Are The Gaslight Anthem the next Kings Of Leon?
6th Jun 2010 | 23:20
Brian Fallon talks American Slang
What does MusicRadar mean when we ask 'Are The Gaslight Anthem the next Kings Of Leon?' Do we mean the band is ditching their Jersey roar for a southern howl? Are they about to recuit their extended family? Are they letting their moms cut their hair while blindfolded? Have we discovered they're really sons of Pentecostal ministers? Did we recently come across a photo shoot they did with fashion models?
No, none of that. We mean that, just like the Followill boys, The Gaslight Anthem are about to capitalize on years of hard touring and release a new album, their third, that shows all the signs of breaking big. Really big. Kings Of Leon big.
And, like KOL, The Gaslight Anthem (singer and guitarist Brian Fallon, guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Adam Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz), whose sound is distinctly American, are being embraced with greater fervor in the UK than in their homeland. But all of that is about to change.
American Slang (due out 14 June, 15 June in the US) also bears certain similarities to Kings Of Leon's breakthrough smash Only By The Night. Unlike the group's first few releases, its sound is bigger, grander, more polished but not at the expense of authentic, earthy roots.
Songs such as Orphans, Stay Lucky, The Queen Of Lower Chelsea and the title track are slamming anthems all right, but they also display a bold leap lyrically for Fallon, who pens heart-on-his-sleeve sentiments with the kind of hard-fought wisdom of somebody twice his age.
MusicRadar sat down with Brian Fallon, an eloquent and effusive conversationalist, to discuss American Slang, guitars and gear, songwriting and demoing...and a certain New Jersey booster who goes by the name of Bruce.
Even though New Jersey has given the world one of the greatest rockers of the ages, the state still gets a bad rap. Why do you think that is?
"I don't know, but it's fascinating and perplexing. Maybe it's because Jersey is viewed as some sort of distant cousin to New York. For some reason, though, that doesn't spread to Connecticut, or even Long Island. New Jersey's always the butt of jokes. It makes no sense. Bruce Springsteen's from Jersey - and hey, don't forget Frank Sinatra, man. When he was alive, do you think anybody would've dared to make a Jersey joke in front of Frank? I'm sure that wasn't done at all."
Shifting from New Jersey to the UK, you've got some high-profile shows coming up there soon. You're going to play the Reading & Leeds Festivals, and you're opening for Pearl Jam in Hyde Park.
"Yeah, we've got some cool gigs there, for sure."
Why do you think you're being embraced so readily by the UK music scene when you haven't yet become massive in the States? Your scenario mirrors, to some extent, what happened with Kings Of Leon a few years ago.
"That's a good question. It's interesting, the whole UK-US thing. I think it all stems from the fact that they're as fascinated by us as we are of them. There's been that trade-off for years and years.
"Sure, Kings Of Leon broke big in England before the States. The same thing happened with Tom Petty. I was watching that documentary, Running Down A Dream, and it shows how the whole thing went down for them, how they were called a new wave band. But a lot of British groups get big here first, too. It's this mutual admiration society that's been going on for a long time."
It's no secret that Bruce Springsteen is a big admirer of your band. You got to play with him a couple of times last year - in England, no less. What was that like for you?
"The whole thing is so surreal and…I feel like I don't know what to say about it. For me, it's such a big thing and it's really hard to reflect on it carefully. I don't want to dumb it down or make it seem like it wasn't a big deal, because it was. It was really big! To have a guy like Bruce give you and your band the stamp of approval, it's super-gratifying. It's almost like a pushing point, or a starting point, like, 'Oh, OK. Now I'm graduating and leaving my parents' house.' It's something to live up to."
Growing up in Jersey, was Bruce a benchmark of sorts? Did you have the attitude of "Hey, Bruce did it, so I can to it, too"?
"I did, sure. But then there were guys like Joe Strummer who gave me that same feeling of confidence. I look up to anybody who has that 'get in a van' spirit."
Let's talk about your songwriting. For someone so young, you articulate feelings of loss and regret with the kind of hindsight that one would expect from somebody much older. On songs like Orphans and The Queen Of Lower Chelsea, you write way behind your years.
"All of that stuff I draw from my own life. Loss is the first thing I knew. I was born into loss. My mother had me and raised me. So I didn't have two parents like all the other kids in my neighborhood. I remember going, 'Wait, Johnny down the street has a mom and a dad - where's my dad?' And then you go to school and you feel like you don't fit in. That kind of stuff puts a real indelible stamp on a child.
"Thankfully, my mom remarried, and my stepfather was very cool. He pretty much taught me everything I know about surviving in this world. But we moved around a lot because of their jobs, so I wound up going to all these different schools. Again, I never felt like I belonged; I was always the new kid.
"Losing people was a way of life for me. Any time somebody came into my life, I had to view them as temporary because I knew that I was probably going to be yanked away from them soon. It plays with your head. Most kids were looking to the future and thinking about what they were going to gain, whereas I looked ahead and all I could think was, What am I going to lose next?"
I would imagine you write lyrics before the music.
"Sometimes, but not always. A lot of times I'll write down a title and then I'll try to write something that lives up to that title."
Do you tend to write finished songs or do you present fragments of ideas to the band? Also, how do you make your demos?
"For demos, I'll sit at home and work with GarageBand. I'll get a click track going and play over it till it feels like something. If I think it's good, I'll try to finish it as much as I can before I show it to the band. And then, of course, the song takes on a life of its own once they get their hands on it. They change it around and add ideas. It's pretty cool to see the songs go from point A to Z."
