"It is what it is." Brian Fallon likes this phrase. Chatting with Rolling Stone backstage at Lollapalooza Sunday after the Gaslight Anthem played before an estimated 20,000 fans, the 32-year-old frontman says it several times. The seeming indifference doesn't necessarily jibe with his hard-ass rock star persona, but as Fallon puts it, he's done trying to please: "You can't placate people," he says.
On Handwritten, the Gaslight Anthem's new album, Fallon unspools his usual tales of struggle and triumph; they arrive in anthemic, Springsteen-ian form, but with a biting punk ethos. As the New Jersey rocker tells Rolling Stone, he's not looking to be anyone's new drinking buddy. "Let's communicate," he says of his desired band-fan relationship. "But we don't have to sit down and have dinner."
The Lollapalooza crowd gave you a lot of love.
You kinda can't ask for better than that. There was a lot of people there.
You guys have played to massive crowds at this point. Does it still register in your head how many people you're performing for?
You see whatever's in front of you, and then you kind of don't look around too much besides that. You kinda look to the left and then you look to the right. There's, like, people all up in the trees. There's just people for miles. They said that it was 20,000. I don't know how they got that number. How do you gauge? What does 20,000 people look like? I've played in front of a lot of crowds, but I can't assess how big they are. Once you get 10,000 and up, it just looks massive.
You opened with "Mae," one of the slower songs off Handwritten.
It's real slow. It's odd. People are like, 'Why are you doing that? Why are you starting with a slow song?' It's because that's what we do. When we're playing our own shows, we kind of have this flow that goes much like a play. For us it's just night to night. It's different. You're coming to see us, but whatever you get, that's what you get. Some nights you get, as they say, the hits set. Or some nights you get the weird set. I'm not gonna go out there and play the same thing every night. Some bands do that. It drives me crazy. Fortunately for us, there's not like really a "hit song."
And yet you've been able to steadily build this massive following. 2010's American Slang felt like a monumental moment.
That was hype, though. That felt fake to me. This "saviors of rock & roll" and all this nonsense. Like, c'mon man! We have two records, really. It just seemed bound to not work like that.
Did the build-up to Handwritten feel more genuine?
With this record it was more, 'Look, the record's good and you should listen to it.' And the rollout or whatever they do, the advertising, they didn't really say anything about it: here's the picture of the band, this is what the record's called. Even our bio isn't a bio. Nick Hornby wrote it. And it has nothing to do with a bio. He's awesome. Can you believe it? It's like having e.e. cummings write a bio. It's awesome. Now it's just less about the marketing. It's not about any of that stuff anymore and I don't care about it. You can't placate people.
It must be nice to be in a position to say, "Look, take our music for what it is."
It is what it is. If you like it, cool. If you don't like it, well then, OK, there's probably something else. I've always said it's easier for bands to make a hard stance – like, we don't do commercials or whatever, blah blah blah – when you've sold billions of records. It's super-easy to be righteous when you're rich. If you're in our position, it's just like, we gotta do this for what we love and not for any other reason, or else we're just gonna be unhappy, you know?
Now that Handwritten has been released, where is your head at?
You're in the ether. You don't know what you're dealing with. 'Cause I don't read any of the press or the reviews – just 'cause I don't; I can't do it. I'm not thick-skinned enough, and that's not why we're playing. So I don't know what people are saying a lot of times. I'm not really into the numbers game of, like, what position our record is. But you find out at the end, you know? You're like "Oh, all right! That's good!" We had a Number Three record. That's crazy! What's that about? That's exciting to me! I think that's good. A lot of bands are kind of shameful about it. We want to be big . . . we want to be a big band, but we don't want to be your best friends. You don't know me.
Brand New, man. That band said it the best on that Devil and God (Are Raging Inside Me) record when he just goes, "I'm not your family, I'm not your friend, I'm not your lover, yeah!" That's it: I'm just a man who knows how to feel. That's my motto. Let's communicate. But we don't have to sit down and have dinner.
The honesty in your songs is a major reason why many have compared you to Springsteen.
And that's kind of the vibe with the whole record – the whole band, actually. It is what it is, you know what I mean? That's how I kind of view everything. It really is what it is at the end. You can't shape it. You can't change it. Your life is what it is.