Q&A: The Twilight Sad

by Kyle McCormick
Kyle McCormick
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on 27 October 2014 in Features

Today [27/10/14] sees the release of The Twilight Sad’s fourth album Nobody Wants To Be Here & Nobody Wants To Leave through the label they’ve called home since the beginning, FatCat Records. To coincide with that important date, we bring you a Q&A with the trio’s vocalist James Graham, covering the band’s history and some information on their latest release.

Evidently notorious for his downtrodden demeanour, Graham lays down the story on the band’s “pessimistic” persona. Providing answers to the same questions for the hundredth time, he also tells of his desire to keep interviews fresh, and of the uncertain future of the band beyond Nobody Wants To… (rumoured to be their last album). A long-lived and talented outfit, held in high esteem by their peers, I can but hope The Twilight Sad live on – for now I’ll remain grateful they took the time to answer my questions, and leave you to enjoy the results:

To those who don't know, give us a brief history of The Twilight Sad to date?

We’re a band from near Glasgow in Scotland. Andy, Mark and myself have been friends since we were teenagers. I went to school with Andy, and Mark stayed in the same street as him. We started The Twilight Sad when I was around 18 and played three gigs in three years, then we recorded a four-track demo which were the first songs we ever wrote. We sent the demo to our favourite record labels, FatCat Records liked what they heard and came to up to Scotland to watch our fourth ever gig with a record contract and signed us. We released our debut album [Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters] in 2007 which contained the first songs we’d ever written. We’ve been writing, recording and touring for seven years now and we’re about to release our fourth album Nobody Wants To Be Here & Nobody Wants To Leave. When we are on the road touring we are a five-piece band. There’s Andy MacFarlane on guitar, Mark Devine on drums, Brendan Smith on keys, Johnny Docherty on bass guitar, and James Alexander Graham (me) on vocals.

Tell us a fact about the band that maybe even your most devout fans may not know?

I don’t think there’s anything that I’m happy to share that people can’t find out about me if they want to know. I’ll answer most questions that come through to us on our social media pages.

We like visiting movie locations while we are on tour. Vodka is our drink of choice as a band.

Give a run-down of the band's latest album, tell us what it means to you, and why people should spend their cash on it?

Each album we write, record and release documents where we are in our lives at that moment. Our songs are very personal. We never write a song just for the sake of it. I only write if I have something to write about. This album was written during a particularly difficult time for the band and we used that as inspiration to make the best album we possibly could. The music we write can be seen to be very dark. As people, we enjoy darker films and darker music. I write music and lyrics to help me get things off my chest that I wouldn’t talk about in everyday life. I suppose I use it as some sort of weird therapy. This record means absolutely everything to us. It’s been two years in the making and there’s been a lot of blood, sweat, tears and sleepless nights gone into making it. This record will determine the future of our band.

When did writing, recording, and all that jazz begin for this album?

We began to write the record at the end of 2012/the start of 2013 after we finished touring our third record [2012’s No One Can Ever Know]. We took a bit of time out from recording and spent an extended amount of time back home for the first time in seven years. It was a good opportunity to reflect on things we had achieved as a band and ultimately what we hadn’t achieved yet. As I said before, we had gone through a pretty tough time as a band the year before. Going home and spending time with our friends and family really helped the writing process for the record. Once the songs were all written we went into Mogwai’s recording studio, “The Castle Of Doom”, in Glasgow in January of this year to record with our live sound engineer Andy Bush for three weeks. Once we finished tracking the record we sent it over to Peter Katis in America who’d we’d previously worked with on our debut album. Peter has also worked on some of our favourite records by bands such as Interpol, The National and Frightened Rabbit.

How is this record different and similar to the band's previous material?

We’re a band who constantly wants to develop our sound while staying true to why we started the band in the first place. We write music for ourselves, we always want to try new things and push our sound forward. We’d played a number of different types of gigs while we were writing the new record. We’d play our usual five-piece full band shows, we’ve played as a stripped back three-piece, Andy and I performed gigs acoustically as just the two of us, and we even played a gig with an 80-piece orchestra. I think playing those different types of gigs, in a subconscious kind of way, really helped us produce the most dynamic record we’ve ever written. It showed us that our songs work in many different forms. I think we wanted to represent that within the record. There’s full-on noisy songs on the new record but there’s also songs where we’ve stripped it back and let the song speak itself with just a piano and my vocal. I also think the record sees us play to our strengths and I think you can see within this record what we’ve learned from our first three releases.

What is your favourite song that you have written, and which is your favourite to play live, and why?

