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How Pearl Jam Shaped the Gaslight Anthem’s ‘Handwritten’

The Gaslight Anthem's Brian Fallon / Photo by Danny Clinch

Stories have endings. For Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon, Springsteen-esque tales of New Jersey dreamers was enough narrative grist for three exuberant, empathetic albums of chiming, propulsive rock’n’roll. It was not enough for a fourth. “I was out of ideas,” says Fallon, speaking on the phone. “I’d said what I had to say. The new album is me and the band figuring out how to move on and grow.”

As Fallon explains it, that process wasn’t easy. The day before the July 24 release of that album, Handwritten, the singer-guitarist spoke about the hard questions and harder answers with which he and his band had to grapple in order to stay alive.

On your first three albums, you used such a specific lyrical style. You wrote a lot about specific characters and put them in plots. That’s less prevalent on the new album. Given how stylized your writing had been, was it especially difficult to try a new approach?
I definitely made a conscious effort to change. It’s like, I read a quote a couple of months ago from Tom Waits. He was talking about how people always asked him how he developed his style. He said that early on, he’d wanted to be a Broadway crooner, and on his early albums that’s what he was trying hard to do. But then he realized that’s not who he was. It wasn’t him. I had a similar thing, where I realized that I wasn’t the same person that had written the songs on the earlier albums.

Was that a scary thing to realize?
It made me stumble for a minute. I was like, I don’t want to write about this stuff anymore. The old songs still mean something to me, but they’re not who I am now. The only option for me was to open up a notebook and start over. It was either do that or be the culmination of my influences for the rest of my life. With lyrics, my feeling was that it’s too much work if I was going to keep going, “You gotta throw a little Van Morrison in there and a little Neil Young in there. You gotta put a little Sam Cooke in there.” What was that communicating? That I liked those bands a lot? Our influences have music that already exists in the world. We don’t need to be them. I’m not talking trash about our records. I think they’re great. But they’re not who I am anymore.

It seems to me that it might be easier to change lyrical perspectives than musical ones. Did you attempt making music in a new way, also?
We sat in a room and jammed like we were kids, which is something we hadn’t done before. What I used to do, I was way into, “All the guys in the ’60s and ’70s used tape echoes. So I’ll use tape echo, too. They didn’t use any effects, so I’m not gonna.” Why? It doesn’t fit for us anymore. All the guys in the band are around 30-years-old. We’re ’90s kids. We grew up on grunge. The first music that I ever discovered myself that made me want to smash my parents’ living room was Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I started thinking about, like, “What was the essence of Pearl Jam?” They like Neil Young and the Who, but they didn’t emulate them. They mixed everything together. That realization gave us a lot of freedom. We used a wah-wah pedal on the album. Before, it would’ve been, “We don’t do wah-wah pedals.”

Tell me about the decision to work with producer Brendan O’Brien.
We talked to so many producers. And they were all like, “You guys have released great records and big bands like you — now you need a big hit single.” And we were like, “Oh my gosh.” I love that Gotye song, but I can’t sit down and write that. I don’t even think he can. A hit single for a rock band is a fluke. It’s an accident. But Brendan called me up and he goes, “Listen, I really like your records. I wanna do your next record. This is what I need you to do: Don’t talk to me about singles or radio-play. You need to write songs that mean more to you than anything.” I was like, “Okay, man! Not only do I want to do a record with you, can you adopt me for a little while?”

Is there a song on Handwritten that felt like a turning point for you? One that made you think you were getting closer to the sound you were chasing?
When I did the Horrible Crowes album, it taught me that I can do anything. Nothing is off-limits. The only limit is what you put on yourself. It’s like a Bon Iver or Modest Mouse theory — like, “I’m gonna take a tin pan and smash it against the wall and make a beat out of it.” We didn’t take it that far, but that theory of “Anything Is Okay” made me hungry to chase down new songs. One of the first ones we wrote for the new album was “45.” And I was like, “This is what I’m looking for!” It’s up-tempo and it sounds good but it’s so simple. With that one, it was just, say it like you’re talking and do what you mean. That was it. So that’s what we did.