Brian Fallon, The Gaslight Anthem
ED NOTE: this is my second time interviewing Fallon. Here's the first, from 2011.
When Brian Fallon writes, he's constantly being watched. There's Paul, Tom, B.B. and George, among others, looking over his shoulder. And yes, that's McCartney, Waits, King, and Harrison. You see, there's a room in Fallon's house where he does most of his writing. (When's up there, he's always dressed as if he's going to work. No slippers or pajamas. But that's another story.) And in that room Fallon, also singer of The Gaslight Anthem, hung pictures of some of his songwriting idols. Fallon purposely put them high, close to the ceiling, so he always feels like he's being watched, even judged. He looks to them for inspiration and affirmation. He'll even carry on the occasional conversation, imagining how they might react to a line he's written.
For a guy who writes so much and who has such impressive chops, one thing stands out among the songwriters I've interviewed for this site. Most, if not all, have all their old lyrics and journals from previous albums stored somewhere. They might be in a closet or a box, but they keep them. Some might never look at these journals again, while others go through them for inspiration. Not Fallon. He has nothing, save for the notes from the Horrible Crowes project and the notes from Handwritten. He joked that the notes from the Gaslight classic The '59 Sound are probably on the I-95 shoulder somewhere. Fallon's reason is simple: "I purge a lot of stuff on records, so whatever that last record was about, whatever was weighing me down, I don't want to ever bring that stuff back. A record is like an exorcism to me." Of course, Fallon doesn't keep a steady journal, though he admits he'd probably benefit from it since it would help him remember things.
Fallon's new solo album Sleepwalkers came out February 9, and you can listen to the single "Forget Me Not" from it below. He'll be touring a lot over the next few months: he's going out to promote Sleepwalkers (tour dates) and also with the Gaslight Anthem, playing its classic The '59 Sound in its entirety (tour dates). Check him out when you can; having seen him several times, I can tell you it's a fantastic show. Read my interview with Fallon about his songwriting process after the video.
Besides songwriting, what kind of writing do you do?
Not too much. I can put together a song, but my English is awful when it comes to writing. The written word is my greatest enemy. I can't even structure a sentence the way it's supposed to be and then find the correct punctuation. This is not a school problem, because I actually did well in school. But when I left, the spirit left me.
I'd love to write a book or do something else besides songwriting, but I've never had the time because I find punctuation completely daunting. Laughs. So because of that, I'm reluctant to write anything other than songs.
That could be the best answer I've ever gotten to that question. No one has even confessed a fear of punctuation.
Benny (Horowitz), The Gaslight Anthem's drummer, is good at that kind of stuff. He knows where commas go and he knows what to capitalize. But he also corrects my mispronunciations constantly. One time I pronounced "hyperbole" as "HY-per-bole," as he stopped me mid sentence to correct me. I was like, "Dude, I just read it and I've never said it before. How do you expect me to know how to pronounce it?" Laughs. Or we'd be riding on the bus, everyone would be quiet, and he'd turn to me out of the blue and say, "I don't understand how you can write lyrics, which to me are pretty good, but you can't spell or use punctuation properly. You write like a caveman." So he makes me feel like Frankenstein. All that shame. Laughs. I was like, "Dude, you could've let that one go. Because I'm never using that word again."
I've always wanted to be someone like Charles Dickens. I'd think He seems cool. He doesn't even write music; he just writes songs on the page. What if I did that? But then I'd never find an editor who could put up with me.
Does one mark of punctuation frighten you the most?
The comma. To me, the comma is a pause. It's a rest. When you're looking at sheet music, and it says, "One and two and three and rest four," that's a comma. I see the comma as a musical mark in writing, which is the problem. I probably use far too many. I get the colon: that's a hard stop. But I see the comma as a musical note, which means I'm probably putting it in places where it shouldn't be.
Back to the writing: do you do much journaling?
