"Play Four Chords and Try to Make It a Soul Record": An Interview with the Gaslight Anthem

Alex Napoliello
Photo: Nigel Crane

The Gaslight Anthem's sudden rise to fame has been a bit of a whirlwind for the New Jersey-based quartet, but when Bruce Springsteen wants to duet with you on stage, perhaps it's time to acknowledge that you're on to something big ...

In New Brunswick, New Jersey, a strict regiment exists in which many bands follow on their path to stardom. First comes the basement show circuit. After a band pays their dues and the capacity of a cramped, grimy basement can no longer hold up, they graduate to the local dive bar known as the Court Tavern. If all goes well, then next comes the Big Apple, and a packed Court Tavern show transforms into a sold out concert at Terminal Five, Webster Hall, and the many other well-known ballrooms in NYC.

This is the formula to success in New Brunswick and several bands have proved its validity. The Bouncing Souls, Lifetime, Thursday, and Saves the Day are a few of the most noted bands in which success derived from the humble setting of a grungy basement. This journey for many takes years and years, however it only took three years for the latest creation of the renegade DIY formula, the Gaslight Anthem.

"It's a dream come true," notes bassist Alex Levine, "what we've been able to accomplish in the last couple years, especially the last year. It's been incredible. Playing with certain people, traveling, and just doing different things in general. It's really a dream come true."

The rise in success is extremely gratifying for the punk rock quartet, which consists of frontman Brian Fallon, bassist Alex Levine, Alex Rosamilia on guitar, and Benny Horowitz (who keeps the beat together on drums). However, their quickly constructed stature is not built out of naïve ignorance. The Gaslight Anthem has a full understanding that persistence is a necessity for survival in the music business. "It was a weird feeling for sure. But, this music business has a quick turnover. Everything can really explode in seconds and throw you back in the basement real fast [laughs]. So, I guess we haven't really realized that yet," says Levine.

In 2007, The Gaslight Anthem turned heads with their debut album, Sink or Swim, featuring hits such as "Drive" and "1930". Just a year later, they pumped out The 59' Sound, which reached a couple Best Albums of 2008 lists. NME rated it as the 47th best album of the year and eMusic named it the Best Album of 2008. Along with several publications, The 59' Sound also caught the attention of a certain classic rock legend who started his career just a half hour down Route 18 in New Jersey.

In July of 2009, Bruce Springsteen accompanied the Gaslight Anthem for an encore performance of their hit single "The 59' Sound" at the Glastonbury Festival in England. "He just came up to us ten minutes before we went on stage. He came up, introduced himself, and said, 'Hey man, how are you doing. Can I play a song with you guys?' That's really it. You're not going to turn Bruce Springsteen down," Levine laughs. As far as preparation went beforehand, Levine offers, "We just kind of went over it real quick. It's Bruce Springsteen, he's pretty well versed at the C, F, A chord progression [laughs]." Levine then notes that Springsteen "basically invented it."

After listening to The 59' Sound straight through, it is clear that Springsteen is a rather large influence to the boys from Jersey -- but the thought of playing with your hometown hero can be more than a bit overwhelming. "It's pretty nerve-racking for sure. That's something you can never get used to. Being a kid, looking up at Bruce Springsteen. I felt like I was Courtney Cox or something [laughs]. It was cool man."

The range of influences, clearly transcribed through the melodies and lyrics of The 59' Sound, are extremely diverse. The tracks "Miles Davis & The Cool" and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" demonstrates the Anthem's appreciation for the blues while bringing forth the band's versatility. The lyrics are blues based, but the melody builds on a more contemporary sound. Take B.B. King and mash it together with Oasis and out comes "Even Cowgirl's Get the Blues".

The Gaslight Anthem is not afraid to let their classic rock roots shine through their music as well. The first song on the album, "Great Expectations" features the line "It's funny how the night moves, humming a song from 1962", which is a reference to Bob Seger's classic single "Night Moves". In the song "Old White Lincoln", the lyric "I lit a cigarette on a parking meter" is borrowed from Bob Dylan's "Talkin' World War III Blues".

According to Levine, "It's all relative to the static of the band and the record and really what we're going for. Brian [Fallon] creates an incredible imagery around the songs. He'll just kind of say, 'We'll call this song Film Noir.' He loves classic movies, books, and records." The second to last track on the album, "Here's to Looking at You Kid" is a reference to the classic 1942 film Casablanca.

Aside from track titles and lyrics, the sound of the album ranges from the Clash and the Cure to Otis Redding and James Brown. "We're a punk rock band playing soul music. That's really what we went for. Play four chords and try to make it a soul record," says Levine as he chuckles.

Whatever it is the band is trying to go for, it worked. The Gaslight Anthem's fiercly melodic sound has helped build up a huge following in very a short amount of time. Such quick rises to fame rarely go unnoticed, however, and more than a few labels were soon knocking at the Anthem's door. Although Levine stated that several labels have approached them, he was reluctant to name specific names. "Right now we're in a contract with SideOneDummy. The next record is coming out on SideOneDummy, we're not leaving them. After the next record, we'll weigh our options and see where we stand. Never say never and see what happens."

The group's steady rise in popularity has also landed them billing on some of largest festivals all around the country and the world. London's Hard Rock Calling festival and Lollapalooza are an example of the magnitude to which this band has reached. They were supposed to play on the third day of the All Points West festival in Jersey City, NJ, however due to bad weather, the band was forced to forfeit their spot.

Since the Gaslight Anthem was unable to perform in front of their hometown crowd at All Points West, they've added a show at one of New York's hottest venues, Terminal Five, on October 15. When asked how the feelings differ from playing a large festival to a show in New York, Levine responds, "It's a whole different ball game. We can play in front of thousands of people in Sweden, playing a festival out there. But, you come home and play in front of 200 or a 1,000 people, in front of anybody really. It's a different feeling that you can't really explain. Playing for a hometown crowd, you're playing for your family, people who have been there since day one."

As far as a new album goes, Levine states, "We're in the writing process. We just started recently. We're going to be home for about four or five months writing and recording it. In the middle of November to about March, we're going to be recording it in New York and hopefully it will be out by May."

Such virtuosity have made the Gaslight Anthem a band to watch, their mix of critical acclaim and immediate accessibility placing them on the cusp of becoming so much more. Really, considering what this band has accomplished in three years, the only question that remains is simple: what's next?

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