Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Interview with James Graham from Twilight Sad

Scotland, despite what its well-intended tourist board may say, is full of miserable bastards. Being a Scot and being a miserable bastard, I’m in the fairly comfortable position of being honest about this state of affairs without running the risk of a doin' by a parochial gaggle of tartan-painted internet activists. But let’s face it, wallowing in doom, gloom and glum-face morbidity is, quite simply, what we do best as a nation.

In recent years, the country has excelled at turning this miserablism into extraordinary music. Bands like Arab Strap, Mogwai and Frightened Rabbit have turned their graveyard dispositions into sounds that connect with punters across the globe. Their guttural tides of woe clicking with an increasingly disillusioned and disaffected western world.

Sitting atop this Saltire-swinging seething heap of musicians is Kilsyth melancholy-merchants The Twilight Sad. Led by gallows-humoured frontman James Graham, the band is renowned for its ear-pillaging guitars and tombstone lyricism. Their inaugural release, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, stormed through the American underground, garnering praise for its bleak, gargantuan stacks of sound. Album number two, Forget the Night Ahead, offered more of the same, espousing hope-bereft tales of solitude and prostitutes.

This week, The Twilight Sad released their third longplayer, No One Can Ever Know. Styled in synths and ladled with industrialism, the record finds the band angling towardsa surprising trajectory. It’s still, unmistakably The Twilight Sad, but there’s more urgency, more ambition than ever before. So, in the build up to the release, I caught up with James Graham to find out what spurred the new direction, how working with Andy Weatherall is a breeze and what it takes to be the next Craig David…


So James, here you are staring at album number three. You guys are becoming old hands at this. Is it fair to say you are at your creative peak right now?

James Graham [JG]: I don’t know. To be honest since we got signed and went off and did our first record everything has been a bit of a whirlwind. It’s never really seemed to stop. I’ve never really had the chance to sit back and think about everything. It’s just been a case of keeping on writing, releasing and touring. It’s a never ending cycle.

Is that a rhythm you’re getting used to?

JG: It’s a weird one. The way we started was pretty strange, as in we did two gigs in two years and on our third gig Fat Cat came and signed us and sent us off to America to mix a record and play some gigs. We hadn’t even played Edinburgh yet. We weren’t even used to being in a band at that point, we’d written nine songs on the first album and they were the first songs we’d ever written. So being in a band - going away and playing gigs - was all pretty alien to us, it felt like getting chucked in at the deep-end.

I remember speaking to people in the Scottish media when you guys were picked up Stateside. Everyone seemed mystified as to where you’d come from and how they’d failed to pick up on you. It was a bit of a strange beginning for the band, wasn’t it?

JG: Yes. Every Sunday we’d play in New York when we were mixing the album and I think we were playing to 100 people or something. It was probably because it was a Fat Cat showcase. Then we’d come home to Scotland and end up playing to just our family and friends.

Do you ever wish you’d done it differently?

JG:I’m quite glad we did do it. If we had to play around Scotland and all the different venues we’d probably have got quite frustrated as we’re quite lazy, to be honest. I suppose in some ways it would have been better to do it because we would have been ready for going out and touring, having an album out there and promoting.

When you only play two gigs before you record your first album, it’s weird. I suppose in a way it was good to be quite na├»ve. That probably helped in the studio and that’s what helped the first album happen. But, at the same time, when you’re out playing live people are pretty brutal and they’ll tell you exactly what they think of you. So it might have been good in that way.

The last time we spoke was just after the launch of Forget the Night Ahead and you seemed under a lot of pressure. Has that changed for you in this album?

JG: I think I put the pressure on myself. I’m trying to stay away from what anyone is saying on the outside. It’s not that good for me. Ultimately I’ve been happy with everything we’ve released, I wouldn’t have released it otherwise. But I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves. There’s no doubt about it, there are a mix of emotions coming through with the run up of the album. I’m happy, I’m excited, I’m shitting myself. I’m just everything you can go through.

I’d be lying to say ‘I’m confident this is the best thing ever’. You just don’t know what people are going to say. We’ve learned that with the first two albums. Everyone has different tastes. I think the main thing to begin with is that you’re happy with it and you’re proud of it. I don’t think we could have done any better with this album at all. We’ve done ourselves justice on it. It’s definitely a pretty nerve wracking thing.

Is it more nerve wracking because of the overhaul in sound on this record?

JG: I suppose we were known for a certain thing before, in the first two albums. I think the majority of what we’re known for is still on the new record. It’s still us. When you’re in a band and you’re releasing new material you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. I’m not going to say that every single person who likes our band at this point is going to like the new record. But at the same time I’d like to think that on this album the songs and song-writing are better. I think song-writing is one of our strong points and that’s still there with the album.

