The Twilight Sad are back with a fine album and a renewed confidence as a live band who can do noisy, acoustic and even orchestral shows. But singer James Graham tells Nick Mitchell that the journey to this point hasn’t been a simple upward curve
In the decade since their formation, The Twilight Sad have navigated a career that has included three albums, a clutch of EPs and live compilations, and countless tours on both sides of the Atlantic. So far, among the twists, turns and hours spent in vans, genuine mainstream success has eluded them, and the trio of singer James Graham, guitarist Andy MacFarlane and drummer Mark Devine have watched as friends and contemporaries like Frightened Rabbit and Chvrches have hit heights well beyond their reach.
Yet their blend of compelling, impressionistic songwriting with music that flits between modern folk, elemental post-rock noise and (latterly) electronic muscle, has attracted a modest but loyal fanbase willing to book flights to reach gigs, and sing back lines like “the kids are on fire in the bedroom” in odd interpretations of a Scottish west coast accent.
It’s these very fans who have sustained The Twilight Sad through moments of doubt and self-scrutiny, and they are about to be rewarded with a new album, Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave, that sounds like an amalgam of their career to date, from the mysterious tales of Fourteen Autumns, to the thunderous distortion of Forget the Night Ahead and the krautrock leanings of No One Can Ever Know.
Speaking to WOW247 during preparations for their upcoming UK and US tour, Graham says that the band is “in a pretty good place, and we’re all excited about the new record”. But, as he reveals, the last few years have also tested their faith in the band.
NM: It’s been almost three years since the last album. That’s not exactly a hiatus in release terms, but did you feel like you had to put some distance between that record and the new one, in order to refresh things?
JG: “What happened was, we’d been touring so much for the past seven years, and felt it was a constant cycle of touring-recording-touring-recording. With this one we were able to come home and be around our friends and family, to get back to normality. Touring’s a crazy thing, it’s a strange mentality you get yourself into. So to come home and watch some films and just relax a bit was a breath of fresh air. It gave us time to look back and take stock of everything we’d achieved, and what we hadn’t achieved as well, to be honest.
“The year before we actually started writing the record was a pretty rough year for us. It wasn’t the best for the band, probably one of the worst we’d had. We came back off tour and we needed that space… even to ask ourselves, ‘can we write another record?’ The will and the want was always there to write music together. It was just… did anyone else want us to do it? In the end, we needed to do it for ourselves again, and as soon as we got writing it was… I don’t want to say it was an enjoyable experience because the songs are fucking miserable, like they always are! But it wasn’t a hard process, it was quite a natural thing. It felt like everything clicked, and we were all in the same kind of headspace.
Did you come close to reassessing why you were continuing the band?
“I think we all did. We definitely did. It was never from a point of not wanting to do it, but when things aren’t going your way you know what it’s like. We weren’t getting any younger either, and we’d put so much into it, and it wasn’t getting any easier. But being able to look back made it feel that it is worth it, and we do need to keep doing this.
“We would be going through some rough times but every so often there would be something that would come along that would reassure me, like, ‘yeah, I need this’. Like the SAY Award [Scottish Album of the Year Award], when the last record went through on the public vote, that blew my mind. I was just like, ‘wow, people still really care about the band’. And people who had been following the band would be encouraging us and saying how much the band meant to them. The Paisley Abbey show was a real highlight, an unexpected highlight for us. And then the reissue of Fourteen Autumns – which was totally unplanned to be honest, it was just to get it back out on vinyl – was a great time to look back on that time of our career when we were starting out.”
With the reissue of Fourteen Autumns and subsequent tour, did you find you were meeting a lot of fans who’d been with you from the start?
“We’re really lucky that we have – I hate saying ‘fans’ – people who like our music. There’s a lot of people who travel to our gigs, and there’s always familiar faces, no matter where we are in the country. That’s helped the band to get where it is now. With the gigs in Glasgow and then the tour in England, there were people travelling from Israel, Belgium, Italy, America, all over the world. Once we’d finished I’d go for a pint at the bar or go to the merch stand and speak to people. It was amazing to see how much that record meant to people. You don’t see it sometimes when you’re stuck in that bubble. I didn’t realise that record had reached that far. It was strange to go back and listen to it. I don’t listen to records once they’re out, but I had to because I forgot quite a lot about it, like the lyrics. It was weird – I felt really old, but it was nice. I can’t believe we actually managed to make that.”
