Brian Fallon, front man for New Jersey nostalgia punks the Gaslight Anthem, is dipping a toe into gentler waters: His new band, the Horrible Crowes — influenced by somber sounds from the likes of Greg Dulli, PJ Harvey, and the National — drops their hymn-esque Elsie on September 6. Fallon recently called up Vulture, while on the deck of a fishing boat in Sandy Hook, to talk about forming his new band, sticking by his old crew, and his trademark awkward stage moves.
The Horrible Crowes’ stuff is darker and slower than Gaslight. How come?
I was bored. After the last record for Gaslight Anthem, I was just bored. I still had the desire to write, but I didn’t want to write anymore rock n roll songs. I was in this weird mood; I had just gotten this PJ Harvey record, and this was right around the time that High Violet came out from the National, too. So there’s all these records that were slower and moodier, and I couldn’t get away from it. I wondered, If I wrote a couple songs like this, what would it sound like? And then [Horrible Crowes bandmate] Ian [Perkins] and I started talking and I said, “Well, I’m gonna try and write some songs, and then you write some bass lines and guitar lines over them and we’ll see what it sounds like.” And it ended up sounding really good.
Ian Perkins was your guitar tech for Gaslight. Had you ever written with him before?
No, this was it. He had played with us in Gaslight a couple times, just live. He would kind of goof around really, and then it started sounding good and it wasn’t funny anymore. We found out how good he was and it was like, “Well, somebody’s got to use him … I’ll take him!” And then he snuck his way into playing more. We’ve written more songs for Gaslight Anthem now — we just started writing two weeks ago and there’s four songs — and he’s shown up on every one of them. So I don’t know what’s going on with him. He’s very smart or very lucky, one of those two things.
Going from guitar tech to working musician is a big move. Is this like a “dream come true” situation for Ian?
No. If you knew Ian, he doesn’t have the foresight to do that. I mean, he’s very intelligent, but not a foresight guy. He’s not like us. We’re from the East Coast; we might be a little more conniving. He’s from England; he doesn’t understand that stuff.
What’s been the biggest difference for you personally between Gaslight and Horrible Crowes?
Gaslight Anthem’s thing is its power. It’s just like boom and explosions and loud, and play with everything you got. And this was, “Okay, everybody else in the band play with the utmost finesse. I’m gonna lose my mind, but you guys are gonna play like you’re Prince’s band.” And they did. They all really played like studio musicians, like proper, jazz. There’s three time signatures, and 6/8 in the record, and it was all because of those guys. They were able to pull it off. And I can then be reckless abandon, throwing guitars around the stage, and it works. Whereas in Gaslight Anthem I have to make sure that the ship doesn’t tip. Everyone’s going full speed, so my job is a lot more orchestrating: “Okay, now you get quiet! Get quiet now!”
Did anyone from Gaslight play on the album?
Alex [Rosamilia] played a little guitar. And Ben [Horowitz] played tympani drum on it. It’s how you should do it, I think, whenever you have something that’s away from your band. You know, “the door is always open, you guys can always come and hang out and play on it.” It wasn’t, “Okay, I’m gonna go do this thing on my own and you can’t find out about it, and I don’t want you knowing about it.” There are a lot of bands that are like that, and I’ve seen it cause a division between people. I don’t want to take away my quote-unquote meal ticket, you know what I mean?
And Gaslight is also working on a follow-up to American Slang. How’s it shaping up?
A little bit of a return to our older stuff, like The ‘59 Sound and a little bit of the Senor and the Queen, that EP we put out. The ‘59 Sound is one of those things I’m always chasing to make something as good as [again]. I’m also chasing to leave it alone because it’s perfect the way it is. It’s hard for a musician to realize that that was done already: You don’t need to write ’59 Sound because you already did. Now you have to find something that’s equally as good, but different. Guys like Bruce, and Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, they’ve done something great, and then done something great again that was different. But then you find guys that have not. I don’t want to say anybody’s name because that would be weird, but they’re chasing something that they once were great at. I’m not sure whether we’re on the former or the latter. Our fate has not been told yet.
Did you manage to keep the mentality of the Horrible Crowes material separate from the Gaslight sessions?
Horrible Crowes did sneak its dirty little fingers into what I’m doing, I can see that now. You know how in an opera there’s a like quiet phase [pause] and it’s definitely not a rock opera, don’t write that! I will leave Billy Joel and Pete Townsend to do all the dancing and prancing in Broadway musicals, I am not doing that. But it’s got an introduction and it’s got high points, loud points, and then we bring it way, way, way down. There is a theatrical element that’s coming, which I know I learned from writing with the Crowes.
Do you have a release date in mind?
We’re planning on recording in the winter, in the dirty, dirty winter months, so I’d like to say that May, summer would be a good time.
The name Horrible Crowes comes from a poem, right?
Twa Corbies. It’s a Scottish poem. It’s about this knight who dies and these two crows are sitting there in this tree and they’re like, look he’s wearing a signet ring for his king, but where’s his king now? And he’s wearing a wedding ring, well, where’s his wife now? And then he looks like he was rich, because he has this scarlet sash or whatever and they’re like, well where’s his money now? So at the end they go, well, you eat his eyes, I’ll eat his liver. And it’s horrible, but it tells you all these stupid things that we chase around in life, it just doesn’t matter. So like, why don’t you go fishing instead?
Make sure you write that in there, that I was fishing. For bass. For sea bass. But it’s a small boat. Make sure you write it’s a small boat, because I don’t want people to think I’m on a yacht, ‘cause I got cred to keep, you know? You can write that in there, too, that I said I got cred to keep.
Noted! Where are you fishing right now?
I’m right off of the coast of Sandy Hook. I’m in the middle of the ocean.
I can’t believe you have reception.
Yeah, I mean, it’s the iPhone, man. Steve Jobs.
I have a BlackBerry.
Whaaaat. You need to get into the nineties.
I know. So who’s Elsie?
See, that’s a secret, I can’t you tell that. But I can tell you this: The name came from a quote. There was this certain person and he asked another certain person, “Hey, while you were in there … and I won’t tell you where ‘there’ is … did you dance with Elsie?” And he goes: “Of course you did, we all did.” And he goes: “That was a bad time for you, wasn’t it, boy?” It’s about all those crazy, messed up relationships that people have that they should learn from and they don’t. [Ed note: Sorry, Brian. It’s from the Mighty Boosh!]
In Gaslight songs there are a lot of references to Mary …
Mary, Virginia, Maria — these names, I’m kicking around. I’m just a name throwing fiend.
One last thing: We heard you once say at a show, “I can’t wait till someone is like, ‘I stole his 2010 moves, when he was awkward in public.’” So what’s your go-to awkward stage move?
I steal Bruce Springsteen’s seventies moves, but he steals Van Morrison’s seventies moves, and there’s a really hilarious clip on YouTube where you find a grumpy old Van Morrison and they ask him: “What do you think of Bruce Springsteen?” because Born to Run just came out, and he goes: [Mimics grumpy old Van Morrison.] “Bruce Springsteen? He steals my moves. My seventies moves.” And he says it just like that, and he’s all fat and gross and it’s so funny.
But yeah, I totally steal. If you watch the London Hammersmith concert, my most stolen move is in “10th Avenue Freeze Out.” He swings his arms and claps while he’s swinging his arms. That’s my most stolen move. But I know Bruce well enough to tell him I steal them. And he’s like [in Springsteen rasp], “Look, you took from me, and now my son’s taking from you. It all comes full circle.” That’s how he says it. I do impressions on the weekends.