The Gaslight Anthem Signature Sound
Published Jun 26, 2010The Gaslight Anthem aren't carrying their past with them anymore. With two albums in successive years (their debut Sink or Swim in 2007 and the career-altering 2008 release The '59 Sound), the rock'n'roll punk-tinged quartet heard the comparisons countless times over. And they weren't pleading the Fifth. "What can I say, I love that guy," lead singer Brian Fallon says, speaking about Bruce Springsteen. "He had Elvis and Bob Dylan [to look up to] and we have him and Tom Waits."
Fallon admits the band hadn't quite "found their legs" on those first two releases and relied on their influences to dictate their sound. Consequently the Gaslight Anthem became synonymous with Springsteen for the past three years, an aural resemblance that only strengthened when the Boss himself joined the band on stage at the Glastonbury Festival in 2009. The association catapulted the Gaslight Anthem's success ― and was welcomed by the band who grew up on the music of their fellow New Jerseyite - but it held them like a vice grip, making it impossible to get past the obvious comparison.
Ironically, a moment of clarity came when watching interviews of Springsteen's early years. "There wasn't a single one that didn't mention Bob Dylan," Fallon says, with a hint of relief in his voice. "After a while he shook that off and became his own [person]. Everybody goes through it. I think we'll out live the comparisons [like he did]."
It may happen this month. With the release of American Slang they've moved beyond their introductory phase and are boldly displaying their growth spurt. They haven't ashamedly hidden their influences; rather, they've naturally begun the process of pushing themselves beyond the boundaries of looking to them as their only point of reference.
"Instead of trying to figure out how our influences would do a part, we wanted to figure out the part ourselves," guitarist Alex Rosamilia says. "We needed to find our voice. [This album] is a bigger than normal step for us."
There are still elements of Springsteen, the Clash and the Bouncing Souls, that stuff is hardcore on what we grew up on," chimes in Fallon, ensuring not to desecrate the foundation built by his musical forefathers. "But we wanted to discover other aspects of our writing."
Fallon's search began with a box of old blues records. He didn't want to find another style for the band to emulate, but he needed a starting point. He had run out of ideas after writing so many fast songs with the same beat. The blues reinvigorated his soul. "The white blues," he quickly clarifies. "We can't touch black blues. I'll never write anything as good as Muddy Waters. I didn't know that oppression and I can't write from that real perspective. So we moved on to things we could understand - the Stones, Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton and Derek and the Dominoes."
Fallon and Rosamilia had a minor epiphany listening to these records. Hearing the guitars pass riffs back and forth, almost singing to each other, immediately brought to mind "Old White Lincoln" from The '59 Sound. Fallon wondered if they could do that on all the songs - instead of just using big open country chords, as he called it, could they have "actual guitar parts to lead the melody?" It began a journey for both of them, rededicating themselves to their craft to improve their axe skills. "We just started getting better at playing and really learned our instruments - it was an exciting thing," Fallon remembers. "[Rosamilia] is like Ronnie Wood, who's a really good guitar player and I'm like Keith Richards... more of an interesting player."
These starting points aided the band in creating their strongest album to date. Built on contagious melodies, uplifting choruses and incredible swells at unexpected moments, American Slang goes into musical nooks and alleys that The '59 Sound merely hinted at. Even the magnitude of some of the songs surprised the band. Instead of reframing The '59 Sound, an album Fallon says he could have "written a hundred times over knowing it would be safe," they spent time to shape new layers and work in the elements they were hearing in their heads. Without hesitation both members point to the title track as the one that proved they were walking down the right path. "I didn't really like it when we were working on it," Rosamilia deadpans without a hint of sarcasm. "I was actually trying to change the melody in it because I didn't like my parts. But when I heard it, not having to play along, it sounded totally different and I was like, 'Alright, I don't hate that song anymore!'"
"We were really building it up and I was thinking, 'Woah, this is getting huge!'" Fallon says. "That was really exciting, seeing the songs grow like that. I've never heard our songs sound this big."
Along with a steady diet of blues, Fallon's desire for more background vocals was reignited as he spent more time listening to soul music. The majority of American Slang features secondary vocal lines that heighten and separate the Gaslight Anthem sound from previous records, and further display the band moving into new territory.
"Brian wanted a lot of background vocals in this record," Rosamilia says. "He's always wanted it, but Alex [Levine] and I haven't been good enough to really do it until now. We've played all these shows now, so I kind of figured out how to sing."
For Fallon, his desire didn't fall short because he thought Rosamilia and Levine couldn't hit the notes, it just took him time to understand the best way the band could beef up their material without encroaching on their peers' terrain.
