The Twilight Sad: It Was All Whirlwind...

Since blindsiding us with their show-stopping debut in 2007, <b>The Twilight Sad</b> have enjoyed a steady ascent that few bands can hope to achieve on both sides of the Atlantic. The Skinny swigs warm Grolsch with frontman James Graham and guitarist Andy MacFarlane to ask: Can they make the double?

Feature by Dave Kerr | 01 Sep 2009

“What’s the cheapest bottle you’ve got?” James Graham rattles loose change around in his fist as he surveys the selection behind a Sauchiehall Street bar before plumping for a dubious Dutch favourite. This is the reality for the mild-mannered frontman, who, though having found relative success with The Twilight Sad since 2007's acclaimed Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, still can’t quite call this a living.

Finding a quiet corner to sit down and talk, Graham and guitarist Andy MacFarlane make easy company; their good humour reveals itself quickly, a direct contrast to the way the band are represented by the austerity of their promotional photography and indeed their music. Such perceived moodiness is not the only misconception. “People say ‘You must be making a mint’, but we’ve not made anything out of this,” Graham shrugs.

Like most bands of their stature, where regular touring in foreign lands renders a part-time job impossible, you suspect that longevity depends on financial sustainability. “On one level it’s great,” says Graham. “Two years of our lives have been spent touring, getting to meet bands we respect, playing music – it’s amazing. We’ll do this for as long as we can; we’ll never compromise the music to make a living, but we’re going to have to make money out of this or we’re not going to be able to do it as much as we want. It’s depressing to think about that, but it’s a full-time job. If we can make this work, we will. So long as we don’t kill each other.” MacFarlane interjects: “We’ve only got till we’re 27 anyway, because everybody cool dies when they’re 27.” The remark lingers for a second before the laughter ensues. “Two more years to go.”

“We never want to be the nearly men" – James Graham

And two years can yield so much. The Twilight Sad’s story is not a common one, although monetary fortune has thus far eluded them, the Kilsyth quartet – sometime quintet, including the addition of Aereogramme refugee Martin ‘Dok’ Doherty – has proven that a lot can go right overnight: from humble beginnings experimenting with Daniel Johnston covers and tape-loops of Jimmy Rodgers songs in the basement of Glasgow’s 13th Note Cafe, all the way up to high profile support slots for the likes of Smashing Pumpkins (where Corgan’s troupe were outshone) and Beirut, not to mention tours of the US and Europe with cult post-rock favourites Mogwai which bookended the sessions for the Sad’s forthcoming second LP.

Without any great career masterplan to speak of, the band found little appeal in going down the well-worn path of paying-to-play and returning to the same cities bi-weekly, lest their ubiquity came back to haunt them. “We made a conscious decision never to play the same place every two weeks, because it’s just a load of shite,” Graham deadpans. “We thought, ‘well, we’ll just keep on writing songs and send them away to get the name about.’”

“We’d been messing about for a couple of years before we said ‘Do you want to make a go of it?’” MacFarlane remembers. “We were working in Safeway, call centres and places like that. It was like ‘This is piss, we need a label. Let’s get an album out and go on tour.”

Their first and only approach was to Brighton based FatCat Records, who expressed immediate interest in The Twilight Sad’s demo by return and signed the band after witnessing their third show. “That was a weird gig,” Graham recalls. “There was a four band bill at the Barfly and it was packed. The other bands playing were all quite upbeat and poppy, then we came on and he [nods at MacFarlane] was like ’VVVVVWWWWWZZZZWWWZZZ’ with his tape loops and guitar effects. People were going ‘Uh?’” “We were just lucky as fuck,” nods MacFarlane. “But that’s the first step, getting signed.”

Thrown across the pond, the band had no time to drink in the scale of the rollercoaster they’d boarded. “We did three gigs in Glasgow in the space of three years, and then we were playing East Coast shows in New York, Chicago and Boston,” MacFarlane adds. “It was straight over for a tour in America without really even dipping our toe in the water. I mean, we hadnae even made it to Edinburgh yet!”

Having achieved their initial goals, it seems time spent on the road since has served the band variably. "I like playing the gigs, the travelling about isn’t my favourite thing," says Graham. “But we’ll do it, and we’ll be away for a year if we need to be, to promote the album and get as far as we can.” “I love it…” starts MacFarlane, shaking his head and waving a finger in Graham’s face. “He’s making it sound shite! Right, see a tour for me, it’s like going on holiday, it’s amazing. You only need to play a gig for an hour every night, and apart from that you just go out, you go to parties and hit the pub. He sits in his hotel room on the Skype and we all go out partying!”

