Q&A: Sleepwalking with Brian Fallon

By Chris Davidson
February 09, 2018
Photo Courtesy of the Artist

“Time is a strange thing,” Brian Fallon said to me when I phoned him on the afternoon of January 31st as we both wondered how February was a mere 12 hours away.

“It seems like the older I get, time moves faster and faster. When I was a kid, it would just drag forever. But now it’s this ever-present ticking clock. Whenever you’re home, you’re always counting down to what’s next. ‘I’ve only got three weeks. I’ve only got two days.'”

Though his latest music output has slowed down just a tad from his punk rock roots, Fallon’s days with New Jersey‘s The Gaslight Anthem are not too far behind him. The shows in support of the tenth anniversary of the band’s seminal album, The ’59 Sound (which shot them out of a cannon after Bruce Springsteen joined the band onstage at Glastonbury 2009) means he will be fielding Gaslight-related questions at least part of 2018.

However, this first half of the year belongs to the release of Fallon’s second solo album, Sleepwalkers. Bringing back an old friend, producer Ted Hutt (The ’59 SoundAmerican Slang), the new environment of New Orleans helped shape Fallon’s musical explorations as he turned out lyrics that were less about nostalgia and broken relationships and instead focused more on positivity and moving forward.

ALARM: Including The Gaslight Anthem, the Horrible Crowes and your solo material, you’ve released 8 full-length records in 11 years and that’s not counting EPs and B-side collections. What drives you to be so prolific?

Brian Fallon: I have this insatiable desire to get better at what I’m doing. For a while, I thought something was a little bit off in me because I was able to sit down and have this weird sensation in me that I needed to practice. So when I started taking piano lessons six months ago, I would play for far longer than you think would be appropriate to practice. It wasn’t a compulsion though. It was more like an enjoyable thing, but I kept wondering if it was normal. I would look down at my fingers, especially with guitar, and notice them almost turning blue. I’d tell myself that I probably needed to chill out, but something inside would say that I couldn’t.  But also it’s fun, so I want to write songs and do it as much as I can. If you get to do something cool, you want to do it all of the time.

 

I have this insatiable desire to get better at what I’m doing.

Steven Hyden alluded to this a few weeks, but I also had noticed a theme in the record titles with Painkillers and Sleepwalkers. Did the trilogy begin with Get Hurt or are you working on the final one-word record?

(Laughs) There’s definitely no cohesive plan between any of them. What I told him was that the subconscious will not be denied. If you allow yourself to sit down and tell the story as it happens, the things that are happening in your mind will eventually find their way out. You can control it to a degree, and I will say sometimes I’ve done that. I usually look at the records like snapshots and the borders of which are framed like a picture. The picture no longer extends beyond the border of the frame. So when I’m doing another record, it’s almost like I’m hanging another picture in this sort of collage, and when I look at them, they all have these thick borders that won’t penetrate each other. But at the same time, I can look and see where thoughts came up at one point and then progressed and came back up in another.

It always irritated me that the Pink Floyd song “Pigs on the Wing” was split up into three parts because I just want to listen to it as one song. I really like that song, and on the record, it’s the first track, middle track, and the last track. But I know it’s one song and I wish I could hear it as one. There are themes that come up especially if you’re looking at the same writer. Bob Dylan does it a lot. Bruce does it, too. You can find these little phrases that are similar and you’re just kind of gnawing at it because you want to figure it out. There are songwriters who go out and tell you the answer, and then there are songwriters who are searching for something and they never quite reach the answer because there may not be an answer. I find myself in that latter camp where I don’t really know what I’m trying to get to, but I’m getting somewhere and I keep just ticking away at it.

To that point, you made about running themes, songs like “Neptune” reference lyrics like “Ferris wheel” and “among other foolish things” from your previous solo record and work with the Gaslight Anthem. Was that an intentional decision in your writing this time around?

