“I wanted to be able to do things I couldn’t do”: Brian Fallon on taking guitar lessons again

The guitarist and songwriter talks abandoning pyrotechnics, raising his guitar strap, and why he’s never been afraid to ask for directions.

Brian Fallon

All images: Eleanor Jane

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Delicate fingerpicking is possible even when you have tattooed knuckles. Just ask Brian Fallon. Sat in the café of London’s Rough Trade East record store, swaddled in a heavy green coat to shield him from the January cold, the New Jersey native talks animatedly about taking guitar lessons again. “I wanted to get better, for myself,” he says. “I wanted to be able to do things I couldn’t do.”

Fallon’s fingerpicking skills came in handy while working on Local Honey, his third solo album in five years since stepping away from The Gaslight Anthem, the slash-and-burn punk ’n’ roll band with which he made his name. It’s a low-lit Americana record, heavy on atmosphere and light on the punchy soul-indebted stomp of earlier releases Painkillers and Sleepwalkers.

After embarking on an acoustic tour dubbed Songs From The Hymnal in 2018, Fallon realised that by breaking down his old songs to their constituent parts he had unlocked in them something new. “I didn’t know at the time that it would affect the writing of Local Honey,” he says. “I just wanted to try and tour like that. I’d never done it. It ended up showing me that there’s this whole other side – you can carry a song with minimalistic instrumentation and still make it equally as powerful as it would be with a band.”

The LP holds a mirror up to who Fallon is right now: he’s 40, married with two kids, has a home to maintain – and has bags under his eyes. The acoustic tour saw him break out many favourites from his former band but, crucially, he played them from a new vantage point.

Paring back Great Expectations, the opening salvo from The Gaslight Anthem’s most celebrated album The ’59 Sound, allowed crowds to see a man rapidly approaching middle age holding a conversation with a younger version of himself, a rockstar that only exists in photographs. Local Honey picks up where the tour left off.

“When he wrote Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, Bob Dylan said he wasn’t old enough to sing it,” says Fallon. “He said that about himself. Experience puts weight into your voice. Tom Waits could sing a nursery rhyme. As soon as he opens his mouth there’s that weight to it. When you’re young, you don’t have that experience pushing behind you. When you get older and you’ve seen a lot, it’s almost like you don’t have to force it out. It’s there all the time.”

Working with producer Peter Katis – whose collaborations with The National, Interpol and Frightened Rabbit have shown that he knows a thing or two about wringing meaning from sparse rock records – Fallon set about refining songs that capture the peculiar blend of warmth, sadness and ennui that accompanies growing older.

Brian Fallon

The Waits comparison is apt, to a point. At several points on Local Honey Fallon appears to be dredging things up from within but they’re communicated with only a dash of the booze-sodden abandon and sentimentality that characterised Waits’ early 1970s work. Fallon’s voice has never been this rich or measured but it’s also never had this much space in which to breathe. “A lot of that was Peter,” he says. “He was like: ‘Just sing it like you’re saying it. You don’t have to push. You don’t have to do anything.’”

To accentuate this aspect of Local Honey, the album’s palette is considered and largely acoustic. Fallon played his Martin 00-42, a custom model he picked up at Russo Music in Asbury Park, New Jersey throughout the recording. On the electric side, he turned to his Telecaster and a simple setup that helped to bring the whole thing together as a single piece: a Tube Screamer, a Fulltone Solid State Tape Echo, and a 1966 Fender Deluxe Reverb amp. “You get a sound going, get a feel,” he says. “And then the instruments become characters in the record.”

Single cutting

Telecasters have played a starring role throughout Fallon’s career, with a cavalcade of Les Pauls filling gritty supporting parts. Back in the Gaslight days, he’d switch between the two, laying down chunky rhythm lines to drive home the band’s massive vocal hooks and the soaring leads of guitarist Alex Rosamilia. But there have been changes on that front too and, like any self-respecting 40-year-old, it’s a comfort thing. Fallon has short arms and wide shoulders, so his days as a gunslinger, guitar cinched below his hips, are over.

