Brian Fallon, The Gaslight Anthem

The next time you come across a song by The Gaslight Anthem, see it.  And I don't mean watch it on YouTube.  When it hits your ears, don't just listen to it.  See it.   Because I have a feeling that's what Brian Fallon wants. He may be a songwriter, but he talks like a poet.  He says that "imagery is more important than content" in his songs.  Most all of his songs start with scenery, and his job as the songwriter is to describe what it looks like, to get you the listener to see the imagery that Fallon conveys with his words.  It's no surprise he writes this way, once you know his favorite poet: Dylan Thomas.  As you'll read, Fallon used lines from a Dylan Thomas short story to describe his new side project Horrible Crowes.

I'm assuming that the whole Gaslight Anthem thing will work out for Brian Fallon.  He writes great songs and they put on a great live show. But there's a part of me that thinks he'd make one hell of a poet. Sure, this inteview is long.  I even trimmed some.  But every introspective answer is a window into a fascinating creative process.  

Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?

When I was a kid I wanted to be an artist, to the point of choosing a college based on its graphic arts program. I was always interested in visual arts and never really thought about songwriting.  Later, when I was about 15 or 16, I discovered that there was something to songwriting.

Why are so many songwriters also interested in the visual arts?

I'm not really sure.  I've thought about it before, like why don't I still do it? I completely abandoned it.  I never even think about it now.  Now the visual artist part of me has moved to cars.  I'm interested in restoring old cars, getting into paint colors, that kind of stuff.  And I just recently started doing that.  People talk about their muse, it's almost like my muse has led me to something else.

And I find that songwriters who have been interested in the visual arts think about songwriting in a visual sense, often beginning the songwriting process with a single image. 

That's very true with me.  Usually, I start to see the scenery in my head.  What I am going to talk about in a song is less important than where it takes place, because I'm not really sure what a song is going to be about, whether it's about a relationship or something like that, when I first start to write it.  I get a visual of a character and the scenery they inhabit. It's like I am seeing a place, then filling in the details.  Kind of like a detective: why is this guy there, why does he look like this, what happened to him?  And a lot of the time that person is me. 

You said that you start with that image, but you don't really know what it's about.  When does the meaning become clear to you?

Usually I have that image, start the detective work, and then get a title.  I actually have a book of titles, if I can't figure out exactly what the image is about or if it leads to a dead end or if I can't work on it that day.  I'll just write the title down and keep it. 

Then once I start to figure a song out piece by piece, the title tells me where I'm going with it.  But when I write a title, I try to not be so obvious.  The title of the song usually is a play on the words.  Often by the first chorus, I'll have come up with all these lines that lead to the turnaround line, and then I'm like, "That's what the song is about.  That's the catchphrase I was looking for.  There's the twist." It's a single line that wraps it up. I think about that Dylan song "My Back Pages." He's saying all these crazy things and turns everything around with "Ah, but I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now."  That's the epitome of imagery in songs, which is what I like to write about.  I'd like to think that imagery is more important than content for me. 

Sounds like you are a very deliberate songwriter.  Do you actively seek inspiration or sit down with an idea in mind?

I wish I could do that, in the worst way.  I wish I could sit around and let inspiration come to me.  It's probably because of my father that I don't do that.  He would always say, "You get up, you go out and find that job. You find that thing you are looking for."  It's the work ethic of getting up early and taking care of your family. That is my nature.  Then I've got the artistic and whimsical side from my mother: "I can't keep a schedule, I'm gonna write a song today."

That's made my work ethic into this strange way of doing things.  I hunt down inspiration.  I have a friend in another band--I don't want to say his name--who dabbles in extracurricular musical activities to heighten the mind, shall we say.  I'm known to most of my friends as the straight guy who doesn't really drink, who just sits with his coffee and cigarettes.  He told me one thing he likes about my writing when he said, "You're very clear of thought in your songwriting.  It seems like you are writing from a very clear place."

Do you make daily writing a part of your routine?

No, that's where I split the balance between being whimsical and being disciplined.  I can't do it every day.  I like to write in bulk.  I'll write five or ten songs in a month, then take a month off.  At the end of that month, I start to feel like I need something to come out.  I feel like it's going to happen, so I do things to inspire myself. I used to just pick up the guitar and that would be it.  And if I picked up the guitar and nothing came and I couldn't think of any words, I was out of luck. But now I've started to work with things like Garage Band, and I'm doing things like finding all these soul loops and cutting them out. 