Neptune is a city in New Jersey by Asbury Park. The references in that song are about that time when we were coming up and trying to start the band and get everything going. It’s so funny because I go back there now as a 38-year-old with two kids. It seems so different, yet not much has changed. I was just hanging out there one day and then came home and started jotting down some words. It was really odd. I felt connected to the place, but also very distant from my life that was before because now I have a whole different life. Then it was much different. That’s where the line about “I never held any grudges/I never kept any pictures” comes from. It’s so weird when I was sitting there thinking about it. I don’t have any reminders or mementos from the early days of the band. I don’t have any show fliers or posters. It wasn’t intentional; I’m just not one of those people. And at the same time, I have this long list of people I could be mad at, but I’m just not. I feel like I’m not the kind of person to hold onto anything that’s just gone. I’m always trying to find the next thing because you can’t go back. It’s been slammed in my face so hard that you can’t go back. Now as an adult and a father, I’ve embraced that because it’s starting to come out in the songs. A lot of people get caught in looking back, and a lot of this record deals with that.

You recorded the album in New Orleans. Was that your first time recording there?

I have had that idea and a little bit of a bug in my ear to record in New Orleans for a long time. It just never worked, and this time we found the Parlor Studios, which happened to work out great.

You’ve recorded in Nashville several times. How did the musical legacy and environment of New Orleans affect the recording process for this album?

New Orleans was awesome; it was a lot different than I expected. I expected it to be a lot of jazz and blues, but then there’s this whole other element. I think it comes from the French side that came in. I guess they call it the Zydeco music. I’m not real hip to it; I was just gaining pieces of information while I was down there. There’s this cool way they do things where it’s kind of folk music and it’s kind of soul music, but it’s not really either one of those. It’s this unique sound that’s a real dirty blues. It’s a lot of those sharp notes to the majors, a Louie Armstrong type of thing. I was going everywhere I could to just listen. Some of the street musicians were better than people I’ve seen at Radio City Music Hall.

ALARM: Jazz and soul music seem to give you that freedom to mess around with those “sharps to the majors” as you mentioned.

Let me show you I’m talking about. [Goes to piano and starts playing examples of note changes]. I call it like a “stank”. There’s a little stank on the note. That’s a thing that I wouldn’t have normally picked up. Up here in New Jersey, it’s hyper soul music. All the older players are into Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. I just know it by instinct now. But when I went down [to New Orleans], they were hitting all these crass notes that struck my mind as something you shouldn’t do, but they were making it really groove.

You can definitely hear it all over the record.

It’s like little notes. There are weird notes in some of the songs that I never used before on previous records. They’re little melodies that twist up.

Obviously, you had the New Orleans sounds, but you also started bringing in your British influences as well. “Come Wander With Me” especially gives off a vibe of early Rough Trade and Two Tone records.

The whole British thing that I was taking, which comes across in the first song [“If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven”], it was all of that R&B they were doing where they were copying the American artists. They had transistor radios, so when they would try to figure out the songs, they would get chords wrong because they weren’t able to hear the whole thing right because of technology at the time. Then they eventually adopted mod and Jamaican styles because the Jamaican immigrants were coming to England. Punk was not even a thing yet. They were bringing in the Jamaican influence and then you had The Clash and The Jam. This influenced the early Bodysnatchers records because they have this deep soul groove that’s like reggae, but it’s not quite reggae. It’s more like dub.

I was goofing around one day with the riff to that song, and I wondered what it would sound like if the Bodysnatchers did a record now. But then I thought I couldn’t do it and people weren’t going to accept this from me. But it was so much fun I couldn’t deny it. It was some deep dub stuff in there, and we had to work a lot at that. For the bass lines and stuff, I didn’t know what to do. I had to hire the best bass player I know. I flew him in from Minneapolis to come play with us because there was so much stuff that was beyond my capabilities. But he just understood and knew what needed to be done.

As we’ve established, you’re a British music fan, and your father is also British. Is this why you have so many references to the Queen in your music?

