Brian Fallon is perched on the edge of a table, cool dad-style. Incidentally, right before our conversation, the Gaslight Anthem frontman-turned-solo artist double-checks his phone to confirm his wife and children are fine. He shows everyone in the room a photo of his daughter lending a helping hand on a film set, grinning widely. Eventually the conversation turns to Fallon’s new solo record, Sleepwalkers. It’s a pastiche of joyous, indulgent rock and roll songs. From the brisk morning Brit-pop of “Her Majesty’s Service” to the ‘60s skiffle-rock of “Forget Me Not” to the Lust For Life train-track rattle of “If Your Prayers Don’t Get To Heaven,” Fallon has mined the fresh-faced abandon and passion of his early listening days.
With Sleepwalkers, named to reflect a state in which we might indulge and explore our dreams and fears, Fallon has made a record cast in hope and optimism. With his last solo LP, 2016’s Painkillers, he sneered at Beatles-ish maxims like, “Love is all we need,” and resolved at the record’s close, “You can’t make me whole/I have to find that on my own.” Now, Fallon is clad in a reproduction of John Lennon’s iconic jean jacket (the “People For Peace” patch has been reversed to read, “Peace For People”), and on the record’s first chorus, he bursts, “I’m not leaving unless I’m leaving here with you!”
“I didn’t have any heart for heartbreak songs,” he says. “I did that for a long time, and I think I’m good on that. I’m more interested in focusing on what’s right about this.” There’s a palpable air of dedication to the sweet side of life. Fallon made the record in New Orleans with producer Ted Hutt, who helmed The Gaslight Anthem’s seminal second and third records, The ‘59 Sound and American Slang. The southern destination was a departure from Fallon’s usual scene. “Nobody in New Jersey plays horns,” he jokes, adding, “Well, they do, but they’re all in Bruce [Springsteen]’s band.”
He mentions that a search for something more “rhythmic” brought him to New Orleans, the home for percussive, brass-driven blues music. “The lyrics were always my thing, and now I think [it’s] the rhythms,” he says. There’s something elemental about rhythm and feel that connects immediately, intuitively. Fallon was in search of that clarity, rather than what he calls “the second interpretation” of those rhythms: the output of white British rockers stealing the work of black soul and blues artists. Recognizing the progenitors of the music he was inspired by led Fallon to an interrogation of his own influences. “Why is rock and roll different from soul and R&B? What moves me so much more when I listen to Sam Cooke sing? That does something to me that Led Zeppelin never could.”
I try to influence the immediate community that I have,” he says. “It’s what’s tangible to me, it’s what I can see. I feel like there’s plenty of work to do there.
Fallon acknowledges that it isn’t his goal, either, to do what Cooke did. “I know I’m not at the ability to play what the Famous Flames [James Brown’s 1950s blues trio] did. I just can’t. But I can cop a little bit of what the Who’s version of that was.” He considers himself a student of the artists he loves, and is cognizant of the complexities of memorializing certain genres. “A lot of research went into it,” he says of Sleepwalkers, noting it’s not a finished process. “It’s a pursuit. I’m pursuing something.”
On Sleepwalkers, those passions tangle with the blunt reality that, one day, they will cease to exist. Seven of the record’s 12 tracks mention death or dying; “Proof Of Life” suggests that Fallon’s enduring love will be proof he lived at all, while “See You On The Other Side” is fairly self-explanatory. The death of Tom Petty, long one of Fallon’s greatest inspirations, brought the point to a sobering head. “That solidified the feeling that I was right, that it doesn’t go on forever.”
While he was writing Sleepwalkers, he says, “I decided not to be guarded about it. I said, ‘I feel this way, I bet you a lot of people feel this way.’ I thought it was a pretty common thing to go through, to be like, ‘This is temporary. This isn’t permanent.’ And what does that mean? Because now I have something to lose. I have kids. What do I do with that? Where do I put those feelings?” He pauses a beat, and shrugs, “I don’t think you put them anywhere. I don’t think there’s any answers. You express them however you do it, and that pacifies the worry. ‘Alright, I said it.”
But of all the anxieties and fears Fallon expresses, that cold fact of mortality confirmed an even more critical lesson: “You have to be able to find the joy in it happening,” he says simply. For Fallon, that joy is derived from community. “I’m a team guy,” he grins. “I like an ‘us.’ [On Painkillers] I needed to express a lot of stuff, and I needed to resolve a lot of conflicts that were presented on [Gaslight Anthem’s 2014 release] Get Hurt.” If Painkillers was the sound of Fallon closing off and learning to love himself, Sleepwalkers is him coming out of his shell again, returning to his feet. “‘Us’ records really help. Early Springsteen records, it was always him and someone else. It was always ‘us.’” Amid a couple of banner years for division in his country, Fallon remains hopeful that the ‘us’ can prevail. “I still have this hope that people want to help each other,” he says intently.
If you don’t hold out for hope, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna get bitter and just die?
Fallon’s part, as he sees it, is working with those closest to him. “I try to influence the immediate community that I have,” he says. “It’s what’s tangible to me, it’s what I can see. I feel like there’s plenty of work to do there.” But that extends beyond his family and friends. Fallon sees his shows as a space to foster that same hope in others. “If I create a unity between the people that are coming to the shows, if you can create that space and that environment of encouragement, you can inspire all those people.”
Fallon’s voice here is inflected with an almost boyish excitement, like a kid lighting up about his favourite comic books. His is the sort of earnest positivity that could scrape away a jaded lacquer. On Sleepwalkers as in life, Fallon appeals to the better angels of our nature. Even as he deals in the crestfallen language of broken American dreams (“We sold our souls on the fantasies we found in records and black and white movies”), he believes in something more down the line.
“If you don’t hold out for hope, what are you gonna do? Are you gonna get bitter and just die?” Fallon looks incredulous, perplexed by the idea. “That sounds awful. I don’t wanna do that.” He has other aspirations, and his eyes light up again as he lays out his plan for the future, his face animated and mischievous. “I have a lot of interest in becoming that old man that kids are scared of to go on their front lawn during Halloween. ‘That’s old man Fallon’s house, leave it alone!’ Tom Waits does it really well. If I could grow up to be a Tom Waits character, that’d be great.”