I wouldn’t have wanted to hear a Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters Part 2 or a Forget the Night Ahead Part 2. If you want to listen to those albums go back and listening to them. Any band I like, I want to see them try new things and develop and that’s what we’ve tried to do. So, I’d say there was a slight excitement about the new album because of this change in direction. I wouldn’t even say it was that big a change of direction really, although I can see why others might think it would be.

I’d say it still sounds like a Twilight Sad record, but moving on in a more natural direction. In an odd sense - despite it’s heavy gothic tints - it seems to be the most immediate record you’ve released so far.

JG:Yes, totally. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. It was natural, there was no point where any of us sat back and said ‘we need to change, we need to do this’. We just sat down and wrote the songs. Nobody started questioning what we were doing. It wasn’t a case of ‘change this, change that’. We used what was interesting to us and what was exciting us. The album is a case of us moving on and trying new things. I don’t want to hear us doing the same thing. We would get bored ourselves. If we’d produced something like the last albums we’d probably be calling it a day. It’s boring and not the point of this band. We want to try and get better with every release and that’s what we’ve been doing.

There are a lot of reference points to gothically-tinged, propulsive acts in the press release, was that what you were listening to when making the record?

JG: I think that is what Andy [Macfarlane - guitarist] was listening to. I’ve not done anything different to be honest. Andy gave me the music and I added lyrics to that. There’s a slight change in what I’m writing about on every album, but it’s still about friends, family, personal things. But Andy was definitely listening to that kind of stuff when he was writing. I think he’d been to Berlin on holiday a few times.. I suppose what you’re listening to always sub-consciously comes through into the music you write.

So was it a case of Andy rocking up with some new sounds and you guys taking his steer?

JG: Andy sent over the rough guitar parts to me and I wrote the songs towards them and he just built them up. It was like previous releases, but he just used synths this time. Then Mark [Devine - drums] works his parts on his own as well. There was no point when it was like ‘Andy what the fuck are you doing? Where’s the mental guitars? What’s happening?’ We just kept going with it. We could have put noisy massive guitars in this production, but I think it would have spoiled the songs. Andy’s guitars are still there on the tracks but he’s just done it in a different way. It’s a brave decision on his part, to be honest, because that’s what he was known for. If you go see Andy play live, he fucking blows your head off - my ears are fucked from it that’s for sure.

I can imagine - I don’t fancy having that sound blasting through my head every night. With the change in musical direction then, has your song-writing changed to fit in with the music?

JG: A lot of the stuff I do is pretty subconscious and I write what I write. There was definitely a them running through the album. I hope this doesn’t sound wanky in anyway, but I see it as every song is a chapter in the over all theme and that’s why I think the album needs to be listened to as a whole. Does that sound wanky? [laughs] I’d hate to come across like a total prick.

But there’s definitely a theme running through the record. It wasn’t challenging at all, I just did what came naturally. I think that’s the one good thing about the band; we’re not trying to be anything we’re not. Our music is pretty honest, there’s no bullshit with us. It’s just five guys who are making music and want to make it in a certain way. There’s no airs or graces about it, we just do what comes naturally and if it comes out good that’s brilliant.

I was a bit concerned the album might end up with Andy Weatherall’s pawprints all over it, but it still comes out sounding like a Twilight Sad album. How much input did he have in its creation?

JG: When we were doing the demos we were thinking about having a producer in for the first time. Even though we knew what we were doing, it would have been nice to have someone to help guide us along. We gave it to certain people who were interested and Andrew [Weatherall] was one of them. We met him and he gave us a mix tape of the sounds and songs he thought we could use - his musical knowledge is off the scale.

Andy and Mark had done a shitload of pre-production before we went down to London to make sure we didn’t waste any time. Once we got in the studio, Andrew came in and said ‘you’ve done everything I would have told you to do’, so he was there to help guide us and bounce ideas off him. All the song structures were set before we got down there. He was there as a reference point, telling us we were doing the right thing. He worked on some of the vocal sounds and things like that, so I’m glad he was there. He was more like an anti-producer.

As a record it doesn’t feel particularly Scottish, there’s more of a grimy industrial city style sound to it than anything else. Is that what you were going for?

JG: We’ve never been ones for waving the Saltire flag around. I suppose, like everything we do, we never really think about that. On the first few albums I guess you could get a definite Scottish feel, but aye I definitely see where you are coming from. Someone was telling me they were listening it on a train the other day and it sounded great.

Exactly. It’s more industrial, almost urban - but clearly not in the ‘urban’ sense like, er, Craig David or someone like that.