Brian Fallon

“I hurt my arm doing that,” he says. “I had to go to physical therapy. I twisted a nerve and it really caused a problem. Now I play the lightest guitars I can find. I play Les Pauls when I’m sitting down. Live I try to play a Telecaster and I play it high and off to the side.

“You know who does that? If you watch Derek Trucks play, he always has it off to the side. You have to sit naturally with the guitar. It’s not natural to play like Slash unless you have really long arms. If you watch Sturgill Simpson, that Tele’s way up high. You need to be able to move but you have to keep this wrist straight. It’s mid-waist, between your chest and your hip. That’s kind of where it should be.”

The temptation on Local Honey, though, was to fall back on old habits in order to get the job done. Wisdom is hard-earned but it only really matters if you have the good sense to listen to it. These are some of the most emotionally honest songs of Fallon’s career but many of them, such as the skipping 21 Days, could easily have been retrofitted to include some crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics.

The devil on any rocker’s shoulder will always ask to throw in a few solos, a little more of a rolling Tom Petty gait here and there, or maybe a wash of feedback to act as a suit of armour. “In the past, I would have done that,” says Fallon. “With this one, I was comfortable just letting it happen. I knew I had to try something different in order to progress. For me to feel like I took a stand would be to not use the same trick that I would have in the past. I had to open it up and strip it back, because that’s the one thing I hadn’t done before.”

Greetings from Red Bank, NJ

Discussing what Fallon has done before is complicated. He was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, a town hugging the Navesink, a river he’d later immortalise in a Gaslight Anthem song, and spent the second half of his childhood 60 miles or so inland in Hackettstown. He longed for the shore, where there were lights and sounds and people and dancing.

Brian Fallon

As a kid out to unlock that world, his first guitar was a Charvel/Jackson Strat copy. “Like a hundred bucks. A terrible guitar,” he remembers. “I took lessons right away. I wasn’t stupid. I was like: ‘I’m not figuring this out by myself.’ I’ve always been the guy who’s not afraid to ask for directions.”

When he was a teenager, he took beatings from local meatheads who didn’t like his mohawk, and he put on shows at Elks Lodges and American Legion Halls, trying to foster some sort of scene in a town where there was nothing going on. “You’d rent them out and throw shows with your friends’ bands,” he says. “Nobody would book you. When we were starting out, Live Nation wasn’t calling up like: ‘Hey, we wanna give you a show!’ You had to do it yourself.”

Everything changed when The Gaslight Anthem formed in 2006. Fallon was the living embodiment of a Bruce Springsteen song – a blue-collar guy with six strings and nothing to lose – and managed to strike a chord with a generation of punk kids who wanted a little wistfulness with their power chords. The band’s rollicking debut LP, Sink Or Swim, was released by local label XOXO Records in 2007, and Fallon wrote songs for its blockbuster follow up The ’59 Sound, during lunch breaks at his construction job.

Soon after, in 2009, the Boss joined The Gaslight Anthem on stage at Glastonbury. A year later, Fallon returned the favour, performing a rabble-rousing version of Born In The USA classic No Surrender with the E-Street Band at London’s Hyde Park. Then, like clockwork, the backlash started.

Fallon was cast by sections of the press as inauthentic, a grifter with a New Jersey soul and a record collection to match. On the band’s following three records, American Slang, Handwritten and Get Hurt, great songs were swallowed by the ‘dime-store Springsteen’ narrative surrounding their author. In 2015, Gaslight pressed self-destruct.

As a solo artist, though, Fallon has resolutely refused to change his approach. Perhaps it’s that wisdom thing again but he seems more settled now. The Local Honey standout Vincent, for example, is an acoustic lament that recalls Don McLean in its title and references Dolly Parton’s Jolene in its lyrics.

Fallon points at the floor of the café, a collage of album sleeves. “That’s what I feel like I am,” he says. “But also books and TV shows, people, and places I’ve been. I feel like that’s what makes me up. It just comes out. Everybody has influences, even if a lot of people pretend they don’t. I’m not about trying to be original with every new thing. I’m not like: ‘I was born fully formed with all my ideas and I didn’t get this from anybody.’”

