Brian Fallon used to have a rather unusual hobby — obsessively collecting location-specific coffee mugs from the Starbucks chain, in almost every metropolis his band The Gaslight Anthem visited on tour. But the company changed the cup design, which displeased him and sparked an analyzation of the desire to collect. He decided to simply quit, cold turkey. “It was too much, it was just life-consuming,” he recalls. “And I was even getting mad at the cities if they didn’t have their own Starbucks mug. I was like ‘Whaddaya mean, Orange County doesn’t have a mug? Why does Orange County not have a mug?’ I was actually going to start writing letters to Starbucks, like ‘This is why Orange County, California is important — Social Distortion is out of there, blah, blah, blah.’ It was driving me insane.”
He also began hoarding vintage guitar effects pedals, until he realized he wasn’t really using them. “They were just cluttering everything up, so I got rid of mostly everything, and now I don’t collect anything at all. It’s weird.” Or maybe just a part of growing, which he and his outfit have decidedly done on their sonically adventurous new album, Get Hurt, which ricochets from Sabbath-sludgy metal (the opener, “Stay Vicious”) through blues balladry (“Break Your Heart”), classic country (“Sweet Morphine”), quirk-chorded rock (“1,000 Years,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”), to their anthemic-punk calling card (“Red Violins,” “Helter Skeleton”). We recently caught up with the singer to chat about the new album.
PureVolume: Listening to your five-album catalog, and just playing devil’s advocate here — I think there should be a swear jar where you deposit a dollar every time you use the word ‘wound’ in a song. Or ‘bandage.'
Brian Fallon: Ha! Nah, I don’t think so. I think I like that word! But I’m sure that’s some deeply-seeded imagery that I must like. I dunno. It must be something like that, like how sometimes you just get hung up on specific words. And also, I’ll tell you the real reason that a lot of words get used multiple times with me — it’s because the songs are isolated. So, say I’m writing this one song for the record — I don’t go and listen to the other songs to see how they correlate to each other. I just sort of go “Okay, this is Song One.” And then that’s the song. Then you move on to Song Two. They’re like little rooms that you work in for a while, and you kind of keep going back into them to refine them a little bit. But it seems like I never look at both rooms until they’re done, when it’s time to put the record together and get it track-listed. It’s not something that I look into. But it has been occurring to me recently. I just started reading books, and I was like “Wow. I don’t know what a lot of these words are!” So I would look up in the dictionary what these words mean, and I was like “Uhhh…maybe I need to expand this a little.” So I’m actually on the quest for pulling in some more knowledge from my predecessors.
PV: Edgar Allan Poe supposedly carried the word ‘tintinnabulation’ around in his pocket for a decade, until he could finally use it in his poem “The Bells.”
BF: Hmm. Well I don’t carry any notebooks or anything. And that’s the thing about everything being isolated — I don’t ever keep a record. But sometimes I’ll sort of notice a word pop up a lot. But sometimes, you just have to let it go, I think. You have to be like, “Well, this is clearly what you’re thinking about, sooo…” I don’t want to be the guy who goes to the thesaurus and just starts looking around — that just feels a little fake. I mean, if you’re like, “I need a more descriptive word like ‘pontificate,' and then you’re just throwing that in a song. I’m maybe more comfortable being like, “Well, I didn’t go to college. I’ve got 50 words to use, and that’s all I’ve got. But I’m going to mean those words, even if I say ‘em 20 times! I’m going to mean that, 20 times!”
PV: But you’re still one of the best songwriters out there. And Mike Ness from Social Distortion pretty much does the same thing, every album. But he does it so incredibly well…
BF: I feel like he does “Bad Luck” a lot. But if people noticed, then you’ve got to get better at it. And I know that people noticed on the last record (2012’s Handwritten). I didn’t notice this, but I said "radio" a ton of times in all our records, and I was like, “Whoa!” And this is a true story — we went onstage one night in Germany, and there were a couple of fans there that have come to a lot of shows, and they’re really cool people. But they actually had number cards, and every time that I said "radio" in the set, they would hold up a number. And I think I got up to about 12, and I was like, “Oh, my God! Wow, man — you need to read a book, dude!” I never realized that I used words so often, you know? So now I’m reading anything people recommend to me.
PV: You read poetry from Rimbaud while putting Get Hurt together. So there are no rules for what you should and shouldn’t read. Just like there are no specific genres that The Gaslight Anthem has to adhere to, right?
BF: Sticking to just one? I think that’s too hard to do. I went through that when I really got into punk rock. A lot of my friends — especially the older guys — were like, “Wait a minute, you can’t listen to The Exploited and then put on Johnny Cash! You just can’t do that!” And I said, “No, I think you can, because I think they’re coming from the same spot. Listen to this Cash song, and now just speed it up, and it’s the same thing.” And I could not convince anybody about The Replacements. They were like, “No, that’s not punk, that’s corporate rock.” I just couldn’t believe it. And I said, “But The Ramones are punk? The Ramones write poppier songs than anybody, and they sound like The Supremes, sped up! That’s all it is.”
PV: Get Hurt picks up where 2010’s American Slang left off — in a very eclectic place.
BF: Well, actually during the writing of this record, we played a couple of shows. And I got really excited about the American Slang songs again. I was like, “Guys! We haven’t played this song from American Slang in five years! Why don’t we pull these out?” And they were like, “Oh you..." like "That record now?” And I said, "Yeah, it’s a good record." But I think the outside sources really affected my opinion of that record. At the time, everyone was saying “They’re going to be the next Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers! They’re going to be the next Springsteen!” And we just weren’t. We didn’t get that big. So we were like, “Guys! Just stop saying that! Let us just figure it out!”
PV: And you’ve referenced Petty, Springsteen, even Bob Seger in Gaslight songs. Other artists who, like you, just like what they like, do what they do with no pretension.
BF: I feel like Tom Petty has a great balance of that, like “I don’t care what you think, and I’m doing the best that I can, and I believe in it!” I feel like he’s comfortable in his own shoes, and that’s the point you want to aspire to — of not second-guessing yourself. Although sometimes I do feel a little out of my league, like “Uhhh…I dunno if I should be here…”
PV: As a storyteller, you’ve really grown on Get Hurt though. There’s a new whiff of death and mortality to the material.
BF: Hey, I’m just a morbid guy! And I think I’m more morbid than people would assume. I feel like it was a developmental period in my youth, where somebody gave me Henry’s Dream by Nick Cave and something went broken in my head. I was like, “This is so cool!” And that was it. After that, I was like, “Well, I’m kind of friendly, but I kind of hate everybody, too. So I don’t know what to do.” It was this weird thing, where I was equally listening to The Ramones and Nick Cave, and that will definitely break your brain when you’re too young for that.
PV: Like in “Stay Vicious,” where you sing that you feel just like a murderer, then praise a girl for saving your life?
BF: That’s kind of me, though. That’s the vibe sometimes. Sometimes I’m pissed and sometimes I’m not pissed, and I don’t know what’s wrong. And sometimes I’m cool, sometimes I’m not. But this is what it is. Sometimes you’re just smashing against everything. And sometimes, when you’re trying to figure stuff out — especially doing it on a stage or doing it through records — you get it wrong. You put your foot in your mouth sometimes, or sometimes you come off smelling like roses. And sometimes it’s completely accidental. So I think the whole record is about that conflicted thing that I’ve always just done in my own head, ever since I was a kid. People are always saying “You do this and you do that, and you’re a good person.” But every good person is kind of not that cool, either, and every bad person? Hey, they’re not all bad!