The first record had this emotional connection to a lot of people. Is that the secret to the longevity of a band, to have this really engaged group of
“I hope so! When we started that’s the way I saw it. I always saw it as a work in progress, and we’d have to put the work in to one day become a bigger band. I’m happier that we do have that connection with people, who stay with the music. With the type of songs we write, you’ve got to put yourself in there. You’re not going to listen to it once, you need to have multiple listens to fully understand what’s actually happening. Aye, I’ve seen bands like Mogwai, or even The National or Frightened Rabbit, where it didn’t really happen for them straight away. They’ve put the work in to get to where they are. You appreciate it a lot more if you have to work at it.
“That’s what I’ve taken away from the last year, hearing what our music means to people. We only ever wrote music for ourselves, and we still do – I don’t want to say it’s like a therapy but it’s about getting things off your chest. As a band we only ever write music that interests us, we never try to fit into any scene or niche, it’s just about trying to progress the band in a way that excites us. But at the same time, seeing that people have came with us really invigorated me, and made me want to push myself as much as I possibly could.”
And do you think another reason people stick with you is because of your songwriting style? The fact that you leave a lot unsaid, and the listener has to fill in the gaps? Would you agree?
“That’s been my way of thinking since day one. I just looked at it from the point of view of me as a listener. I could relate a situation or something that’s happened to me to a certain song and that can take me back to that time, be it good or bad. I didn’t give too much away so it could maybe spoil it for some people, because sometimes you can know too much. These days the kind of mystery to bands isn’t really there with social media. I’m definitely not slagging that because I’ve used those tools to talk to people. But at the same time the mystery is the one thing that I like to keep, just so that people can relate the music back to themselves and their own lives. Within the lines there’s always things people will relate in some way, be it vague, or a metaphor or something else.
Some of the lyrics on the first record especially have become ingrained with people, and they’ll sing them back at you at gigs. Did you ever expect that sort of reaction?
“We’re definitely not a singalong band! But don’t get me wrong, when it happens it’s great, I love it. It’s a thing that I never thought would happen, that we’d be the kind of band that people would just watch and not really go that mental to, but people really like to show how much they love it at gigs, long may that continue.
“It’s pretty funny when you’re playing in different countries and you hear people singing the lyrics back to you in a weird Scottish interpretation, say a German singing our songs but trying to be Scottish! It’s weird but amazing. To see how far our songs have reached is pretty crazy. We got an email from a girl in Iran telling us how much our music means to her. I can’t even believe that our music has reached countries like that, it’s mind-blowing but amazing.”
It’s interesting to read that you feel the new record encompasses the whole career of the band. Would you call it a celebration or a retrospective of what you ‘ve done before? How would you describe it?
“It’s a weird one. I’ve always said that the band always wanted to move forward on the next record and I feel like we have. The last record had a lot of more electronic influences, but it was a very insular record. This one feels like we’ve taken that and we’ve opened it out a lot and there are some moments that are bigger and more – I hate to use the word – ‘epic’, in a way. I suppose that harks back to the first and second record when it was those bigger sounds we were using.
“The opportunity to look and take stock was a good thing. We just wrote the songs in the usual way, Andy sent over the music and I wrote my stuff, and we kinda collaborated. We’d played a lot of gigs stripped back the year before and we played the live album, and we wanted to encompass everything we felt was good about the band, we took influences from everything we’d done. It was more of a retrospective on our part, we’d moved forward from the last record but there seems to be some elements that we’ve taken with us from previous records.”
The fact that you’ve gone from these stripped back acoustic sets to full-blown, plugged-in shows – has that informed this album as well?
“Definitely. You’ve got the big bits, but the last song on the record is mainly a piano and myself. We’ve always written songs first and then we layer it up. Doing these acoustic gigs was about showcasing us as songwriters, and on this record we wanted to put some of that on there as well, to have the dynamics of that, to take it on a journey, with the ups and downs. I feel it’s the most dynamic record we’ve ever made, and the live set is going to be better for that.”
With the upcoming tour, is it a return to the more standard rock gig format?