No, that stuff drives me insane. Writing down feelings is too tedious. I don't want to read it later. I know how I feel; I don't need to tell myself how I feel. But I think it's more related to my habit of not wanting to keep much stuff around, even when it comes to tangible things. Then the problem later is that I don't remember anything. I go through problems over and over, knowing I've been there before and wanting to understand how I solved them. A journal would probably help me with that.
That's why you need a journal. Songwriters always tell me about the filled notebooks they have stuffed away somewhere.
Really? With me, it's in the trash. At the end of the record, all the songs that didn't get finished go right in the trash. Gone.
Because the ground has been cursed. If you can't finish a song or if you finish it and it isn't very good, that's unhallowed ground. It must be disposed of immediately. Gone from the living. Back when you and I first talked seven years ago, I didn't think about songwriting as much. But now, I think about it all the time. The job is different. I'm 38 and I've got two kids. There's not a lot of time for musing about. I want to make sure that I'm efficient. I've got diapers and school to deal with.
Has having kids made you a more disciplined writer?
One hundred percent. It's made my songwriting process now more of a job, a routine. I show up every day at 9am like work when I'm writing. I'm not writing all the time. I do like Bob Dylan says: you do the living, then you do the writing. But when I write, it's all about waking the kids up, getting them ready, making coffee, then going upstairs to sit and write.
Can you sit and write for long stretches?
A journal would be helpful here because I'd have material to draw from. But I usually sit down, and something will come right away. I'll work on that, then the ideas will dry up. So I just sit and think. I rarely mix the guitar with my lyric writing. If the guitar is there and I have a little bit of a melody, I'll start working on the lyrics. But as soon as I start working on the lyrics, the guitar is done. I can't do both. So a lot of my writing process involves just staring into space and humming.
I recently read an interview with Paul McCartney where he referred to songwriting as "fun." At that time, I was going through a real drought, so I didn't see it as fun. He saw it as a crossword puzzle: you just have to start and then find the next piece. So it was then that I realized that songwriting can never be about waiting for the lightning bolt of inspiration. It's like a Rubik's Cube: you play around until something happens.
When you sit down to write, then, you aren't sitting down with a specific idea.
Yeah. Very rarely do I sit down with a specific idea. It's mostly all about making it up as I go. I sit down with nothing. I have to admit: it's not great. But I've used books and writing prompts before, and those don't work.
So when those ideas finally come, where do they originate?
I honestly don't know. There's not even a routine place I go to draw those ideas from. I don't write down what people around me say, I don't write down things I read. Again, that's probably not ideal, and that's where journal writing would be handy. It's odd how I start from absolutely nothing. Sometimes I'll think back to a rhythm or beat, or I'll think about what I'm trying to convey emotionally. Words start to form then, but it's actually often pictures or images. I think back to a picture I remember and think That feels like what I'm trying to say. Or it might be about What do I feel right now?
Does a certain emotion trigger your writing impulse?
It's definitely the us songs. The songs where it's you and I, doing something together. Where are we going? Those are the songs I get behind the easiest. When it's us, it becomes about something greater than yourself. And that's pretty easy to write about because it's about a common struggle.
Are you writing these songs from a sense of optimism, or is it easy to write from a position of melancholy?
When I get down, it's too hard to write. There's no motivation. It's the worst. Everyone talks about going through a difficult time and writing a record to help feel better, but I just can't do it. I need some external motivation to write.
How does your writing process typically start? If I'm hearing you correctly, you don't typically start the process with a musical instrument.
Not really. It's old hat. I've gotten that part down after so many years; I know where my hands want to go before I even sit down with the guitar. It's almost like a trap, so I don't want to get lulled into doing the same thing every time with those chords. It typically starts with a rhythm in my head that dictates where I'll go. I build the music around that. It's tough for me to come up with melodies beforehand; it's much easier for me to frame melodies around the words I already have.
Nils Lofgren told me that playing new instruments is a great way to generate new song ideas.
I could see that. I think Tom Waits said he just grabs stuff around the yard and starts banging on them. But that would be incredibly frustrating to me. The strangeness of it all makes me uncomfortable. I tried it with a mandolin once, and it was clearly above my pay grade.