I don’t have a favourite song. Each song is special to me in its own way. As I said before, I only write songs if I have something important to write about. We write records as well, we don’t write a collection of songs. Each song is a chapter in the overall story of the record.

Below is a recording of that orchestral show, accompanied by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Paisley Abbey in October 2013 – featuring tracks from the band’s older records. You can also download the audio files of the performance for free HERE if you like what you see/hear:

Do you think the "idea" of The Twilight Sad is better conveyed on record, or in a live setting, and why?

I like to think they are two separate things and have their own different merits. We always make a conscious effort to differentiate between the record tracks and a live version of them. We want to make them two separate experiences. I’ve always thought there would be no point in just replicating what you’ve recorded on stage so it sounds exactly like the record because the people who have played to see you could have just stayed in the house and listened to the record instead of spending their money coming to see you. We want to make it a different experience so it’s worth coming to the show. When we play live, I think it’s noisier and more intense.

What in your eyes, does the future of the band hold, in the rest of 2014 and beyond?

We’re all just pretty focused on this new record and touring it at the moment. We’ve got the next eight months planned out as far as touring goes and I hope we can have a good festival season as well. We’re releasing stripped back versions of the new songs which Andy and I recorded in a church in Glasgow. I think that’s officially coming out in January but we’re selling it at our gigs at the moment. The success of this record will determine whether we will be able to carry on touring and recording the way we have been for the past seven years, so we’re not making any plans beyond it. We’re going to carry on writing. We’re not in it for the money. If we had been we’d have quit a long time ago. We just want to make enough to be able to make more music.

Why do you think that vinyl is making a comeback, and what is your favourite musical format?

I buy all my favourite records on vinyl, but I also like to have a download code with record so I can listen to music on the go. I love having the physical version of a record. It’s something tangible that you can hold in your hand and not just a file on a computer. I think that if someone puts everything into a record plus they’ve spent years creating it then it is worth owning and paying money for if you like it and it makes a difference in your life. I’ve always bought vinyl, so I can’t comment on why more people are now doing it. It’s always been a part of my life.

The Glasgow music scene seems to be a "happy family", what are the pros and cons of this?

I don’t think there’s any cons to be honest. I think more than anything it’s because bands from Glasgow are full of good people that love music and want to share good music. There’s so much good music that’s come out of Glasgow over the years and that’s why it’s easy to share it and promote it to people all over the world. I think we all like to share each other’s music on social media and that just shows what a good place we live in. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s also a bit of healthy competition there as well, which always helps you try to do better and push yourself as much as you can. I suppose the cons would be if you were shite, then that would be pretty obvious because that happy family would avoid you like the plague.

What are you opinions of the "promo process", and what questions do you get asked the most?

I’ve worked on a building site and in an office where I counted down the minutes until I finished, so I have no problem with the “promo process”. I’m getting to talk about something I love and by doing an interview or a session, one more person could discover our band. The only problem I have sometimes is that I try to answer each question as individually as I possibly can but it can be hard to not just repeat yourself word for word if you’re asked the same question ten times in ten different interviews. That’s not a complaint at my end. I just don’t want to be seen to be giving the same answer every time, if that makes sense? I think the question I get asked the most is: “Are you constantly miserable?” or “Why are you so miserable?”

Who does the songwriting, and how does the process generally pan out? Also, where does the inspiration for the lyrical content come from?

Andy sends me over some music and I write my melodies and rough lyrics then send them back to him. After that we say which direction the song has taken and what instrumentation would suit the song. A lot of that depends on what Andy’s listening to and influenced by at the time. Andy makes a demo and then we go into the rehearsal room to play the song as a full band to nail down the drums and the bass parts. We don’t go into any album with any major ideas of how we want it to sound, we just let things happen naturally and what comes out comes out. All my lyrics from day one have been about where I am from, people I know, my friends and family and things that have happened to us over the years. As you can tell, it’s usually pretty bad things. I write about love, loss, regret, if someone wrongs me or my friends and family, and my own failures.

What were your views on Scottish independence before the referendum, and where do you think the country needs to go from here/now?

Politics was always a very private thing in my household when I was growing up and that's something that I've taken on board as I've got older. So I've decided to stay out of the independence debate. I grew up and voted in North Lanarkshire, I now live in Glasgow.

Finally, do you have any superstitions, related to music or otherwise?

When I play I have had nothing in my pockets and for the past two years I’ve worn the same boots at every gig we’ve played. They are my lucky boots. I hope they last the next two years.

Finally, below is the audio for ‘Last January’, a single taken from the band’s latest record, to give you a flavour of what to except in The Twilight Sad’s present and future. You can get the record from the FatCat Records store, or iTunes (link above) if that’s your thing:

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