I wanted to add more texture, but we didn't want to add organ or anything because we thought the Hold Steady and other bands have that rock'n'roll organ thing covered and they do it really well," Fallon explains. "I don't want to get in on that game. So I just looked at all the music I was listening to at the time - soul music and the Stones - and it had all these background vocal parts, so that's what made it [happen] in our record."
The addition, as rudimentary as it may seem and perhaps commonplace for many other bands, completely changes the Gaslight Anthem's demeanour. Fallon no longer has to fill in every vocal crevice, and the understated nuance gives the band more than their instruments to draw in listeners. It's part of the band's evolution toward finding what Fallon labels their "signature sound."
We haven't developed something I'd call a trademark yet." While he cites bands such as Social Distortion and Johnny Cash as influential artists who released similar sounding records, he doesn't bemoan their catalogue. "They have a signature and that's why they do it. They're not just regurgitating the same thing."
Rosamilia is slow to say that American Slang defines Gaslight. While pride emanates from his voice when he speaks about the new album, uncertainty has taken up permanent residence in his mind. There are areas of doubt that he battles with, but thankfully it comes from a yearning to stay humble.
"I grew up with the mindset always thinking it's never going to work," he explains. "So the album is the best that we can do, but I don't think my best is nearly good enough that it's worth respecting - that's my mentality behind it. It's good to be level headed, but I don't think this is the best way. I'm working on that."
Fallon's own humility stops him short of extolling the merits of American Slang, but he's still confident enough to say this is the beginning of Gaslight finding the signature that Social Distortion did on their third record. "When we did 'Bring It On,' 'Orphans' and even 'American Slang,' I knew that everything we're going to do for the rest of our career is somewhere in here," he explains, excited about prospects of their future. "It may not sound like [those songs], but it's going to feel like them."
Fallon writes with diary-like openness on American Slang. The album centres on themes of growing up, leaving adolescence behind and contemplating life's decisions that come attached with adulthood. It's a call to not idly wait for the American Dream to present itself (something that doesn't happen, thus making it "American Slang"), or hold on to the past, but to take advantage of life's opportunities. "People hold on to lost loves, dreams, and the people they thought they'd be like," he says. "There comes a point where you can't carry that anymore. You have to move on and write your own history."
It's a deeply personal story he shares throughout the record, something he's still getting used to. "I still look at [the lyrics] and cringe a little," he admits. "It's really personal, but what am I going to do? If I don't tell my story, no one's going to do it." However, he's not ready to reveal every name, date and location. "People have asked specific questions [about song meanings] and I just say, 'Well, I'm not going to tell you that!' You have to leave it a little open for people's interpretations."
While he doesn't want to spill his every thought about each song, he's eagerly waiting to hear the reaction from fans about the record - even if it worries him. "I'm always worried about how people will react. I'm still worried. Even if [American Slang] somehow ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame I would still wonder if it's legit or not. Unless you're an egomaniac you don't ever fully feel like you're legit."
It's a minor miracle he hasn't transformed into a self-centred, egomaniac. As frontman and songwriter of the band, the other three members are often treated as backing pieces to his solo music. It's a notion he gnashes his teeth at. "A lot of people put me on a pedestal and that's silly," he says. "You wouldn't be writing about Brian Fallon if is wasn't for Ben, Alex and Alex. People don't realize how much of a unit we are. They think it's just a guy with a guitar, but I don't do solo records - we're a band"
Despite his fears and worries, the ending gives him hope. "We Did It When We Were Young" is a sombre, gentle song that quietly brings American Slang to a powerful close. The first chord sustains and drones, giving way to Fallon's thought process - much like a scene in a horror movie that slows to a standstill until viewers can only hear the person's racing pulse. It's the ultimate song about letting something go that's been festering for your whole life.
"Why did that not work out? Why did I do this? You have these questions until one day you say, 'It happened for a reason. It's over,'" he says. "That song is like a funeral. I was having a funeral for something that was bothering me for a really long time."
He pauses for a moment, drinking in the depth on the song - almost reluctant to shed his honest thoughts about it, and by extension the album as a whole. "When I wrote some of the older stuff I was dreaming - you know, taking this girl, getting out of town... something that'll be awesome," he continues. "But then you get older and think maybe I don't want to get out of town. You realize what comes with some of these things [and] I don't want to lose touch with myself."
It's a thought that came to him during a mundane moment that he can't pinpoint on a calendar, but one that has helped deepen and mature the band. He pauses one last time before unloading what he almost feared admitting. "That song really pummelled me. You know what, I might be proud of that one."