"I needed to write these songs so that I could carry on as a person on my own and function," explains Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon of his new project, the Horrible Crowes. "With 'Elsie' [the Horrible Crowes' debut album], we wanted to find out what else is there -- what else are we capable of."
More intimate and haunting than his previous work, Fallon's collaboration with friend and Gaslight Anthem guitar tech Ian Perkins sounds confident in its vulnerability. While the Gaslight Anthem sticks mainly to the classic guitar-bass-drums formula to create loud, soulful American rock laced with punk and hardcore energy, "Elsie," released Sept. 6, finds Fallon and Perkins exploring more diverse sonic arrangements and new songwriting forms. "The Gaslight Anthem is very streamlined," Fallon admits. "We don't usually use organs and strings and things like that. We wanted to separate what we were doing [in Gaslight Anthem] to something new and something that we could experiment with."
Perkins and Fallon aren't shy about their sweeping musical influences and aren't afraid to admit their more hardcore punk roots presented a challenge with the Horrible Crowes. "I never got a chance to do Tom Waits or PJ Harvey kind of stuff in the Gaslight Anthem," Fallon explains, also citing The Afghan Whigs' album "Black Love" and Elvis Costello's 1977 single "Watching The Detectives" as major inspirations. "That takes a certain amount of finesse that maybe a rock band doesn't have, so we had to learn all that finesse [for the Horrible Crowes], which was difficult."
However, both readily admit a lack of pressure in recording the album. "People didn't know who we were and they didn't know what we sound like, so there were no expectations," Fallon says, with Perkins in agreement: "It was just something else to do as opposed to we have to do this."
Known for his referential, folktale storytelling on early Gaslight Anthem records, Fallon has instead looked inward, personally, on "Elsie." "The record is about three relationships that I had -- one when I was 18, one when I was 19 or 20, and my current one now," Fallon says. "[They] ended up causing me a lot of grief and a lot of sorrow from the process of living through [them] but it felt like big rock songs weren't the right way to do it. I think that this record taught me how to write more personally and not necessarily use stories. It was just me trying to work out my own stuff from my head."
The result is a gripping 12-song album with massive cinematic highs ("Crush," "Behold the Hurricane") and sparse, lonely lows ("Blood Loss," "I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together") that express the complexities of personal relationships with chilling sincerity.
For Perkins, playing music with his close friend has been an unexpected experience. The Gaslight Anthem guitar tech developed a special understanding with Fallon, eventually joining the group as a touring member supporting last year's "American Slang." The earnest friendship led to musical collaboration during down time on tour, leading to the Crowes' formation.
"I'm a lucky boy, that's what I think," Perkins confesses. Although Fallon is quick to remind him that this is equally their project, Perkins remains understated. "I'm helping him out doing his thing, and I'm just focused on doing that. I never thought I'd have the opportunity to do [this], especially a record that I would listen to [myself]."
Making their live debut on Thursday night (Sept. 8) at Bowery Ballroom, Fallon and Perkins -- accompanied by a bassist, keyboardist and drummer -- played a powerful and passionate set to a soldout crowd. Fallon thanked girls who had broken his heart, the new boyfriends they had, and the mothers who raised these "horrible women" for inspiring his music. The band played "Elsie" straight-through with a couple surprises, turning Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" into a touching rock anthem and for the encore, tearing though a riveting performance of INXS' classic 1988 ballad "Never Tear Us Apart."
Video: Horrible Crowes covering Katy Perry's "Firework," Sept. 8, Bowery Ballroom
Fallon isn't done with the Horrible Crowes; he and Perkins have plans to record more material in the future under the moniker and have their sights set on experimenting with some electronic drums. "I like those beats that Gorillaz use but imagine more classically-oriented songs with beats under them, like Moby's 'Natural Blues,'" Fallon says.
As for the Gaslight Anthem, Fallon confirmed that they're currently recording new material. "We're making demos and our goal is 25 of them, and we've got 10. The songs that are fast, they're a lot faster. It's definitely pretty personal and pretty aggressive right now. I'm really happy with it so far."