James Graham from The Twilight Sad tells us why he wrote the band’s fourth album as if it could be their last, looks back on ten years of touring, and the imminent reissue of their classic debut, Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters
Self-confessed “depressing, moany bastard” James Graham isn’t half as depressed as his lyrics might make him out to be. Over the course of a decade and four towering albums, his group The Twilight Sad have become one of Scotland’s most impressive and treasured groups, with a loyal following both at home and abroad.
Although the dizzying heights of success achieved by bands like Frightened Rabbit – with whom they toured the US last year, and CHVRCHES, whose Martin Doherty was a touring keyboardist for The Twilight Sad for an extended period – may have eluded them so far, the band have built a solid reputation both as dynamic and vital performers and accomplished studio musicians, with their last effort, the synth-led, angst-ridden No-One Can Ever Know making The Skinny’s end of year albums chart in 2012, and the shortlist for the Scottish Album of the Year Award in 2013, winning their nomination by public vote. This year, the band return with their as-yet-untitled fourth album, and on Record Store Day, a deluxe limited edition reissue of their debut, Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters.
When we catch up with Graham, he’s taking a break from helping fellow band members Andy McFarlane and Mark Devine lay down bass synth parts for the new record in Mogwai’s fabled Castle of Doom studios, in the heart of Glasgow’s slowly-gentrifying Finnieston district. The band have been hunkered down for three weeks creating the follow-up to their last record, and it’s something of a different beast, with Fourteen Autumns producer Peter Katis ready to mix down the final results. “It feels like we've come full circle,” says Graham. “It definitely feels like we've learned from every record, and we’ve brought each influence from previous records into this one. It feels like everything we want to be as a band has combined in these songs.”
For one thing, says Graham, “it definitely feels like the guitars are back.” However, this is not purely a “baws out” rock album, as Graham describes some of the tracks. As with all of their albums so far, a sense of dynamic is key. “There are lots of highs and lows; there are big songs, small songs. When we were playing last year with just the three of us, we realised what worked the most was when you stripped a song back, and let the song speak for itself. That seems to have really helped, on this record.”
"Everything we want to be as a band has combined in these songs" – James Graham
Perhaps most importantly, Graham says, “these are the most melodic songs we’ve ever written, but they still sound big.” This is perhaps a reflection of the band’s continuing ambition to gain the higher reaches of the indie rock pyramid – Graham describes The Twilight Sad as “very much a band that wants to get out and play all the time, whenever we can,” and reach new audiences. But also, there is a sense that he is aware of the tenuousness, the inherent fragility of a career in the ailing music industry. “We’ve been going for ten years – I haven’t made any money,” he confesses. “That’s not why I got into it, but if it was, I wouldn’t be in it any more.” He also mentions that the band are “not getting any younger,” and it seems these two factors have influenced the way he wrote the new material.
“I approached the songs on this record like they were the last songs I would ever write,” he says. “We don’t know how long things are going to last." Of his music career, he says: "I love doing this, it’s my favourite thing to do in the world. If I was to lose that it would be devastating." This played on his mind as he sat down to write the new songs: "In my head I was thinking, ‘This could be your last time, you have to put everything into it.’ I think we have.”
After a tour which collectively, as Graham puts it, “kind of drove us insane,” the band got to spend some time in their hometowns of Kilsyth and neighbouring Banton, from where Graham himself hails. Home seems to be the dominant theme and the starting point for many of the new album’s lyrical subjects, and the importance of home is something Graham returns to often in conversation. “I go back there at least twice a week,” he says. “We love going drinking there, my local pub is The Swan. I expect a free pint if they see that in print! You can’t change where you’re from, and our attitude towards life was moulded in that place. We’ve gone further afield, travelled the world, but we always come back to Banton and Kilsyth."
Returning to that first album, which is re-released on 19 April, Graham is still enthusiastic about its provenance. “It seemed like a good way to re-introduce people to the band, before we move forward again with the new record,” he says of the reissue. “It’s still a record we’re extremely proud of, it opened the door for so many things.”
It’s clear that Graham is still incredibly keen to tour with The Twilight Sad – there’s a sense that the full scope of his ambition has yet to be fulfilled. “We want to play everywhere,” he says, a far-off look in his eye. “We aren’t a band that says no to things. Wait, that makes us sound like a band for hire… we wouldn’t turn up to someone’s wedding.” He gives a wry laugh. “Not that anyone would want us at their wedding.” This is a quintessential Graham answer – self-deprecating, offering a sly nod to the band’s reputation of being ‘perennially miserable.’
“From the outside in, if you looked at the aesthetic of the band, from the promo shots to the album artwork, to the actual music, to the live performances… we’re definitely not walking about with smiles on our faces,” Graham acknowledges. “We’ve been on tour with these fun, happy bands, in terms of their onstage personas. They come off stage and they’re miserable. Yes, I’m a miserable person sometimes. I’m pretty hard work to be around. But I think if you asked people who’ve been on tour with us, they’d say we like to have a good time.” One part of their touring schedule Graham is looking forward to is Primavera Festival in Barcelona, where the band play alongside Mogwai and CHVRCHES – Graham’s calling it a “lad’s holiday.”
However, as he says himself, “it isn’t all fun and games.” After the band’s third tour, he realised: “It’s hard, touring – it is a job. It can be the best time of your life, but it’s like any job, you have up days and down days. The difference is that when you have your down days, you are thousands of miles away from home." Tensions within the band are also unavoidable: "You can’t be best friends all the time. We’ve learned to deal with all that, and that’s one reason why we’re still here. We know when to step away from each other.”
Graham’s often cryptic lyrics, full of stark and sometimes brutal metaphors and imagery, have grown progressively clearer and more direct as their albums have progressed, and that’s a trend that continues on the new album. “They paint a picture, and that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “On this record that picture’s easier to see.” He prefers not to analyse or explain his lyrics: “I think it’s more interesting for people listening to the record if they can’t perhaps make out what it is I’m saying to begin with. The lyrics are all still about where I’m from, people I know, things that have happened to me.”
With that, we’re back to the elephant in the room – the needed and much-desired increase in the success of The Twilight Sad. Given that Graham wrote this album as if it was his last, he seems to express a mixture of fear and longing, confidence and reticence when it comes to predicting his own band’s success in the wake of a wave of high-profile wins for contemporaries like CHVRCHES and Frightened Rabbit. “Things seem to be going pretty well for Scottish bands at the moment,” he says. “Fingers crossed we don’t come in and spoil the winning streak!” We put it to him that his band’s continued and increasing success is just a matter of time, and he nods, suddenly serious. “We’re putting everything into it,” he says.