I learned how to play the piano and the organ and was like, "Wait a second, I can inspire myself through drum beats, or really anything." I used to have random scattered papers with ideas all over the place.  Now I also have these little mp3 files  that are 30 seconds long and full of craziness.  I can go back to them at anytime when I feel something happening, so I peel through them and flesh out the ones I like.

That's probably also a good way to prevent writer's block.

That's why I started doing it.  I had a really bad case of writer's block a year ago.  It was really hard because I never had nothing to write about.  I decided that was never going to happen again, so anything I thought about, any idea, I'd write it down, take a picture of it. Mess with a little drum loop to make it interesting.  Even if it was a little interesting and could never be used in any of my outlets, I would do it anyway.

Do you keep a notebook handy to write down things you see and hear? 

Not really.  That's never been the case for me.  I know a lot of people do that, but it's hard for me to do. Sometimes I'll be on the subway and listen to people talk.  And I'm always like, "How is anybody getting anything out of this?  This is nothing.  It's all about coffee and business meetings!"  I read a biography of Tom Waits once, and he writes about anything.  I mean, how do you sit there and listen to someone talk and write it down?  What are you fleshing out?  There's nothing there! But apparently there is.

You mentioned something earlier about starting songs with titles.  Are the titles often the first part of a song?

Usually, and it even works on a deeper level than that with whole albums. It's always been the title of the album first, then the title of the songs, and I usually I won't write a song unless it has to do with an album.  I'm always thinking of how albums go together.  Even when I've written songs for other artists, I've thought about their album.  I'll be like, "Give me as many tracks as you can on the record, and I'll think about what piece of the story is missing."  Then I'll try and write that missing piece.

That's pretty unconventional, at least among the songwriters I've talked to.  Why do you think that's worked so well for you?

I don't know.  Now that I think about it, it's because whenever I listen to records, I always think, "Man, they need this song on there." They need something to flesh it out, or they needed more of this song. With a lot of records I listen to, there are four or five tracks that are great, then a couple of filler tracks.  I'll think, "Why didn't you just expand on this idea" or "The chord progression on this song that was only there for 15 seconds? That could have been a song." I'm always trying to do what completes something.  I don't want to listen to a record and think I want more of that on the next record.  I want it to be one thing that you can digest all at once, then there's nothing else to be said about that story.

Is it hard to contain all that story in one album?

Sort of.  What more becomes the problem is that I'll be writing a group of songs, then stumble upon something that I know is a hit.  Then I have to go, "It doesn't fit, I can't use it.  I gotta put it away." That's the part where you can get snobby and think, "Am I an artist or am I a hitmaker?"  That's the constant guillotine that a writer is under.  You always want to write hit songs, but you can't sacrifice your art for it.  And that separates the real artists from those who just want to get on the charts. There's been times where I have awesome songs that just don't fit.

When you sit down to write a song, do the music or lyrics come first?  

Usually they come together at the same time, but lately it's been the drums! I've been working with a lot of drums.  What's funny is that I'll write the drum line with loops, but when I bring it to the band I have to throw the drum loop out so that our drummer doesn't get mad at me for writing the drum part. Laughs. So I'll write the song along with the drum loop, then erase it.

photo by Pamela Littky

photo by Pamela Littky

Do you start the lyrical part of songwriting with the gibberish syllables?

I do that all the time, where I just mumble, then one thing comes out and I run away and right it all down.  It comes out quick after that.  But really it starts with just one syllable that I have to say, a syllable that has to be.  I'm not sure why.  I'll just think, I need a hard B, something with a B, then it comes right out.

What's a productive writing environment?

During the day, either afternoon or morning.  I usually start writing as soon as I wake up.  When we are on tour, as soon as we load in, while everyone is setting up the stage, I'll run upstairs and find a little nook and start writing.  I can do it anytime.  It doesn't matter where I am.  I've learned to get rid of that.  I used to think I had to be at my desk with a certain guitar, but then I started realizing that was too much of a limitation.

Are you a disciplined writer?

In some aspects.  I probably should write more than I do, but you gotta be a person too, or the tank gets empty!

Do you write your lyrics on a computer, or are you a pen and paper guy?

I try to be a pen and paper guy, but that doesn't happen.  When the ideas are coming out fast, I need to be able to bang em out on the computer.  I highlight things, move them around.  I can't be bothered with writing.  I see the old notebooks of all these artists I like, and think that's so cool. Like, "Eddie Vedder carries around a notebook.  I wanna be like that!"  It's not practical.  I got the iPhone, I got the computer, I'm just blastin' away.  A typewriter?  Seriously?  When that thing breaks, I'll smash it against the wall.