JG: I’d be pretty happy if we sold as many records as Craig David.

You might need a bit more of an optimistic outlook for that James

JG: Aye, we’re fucked then aren’t we?

Possibly. But I’d not worry about it, just ask yourself where is he now and feel smug as fuck. As a Scottish band, Twilight Sad are one of the few in recent times that have ‘made it’ beyond the Scottish borders. What makes you so different?

JG: Ultimately we don’t want to be liked just in Scotland. The whole ambition of the band is to try and see how far it can go. I don’t want to just be popular in Scotland, even though I definitely do want to be popular in Scotland, it’s where I live and I love it. But you can’t make a career out of that. I want this band to go to different countries, play to different crowds. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no delusions of grandeur. I can never see us being a massive band. I just want out music to be as big as possible so we can keep doing it. That’s the one thing these days, it’s pretty hard to be in a band financially. The one hope we have of this album is that it allows us to make another album.

Is that sense of sustainability the ambition for the band then?

JG: Yeah, we’re not looking too far ahead. We love doing this, it’s great. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be. I’m not too sure what else I would do, I’m rubbish at everything else. People might say I’m rubbish at this as well, but that’s up to them. I always saw the band as a work in progress and it was always going to take time for us to get any where. We were never going to blow up to be a big band on any album, it was just going to be a steady grower. We looked at bands like Mogwai and how their career went. If we could get half as far as they have, I’d be happy with that. The way their career has went is very natural and that’s the way I want it.

I think the significant reduction in the size of the track titles compared to those on the previous records is quite an interesting move. Has that got anything to do with your head space at the time of writing or is it a reflection of the band’s newish direction?

JG: I think it’s a mixture of stuff. I don’t think those kind of titles would have worked on this album. It definitely worked on this album and made sense in the whole of context. It wasn’t subconscious, but it was one of those things that we all went ‘this is what the song is called and everyone said aye cool’. I definitely think it would have been wrong to try and call it some massive book-type title. But, aye, the song titles definitely getting smaller. I think it’s maybe where we are as people as well.

The song titles may be smaller, but they are still pretty dark. What kind of frame of mind were you in when you wrote the songs?

JG: [Laughs] I was happy-go-lucky, I’d like to say. As people we’re pretty normal. I know a lot of people think we’re the most miserable bastards going, but I enjoy writing about the darker side of life, rather than somebody bashing on about how great their life is and how everything is bright because obviously that’s just not true.

You’re never going to make the next Craig David with that attitude.

JG: Nah, there’s no way. I cannae see me doing my version of 'Seven Days'. Although my version of 'Seven Days' would be pretty good, actually. I could definitely alter those lyrics a wee bit… But I’m definitely in a better head space than the second record. That record was pretty much the depths of despair for me. It was a pretty hard time. That’s why I wrote that. I only write when I’ve got something moan about. And believe me I’ve got lots of stuff to moan about. I'm a moany bastard. I’ve got piles of stuff I want to write about.

So is lyric writing is cathartic for you?

JG: Pretty much, yeah. A lot of what I’m writing about is subconscious as well. That song 'Days From The Birdhouse', I had an inkling about what it was about. Then one night when we were playing it, it completely clicked with me. It was really weird. That happened with Nil on this album. My dad had listened to it and he mentioned a lyric in the song and said ‘y’know who said that don’t you? That was so and so from ages ago’. And I didn’t realise. I surprised myself with that. I must be writing subconsciously in some ways, even though I know what I’m writing about, there must be other wee things in the back of my head that come out for some reason.

Maybe not take that to a psychologist to get that checked out.

JG: They’ll definitely say I’m a weirdo. But I knew that anyway.

Talking of weirdos. You’ve taken up Twitter with some enthusiasm

JG: I was quite hesitant to get involved in that world to be honest. No one really knows much about us, I don’t think. I find it quite a good way to talk to people who like your music. I’ve stated talking to people I would never have talked to.

So you see it as a useful way of cutting out the middle man, i.e. me?

JG: [Laughs] I find that 905% of the internet is negative. It’s a fucking harsh world out there. So I like to keep it positive. I looked at what I wrote the other day and 90% of it was pish, but at the same time 90% of it was positive. I don’t like going about saying that people are shite. The only person I like saying is shite is Aidan Moffatt when he’s in his house drinking and watching the music telly.

I was just about to ask what you thought of Aidan’s 140 character escapades

JG: I think it’s amazing. It’s what Twitter is made for. He’s basically saying what everyone else is afraid to say. I think I’ve called a few folks dicks on it, but they’ve deserved it. I’m trying to make myself a bit more positive than my music might suggest

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