Do you have any type of songwriting ritual?
There's a room in our house that isn't being used for anything else, so that's where I write. It's the only place I can do it without hearing the kids screaming. Laughs. This room is filled with pictures of great songwriters hanging high on the wall. I did that so that it feels like they're judging me since they're all looking down on me. I remember writing a song for the new record, and about halfway through I looked up, and there were the Beatles, just staring at me. And they had these weird expressions on their faces that I never noticed until that moment. Paul looked like he was snubbing me and George looked intrigued. But John had this smirk, as if to say That's kinda cool.
At the same time, though, if I'm in there and not feeling it, it becomes a place of drudgery that I want to avoid. And that can be hard because I don't want the room to be associated with that feeling. There are times when I'll avoid it for days.
Regarding the ritual, is there anything you need in order to have a productive writing session?
There's nothing I need, but I do have to get dressed. I can't show up to work in my pajamas. I also do something that many songwriters will curse me for: I start a song by recording it at home, and I'll write it as I'm recording it. I do that because I don't have time to remember what the chords are. I have to put it down. I don't have time to lay out the chords, write everything out by hand, then play. I'd rather have everything moving forward at the same time. And when that happens, you gotta have your shoes on! Laughs.
I guess I do have a lot of weird rituals. When I'm learning a guitar part, I do a lot of weird things. Like right now I'm obsessed with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. I want to learn all his songs. And I don't have my shoes on when I learn his parts, because I don't think he wore his shoes when he wrote his. I don't know why. Laughs. And when I'm writing something a little weird, I gotta put a hat on for some reason.
But back to getting dressed: I have to feel like I'm going to work. A lawyer wouldn't show up to a law firm in pajamas, right?
I assume that slippers wouldn't cut it.
Definitely not. I do not respect the slipper. I hate it. It's too casual and comfortable. You're not supposed to be comfortable as an artist.
Interesting you say that, because a few months ago Robyn Hitchcock told me the same thing. He said, "There can't be that much burning inside of you that you want to write about if you're comfortable. . . . Agitation is necessary. It just makes the writing a bit more lively. That's why people like Sylvia Plath were such vivid writers: they were so agitated."
I love that he said that. Bruce (Springsteen) always says that something must be eating at you. I went to see Tori Amos once, and it was the most intense performance I've ever seen. There was clearly something agitating her that she was squashing every night. When she plays that piano and sings, you can tell that there's a war going on, and she's winning it. That's what writing is about: it's about not laying down and dying.
I've found that songwriters are incredibly particular about their writing utensils. So how do you write: computer or pen/pencil?
Laughs. Dude, I'm about to blow your mind. I do not care at all. I write on whatever is close by. Even a bill sitting on the kitchen table. That happened one time, where I had all these ideas and lyrics written on a hospital bill. I couldn't send it in, so I had to call in the payment. It really depends on what I'm writing; a typewriter is good if I'm trying to type out something with rhythm. You can hit the keys with that rhythm. When my mind is buzzing and I've got to run up the stairs to get an idea down that's just popped into my head, the computer is the way to go. I think it really depends on the mood I'm in, and how in control I feel.
So what's a pen and paper mood?
On Handwritten, I felt incredibly overwhelmed with where we were at that point. I think in interviews I may have said that we wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but inside I thought things were going way too fast. I felt lost. So I went back to the basics, stripped away the computers. And thought maybe now is the time to just write things down in a book. I still have that book. It's one of the only things I've kept; it's that and every note from the Horrible Crowes record. I wish I had kept my notes from The '59 Sound, but they probably got thrown out of the van somewhere on I-95.
I remember doing a couple of shows with Pearl Jam, and I'd always see Eddie (Vedder) carrying around a notebook everywhere. And he told me that he writes everything down. So I thought I'd try it. But really I have no preference either way.
My mind is blown. You don't even have a favorite pen?
I don't even have a favorite guitar.
Do you have a typewriter?
