There are many bands that have created a certain style and have gone on to great places because of it. AC/DC will never do anything different than they did on 1975’s High Voltage, but that comfort zone has sold millions of records for the 38 years that they’ve been around. Other artists, such as Pearl Jam and Tom Petty, have been more experimental, willing themselves to evolve and purposely changing tactics to enhance their signature sound.
The Gaslight Anthem hail from that school of restless soul searching. Even before the New Brunswick, NJ foursome released Sink Or Swim in 2007, they had the mindset to push themselves to greater compositional heights with each performance and consecutive release. Brian Fallon may have an affinity for Bruce Springsteen and his music, but he is also a songwriter that doesn’t spend too much time looking in the rear view mirror, and the proof of that is in Gaslight Anthem’s latest batch of dirty, rock ‘n’ roll gems.
Handwritten is the band’s fourth full-length release—the first via Mercury Records—and demonstrates a group in the moment of discovering that sought-after signature style while entering a multi-dimensional arena of commercial and critical success.
To support this latest record, the quartet has been out on the road, playing a massive number of worldwide dates from Paris to Dusseldorf and everywhere in between. I had a chance to speak with drummer Benny Horowitz on a break in Spain about the new record, the direction they’re going in, and the tough vision that makes The Gaslight Anthem burn so brightly.
Handwritten looks to be the most focused record to date. What was the initial spark that led to this compositional and directional breakout?
We always write on tour and had some good ideas and direction early on. But when we got together last winter and started writing it, “45” was the real catalyst. Brian made a bare-bones demo of that song; we brought it to the space and worked on it. We were really pleased with it and that started the domino effect of putting the rest of the record into place. Once Brian gets rolling in a certain direction, he typically pours out with ideas.
When I think of the band, visions of Tom Petty, Gin Blossoms, Social Distortion and Thin Lizzy are the first that hit me. So, are the constant comparisons with Springsteen a bothersome roadblock or a lifelong compliment for the band?
It’s definitely not a roadblock. The only thing it could possibly hinder is the band having its own identity, which we all believe will come in time if we keep writing good music and doing our own thing. We’re a relatively young band, and until you write your own narrative, people tend to write it for you. We’re not being compared to Vanilla Ice, either… He’s a pretty legit guy.
I know you’ve been quoted as saying that you and guitarist Alex Rosamilia were Bruce Springsteen “appreciators” who really didn’t start listening to him until you both joined the band. I’m assuming Brian got you into him?
I guess it sort of happened by default. It’s not like Brian blasts it all the time in the van and pushes it on people. But the guy came on stage and played with us, he pet my dog at a barbecue… Wouldn’t be a very nice thing if I didn’t start rocking some of his music.
Brendan O’Brien’s production style on Handwritten showcases a stark and relatable mixture of maturity and musical rebellion. Would you say that this is the underlying theme behind Handwritten?
I think only people who write for magazines say phrases like “stark and relatable mixture of maturity and musical rebellion.” Ha ha! As usual, we’re just trying to write a good rock and roll record that we walk away from the studio proud of. All other things fall in line with that recipe. But I do think that this would be the record with the least underlying themes; the music and lyrics are pretty up front.
When you weren’t recording Handwritten over at Blackbird Studios, what did you guys do for fun in Nashville?
We were in the studio the bulk of our time there. We were actually fairly pathetic tourists. Had some drinks and dinner with friends a couple of times but it was very low-key. Mostly just hung out together in a house we rented about 15 minutes out of downtown.
Was Handwritten a lengthy pre-production journey or was it done in a sudden burst of creative fury behind “45?”
It was fairly easy. We wrote for a couple of months in the winter. We had nine or 10 songs written when Brendan came to NJ for a few days of pre-production over at Treehouse Studios in Jersey City. Then we were supposed to have four days of pre-production when we got to Nashville but on the second day he said we were ready to start recording… And we started.
The record has a gritty, organic vibe and barroom feel. Was it recorded in a live setting?
It was the most live setting we’ve recorded in since Sink Or Swim. Most of the songs were tracked in a full band setting. A great upside to working with Brendan is he is more focused on how a track feels instead of the “perfect” track. It makes the music much more alive.
I think one of the most interesting things about the record is that it covers several styles ranging from punk to classic rock without any loss of continuity or directional malfunctions. What is the formula for putting 11 songs together and getting them to flow so well?
Thanks for the compliment. Not really sure—it’s always how we’ve written songs together. No one, including us, wants to hear the same song over and over again. There are many collective influences through the band, too. You’d be surprised at what’s on our iPods. But in reality, who knows. It’s pretty impossible to pinpoint.
You seem to take great interest in rewarding fan loyalty. What is the 45 RPM Club all about?
Just a way to reach to our biggest fans and get them on some band-related things faster. Tickets were a big thing: We were/are having problems with ticket companies who gobble up all the early tickets and mark them up at absurd rates online. We thought this could be a good way to reach out to people who really want them, at a fair price, first. We also do a 7″ every year for the club, the first one coming this winter. We have great and supportive fans; it’s important to show our appreciation.
Sink Or Swim was on XOXO Records, but The ‘59 Sound and American Slang were both done with SideOneDummy. Was the move to Mercury a happy one based on the inevitable growth of the band?
Yeah, there were no hard feelings on our end or SideOneDummy’s end. We have a great relationship and they’re happy for us. Our deal was up with them and we decided to hear what different labels had to say. We found some big fans at other places that had the mechanism in place to grow the band a bit more.
As a kid, did you ever think that you would be stepping onto the big stages that you used to watch bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden play on? I mean, do you ever just shake your head and laugh about where you’ve ended up?
It’s a funny question for me. I got sold on the rock and roll dream when I was little kid, playing along in my basement to Guns N’ Roses and Skid Row records and shit. So I guess it’s something I’ve always wanted. But it’s been a long and interesting road getting here, and I realize how many variables and how much luck had to happen for me to do this. So, I make a concerted effort to stop myself every day, look around and remember to enjoy the ride.
I know you were overseas at the time, but as residents of New Jersey, I know you’ve had to be affected by Hurricane Sandy in some way. Did any of you have family or friends with homes that were damaged in the shore area?
Definitely. Almost everyone we know was affected in some way or another. Some much worse than others. Luckily nothing tragic happened to people I know but there is a lot of work to do when we get home. A poster designed by El Jefe will go to auction in the next week or so, where all proceeds will go to the rebuilding effort.
The band has recorded four studio albums, two EPs, and eight singles, and you’re a world renowned act. That’s quite an accomplishment for a six-year-old band. What else do you guys have up your sleeve?
Just keeping on. I mean, at this point, I would just have to say, stick around, we’ll all see what happens next.
The Gaslight Anthem will be at Philly’s Electric Factory on Nov. 27 and NYC’s Terminal 5 from Nov. 28-30. For more information on Handwritten, head over to thegaslightanthem.com.