From the beginning, the Gaslight Anthem has approached making a living from making music as a marathon — a race to be run not in short bursts, but in a slow, steady build paced to maintain longevity. That’s why it’s only now, after three independent albums and countless tours, that the New Brunswick, N.J., rock band — singer/guitarist Brian Fallon, guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine and drummer Benny Horowitz — will release its major-label debut, “Handwritten.”
“Major labels have always been around our band since the beginning, and we just waited,” Fallon says. “We knew we had to do some things, and we needed to grow as a band before we made that step. We needed to do it our way and not do it how it works for other people.”
“Handwritten” is the follow-up to 2010’s “American Slang” (SideOneDummy), which peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard 200, and will arrive July 24 on Mercury Records. For the Gaslight Anthem, this process, which started with its 2007 debut “Sink or Swim” (XOXO Records), up to its signing with Mercury last year, felt simple, and a logical next step in the career the band had been carefully constructing.
“You can learn a lot if you become a student of what’s happening to you,” Fallon says. “That’s the way you have to make those decisions. There can be a wrong time — it’s happened to countless bands where they release their first record on a major label and never learned what they maybe should have learned on an indie . . . You have to look at what you’ve done and where you’ve come from and set goals with the label and make sure that your expectations don’t collide in some kind of disastrous way along the road.”
Mercury president David Massey made a point to ensure that the group’s and the label’s expectations and goals matched. The idea was to augment and supplement what the band was already doing rather than change the overall tone.
“There’s so many aspects to what they’re doing that they’re a step up from where they were before in terms of their activities,” Massey says. “They absolutely have the ability to widen out at radio. And that’s something that we’d like to achieve on this album. [But] in an organic way, at the right time and with the right demand.”
Radio is a significant aim on all fronts, and something that specifically drove the band to leave the indie-label territory behind. “Handwritten’s” debut single, the gritty, anthemic rocker “45,” which feels like a companion piece to the group’s 2008 breakout album, “The ’59 Sound” (138,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan), has already seen sizable growth, climbing Billboard’s Alternative chart since its release in April. (It’s now at No. 18.) A follow-up single has yet to be selected, but the label is considering various possibilities, including what it believes are album standouts: “Here Comes My Man” and the title track.
While recording the album in Nashville with veteran producer Brendan O’Brien ( Pearl Jam, Incubus, the Offspring), who was selected by the band and not the label, the focus wasn’t on singles or creating a specific sort of album. Instead, the group wanted to allow the music to define itself, pulling from 30-40 songs, Fallon estimates, written in the spring of 2011.
“Songs are like anything else — they dictate to you which ones go together and which ones don’t,” Fallon says. “You can just listen to them and get a sense. It’s all about being in something long enough to get a sense about all of these aspects, like signing to a label or which songs to put on a record or which songs are good for you to do. It’s about this intuition that comes from experience.”
Fallon, who says he’d be just as happy as a motorcycle mechanic or a roofer, believes that this intuition is necessary in order to have an ongoing “open-ended communication” with the world. For him it’s not about making a statement or generating answers, something he’s often called upon to do. Instead, on “Handwritten,” the band seeks to ask the same questions that fans may be asking themselves.
“When you pose a question that someone else has been thinking about for a while, sometimes the most comforting thing in the world is to know that someone else doesn’t have the answer either,” Fallon says. “That’s what we were doing on this record.” This sentiment fuels the idea that the group is in it for the long haul, never proclaiming to possess any knowledge or skill it hasn’t worked hard to earn. The members see themselves as four guys with instruments, which is probably why fans like them so much.
“I can’t even tell you why our songs sound like they do or what they’re about sometimes,” Fallon says. “That’s just what I was feeling and what I put down on a page.”