Having stayed the course throughout a particularly harsh decade for independent rock music, James Graham and Andy MacFarlane say The Twilight Sad won't be moulded by the zeitgeist
A little under a decade ago, Scotland’s guitar rock saviours were cusping transcendence. After signing with Fat Cat at their third ever gig, the then four-piece had kick-started a resurgence in Scottish indie’s international pedigree. But when their initial momentum burnt out, the spark threatened to follow. Bassist Craig Orzel left in 2010, before No One Can Ever Know, the Sad’s brutally underrated third LP, met a wintry reception at first (later vindicated as the 'People's Choice' nominee for the SAY Award the following year).
Today, they’re still seeking equilibrium. Singer James Graham has a day job tying loose ends for Mogwai’s Rock Action label, while Andy MacFarlane, guitarist and co-founder, is cooped up radio-editing Last January, the forthcoming single from the Sad’s make-or-break fourth LP Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave. “I was hoping Tim Westwood would do it,” Andy says of the edit, “but sadly he's not about at the moment.” Given the mood in the camp, you do wonder how far they’d go for the cash...
It’s not that they’re after much, you see, but it’s a shit decade for indie labels and frankly the Sad are hard up. “Nobody's selling a lot of records,” says James, “so the way for bands to make a living is through syncs. And I think our music, apart from my stupid accent, would be good for stuff like that.” Are there many sync scouts trawling for furtive indie bands, then? “The music we write isn't happy-go-lucky, don't get me wrong,” he says, grinning. “But there are darker films and TV programmes – stuff like Breaking Bad – that our music would fit perfectly. And I don't understand why we haven't got anything like that.”
"I can categorically say these won't be the last songs I write” – James Graham
Twilight Sad breaking primetime? It’s not so far-fetched. In a world where Mogwai’s Les Revenants soundtrack has springboarded them to their commercial zenith, the cinematic brood in that group’s wake are increasingly marketable. So why no Sad? “There’s a lot more politics to it now,” suggests Andy, “which is quite frustrating. We don’t have the money behind us, and we don't have a mastermind to get us places.” James agrees: “We have people who are meant to work for us in that context, and to be straight up, we haven't got anything.” He chuckles, exasperated. “I don't wanna sound like I'm complaining, but the fact is, we haven’t.”
Is there a weak link? He pauses. “I think we've done as much as we can. There's nothing more that we could do. We've made the music we want to make, we’re extremely proud of it. But once you've made the record, you put that in the hands of other people. You can shout and email as much as you want, but it's up to them to put your music in front of the right people. I mean, I'm racking my brain and there's really nothing more that we could've done.”
It’s a grim night in Scotland, a month ahead of release day, and ten days before the Union decides not to break up, after all – not quite. James and Andy’s future is just as shaky, but for now they’re pretty relaxed. James had intended to watch a Euro 2016 qualifier but we natter right through it, later to find that England have won two-nil. The legacy of Scottish miserablism sits on their shoulders.
If their early trajectory represented the first big weekend of the summer, the years since have felt like a final comedown. While major-label love granted Chvrches and Frightened Rabbit endless Stateside circuits, the Sad swapped their cusp for the brink. Nobody Wants to Be Here..., recorded over three weeks at Mogwai’s Castle of Doom studio, is potentially a shot at resurrection: propellant, amply chorused and reliably epic. Still, early whispers of a return to their guitar-heavy debut (not entirely off the mark) were quickly overshadowed by in-band discontent: catching up with The Skinny this April, James admitted approaching the record as their last. Has his optimism renewed?
“Since the start I’ve been an overthinker,” James explains, “but we went through a particularly rubbish year before writing these songs. Things weren't going too well for us, on numerous levels.” “I loved doing the first two albums,” Andy adds, “but by the third, we were so run down and nothing was working out. At that point, we couldn't see beyond our next album.”
“Every night we put absolutely everything into it,” continues James, “but constantly hit a brick wall. But there's a group of fans who've travelled up and down the country, over to America, to see us. There's been a lot of faith shown in our band. There’s Mogwai, how they've helped us out, and even bands like Frightened Rabbit, Chvrches – these people constantly talk about our music. We seem to be a band that bands like, but I genuinely think this record's a statement: not to prove people wrong, but to prove people right.”
Surely they knew you were right all along? “Yeah, but...” he trails off. “I want to prove it to other people as well. I’m proud of all the records, but this one, although it keeps the same ethos, it can reach new people. I can categorically say these won't be the last songs I write. These songs, to me, proved I have a lot more to say. Writing these songs with Andy showed me how much I need this in my life. The thought of not doing it anymore terrifies me.”
While the Sad’s rhythm section – Mark Devine and bassist Johnny Docherty – is key, it’s James and Andy’s friendship that goes furthest back. After attending a tiny school in Banton, James – who’d been the only boy in class – had a tricky high school transition. “I think I had lunch on my own that first day,” he recalls. “I don't blame you, Andy – I think you went home for lunch, so you're off the hook. Misery guts me sat at the lunch table all on my own.” He thinks a moment. “I suppose that was the start of the downward spiral.”
Far from lank-haired outcasts rifling Communist pamphlets in the back row, the pair had a musical confidence that earned their classmates’ respect. “We were in music class one day,” James remembers, “and the music teacher went, ‘Can anybody sing?’ And Andy went, ‘James can!’” Could you? “I had no idea, actually. You were obviously just being a dick Andy, eh?” Andy smirks. “So anyway, I went up and sang Australia by the Manics, and that was that.”
Since day one, songs like That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy (the first James ever wrote) have earned the band a disturbed reputation. Listening to their music, there’s a persistent image of a boy peeking through the bannister as violent parents kick off in the living room. Subsequently – and thanks partly to Dave Thomas’s darkly suggestive artwork – there’s a misconception that James himself had a difficult childhood; in fact, The Skinny has it on good authority that the Grahams are proud, attendant fans at many of their gigs. Would James be comfortable elaborating?
He laughs. “I get that a lot. My mum and dad are actually the biggest supporters of our band. The songs aren’t about me having a really bad childhood; it’s about, from the outside, looking in at other people in my community. And the shite that happened to my family – not in my family. It's about other dickheads influencing our lives, whether or not they realise. Writing these songs is about making people feel things they wouldn't usually feel, things they're scared to feel – loss, anger, depression. To write a love song for somebody would probably be the hardest thing. I've never done that. Nine times out of ten, that's only going to come across as corny.”
That raises the question: which are the acceptable happy songs? Reeling, the pair muttering between themselves. “Fucking hell, fucking hell, you’re asking a question there,” James says. “I'll have to come back to you on that.” “That annoying guy's got a song called Happy,” offers Andy, perhaps struggling with the concept. “Yeah,” James clarifies, “but we need an actual example of a happy song that's good. You think that Pharrell song’s shite.” Again, they confer privately. “Well, you tend to find a lot of happy-sounding songs that are actually pretty grim,” Andy says, evidently trying his hardest. “The happier moments of The Cure were really uplifting,” James says, “but er, with dark lyrics. A happy song with happy lyrics? That just sounds shite, nobody wants to hear that.
“Well,” he concludes, smiling, “maybe they do. But not miserable old me.”