your own influences come out. And you’re a little bit more confident about what you’re doing. When you’re young, it’s a lot harder to do that.”
‘History Books’ is out now.
Catch The Gaslight Anthem at the following shows:
18 Glasgow O2 Academy*
21 Sheffield O2 Academy*
22 Manchester O2 Apollo*
23 Wolverhampton Civic Hall*
25 London Roundhouse*
26 London Roundhouse*
29 Dublin 3Olympia*
*with Emily Wolfe
Words: Craig Howieson
Photo Credit: Casey McAllister