In 2018, just as Fallon was beginning to conceptualise his next solo move, The Gaslight Anthem regrouped to tour The ’59 Sound in its entirety to celebrate the LP’s 10th birthday. The experience was enormously validating at times but it also steeled his resolve to carry on under his own steam. The run, which featured dates on the east coast of the US, as well as in the UK and Europe, stirred complicated emotions. “It was not fun,” he says, with emphasis.

Brian Fallon

“It was a mixture of things. It was like a melting pot. There were some parts that were awesome. During [tours for] American Slang and Handwritten especially, there was so much press that was so sarcastic and everything was such an annoyance to me. I felt like people were trying to annoy me from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed. I was so pissed about it that I never got a chance to enjoy the fans.

“I felt like I was being analysed from all sides. I wasn’t. That’s just how it felt. So [the reunion tour] gave me the chance to play those songs and not be pissed. I didn’t care what the press said because we weren’t doing it for them. We were doing it for the fans and for us. That felt really good. The stressful part was that a lot of my head, honestly, was somewhere else musically.”

The Gaslight Anthem didn’t make it as far as the West Coast and turned down serious money to play a big festival show with a band they admired. “I wanted to be doing this other thing,” says Fallon. “If I’d have gone to the West Coast, you might as well have stuck your hand up the back of my shirt and made me a puppet, because that’s what you’d be getting. I did everything I could do. The whole thing with The Gaslight Anthem was based on truth and heart, and the utmost meaning. We meant everything.”

Brian Fallon

During the Songs From The Hymnal run, Fallon was supported by Craig Finn. Those hoping for more Gaslight shows might have noted the manner in which Finn has been able to balance his budding solo career with semi-regular blowouts fronting his cult bar-room rock band The Hold Steady. Fallon thought about it too. But not for long.

“He’s able to switch back and forth, and it drives me crazy,” he says. “I asked him on the tour, like: ‘How do you do that?’ It’s such a different energy. But for him, it might not be. He might be coming from a different place. I think Craig is always Craig. I feel like I’ve changed a lot as a person in a different way.

“I could not write the same songs that I wrote then. I’m not the same person. It doesn’t mean I don’t like the songs. I do. But 27-year-old me and 40-year-old me would probably not hang out. I’m the kind of person who’s not interested in rallying up a crowd. I still go to shows where people do that and I think it’s cool but I can no longer do it. It’s not in my heart. I don’t know why, it’s just not. And faking something? I’d rather be dead than fake. That’s where I’m real punk. You can’t lie to the people.”

Sure things

Fallon seems sure of a lot of things these days. He doesn’t like humbuckers on his Telecaster. He doesn’t need to throw the kitchen sink at songs anymore. Local Honey has helped to set in stone many things that Painkillers and Sleepwalkers only managed to pin down occasionally. It’s full of empty spaces and moments of calm that haven’t been entertained around these parts in the past, and it works because of the confidence in its construction. “You use a blender for blending, you use a microwave for microwaving, and a pot for cooking,” says Fallon. “Use the thing for what it’s designed for. I don’t want to plug in 15 Moog synthesizers. Just give me the Telecaster, it sounds good. Give me the P-90 Les Paul, it sounds great.”

About 15 years into a career that has long provided solace to dreamers in jean jackets and beat-up Chuck Taylors, Fallon is content to walk where he wants to. He hopes his fans will allow him to do his own thing. “The people who heard Sink Or Swim when it was written are also 40 and older,” he says. “The one thing I have on my side is that people understand. They’ve grown up too and they know you change.”

There is something in his voice that betrays the belief that even the most ardent fan of The Gaslight Anthem can accept the truth in that. The glowering punk on the sleeve of The ’59 Sound is who Brian Fallon was. Local Honey is who Brian Fallon is. To pretend otherwise is to die. “I’ve listened to too much Fugazi, that’s the problem,” he says, laughing. “I can’t fake it.”

Brian Fallon’s Local Honey is out 27 March on Thirty Tigers.

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