Do you revise your lyrics much?

I almost never rewrite lyrics.  I think I've only done it twice.

When you collaborate with other songwriters or write for someone else, how does that process make you a better writer when it comes to writing on your own?

The trick is that you are grappling with what somebody gives you.  If they give you a little riff or an idea, you wrestle with it to make it fit in your structure.  And that makes you spread out of your normal chord progressions, boundaries, and rhythms to make it what you want it to be.  Because stylistically, whatever I write for someone else is going to sound like me.  I have to make it submit to me to get it to fit.  And sometimes that's tricky.  The other thing is that when I am writing a song for someone else, it becomes easier to put myself in their head.  What would they do?  I would use an A minor, but they would use an E major, so I'm gonna use the E major. I become unattached to songs I write for other people.

What was the easiest Gaslight song for you to write?

The first song on the 59 Sound, "Great Expectations," was probably the easiest song I've ever written.  We were standing around waiting for lunch in the practice room, and Alex was playing guitar, just playing that riff in the beginning of the song.  I think he was just goofing, like tuning his guitar, and I told him to keep playing that.  The chords came right out, and I went home and wrote the lyrics in about five minutes.  Everything just came out in one shot, super smooth.  I don't know why it happens, but I saw the whole picture all at once.  You suffer with most of the songs, but eventually you see the whole picutre in one snapshot. Those are the moments you live for as a a songwriter.

Have any songs been especially difficult?

Yeah, probably every song on the last record. It was a nightmare.  I call that record the "process record" and the "necessary record" because it was all these things railing against each other inside of me that I had to get out and make work.  It was the "get up at 7 and work till 3" record.  That was the hardest thing I ever had to do.  I was second guessing every song.  Nothing was easy.  That was the only record where I rewrote and rewrote. 

Do you every worry that songs that are so hard like that are just not meant to be?

I've definitely thought about that, but then it goes back to my roots of listening to Springsteen.  That guy spent a year on one song.  When I read about how "Born to Run" was written, I think about that a lot.  I think, "How did you sit there for a year, and not figure out that E, A, and B go together?  How does that not make sense?  That vocal melody was written a thousand times by the Crickets.  You didn't see that comin', man?" Laughs.

What's your preferred emotion for songwriting session?

I go for the melancholy.  The whole make it or break it tension. I like the tension. 

Well, the history of literature is filled who were the most productive when they were at their most miserable.  Which leads to my last question: who are some of your favorite authors?

Everyone says they like Jack Kerouac, but I like him for a different reason.  I don't buy his whole thing, but the way he describes things, the actual wording, is amazing.  I don't care that he drove across the country.  I know tons of people who have done that.  But the way he puts it together is atypical.  It's impressive. 

It's more the analytical writers that I like. C.S. Lewis' A Grief Observed, that kind of stuff.  The guy is writing about his wife who just died. That is intense.  He called it A Grief Observed but was talking about himself.  He was writing about himself, but writing as if he were consoling someone else in a counseling session.  That's how I try to write.  Jacob Dylan is the master of that.  He's writing about things that happened to him, but he's writing as if he's watching it happen to someone else.  It sounds like he cares with the utmost care, and not with a sliver of care at all.  He's amazing.  People don't give him enough credit.

Do you read much poetry?

I always thumb through T.S. Eliot, and I like books that discuss about how poets put their poems together. I've read a lot of poems by TS Eliot, but I couldn't tell you what they mean.  I think I've just looked at the structure of the poems.  It's almost as though I am looking at it from an architect's point of view.  I want to see how it's put together. 

The guy I most do that with is Dylan Thomas.  He is the best.  He says things almost sarcastically, like he's mocking his own work.  Like that one line in his short story "A Trip to Grandpa's" when he says, "You're a weak little pony, Jim, to pull big men like us."

His description is so intense.  That 's what I used when I was thinking about the Horrible Crowes.  I was looking at Dylan Thomas's work, and that's where the inspiration came from.  What really hit me was that line in "A Trip to Grandpa's."  When people ask me what the band will be like, I quote the line "If you heard those old birds in the night, you'd wake me up and say there were horses in the trees.  That's unreal.  Dylan Thomas is it.  That's where it starts and ends for me.