When Brian Fallon answers the phone from his home in New Jersey to talk about his new solo album Sleepwalkers, the sound of young kids floods the background.
"Sleepwalking is what you do all day long," quips the father of two. "This isn't even a record, it's more of a parenting manual."
As the lead singer of New Jersey quartet the Gaslight Anthem, Fallon gave rock fans their own wake-up call by tearing a page straight from the Gospel of Springsteen – crafting high-energy sing-alongs that both lamented and exalted the blue-collar life. When Gaslight went on indefinite hiatus in 2015, he took the opportunity to turn down the volume and branch out, opting for more nuanced indie-rock fare with the band the Horrible Crowes, and then favoring the fragile over the ferocious on his 2016 Butch Walker-produced solo album, Painkillers.
On Sleepwalkers, Fallon both returns to and embraces the muscular rock he flexed with the Gaslight Anthem on their celebrated 2008 breakout The '59 Sound, reuniting with that album's producer Ted Hutt, and adding elements of Sixties soul, doo-wop and sneering punk to create his most satisfying non-Gaslight project to date.
But he's also revived the Gaslight Anthem, with the band announcing a series of special shows tied to the 10th anniversary of The '59 Sound, which they'll play in its entirety on a world tour this summer.
Talking to Fallon, equal parts wisecracking and whip-smart, it's clear that despite all the late-2000s hype and pressure of being the next Springsteen (with whom he's shared a stage), he's comfortable in his musical skin.
"Everyone always says, 'We don't want to be pigeonholed.' But sometimes your pigeonhole is a great place to be," says the 38-year-old. "I would say that Dylan's got his pigeon – this is what Dylan does and no one does this except for him. Grunge became Pearl Jam's pigeonhole. They overtook it, you know? At the end of the day you can't reinvent yourself past a point, because you are you, and there are things that are inherently you that are always going to be there."
For Fallon, it's the Springsteen/Clash amalgamation that defined his work with the Gaslight Anthem and that, with an extra dash of Dylan, informs Sleepwalkers, whose title track could have fit nicely on Greetings From Asbury Park. Bolstered by horns from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – Fallon recorded the album in New Orleans – the tune mixes the boardwalk R&B of the singer's native Garden State with the funk of the Crescent City. It's one of many standouts on the new album, along with the street-corner hymn "If Your Prayers Don't Get to Heaven" (his current single), the stark look at mortality "See You on the Other Side" and the love song "Etta James."
Fallon has a habit of referencing his heroes in songs. On The '59 Sound, it was Miles Davis; on Painkillers, he sang about Steve McQueen.
"I feel like all these characters carry a trail behind them. They leave a legacy," he says. "I got [the idea of referencing] from hip-hop. If you look at the Seventies and especially the Eighties, New York and East Coast hip-hop was always referencing the culture. With that song, I was saying I've got this feeling about this person and the best way I've heard it conveyed is through Etta James. Those references are bigger than my writing and bigger than the audience, but they're ingrained in the memory."
"Brian is the consummate student of rock & roll," says likeminded singer-songwriter Dave Hause, who will open a string of shows for Fallon this month in Europe. "He's studying, listening, trying always to get better. He's the proof that the student almost always becomes the master."
Hause's words are brought to bear in Sleepwalkers' lead single "Forget Me Not," perhaps the song on the LP that most subscribes to the Gaslight Anthem '59 formula: "Old White Lincoln" pre-chorus, gang vocal harmonies and a Fallon scream to open each verse.
Prior to production, Fallon, Hutt and his frequent collaborator, solo artist Matthew Ryan, talked at length about how much of the Gaslight aesthetic to let seep into Sleepwalkers. They decided not to fight it.
"Even though it's not necessarily [a Gaslight Anthem album], one-fourth of the band's sound is always whatever I brought to the table. That's mine, in anything that I do. It'd be like saying, 'OK, I'm not going to use my left arm,'" says Fallon. "I'm just going to embrace everything I do and not hold anything back, because I like this sound."
In May, Fallon will join the other three-quarters of Gaslight Anthem – Alex Rosamilia, Alex Levine and Benny Horowitz – to mark the 10th anniversary of The '59 Sound with shows in Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York, where they're part of the lineup of the Governor's Ball Music Festival. Fallon admits the decade milestone was one that he and the band didn't know if they wanted to commemorate at all.
"Do we do something? Do we ignore it?" he recalls. "The big thing between us was let's just do what's fun. So if it's heavy-handed and not that cool, then let's not do it. But we all feel that this is an important record to not only us, but to the people that love it. I would not be on the phone talking about my Sleepwalkers record had it not been for The '59 Sound."
Fallon says it was the pressure and all those Springsteen comparisons that led the group to split in the first place. "We released two records, and all of a sudden we were playing with Bruce Springsteen, and there was all this, 'You guys are going to be the next Boss.' And we were like, 'Whoa. I don't know.'"
While more U.S. shows may be added to the summer tour – it'll also hit Europe in July – Fallon cautions against expecting a new Gaslight album. "I think Green Day's American Idiot is probably the best comeback or mid-career record that any band has done. So if I was sitting on American Idiot level stuff, then I might push for the, 'Hey guys, maybe we should try these songs out.' But I'm not sitting on that. I don't have a Born to Run in me."
Fallon is looking forward to the big stages of the Gaslight Anthem tour, which he'll work in between his own solo shows, but he's ultimately content to make a living in theaters, communing with fellow hopers and dreamers. To Fallon, there's something inspiring about New Jersey rock & roll.
"It has a sense of there's something just over the horizon, and I can see it and reach it," he says. "If we can survive long enough."