When Rolling Stone catches up with Brian Fallon, the New Jersey native is in Los Angeles, and feeling a bit like a fish out of water. "I like it out here, but I don't understand it," he says. He admits, however, that this isn't necessarily L.A.'s fault: "I'm one of those people who, even if I'm invited somewhere, I still kinda feel like I'm not supposed to be there. And that's just the way I feel out here all the time. I'm always looking around, like, 'Am I doing something wrong?'"
But getting comfortable in unfamiliar spaces is something that the 36-year-old Fallon, who has spent a decade fronting chest-beating Garden State rock heroes the Gaslight Anthem, is going to have to start getting used to. The day following this conversation, he will hop a flight to Arizona to kick off the official tour in support of Painkillers, his first-ever solo album, out March 11th. As for how he feels about being out on his own after so many years in a band? "I try not to think about it too much," he says with a laugh. "Because it's all on you. There's no shielding."
As a songwriter, Fallon has always seemed unafraid to reveal personal details — the Gaslight Anthem's last album, 2014's Get Hurt, dealt in part with his then-recent divorce — but Painkillers presents quite possibly the most unshielded portrait of the artist yet. And it does so by placing his characteristically confessional lyrics in a more intimate musical setting, largely eschewing the swelling, electrified punk-rock-tinged anthems of Fallon's other band in favor of something more small-screen, rootsy and acoustic. In the nimbly fingerpicked "Steve McQueen," he laments an existence that is "only chains," as he imagines himself as the titular movie star, while on the album's leadoff track and first single, "A Wonderful Life" (admittedly, with its insistent snare hits and whoa-oh-oh gang-vocal backing, the most Gaslight-sounding of the bunch), he lays out his longing for a "life on fire/Goin' mad with desire."
"That's probably one of the simplest and most direct songs I've ever written," Fallon says of "A Wonderful Life." "It's about what I'm striving for, both personally and musically. What we're all striving for, really — people just want their lives to mean something." And while he acknowledges the song's Gaslight-y feel, he also says, "I'm the primary writer in that band, so, yeah, some of this stuff is going to sound similar. That's just me. But overall, I had to take a bit of a different approach. I didn't want to make a record that was competing with the sound of the band, because then why not just do the band?"
Fallon, of course, had been doing the band for a long time. And a few years back, it could have been said that if Gaslight Anthem were not the biggest rock act in the world, they were certainly among the most critically lauded. Their breakthrough second album, 2008's The '59 Sound, and in particular the title track, a driving, lighter-waving rumination on young life — and young death — launched them to "Next Big Thing" status. Soon the band was sharing stages with the likes of Eddie Vedder and the Boss himself, and being championed in the press with phrases like "the saviors of rock & roll."
"That was a lot," Fallon admits. "Especially the whole 'saviors of rock' thing. I mean, we were in our 20s at the time — I would look at guys like Bruce, who wrote Born to Run when he was 25, and all I could think was, I'm not writing anything like that. So in a way all the praise actually just made me feel worse about things." To illustrate his point, he recalls an interaction with a journalist from that time: "I'm on the phone with this guy and he says to me, 'People compare you to Bruce Springsteen. I don't think you've written a song as good as "Dancing in the Dark" or "I'm on Fire."' And all I could think was, 'Me neither!'" Fallon laughs. "But it's like, we never said those things about the band. You guys said those things about the band. We just wanted to play some music."
But by 2014, Fallon and the rest of the Gaslight Anthem weren't sure if they should still be playing music together at all. They tried expanding their sound on Get Hurt, incorporating Moogs, old synths and even some grungy, metal-tinged riffing into the mix in an effort to reinvigorate the band. But while on tour in support of the album, they decided to pull the plug, at least for a while. "We were all on the bus or backstage after a show, and we just got to talking," Fallon says. "And the conversation was, 'We've taken this thing really far ... now what?' And I don't think any of us had an answer. So then it was, 'We're at a crossroads. No one knows what to do. Let's do nothing.' Because we didn't want to ruin it."
Soon after that conversation, the band put out a statement announcing an extended hiatus. Then, in February of last year, Fallon got to work on the material that would become Painkillers. A few tracks, including the rollicking folk-rockers "Smoke" and "Red Lights," had been in the can since before Get Hurt, and for the newer songs he was writing, he says, "I kinda went back to the places I wrote from when I was really young. I pulled out my early Dylan records and did it the way I did it in the beginning — just me and an acoustic guitar, telling stories."
When it came time to record the new tunes, Fallon found a kindred spirit in Butch Walker, known for his work with Keith Urban, Pink and Taylor Swift, among many others. "He was recommended to me by a bunch of friends, and I went to meet him, basically to say, 'I come from a band. I don't know how to do things on my own. I really need a partner on this.'" Fallon recalls. "And we just started talking. I told him who I was: 'Look, I like Tom Petty. I like Bruce Springsteen. I like pop music. Rock. Folk. Punk. Whatever.' And Butch related to me on all these levels. I felt like, 'This is my guy, and I can trust what he says because he's coming from the same spot.' He became like a guide, almost."
The two decamped to Nashville to record at Walker's personal studio, Traxidermy, and the songs, for the most part, came quick. One, a mid-tempo stomper titled "Mojo Hand," was written "in a couple of minutes," Fallon says. "I put it together and showed it to Butch and said, 'Let's just play it one or two times and then record it.' He listened to it, and immediately he said, 'This kind of feels like the Beatles to me. I'm gonna play a Beatles beat!' And he jumped on the drums and did it. I was like, 'That sounds awesome. I had never thought of that!' That was kind of the spirit of the whole record. It was just about having fun."
Fallon hopes to carry that easygoing vibe with him out on the road. To that end, for the Painkillers tour he has assembled a backing unit that consists entirely of friends and band members, among them Gaslight Anthem guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Catherine Popper, with whom he collaborated in the side project Molly and the Zombies, and guitarist Ian Perkins, from another side project, the Horrible Crowes. "We already did a short run in some smaller places, and the reception was great," Fallon says. "It was unfamiliar music, but people were listening, they were quiet." He laughs. "And I didn't even ask them to be quiet!"
In general, Fallon is just enjoying being in what he deems a lower-pressure situation. "Because I've spent a lot of time in the past in situations that had a lot of pressure. But now I have a pretty optimistic outlook on things," he says, "And with the band, I'm just so appreciative now of everything we achieved together. I mean, back when we were first jamming in Alex's basement in Jersey, no one ever said, 'Hey dude, you know, we're probably gonna play with Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder one day...' Nobody thinks of stuff like that. But we did it. And we wrote some songs that mean something to people — not all people, but some people. I'm grateful for that, and I'll always be grateful for that. Even if we never play another note together."
Which is all well and good, but also begs the question — does Fallon believe the Gaslight Anthem ever will play another note together?
"It would only be if we came up with an idea we were all 100 percent passionate about," he says. "If that happens, great. If not, well, we're a band that's not afraid to say, 'That's it.'"
He pauses, seemingly aware that he has somewhat sidestepped the question.
"So if you're asking if there's a possibility, sure, of course. There's always a possibility."
"The cold answer? Yes. I could see it happening."