The Gaslight Anthem are far from the new band on the block – their 2008 record The ’59 Sound was one of the most heavily praised rock records in recent memory. But it was their fourth album, last year’s Handwritten, that saw the Jersey boys reach further abroad than ever before.
Being their major label debut, The Gaslight Anthem used Handwritten as both an introduction to new listeners and a platform for existing fans to witness their evolution. The success of Handwritten has seemingly placed the world at the quartet’s feet, with the biggest challenge being to choose where next they’ll conquer.
Soon enough the American rock outfit will return to Australia for a national tour to help expand their ever-increasing fan base. Picking up the phone ahead of the tour was The Gaslight Anthem’s lead guitarist Alex Rosamilia and we talked fandom, solos and short films.
Music Feeds: The Gaslight Anthem has been touring behind Handwritten for some time now. Has the success of the record helped the band become more comfortable playing before larger crowds?
Alex Rosamilia: No, playing in front of a crowd is old hat at this point, not to sound pretentious. Playing live is kind of what we based our whole ethos as a band on. We started the band to be a touring band … the crowds have gotten bigger and you definitely have to play a different show but the idea is [the same].
And that’s not saying I don’t get nervous – I get nervous as shit… (laughs) But we’re used to playing in front of people at this point. For someone who used to be deathly afraid of performing in front of people, I’ve never gotten more comfortable [but] I guess it’s become second nature. That’s not saying I don’t get nervous but I’ve learnt how to hone my chi, as it were (laughs).
MF: In a previous interview you’ve said you find it insulting when musicians are put on a pedestal. With Handwritten bringing The Gaslight Anthem increased stardom, how do you combat that?
AR: I just don’t let people do it. You have to prove to people that you’re still just a regular person. It’s a matter of still going out and talking to the kids after shows … It’s nice to be thanked for liking our music but we’re not better than anyone else.
MF: Even though there’s no actual difference between a band and their audience, the fact that people pay money to see a band onstage creates a separation and often a perception of inflated importance. Is being idolized something you just have to accept as the band become more popular?
AR: You do have to accept the idea that people are going to look at you that way, yes. I’d be naive to say [otherwise] but it’s all relative. When you have a fan base [that’s] 1000 people worldwide one or two of those people are going to like you just as much, it grows exponentially.
It’s something that I’ve never gotten used to but it’s something that you have to [cope with]. It’s weird, it’s really weird, I mean, at least for me. I grew up thinking no-one would [idolise me] – that’s just me being self-deprecating. It’s an odd thing to see because you spend your life idolising people growing up and then people start doing it to you, you know how far away those people are to you.
MF: For a lot of fans, especially internationally, Handwritten would be their introduction to the band. Are you comfortable with Handwritten representing the band and being a first point of contact for new listeners?
AR: Yeah, very much so. People don’t have to start from the beginning, I think Handwritten is a really good idea of what we are as a band.
MF: Is part of that comfortableness due do the band’s experience of recording American Slang and learning from that how to better deal with expectations and not allowing those expectations to effect the music?
AR: Yes, very much so. When we wrote the song for Handwritten we just took it back to basics. We actually sat down and said, “Let’s write songs like we did when we started the band.” To write songs because it’s fun to write songs and not, “Let’s try to write a radio single.”
And then we found a producer [Brendan O’Brien] who had the same mindset, to write songs for the sake of writing songs and not to be on the radio. I think it worked out very well.
MF: But, that said, The Gaslight Anthem’s sound has long had an accessibility that lends itself to the airwaves. Where does that come from?
AR: I can only speak for myself but it has something to do with the music we grew up with. I grew up listening to Motown and pop… And that being instilled in not just me but I know Brian (Fallon) and Alex (Levine) and I would assume Benny (Horowitz), as well. I think that it helps, like the pop songs and that Motown kind of vibe, that song structure that still hasn’t gone away…
MF: It must be satisfying to write music on your own terms that still resonates with a wider audience?
AR: Yes, it’s awesome! (Laughs) It’s really cool. I think it’s the best feeling ever, I guess. To be able to write music and have such a wide spectrum [of fans].
MF: Do you think that’s why The Gaslight Anthem get tagged with the ‘Punk Rock’ label, not necessarily because of your sound but more because of your ethos?
AR: Yes, I mean, that’s something I’ve said from the beginning. I never really considered us a punk band sonically or musically. I was felt we are more of a rock kind of thing, a songwriter kind of vibe. We have the energy that punk has and have the ethos, like you said.
That mentality of doing what you want to do and not really caring or accepting what is normal and what you should be doing to get by. We’re playing the shows we wanted to play, have the aesthetic we wanted to have, it’s something which tried to hold onto from the beginning.
We still have a pretty big say in everything that goes on, as far as things like the posters and aesthetic of the band as a whole, not just the songs.
MF: When writing your guitar parts, are you purely concerned with serving the song or is there room for self-expression?
AR: Well, I think any kind of writing is some form of self-expression. You know, sometimes you can say a lot without saying a lot, if that makes any sense. This is something I learnt how to do on this record, actually.
Unless you’re just straight up writing formulated pop music, you know, just like that cookie cutter kind of thing, I don’t see how you could not put any kind of self-expression in your writing, regardless of whether you’re trying to support the song yourself.
If what you’re asking me is, “Do I try to put my mark on everything we do?”, no – I definitely cater to the song over people knowing that I played on the song.
MF: So, for example, the solo on Mulholland Drive is not necessarily your way of making a statement?
AR: No, that’s different. I don’t really like playing solos and Brian wrote space for solos in a bunch of the new songs to force me to write solos. So those solos are definitely more of a statement but that’s the space, that’s the spot to do that.
I shouldn’t be playing that intensely while Brian’s singing the chorus, is what I’m trying to say. And if there’s no spot for me to play that, then I’m not going to do it in the song.
I still feel uncomfortable playing them. I don’t like doing them – it’s always been too showy for me. I appreciate when other people do. I love Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton they’re really good at it. I don’t think I’m any good at it (laughs).
MF: What’s going on with the short film Every Word Handwritten?
AR: We’re having a bit of a premiere for it on 19th February. And I actually got to put my mark on that by writing the score with my friend. Me and him wrote the score, which isn’t much for a 15-minute movie…
MF: What’s Every Word Handwritten based on?
AR: The concept comes from Benny’s treatment for the new music video for Handwritten the song, which we made forever ago it seems, at this point… What he wrote was very good but it was very involved and it would be too long for a 4-minute music video.
So Benny and our friend Kevin Slack did the music video and then added to it to make it into this 15-minute short film [that] basically [follows] the life of a record. So you follow the record from the guy writing the song in his garage and playing with his band loud indie.
It’s the late 60s and you watch the guy recording the song and press the record, originally… So the people aren’t necessarily the main characters, it’s the record itself. Kids buy the guy’s record than the record is passed on through a couple people to the present day to where the guys who wrote the original song finds the record in a used record store and he buys his own record again, kind of a whole circle.
Watch: The Gaslight Anthem – Every Word Handwritten