I do, but I haven't used it in a long time because the ribbon broke. I see these things as just tools. I come from a construction background, where if the hammer broke, you bought a new hammer. I'm not really much of a sentimentalist, but I wish I was.
That does align with what you told me. When you have no use for something anymore, you get rid of it. No old journals lying around for you.
Nope. Every record is a different record for me. I'm probably going to get in trouble for saying this, but when I do that I feel like I'm digging through my own garbage. Yet even as I say that, I know I'm wrong because I remember Bruce saying that one of his best songs took him like 20 years to write. He started it before Greetings From Asbury Park. But for me at least, I feel like I'm carrying the dead when I do that. I purge a lot of stuff on records, so whatever that last record was about, whatever was weighing me down, I don't want to ever bring that stuff back. A record is like an exorcism to me.
On the new record, what was the easiest song to write?
Probably "See You on the Other Side." It wasn't the easiest to play or record, but the quickest to write. It took about 15 minutes. But my favorite song to write was "Little Nightmares." I had so much fun writing it. If you're familiar with some of those bands a little after the Brit Pop period, like The Kooks, where they're almost rapping, that's what I felt like doing. Then I thought of groups like the Beastie Boys and wondered What if I just do something that's super simple and syncopated? I was making it sincere but having a blast changing the scenery with every four measures.
I remembering thinking that it probably has no shot at being successful, but I'm so happy that it's mine and not someone else's.
Did it take a long time to write?
It didn't once I had the confidence to do the sycopated thing because I had never done that before. I'm not trying to rap or anything, but it's still new to me.
There are two songs in karaoke that I'll lose my mind for: "Dance the Night Away" by Van Halen and "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys. I don't care if it's a bar mitzvah or a birthday, I'm jumping on the table and singing it. I've always wanted to have the raw energy that "Sabotage" has. I'm not even sure that "Little Nightmares" has a notable melody, but it's such a groovy song.
Why "Dance the Night Away"?
Because of the break right before David Lee Roth sings, "Oooh, baby baby." I feel like kicking over a table at that break. The joy in songs like that really inspires me. I see the same level of joy in that song that I see in "Born to Run." It's not the same level of writing, but it's one of the few songs that makes me feel like a teenager again.
What song on the new album was the greatest struggle?
There are a few. "Forget Me Not" was a nightmare, even though I love the song. I was so pleased with it, but when we recorded it, we messed around with keys and couldn't figure out what key to sing it in. We re-recorded the song on the second to last day. And I've never ever done that before.
Do you revise your lyrics?
Sometimes. Ted (Hutt, who produced Sleepwalkers) was the first person who ever pushed me to revise my lyrics. In the past, people have told me that my lyrics are my strongpoint and that I don't need to mess with them. But Ted wasn't that way at all. I'd think a song was done and would do a little cheer, and his response was, "Yeah, I don't really get the point." And I'd tell him that the point was NOT the point! I'm describing the point without telling you the point! Here are all these details so that you can form the point! And he'd just say, "Yeah, I'm not hearing that. I think you need to say what you mean." I'd go home and dig and dig and dig. I rewrote so much to get more true.
That can be a struggle because when someone says that, you're initial response is that you can't dig any deeper. When you're the kind of songwriter who writes from the heart and who doesn't really tell stories, people expect you to be real. And it's not easy to be real all the time. What's left to tap?
Is that when you look at the songwriters on your wall for inspiration?
Yeah, that's when I look at Tom Waits or Paul McCartney and think What's the creative way to get yourself out of this hole? I think I've chosen the people on my wall wisely. Paul would choose a melodic and sensible thing to say, but Tom would choose the weirdest thing you would find. So I want to bridge that.
Last question: who are you reading now?
I'm really into Neil Gaiman. When I was younger, I read the Sandman comic books. I'm rediscovering his novels now. It's like The Cure or The Smiths in a book. For a while I went through a phase where I read nothing but the classics. Terribly depressing books like Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations. Then I put those books down and went for the fantasy literature.