New Jersey has a long, proud tradition of inspiring people to get the hell out of New Jersey. For the hardest-working band in punk, that just might be their path to glory. [Magazine excerpt]
Four days after Times Square was evacuated on account of an undetonated Pathfinder, it's as swarming with tourists as ever, necks craning from atop Gray Line double-decker buses for better views of the billboards above and the poor flunkies sweating through Elmo and SpongeBob costumes below.
One of these buses, however, contains visitors not from Germany or Indiana, but from New Brunswick, New Jersey (Exit 9, thanks for asking). Mostly it's an excuse to tool around the city on a day custom-made for just that. But at the risk of shining too bright a light on the inner machinations of a contemporary music magazine, the tour bus hired to leisurely chauffeur the Gaslight Anthem around New York City on this brilliant May afternoon is also a metaphor. This band, so associated with blue-collar Jersey lore and iconography that they bring up the Born to Run allusions so you don't have to, have left the comfort of home to seek the big time. Metaphorically speaking. But also, they don't live where they used to.
"Only in New Jersey would the state song be about leaving it," says lead singer/guitarist/majordomo and recent Brooklyn transplant Brian Fallon, firing up another Marlboro Light and ducking low-hanging traffic lights along 42nd Street. He clutches a bottle of Coke while drummer Benny Horowitz, guitarist Alex Rosamilia, and bassist Alex Levine flout open-container laws and swig beers procured from a gouge-happy Times Square bodega -- $55.56 for three six-packs, domestic. All four members have lived within an hour of the city most of their lives, save for the nearly 600 shows they played circa their 2008 breakthrough, The '59 Sound. ("I think that's what makes a Jersey band," says Rosamilia. "They don't ever go home.")
And like many Garden Staters, they're accustomed to being in the shadow of Manhattan rather than in its thrall: close enough to pop in and see a band play, but far enough that enterprising young punks had to make their own fun, staging all-ages shows at the local Elks lodge, as Horowitz did as a teenager. The band suggest a visit to Five Points, the infamous 19th-century slum (see: New York, Gangs of); told that it's now an anonymous block in the financial district, they shrug and go back to their beverages.
"Welcome to our country!" bellows a pedestrian below.
"I want to know what these neighborhoods were like 40 years ago," Fallon, 30, told me earlier. "I'm always looking for that thing because there used to be something to chew on, and now there's nothing."
"There's almost too much going on here for me," says Horowitz, 29, who recently moved from New Brunswick to nearby Jersey City to live with his girlfriend. "My plan was to never really leave central Jersey."
Fallon, however, has grown restless, to his band's benefit. To say that on their third album, American Slang, the Gaslight Anthem have outgrown and outstripped their VFW hall roots is only part of the story. They are alternately homesick and sick of home. Unsurprisingly for a band that has the word anthem in its very name, the record sounds big and sounds like it wants to be big, embracing comparisons to populist world-beaters like Springsteen and Tom Petty in a way that somehow doesn't feel incongruous with the DIY punk world they still very much inhabit.
"Too many bands are embarrassed about success," Fallon says. "If someone tells you they don't aspire to be the biggest band in the world, it's like, why even bother? Who doesn't want to be the Rolling Stones? Where you get lost is when you try to be that."
Put another way: They're pulling out of here to win.
Brooklyn's Prospect Park is a sprawling, lush 585-acre expanse that would be the crown jewel of any city that didn't happen to also have Central Park. Brian Fallon moved two blocks away from its Grand Army Plaza entrance six months ago, but this is his first time here. It's yet another brilliant spring afternoon, a few days before the bus ride, and the park is bustling with people on wheels: walkers, wheelchairs, strollers, bikes.
With most of his exposed skin covered in tattoos, Fallon looks like a refugee from a less genteel corner of the borough as he's parked on a bench sipping a coffee. It could certainly be reasoned that shacking up in Brooklyn is de rigueur for any East Coast band on the make -- sign a lease in Williamsburg, then wait a couple weeks to be featured in glossy roundups with Dirty Projectors. But this is not that Brooklyn, and Brian Fallon is not that wily a strategist.
"I'm not gonna move to Williamsburg; those people freak me out," he says. "But really, I don't care where I live." Fallon's wife, who's from the Bronx, was eager to move back into the city, and she found the apartment while he was in the thick of recording American Slang at the Magic Studio in downtown Manhattan. And with the next year and a half or so set aside for touring, he's not exactly putting down roots. The move was more about where he wasn't living. "I was looking to get lost," he says. "No one I know is from here, no one I admire. Nothing familiar, no history I can gravitate to. I needed to find my own story, away from my parents' and friends' stories. Time for me to put on my own shoes."
Read the entire Gaslight Anthem feature in the July 2010 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now!