My conversation with Gaslight Anthem drummer Benny Horowitz was a long one, with us getting off-topic several times and discussing things like the small towns we’re from and his food service/delivery days. “I don’t want to deliver pizzas anymore. I’m damn good at it though. These kids today take their fucking time; I was an aggressive driver. I used to know how to navigate New Brunswick without having to make a single left turn!”
And New Brunswick is where it all started for The Gaslight Anthem, around 2005. They emerged from a rich tradition of NJ punk and hardcore, but they’re definitely not pigeonholed. They drew from the scene around them as well as the once long gone old Asbury Park sound, even throwing in some Motown and R&B influence that is unmistakable when listening to their records. Coupled with Brian Fallon’s always-relatable lyrics, it is literally the perfect blend—but how do they pull it off?
“Practice!” Benny says. “Lots of trial and error, lots of experimenting that takes us somewhere else. We could be working on one thing, and stumble onto something totally different. There are actually so many mediocre songs that we just kind of threw out; we’re always trying to improve as musicians and challenge ourselves to learn new things. Prior to The ‘59 Sound we were just kind of figuring out all that Motown and R&B stuff, but we really nailed it on that album. On American Slang we somehow worked in some of that old English blues; we’re always trying new things and looking for new sounds.”
As far as the lyrics go, I challenge anyone at any age to listen to the entire discography and not find at least three songs you don’t totally relate to. I became familiar with the band myself around the time “The ‘59 Sound” was released as a radio single. I had just lost a friend in a car accident, and I heard it maybe three or four days later. It hurt like hell in the best way possible—in a real way. I mentioned this, and I got the impression that Benny and the guys hear that a lot from people.
“Melody and lyrics are Brian’s departments, we learned that very early on. He’s really good at it, and we trust him more than ourselves. He’s just a ‘normal dude,’ you know, and he has this incredible gift of the pen. I don’t know how he does it, but he always does. And it’s incredibly validating for all of us. He can write something with an open meaning, we can play it, and people can put it into a context that suits their personal pain or experiences and that’s fucking awesome. I’m proud that people can take so much from our songs.”
There is a definite Jersey Shore vibe to their music, and a ‘Jersey is home’ theme to many of the songs… much like another NJ superstar. “Yeah, I grew up in the hardcore scene, and I wasn’t really into Bruce Springsteen until I met Brian. I only started paying attention to him recently, in the last three or four years, and he’s become a big influence to myself and the other guys—definitely from a songwriting aspect. We got the opportunities to meet and play with him. It was surreal. I feel like we’re forever intertwined with that now, and it’s pretty neat.”
Ten years or so ago, the New Brunswick scene was intense. A lot of bands came up and also died in that scene. I asked Benny which bands most influenced him while he was growing up and I felt 13 again myself, with how stoked he still was on this music. “Bands like Lifetime, Visions, Dead Guy… and all the leaders of Jersey hardcore in the ‘90s. It was a rough scene. Hard, heavy bands who also utilized melody… that was born in Jersey. Bands like Thursday and My Chemical Romance are still doing it, and doing a damn good job. Our approach has been the same I’d say.” From my own experiences, I can corroborate that the New Brunswick scene was super rich and diverse; I would go to someone’s basement and see three bands from Jersey and six from Baltimore or New York.
“It’s always been about the location; New Jersey is just the best! There is never a lack of music or bands; we have Philly, NYC, the beach and all the little cities and towns in Jersey all coming together in one spot to just fucking play. And then when venues got shut down, and there was nowhere to play, kids started throwing basement shows. They wouldn’t put the addresses on the flyers because they knew the cops would try to shut it down. They just wouldn’t let it die. And it’s amazing. That’s my biggest complaint, though: the lack of actual venues in central Jersey. Small venues have been missing for like, the last 20 years. Kids need a place to play in front of like, 50 or 200 people that won’t get shut down. We need to work on that.”
As Jersey proud as the guys are, things from an international standpoint look pretty fantastic as well. After Bamboozle they’re heading for Germany, and will then run all around Europe as well. “We’ve been to the U.K., central Europe, Australia… we went early in our career, as cheesy as that sounds, and we did it the dirty way; same way we did it in the U.S. We had a six-week tour in Germany shortly after the first record came out, and it really paid off. We got to play for so many people, and we enjoyed it so much. It was great. And now we have great fans all over the world.”
Seeing Gaslight live is always a treat, no matter what continent you live on. I’m not entirely sure how they manage it but they combine a high-energy, insane performance with a really fun and chilled out atmosphere. “Getting up and playing is the best feeling in the world. We really care, and we’re really passionate about what we do. Seeing people react the way they do just helps put it all in perspective. The four of us just kinda feed off each other on stage, and it builds and builds.”
On April 30, they take the stage at Bamboozle. “I’ve always been a Giants fan… if someone told me five years ago I’d be playing the Meadowlands I’d have been like, ‘No way, dude, shut the fuck up! [Laughs] I remember when Bamboozle used to be Surf & Skate over in Asbury, it’s so cool to be a part of this.” I think something that sets The Gaslight Anthem apart from a lot of other bands I’ve met and worked with over the years is that, even with their worldwide presence and the continually rising fame of the band, they’re still completely humble in the face of it all.
“Yeah, this success is definitely not a burden to us. Things are easier, we’re not complaining. We had to work hard for everything we have. I hear a lot of bands complain. It’s hard to leave home, and leave your girlfriend and sacrifice—I’m not saying it isn’t. But this is still pretty much the best fucking job in the world, and anyone who can seriously complain has to be semi-impaired. But at the same time, with a lot of these young kids, I can’t blame some of them. They’re 17 years old and they’re in a van or on a bus traveling, everything is taken care of for them, everything is handled. They’re fed, they have places to sleep. It’s so easy for the younger kids to lose perspective and forget what real life is: going home and working a job you hate, to pay bills and worrying that in the future you might just end up some fucking loser. A lot of them never even have to experience that in the first place. I know it’s not easy… but it could have been a lot rougher for some of them. You know? We‘re just trying to not lose ourselves.”
I’d say they’re doing a pretty great job of that, as well as gaining a lot of fans in the process. At the end of every interview, I like to ask if there’s anything else I should mention, something I maybe didn’t cover. Benny’s message is pretty simple: “Stop being cocks to other people. Just play.”
See The Gaslight Anthem headline at Bamboozle on April 30. For news, updates and tour info you can check out gaslightanthem.com.