Brian Fallon is hardly the first New Jersey musician to make the case that he's a humble, working-class guy who's proud of his blue-collar roots. And he comes across as exactly that when reached on his cellphone at a Gary, Indiana, tour stop.
His interview with the Georgia Straight doesn't, however, go completely smoothly. As chatty as he proves in the back half of a 30-minute conversation, the first 15 minutes are often awkward. The reason for this eventually becomes clear: Fallon isn't nearly as interested in talking about himself as he is in singing the praises of others.
So ask him to pinpoint moments when he impressed himself with his own songwriting on the Gaslight Anthem's just-released third album, American Slang, and he'll dance around the question. But get him talking about the artists that have blown his mind and you can't get him to stop.
“Tom Waits is someone who has really struck me, ever since I was a kid,” Fallon reveals. “He's really a big deal for me. It's always Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits for me, the big three. And you know Greg Dulli from the Afghan Whigs? That's also a big one.”
His favourite record by the Whigs is 1993's Gentlemen, an emotionally devastating account of love gone wrong.
“When I heard it, I was like 13 or 14 years old—way too young to be hearing stuff like that,” Fallon says. “But I was like, ”˜Ohhh, man—this is what's up. I'm going for it.' I'm actually working right now on these songs that are totally different from Gaslight. It's very influenced by the Afghans and the Twilight Singers and all that Greg Dulli stuff.”
And, he adds, the madman-in-the-junkyard ramblings of Waits.
“That section of my writing has never been able to come out, Fallon says, “and I've always been super-curious to find out what would happen if it did.”
That's a heads-up that he's interested in something more than being a punk version of the Boss, which is how he's usually described. That experimental side surfaces on American Slang, the follow-up to his band's 2008 breakout disc, The '59 Sound.
The Gaslight Anthem doesn't totally turn its back on the Budweiser-swilling masses, with tracks like “Stay Lucky” and “Bring It On” giving you a good idea what Friday night sounds like in Asbury Park. But Fallon obviously decided to shoot for more this time out than straight-ahead rockers, with “The Queen of Lower Chelsea” mixing a reggaefied strut with spaghetti-western guitars, and “The Diamond Church Street Choir” oozing street-smart soul. The album's most dramatic number—the closer “We Did It When We Were Young”—takes things down to a wounded hush, with Fallon's sandpapered vocals offset by washes of no-wave guitars.
Getting him to admit that such departures were made consciously isn't easy.
“I think I lose myself in interviews sometimes,” the singer eventually explains. “I'm kind of at the stage where I'm not really sure how it [songwriting] happens. I don't want to give standard, pat answers anymore, because sometimes they aren't really true.”
Consider that a sign that Gaslight Anthem's main man—who was working as a carpenter at the time of The '59 Sound's release—doesn't have a lot of time for bullshit. For instance, despite the fact that his group has been embraced by everyone from Rolling Stone to Spin and joined on-stage by the likes of Springsteen, he argues that he and his bandmates are still just hard-working guys with their feet firmly on the ground. Still, he's not going to pretend that things will be that way forever.
“I don't want to give you a false sense of pity,” Fallon says candidly. “We're coming into a period where the band is definitely in a different playing field. I would say that the next time you talk to me, maybe a year from now, money will not be an issue. We're sort of at the stage where I can see the horizon, but I'm not there yet. We're not poor, but we're not Jay-Z.”
The Gaslight Anthem plays the Commodore Ballroom on Saturday (September 11).