Q&A With The Twilight Sad

On their latest, No One Can Ever Know (FatCat), Scotland’s best musical export since the Jesus And Mary Chain tear down their walls of guitar noise to reveal the icy synths beneath. For fans, it’s a radical departure for the Twilight Sad that’s nevertheless easy to digest, as frontman James Graham’s distinctive Scottish vocals and gloomy lyrical outlook remain front and center. Check out coverage of the Twilight Sad in issue #85, as well as our extended interview with Graham. We rang up the surprisingly affable singer at his flat in Glasgow to talk about the origins of the band, the new record, hip hop, Donnie Darko, INXS, and the guilty pleasures of Rihanna and Katy Perry. Graham will be guest editing for the rest of the week.

Are you still living in your hometown? Outside of Glasgow, right?
I go back there now and again, but now I’m in a flat in Glasgow. Most of the time when I’m not on the road, I’m between Glasgow and my hometown.

Small town?
It’s tiny. It’s like 5 streets and loads of fields and sheep. Lochs and hills and rain. There’s one great pub, so that’s why I go back all the time.

You and Andy (MacFarlane) met in school, correct?
He was in my class the first day I went to school. It was a culture shock for me because the school I went to before, I was the only boy in the class. There was me and 5 girls. When I say it was a small town, it was tiny. When I went to high school, Andy was one of the first guys to come up to me and say “hello”. Ever since then we’ve been friends.

Sounds like an unlikely environment for forming a band.
Definitely not common. You’re either going to be a footballer or get an apprenticeship, like an electrician. To be writing music and in a band, aye… I wouldn’t say it’s frowned upon. People think it’s cool, but to try to make a career out of it, you kind of get laughed at. They still don’t really get it, to be honest, because we’re not a mainstream band. We’re not in the papers or on the TV every day. They don’t understand how we’re doing it, if you know what I mean. And they don’t understand the music, because it’s not Oasis or something like that. But aye, people do support us which is pretty cool.

Your Scottish accent is such an integral part of your sound. Is that something you’re conscious of?
All the songs are honest. They’re all about where I’m from and about me and people I know. It wouldn’t feel like I was being true to myself or the songs if I tried to hide where I was from or hide the accent at all. I’m not a big Scottish patriot or anything, but it’s where I’m from and I can’t really help it. I think if I’m going to be honest to myself and to what we’re trying to do, I’ve just got to do what comes naturally. I’m Scottish, so I can’t help it. I think it’s important to be as honest as you can be, because I’m writing about personal stuff. To sing in an American accent, or another UK accent wouldn’t make sense and wouldn’t do justice to the songs. I’m pretty sure a lot of people think that I’m putting it on, but the people who’ve met me that have thought “Shit, you actually are that Scottish.” Aye. There’s nothing I can do about that. I think it’s a good thing we’ve got there, the accent in the songs.

It certainly gives the band a unique identity.
That’s definitely a good thing.

Let’s talk about the new record. Tell me about the heavier keyboard influence.
Yeah, this record does definitely sound different than the last. It wasn’t a case of us sitting down and saying we have to change or do things differently. We never even spoke to each other about it. Andy sent me over some music and I wrote my songs the way I usually do. It just felt like the right thing to be doing. From day one, we never really wanted to repeat ourselves, because we would have got bored. We’re not doing this to become big or anything like that. It’s kind of selfish, just writing music for ourselves and we’re doing things that interest us. If people like that, that’s great, but ultimately we’re just doing what comes naturally. It’s gotten us this far, so hopefully people will understand where we’re going with this one. If I was a fan of the band, I wouldn’t want to hear another Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters or another Forget the Night Ahead, because you’ve got those records. It’s a case of moving forward. I definitely think we’re taking some risks. People might be put off by it, but I’m real excited about what we’ve done on the record. I know that a lot of people have commented about the synths being higher in the mix and there being things like programmed drums, but ultimately, it’s still a Twilight Sad record. I really can think you can tell that when you listen to it. It’s unmistakably us.

So it sounds like you and Andy write separately?
He’ll send over some chord sequences and I’ll try to write what I can to that. I’ll come up with the melodies and things and send it to him and he’ll maybe pick it apart. And then we’ll come up with a structure for a song and I’ll send him the lyrics to say yay or nay. He’s kind of my shit filter. I’m not worried about sending things over to him, because I know he’ll tell me if it’s shit or not. He’s quite good at telling me if something needs to be changed or not, but luckily, 9 times out of 10 he’s pretty happy with what I’ve done. So we’ll come up with the basic structure and Mark will come up with his parts, as well.

Do you have a full-time bassist now? I know Craig (Orzel) left.
Yeah, he’s a guy called Johnny (Docherty). He plays in a band called Take A Worm for a Walk Week and another band called Desalvo on Mogwai’s label. He’s been with us since a week after Craig left. He was the first guy that I thought of. He’s a guitarist, so bass is his second instrument, but he’s perfect personality-wise. We’re still friends with Craig, which is a great thing. We still hang out with Craig all the time, but Johnny’s definitely improved us as a live band. He kind of drives us forward. He’s a maniac, but at the same time he’s a good addition to the band. He’s definitely a maniac.

Everything-wise. But he’s a good laugh. He’s a good guy.