I don’t understand what it’s like to be under a queen. I understand what it’s like to be under a president. But there’s not like this majesty about it. When the Queen comes, there are guards and there’s a palace. They raise the flag when the Queen is home. It’s a major event. You have to call her Your Majesty; that’s a big deal. I guess it’s partially being raised by my mom. You look up to the woman who’s in charge rather than the typical family or a male figure.

For me, it’s always been a thing, especially on this record because I took it in a different spin because of the soul and blues music I was listening to. A lot of it is like bad relationships and I had previously been writing about bad relationships for a long time. I got tired of that and I asked myself what if I started writing about good stuff that happened. I got inspired by that positivity and also from the positivity of the R&B, reggae and ska music. So I just took the majesty of the Queen and the positivity of the music and married it all together.

A lot has been written about your relationship with Bruce Springsteen, but one of last year’s big deaths was Tom Petty. Did you ever spend time with him?

I went to his rehearsal space one time. A friend of mine took me there, but I never met him. I’ve seen him live once. I used to ask Bruce about him. But I think Tom is the closest that we’ve had to really slamming home runs like how The Beatles did, how Elvis did. He just really wrote those songs that were in the fabric of your mind. It was almost like those songs existed long before him. That was a sad thing when you realized there was not going to be any more of those songs. That died with him. Nobody is writing songs like that.

Going back to the record, the sequencing seems very intentional. “If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven” and “See You On The Other Side” bookend the record with an afterlife theme, and there is a run in the middle of nighttime-themed songs.

We spent a lot of time on that. We settled on a feeling that matched the lyrics. We wanted to bookend the record with the beginning and the end, so that was set. We filled in the rest so that when you listened to it, you experience a journey. I feel like it’s set up like how a night would be. That wasn’t intentional in the writing, but afterward with I had the name Sleepwalkers, then it felt like it needed to flow like a dream where one song would carry into and introduce the next.

You’ve had the name the Crowes for your backing band on your last few tours. What is the story behind the new band name, the Howling Weather?

We didn’t have a story; it just sounded cool. I wanted to name it something different because each band had a vibe to it, and the people in them had a vibe together. I tried to keep it so that each incarnation has its own identity. This band is a trimmed down one where it’s just a four-piece. It needed a new name, and the Howling Weather sounded like the right name for the band.

Recently, The Gaslight Anthem announced you will be playing a string of shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of The ’59 Sound and you’ll be playing the record in full both in the US and abroad. You’re going to have a busy year with those shows and your solo record release. How do you plan to balance all of that?

The anniversary was coming up, and then my record was done. I wasn’t sure whether the record was going to come out in the fall or in the winter of the new year. Then everything just came out at the same time. It felt like a lot of stuff to do. But then I realized it wasn’t such a bad thing. You can give people the chance to see The ’59 Sound thing and then they can see the Sleepwalkers tour too if they want. And it seemed like ignoring the anniversary was not a good idea. It’s a cool record, and I want to acknowledge the fact that it’s ten years old. Even though the band’s not really doing new stuff, we didn’t break up. We all talked about it and thought it doesn’t really mean anything if we just go out and play. It doesn’t mean we have to start full-time touring again or we don’t have to make a new record. We could just have fun with the record we already have. And we’re going to do more than what we’ve already announced.

There’s a video going around of you playing “The ’59 Sound” on piano. Is that something people will start seeing more of at your solo shows? Incorporating Gaslight Anthem songs in that manner?

Definitely. If I was doing Gaslight songs with another band, I would feel super weird and the guys would probably feel weird. If I’m doing different versions on the piano, then I think it’s okay. It’s cool because I’m getting to do something new and fun for me. At the same time, people are getting to hear something new and different. It allows me to have one foot in each world.

Sleepwalkers is out now via Island Records. To purchase or stream the album, click here
By Chris Davidson February 09, 2018
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