On August 30, 2015, The Gaslight Anthem played at Reading Festival. It was the conclusion of the band’s live gigs supporting their 2014 album Get Hurt, but it turned out to be much more than that: It was the last show the Gaslight Anthem would play before announcing an indefinite hiatus.
It didn’t take vocalist/guitarist Brian Fallon long to get his next project rolling, though. Painkillers, Fallon’s first solo album, is a less hard-rockin’ affair than Gaslight, but the root material and source inspirations are the same. According to Fallon, who we catch up with in rehearsals getting ready to take his solo show on the road, once Gaslight came to a halt, he looked around and thought one thing:
“’What else is there to do?’” he remembers with a chuckle. “I used to not see the point in solo records. I used to be a little bit against it, because I felt like it detracted from whatever you were doing. The more things you have hands in, the worse it is, like nothing gets your full attention. Then, when Gaslight decided we were going to take some time off, I was like, ‘Oh, man, now what am I going to do?’ Then I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve been wanting to do this kind of record by myself for a while.’ I spoke to everybody about it, just to ask them if I should do this. And everybody was like, ‘Do what you want.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, here I go.’ And that was it.”
The 12 songs on Painkillers certainly sum up much of what Gaslight fans have come to expect from Fallon’s writing: a nostalgia and longing, an upbeat approach to being down, a strong lyrical approach. Fallon says the album is singer/songwriter fare, but is quick to point out that doesn’t mean it has to be acoustic, referencing Tom Petty as an example of a singer/songwriter with a solid band backing up his songs.
“It was about time for me to get my chance to try that kind of music,” he says. “I’ve been learning about that music my whole life. And I feel like that’s where everything comes from, the type of music that this record is, so I thought, let me try my hand at this and see if I’ve really got it as much as I think I do.”
The album proves Fallon knows his rock stuff, from the stomping sadness of “Smoke” to the painful joy of “Steve McQueen,” the album is concise and sharp but covers just enough sounds and emotions. Fallon says he’s happy with the results, but says he now realizes how much more there is to do with this kind of music.
“There’s a whole lifetime of evolving with this kind of music,” he says. “There are so many layers; it’s really cool, you can sort of do anything. Now I’m curious: What else is there to do?”
Painkillers is definitely more Gaslight-friendly than Elsie, the 2011 record from the Horrible Crowes, which was Fallon and his guitar tech Ian Perkins. Fallon calls the two records “siblings,” saying they’re different but came from the same parent.
“They were built very similarly, and the approach to the recording and the writing of the songs was very similar,” he says. “One was a little more Motown and soul influenced and this one was more just me saying I’m going to sit down and write some songs, and going to get back into what I started doing in the beginning and listening to Springsteen and Dylan and Tom Petty records, and let me see what I’ve learned in the past 10 years. I started when I was 24; now I’m 35, let’s see what’s going on.”
Painkillers finds one of Fallon’s strengths emerging stronger than ever: his lyrics. Long one of Gaslight’s most impressive areas, here he pushes himself even further into tales and imagery of decades past, with cars, women and pop-culture references (old ones, natch) peppering his colorful tales. It’s an absolute joy to take in, and Fallon says it’s just the result of what he enjoys reading, listening to and watching.
“You are what you eat,” he says. “So the movies I watch and the books that I read and the music that I listen to, a lot of it is from the ’60s and ’70s, and the movies from the ’40s and ’50s, and that imagery is so profound. It’s not so much that I don’t like living in this time, because I do, and I think it’s the only time appropriate for me; that’s why I’m here. But I don’t find anything that’s so interesting right now; I don’t want to sing about an iPhone, you know. It seems a little disconnected. They haven’t given us anything great to talk about as far as daily life gadgetry or circuitry. It’s all Jack Kerouac talk, the Beat Generation thing. I think that’s so cool, the New York thing in the late ’60s with Leonard Cohen and all those guys, they had their own language. Lou Reed, too, big time. That stuff’s really interesting to me. I can’t sing about going to the dance floor; I don’t dance, I don’t go to the clubs. There’s nothing wrong with that, I don’t hate on it. But I’m not good at that kinda thing. So I just kinda spit out what I put in.”
Given that so much of these influences had previously ended up in the Gaslight Anthem, we have to ask: What exactly is the status of Gaslight? Fallon admits that the band just didn’t have any ideas for a new album so thought they’d do the honest thing and stop. For now. Or maybe forever.
“Once the brakes got put on the Gaslight thing, I got a lot of time to sort of go, ‘Okay, that elephant is off my shoulders right now.’ Because we got to a point, right after The ’59 Sound, where everyone was like, ‘This is going to be the biggest band in the world.’ Then American Slang came out, and it got bigger, but we weren’t the biggest band in the world. Then Handwritten was the culmination of all the pressure in the world, where we were supposed to take over the world and sell out arenas, and it was like, I don’t know if that’s going to ever happen with this band. And I remember always saying that to the guys, privately, being like, ‘I don’t think we’re going to play arenas. I don’t see it in the cards.’ There was always that pressure to do that, and after a while we were kinda like, ‘This is awfully weird, that pressure. We’re just trying to write songs.’ When your train is moving like Gaslight’s was, you can’t see the forest for the trees. All you can see is trees and trees and trees.”
Fallon says that the band started to feel that people were getting tired of what they were offering and they wanted to stop before they did anything embarrassing.
“Some people will say they miss it, but there was a definite feeling where people were kind of like, ‘All right, the Gaslight Anthem, we get it.’ We felt that as a band, for real. That was a real internal thing that we could feel from the outside,” Fallon admits. “We thought to ourselves, ‘There is no idea right now, there’s nothing, so let’s just stop, and if there’s never an idea again, then…’ Hey, I think we did some good records, and everybody else feels that way too. But we’re not going to pick up the ball until there’s a really good idea. That’s for sure. You gotta be honest with yourself when you’re tapped out. In honor of what we did and out of respect for ourselves and the people who really do love our band, we’re just going to wait. And if we come up with an idea, cool, and if not, we’ll never, ever do anything again. And I just want to say, it’s not like we said, ‘Oh, let’s break up and in five years we’ll get $1 million from Coachella.’ This was legit, like, ‘I don’t know what to do, so let’s not do anything, because that’s the best bet.’” S
A version of this story was originally published in Substream #50.