A collection of more intimate but always accessible rock, acoustic and alt.country songs, Painkillers retains much of Gaslight Anthem’s passion, and deservedly hit the Top 20 in the UK and US. As he returns to the UK for an autumn tour, Fallon explains, amongst other thing, why Noel Gallagher has been such an influence.
So you’re about to fly over from New Jersey to do this solo UK tour. How are you preparing for it?
Well, I’ve actually been writing some songs just this morning, for my second album.
Tell us more! Are you feeling reflective or rocking?
You’ll have to wait and see! I’ve learnt over the years that whenever a musician talks about what they’re currently working on you have to take it with a slight pinch of salt. We’re a weird breed: we tend to get very excited about things in the moment, with little or no time of reflection. So if you say, ‘this song is really sounding like this right now,’ by the time you get to actually play it live it’s probably been through about six different versions and everyone goes, ‘what is he talking about, it doesn’t sound anything like that at all.” So it’s easier just to say ‘it’s going good’ – even when it’s going terrible!
But the follow-up is ‘going good’, right?
It genuinely is! I’m having fun making songs in my studio and I’m experimenting with doing a couple of versions of each, which I’ve never done before. So we’ll do it on the piano, and then maybe try the same song on the guitar. It’s weird, but pretty cool.
Talking of having no time for reflection, how do you look back on Painkillers now it’s been out for eight months?
It sits really well with me. I was happy with it when I walked out of the studio to be honest. I didn’t feel weird about any of it. I knew it was done and I was pretty excited about it, so there were no worries about songs needing more work or anything. It’s like that old David Bowie approach – once an album is done, you leave it and move on to the next thing. Playing it on tour this summer reaffirmed that people really liked it, which was good. I mean, I don’t think I was trying to break down any walls with Painkillers, I was trying to do what I do in the best possible way at that moment.
It must be slightly easier as a solo artist to make the decision that something is finished, though. In a band, there’s always someone wanting to fiddle with ‘their’ bit.
Yeah, for sure. Sometimes bands can fiddle too much. I don’t know whether Gaslight did that – in fact maybe we didn’t fiddle enough. Let me see… in the early days we fiddled exactly the right amount. Later on maybe we could have done some more fiddling!
So… Gaslight Anthem. How do you feel about that band now. Do you play Gaslight stuff live?
Usually, I play Painkillers. But every once in a while I’ll pull the Gaslight songs out. And that’s for no other reason than I feel like celebrating that this music exists too. I mean, I never got bummed on the music - when we decided to take a break it was nothing to do with the music. We didn’t fight. There was no Liam to my Noel Gallagher. The career got out of control, we were all checking into work, and we looked at each other and said ‘is anyone actually having fun?’ and no-one was. And that wasn’t why we got into this band, it was supposed to be about giving people and ourselves hope, not how many T-Shirts we were selling and how big the light show could get. So it was ‘let’s just stop, and go home.’
It sounds like you’ve all been pretty grown up about the hiatus. Would you go back to Gaslight again?
Yeah, there’s always the possibility. The rule is that it has to be fun again and be inspired. There needs to be an idea of what we’re going to do next. We first had an idea that we would write singer-songwriter songs as fast and loud as we could. Then on The 59 Sound it was about speeding up soul music. For right now, there’s not an idea, so we can’t do anything half-hearted – because our band is really all heart.
So you didn’t fancy taking a break yourself? Well, for maybe a month or two I was thinking, ‘I like cars, I’m a good carpenter, I can do construction work’. But then I had all this music that I never got to do in a punk rock band. The first thing I did was speak to the guys when we were still on tour and ask them if it would bum anyone out if I made a solo record. I wasn’t trying to be Mr Solo Guy. But they were all cool with it, in fact they’d been waiting for me to ask for some time. Worst case scenario was that I kept Gaslight in the public’s mind by simply being out there. Which was cool: getting the chance to start over has been great. I don’t feel like I burned out, but I definitely feel like I needed to restart or walk away. I did both!
As part of the restart, your solo stuff feels very direct both lyrically and musically… maybe that had been missing from some of the more recent Gaslight Anthem albums?
To be honest, some of that is to do with perception. I was always being very direct in Gaslight, but the loud guitars tend to muddy the message. It’s not just us, can you tell me what Dave Grohl is on about in your favourite Foo Fighters song? I bet you can’t - and that’s not because he’s not saying something important but because it’s tough to resonate when the music is flying by at a mile a minute and there are big loud riffs everywhere.
Like, I love AC/DC, but I have zero idea what TNT or Thunderstruck are about. No clue. He’s screaming the lyrics - and don’t get me wrong, I love that. So maybe Painkillers might seem more personal but actually it’s no more so than Gaslight, you can just hear it better!
You described the Painkillers recording process as couch songs on an acoustic guitar. Did it feel like you were getting back to basics?
Definitely. I’ve kept that idea too. That’s what I would do in the early days - I’d sit down with a guitar because there was no other option. When we were writing The 59 Sound, it was winter on tour. I was sitting in the back of the passenger van, on the last bench row, with my acoustic and notebook - and I had to finish the song before we played the show. Those were the days, you didn’t have a lot to hide behind so you’d just get on with it. The craziness of being in a big band can end up giving you too many options. It’s not so good, sometimes.
The album opens with A Wonderful Life, and it’s a great starting point, a kind of clarion call for your attitude both musically and lyrically.
You’re right. I do write sad songs sometimes, but my outlook on life isn’t sad. As well as Bruce Springsteen, I found a lot in common with Oasis’ songs. They’re guys from a working class upbringing like me, and there’s this misconception that the working class are downtrodden, disheartened about life. But that’s not true. They go to work, work hard, and then at the end of the day they want to go to the pub to watch the game. And that’s a celebration of life for me, of simple living. I’ve always related to that.
Oasis’s songs in their classic period were all about dreams, weren’t they. Your music expresses that too.
I just watched that Supersonic documentary – I’m a huge Noel Gallagher fan – and I’d never before realised how much in common we had. People call guys like us nostalgic, but that’s wrong. We’re not dreaming of a better time that’s in the past, but a better time in the future. And that might only be something simple like next Friday night, when you’re hitting the city with your mates. Often, that’s enough. Noel Gallagher once said that he wrote Live Forever after hearing Nirvana’s I Hate Myself And Want To Die. And I was like, ‘yeah man, me too’.
And look at Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. It’s about a town of losers, but he’s not going to be one. “We’re pulling out of here to win.” I totally get that.
So what’s it like touring as a solo artist, when it’s all on you to create that communal atmosphere of hopes and dreams?
Call me foolish, but I still believe in rock’n’roll. Right now, it’s not that cool. I get that, people like other music and we’ve moved on, which is fine. Why not. But I think that rock’n’roll can still make people feel like they’re being saved from something, even if it’s just for that hour the gig is happening. That’s my job. Maybe it’s the same if you’re a DJ, I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s not the instrument, it’s the sentiment - I’m not moved by someone showing off with endless guitar solos.
And you do love your British music, don’t you?
I love playing the UK, not least because my Dad is from Manchester. Just look at the bands. The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Clash, The Beatles… even the Springsteen concert that was this huge monumental thing for me was the one at Hammersmith Odeon. When I go to the UK, I can’t fail to be excited by all this stuff. We went to Salford Lads Club one time and I was like “Johnny Marr and Morrissey stood HERE”!
Brian Fallon plays at O2 Academy Leeds on November 19. www.facebook.com/thebrianfallon