How big a part does your guitar player, Alex, have in shaping the songs?
"A huge part. He's the one who creates the scenery and the mood. When I show the guys a song, it's pretty basic, it's just me strumming the chords and singing my words. Alex take the raw materials and he knows what how to build the house, you know? Not only that, but he know what color it should be. [laughs] A lot of times, we don't even have to talk about it. He just listens to what I have or reads the words and he instinctively knows what to do."
You seem to be doing this less on American Slang, but on your past albums you referenced a lot of movies and books - songs like Great Expectations and Here's Looking At You, Kid. Are you consciously getting away from such literary influences?
"I think so. On those albums, I was very much looking to what people before me had done. Whenever I saw interviews with people like Dylan or Springsteen, they talked a lot about their influences quite a bit, and it seemed very important for them to reference them in a way that seemed to make them became part of a tradition.
"This is the first record where I didn't intentionally reference anybody. But I would never disown my influences or the artists who helped shape me. I want people to know where I come from. I want people to know my heritage and musical lineage."
Let's talk about the guitars and gear that you and Alex use. I've seen you guys play Teles and Jazzmasters in the past, but it seems as though you're both Gibson guys now.
Brian Fallon with his Gibson Les Paul Heritage Series Standard 80. Image: © Robb D. Cohen/Retna Ltd./Corbis
"Actually, my first real guitar was a Les Paul Standard, and I got back into playing a Les Paul because Alex and I both discovered these big ol' monsters of the blues. I'm not talking first-generation blues, but the second generation. All you have to do is listen to the John Mayall Bluesbreakers record, the one with Eric Clapton, and you'll know what I mean. That album is the cornerstone for so many people to start with.
"I would never pretend that I could do the same things as Muddy Waters. What he did came from a true sense of poverty and racism and loneliness and civil rights - things we could never understand. I feel like what he did is sacred and you can't touch it. But Eric Clapton or Peter Green in the Bluesbreakers, or the Fleetwood Mac that Peter Green played in, or guys like Mike Bloomfield - that's the era that we start from, and we can soak up those second or third-generation guys real well."
Players like Clapton and Peter Green really made their guitars sing.
"Yeah! That's exactly it. In their hands, the guitar wasn't just for accompaniment, it was more like a violin. The moment Clapton plugged a Les Paul into a treble booster and made it feed back on All Your Love…you never heard that before. Even though there's been so many advances in technology, that's still the best, truest guitar sound I've ever heard."
What kinds of Les Pauls are you and Alex using these days?
"I use one of the new reissues, a '56 Les Paul Goldtop VOS, and it's incredible. It has P90s that are wound from these old, aged magnets that I get from a company in New Jersey called Luther Lee Pickups. They'll make you anything you want. There's this guy there who re-creates magnets and makes them just as they were back in the day. Sometimes he'll take pickups that are shorted out and he'll rewire them and sell them to you. They really help you to get that true vintage sound.
"I also use have a 1981 Heritage Series Standard 80, which is like the first attempt that Gibson made of a '59 Les Paul reissue. That's my main guitar. I use it all the time.
"In addition to the pickups modifications, the other thing I changed on the Les Pauls is I switched the volume controls so that the bridge pickup is on top. I've got a real thing about Roy Buchanan and I love to get those volume swells of his."
Now, Alex is playing a 1990s Les Paul Custom, right?
"Yeah, he's got one of the black three-pickup models - it's like one of the Black Beauties that Jimmy Page would play. He also plays a 1968 ES-355 Custom that sounds incredible. It's a hollow-body electric and it's the coolest-looking cherry red color - real sweet."
"I would never pretend that I could do the same things as Muddy Waters. What he did came from a true sense of poverty and racism and loneliness and civil rights - things we could never understand" Brian Fallon on the band's blues influences
Oftentimes, two guitarists don't want to play the same kind of guitar because their tones will be too similar. How do you and Alex work out your sound?
"A lot of it is because we use different pickups. And Alex uses a lot of different delays and amps. For amps, he uses Voxes, Oranges and he has an old Marshall 800; he combines them and creates this intense Johnny Marr-type wall of sound.
"I'm all about the Les Paul, a treble booster and my Dr Z Remedy amp. Dr. Z amps are amazing. They have the texture and the super-cool distortion of those old amps, but they have a bit of a different vibe, too - they're not just somebody's attempt at copying the classic sound."
How fast did it take you to record this album?
"I'd say about five weeks, all in. But we spent a lot of time in pre-production. We pushed ourselves to the limit in the practice room before we hit the studio, which was very important. While practicing the songs, we learned that they were going to need a lot of layering to get that 'bigness' we wanted. Discovering what the songs needed was a bit of a painful process, but very necessary."
There's so many people in bands out there who would love to be in your position right now. What kind of advice would you be able to offer them?
"The main thing is, you've got to remember, with anything that is based on talent, that a certain amount of divine intervention comes into play, so you have to allow for that. But as far as what you can do yourself, it's very simple: Get in the van! Henry Rollins said it, and it's so true.
"You've got to get out there, you've got to get heard. You can't wait for people to come to you, 'cause they won't. Go get it. And if it doesn't come, go get it harder. So many people quit too early; they figure it's too hard. Well, of course it's hard! It's supposed to be hard. But the struggle is the beauty in the end. If people say you're no good, screw 'em. Anybody who's great has been told they were no good, so it doesn't matter.
"That's my advice. Get going, keep playing, don't stop. The minute you stop…everything stops."