“I think it’s good to showcase different sides of the band, to show we’re not one-dimensional. But the band has always been a full-blown rock band where the main focus for us has been the five-piece noisy show. We always focus on that more than anything. Within that set, with these new songs… we’re not going to pull out an acoustic guitar halfway through, but there’s elements for the live show to be a lot more dynamic. We found that with the last record, and with this one even more so. We’re going to be able to put on the best gigs we’ve ever done. We feel like a fully formed band now. We could go anywhere, and if there’s anyone who even slightly likes the band, we’ll win them over. I feel like when we started out we were really young, and we were learning our trade in a way. Now as a live band we’re really confident.”
You have American dates lined up too…
“We’ve got a tour with We Were Promised Jetpacks that fitted really well with our album campaign. We wanted to get back out there to do a full band tour, because the last one we did was with Frightened Rabbit and it was just a stripped back three-piece show. Another reason was that on the first record the first place we ever toured was America, we hadn’t even played Edinburgh. The American label just wanted to get us out there as soon as possible, and our fourth or fifth gig ever was in New York. We were pretty terrible but it kinda felt that’s where it first kicked off. A lot of the press was leaking back from America, and the Scottish press were like, ‘who is this band from Kilsyth?’
“We’re gonna do two shows where we play the first album again, to give those people who first heard us the opportunity to hear that before we put it to bed. And then it’s going to be a six-week tour of America, which will be about our fifteenth tour of America. We know what to expect, but I’m genuinely looking forward to it. Touring is like a drug, the more you do it the more you like it. I actually missed it when we had some time off, and I’m excited to play the new songs.”
It seems like there’s a real fraternity between you and the Jetpacks and Frightened Rabbit, who all emerged from Scotland at about the same time?
“Especially the Rabbits. We both started off in the back of a splitter van touring around Britain. After we came back from America they’d just released Sing the Greys, and we were going about just like a bunch of young guys touring around. Some of the best memories I’ll ever have was from those tours. Over the years we’ve just kept playing gigs together. The Rabbits are a massive band now, and it’s nice that they still hold us in the same place, and always talk about us, and get their fans on board with us, which is really nice, because they don’t need to do that. There’s always going to be that connection, and it’s the same with the Jetpacks as well, we’re all friends more than anything. That’s the most important thing, you try to help out your friends. We’ve been really lucky that we’ve had people try to support us over the years, like Mogwai. We’ve toured with them three times and they didn’t need to do that, we’re not even on their label. It’s now about time that we started to repay that by progress, to show that their faith in the band was right.”
You mentioned Mogwai. Both them and Frightened Rabbit have been actively arguing the case for ‘Yes’ in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum. Is that something that you’re keeping your counsel on?
“Aye, I’m definitely keeping my counsel on it. I respect what those guys are doing. I just see it as… when I was growing up in my house, politics was quite a private thing, it’s just something I’ve taken with me. I was asked a question last night by an American person about independence, and I feel like I’m just a singer in a band and any platform that I have, I don’t want to use to influence anyone’s decision. It’s an important decision, and there are people more knowledgeable about the subject than I am. I feel that people should look to their views instead of me. Stuart [Braithwaite, of Mogwai] and the guys from Frightened Rabbit, I would say that the information that they’re giving across is more important than I could deliver, so I don’t really want to influence anybody. Ultimately I think, if it’s a yes or a no, I think we all have to accept the decision and move forward, and make the situation as good as it can be.
“I’ve seen friends fall out over it. I just want to get it all over and done with, so we can move forward. I’ve stayed away from pretty much all social media apart from the band stuff. It seems like everyone’s on each other’s back. It’s not the kind of people we are in Scotland, I’ve always seen us as getting on. I hope the decision is the best for the country, but I think we still need to stick together and move forward no matter what happens. The day after it is going to be interesting. Actually I think we might be touring England the week after it, that’s going to be interesting!”
Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave is released via FatCat on October 27.
The Twilight Sad play the following UK tour dates:
11 Sep – Aberdeen – Lemon Tree
12 Sep – Birnam – Arts Centre
5 Oct – Manchester – Soup Kitchen
6 Oct – London – Boston Music Rooms
7 Oct – Nottingham – Bodega
9 Oct – Edinburgh – Pleasance
19 Dec – Glasgow – O2 ABC