I haven’t had the opportunity to see you live yet. Is that something you enjoy, or would you prefer to be in the studio?
I used to just enjoy the writing part, but just because I’m the singer, I don’t think the studio is that interesting, because by the time we get to the studio, I’ve written all my parts. So basically just go in and sing the songs and then leave and Andy and Mark and whoever they’re working with to get on with it. This album, we went down to London and I did all my parts and went up to the TV room and sat and drank and watched shit TV for the rest of the time. They went to university to study production and stuff like that, so they love the studio. It’s a big thing for Andy, anyway. Me personally, because I don’t play any instruments, I’ve struggled with being a front man. I’m not naturally kind of guy who when you put a microphone in front of me to address a crowd. I find that kind of awkward. That “Hey guys, how are you doing” (in American accent) and all that stuff, it’s just not me at all. I’d rather just go up there and sing the songs and that’s all that matters really. As time has gone on, I’ve started to enjoy it a bit more and I’ve gotten a little more comfortable, so I’ve probably enjoyed playing live more than anything now. I kind of miss it when we’re back home. I used to hate being on the road, because I got homesick quite a lot. Now when I’m back too much, I actually miss being away. It’s quite strange, to be honest. I definitely prefer playing live these days. Don’t get me wrong, sitting and drinking and watching shit TV is kind of fund sometimes, but I prefer being out there and playing in front of people.

Jumping back to the record, early on, you had these very descriptive, evocative song titles. It’s much more concise now. One word, in many cases. Tell me about that.
It was something that was never really discussed. We kind of leave the song titles to quite later on. We have like stupid rough names for songs. I think it’s just not repeating ourselves. I loved the fact that our first album had those long titles. The second one had kind of a mixture of long and short. With this one, it kind of felt like it fit with the music to have them shorter and sharper. It was never really spoke about. Most of the song titles from the first album were film quotes, so maybe we just haven’t been watching enough films recently. Things like “Nil”, I’m pretty sure that came from the film Nil By Mouth. Other ones were demo names, to be honest. They just kind of felt right. When you put them all together, they all make sense within the title of the album. If you look at the title of the album and then the song names and the artwork, it all kind of falls into place.

So there is a cohesive theme with the record? I know a lot of lyricists don’t like to talk about that.
On the last record, I felt like I talked too much about the and on the first I didn’t talk at all. With this one, I kind of decided to keep it all to myself again. It’s just because my favorite songs are the ones where I don’t really know what they’re about, but I can relate them back to myself. Sometimes if you find out what a song is about, it can spoil it for you. I don’t want that to happen. Also because they’re kind of personal. I gave the record to Stuart from Mogwai and Aidan Moffat and the first thing they said when they came back to me is that it was darker than the last one. I didn’t think that could happen as I thought I was a happier person. Without sounding too wanky, there’s a definite theme through the record and each song is a chapter in what the whole story is. So it’s definitely a story. It’s not a case of just writing songs for the sake of it. There’s a point to each song and they all tie together.

Aside from the lyrics, the music feels darker as well.
They’re not warm songs. They’re probably cold all the way through. I definitely think it’s a dark record. I could never see us writing a happy record. Even though we’re quite normal people. I just see that side of life as more interesting than somebody writing about how good their life is and how happy they are. In a weird kind of therapeutic way it kind of helps you. For myself, if I write a song about something that is dark, it helps you get through that thing and kind of makes you reflect and think about how you’re glad you’re not in that space anymore. So I definitely think it’s a lot more interesting than somebody bashing on about how great things are. Which a lot of hip hop seems to be doing these days. Not that I’m a big hip-hop connoisseur. You could probably not tell that from the record.

You never know what people listen to when they get off the stage.
To be honest, you would be surprised at all the shit we listen to. I’m not even going to tell you, because it’s embarrassing.

C’mon. Give me one, at least.
Oh, shit. Been to see Rihanna and Katy Perry this year. I was given free tickets so I went along. That was a good time. I was absolutely plastered, drunk as anything, but I had a good time. I’m pretty sure that people that like the band would be pretty ashamed of me for saying that.

There’s our headline right there.
Let’s forget about it. [Laughs]

I just downloaded your INXS cover. That’s not something folks would expect.
That probably took some people by surprise. I’m not a huge INXS fan. I don’t think they’re bad, but I don’t love them either. I really like that song, especially because it was in that film Donnie Darko, and when I was young, that was definitely a film I really loved. I still don’t get it, but I think the soundtrack is fantastic. A lot of people say that song’s not in Donnie Darko, but it’s in the director’s cut. It’s at the start of the film when he’s cycling out of his house instead of “The Killing Moon,” the Echo & The Bunnymen song. It’s one of the songs where we felt we could do a totally different version vs. the original. We just did it in Andy’s house, to be honest. Just a lo-fi thing.

Does the stuff you’re listening to seep into your work, or do you try to block that out?
When we’re writing and recording, I try not to listen to things. This year I’ve not really listened to a lot of records. I usually listen to nearly everything that comes out, but when we’re writing and mixing, I try not to get any outside influences just so it doesn’t seep in. I know that Andy had definite influences when he was writing this record than he’s had before with other albums. Can and Caberet Voltaire, it was more influenced by that kind of thing this time. For myself, I’m a huge fan of Arab Strap and Aiden Moffet’s recent album. Strangely for a guy who writes words, I listen to Mogwai all the time. For some reason they trigger thoughts for me sometimes, which is quite strange, because they’re an instrumental band. Andy’s definitely a stick in the mud in that he doesn’t listen to any new stuff at all. He thinks all new music’s shit. We don’t share a lot of musical tastes these days. He’s going backward instead of moving forwards. Looking at the ’70s and things like that, and I’m still trying to find out what’s going on today.

—Matt Ryan