With an expectant label and swelling fanbase patiently awaiting new material, the band appeased both with an album of live oddities entitled (The Twilight Sad) Killed My Parents and Hit the Road before embarking on a European tour with Mogwai late last year. A spoof and homage to Sonic Youth’s Goo in cover and title, the band never expected to encounter the album’s maker. “I just did it for a laugh on MySpace,” says MacFarlane of the illustration. “But FatCat wanted to use it for a release, then Thurston Moore turned up at one of the Mogwai gigs. The cover was on all the tee-shirts as well, we were trying to hide the merchandise.” Graham elaborates: “Stuart [Braithwaite] came backstage and said ‘Guess who’s coming to the gig tonight? It’s somebody you’ll love…’’’ MacFarlane: “…and I was actually thinking ‘Bret Hart?’” “Then he said ‘Thurston Moore,’” continues Graham. “We thought, ‘Well that’s cool, then walked over to the merch desk and went ‘oh, shit!’”

Lawsuit dodging notwithstanding, the Mogwai tours helped provide focus and a welcome distraction from recording the new album. “We needed more time to do everything,” admits Graham. “The best thing about those tours, for me, is that it showed me where I’d like our band to go. If we could get to that level it’d be great. It was also a great head start for us in Europe and America; I’m pretty sure we gained a few fans. We’ve been lucky with everybody we’ve been on tour with; it’s happened because they like the band and not because somebody’s waving a big cheque in their face going ‘can you take this band on tour?’”

Having mixed their debut with Peter Katis (The National) in the cold of Connecticut, for album number two the band returned Chem19 – the Glasgow studio they’d originally recorded – to craft what would become Forget the Night Ahead, without what Graham terms “tour heid.” “You need to come home and do things right,” says MacFarlane.

Since giving fans a taste of what's to come by offering the ominous Reflection of the Television as a free download in June, lead single proper I Became a Prostitute posed a problem for the censors. MacFarlane named the track after a line from Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live, and didn't predict that it would present such a "pain in the arse". The band had no intention of pandering to prudish radio stations when writing, nor was the intention to self-sabotage. “There are no sexual connotations,” Graham affirms. “It’s just a metaphor for becoming somebody you really don’t want to be. ‘Prostitute’ is politically correct, that’s from the dictionary - none of your shite - but people can’t bring themselves to say it. If it gets on radio, it gets on radio. If it doesn’t, so... fuck.”

Broaching the subject of the new album, the pair are initially reticent to discuss the ground it covers. It seems a less is more approach has served the band well. At its droning, reverb-drenched best, Forget the Night Ahead does, by Graham’s own admission, sacrifice its predecessor’s warmth for a darker ambience. This is modern, emotive rock at its most gripping, which poses a problem when listeners attempt to typify what it is that The Twilight Sad do.

Although My Bloody Valentine have slowly become an obvious touchstone to align with bands capable of harnessing white noise effectively, I tell MacFarlane I hear chilling echoes of Loveless amongst some of the most outstanding moments on their new record. Surely that’s no bad thing? “Right, this might come out the wrong way,” he declares “I don’t think Loveless is amazing. It’s a good album, but I prefer Isn’t Anything. I’m not knocking My Bloody Valentine at all; I think they’re a great band. But I’d never put them on a pedestal, they’re not our kind of inspiration.”

So when a journalist drops the dreaded ‘Nu-gaze’ bomb, it’s a surefire stinker in the band’s book? “I liked that better than ‘Scottish emo,’” Graham shudders. “Thanks Pitchfork. These days, if anybody shows a little emotion in a song it’ll be labelled ‘Emo’, just like that. We’re obviously not like Taking Back Sunday [throws thumb in the direction of the ABC] who are playing up the road tonight, that’s fucking ‘Emo’. I understand the term and I show emotion in what I do, but that word instantly puts people off.” “Some website called us and the Rabbits ‘the Beatles and the Stones of Emo’,” laughs MacFarlane. “We’re definitely the Stones.”

Next for the Twilight Sad comes a US trek with the aforementioned Frightened Rabbit and fellow label mates We Were Promised Jetpacks, before returning for a lap of the UK and Europe in their own right. But it’s the promise of one forthcoming show in particular that sticks out in Graham’s mind as a landmark achievement. ”We’re playing the Bowery Ballroom,” he beams. “That’s our gig and it’s quite a big thing for us.”

All of the above, yet the band are only now coming to grips with the medium of music video. With one in the can (see Prostitute) and two more underway, that’s all about to change. Y’all Is Fantasy Island frontman and sometime filmmaker Adam Stafford is currently crafting the treatment for next single Seven Years of Letters. Hot on the heels of Stafford’s video comes another by Nicola Collins, director of recent controversial East End London gangster documentary The End. “She’s working with David Lynch’s daughter in her new film,” reveals Graham. “So she’s calling in a favour and getting his granddaughter in on this.”

Notorious for their onstage shyness, I ask whether that extends to appearing in their own videos. “I don’t really see that you have to,” MacFarlane ponders. “But I think we’re going to be in the next couple coming up. It’ll be me walking past with a wee Hitchcock cameo in there,” he laughs. “No, I think we’re just playing, because if we go in acting it’ll just be ridiculous.”

And so The Twilight Sad hunch under a glass ceiling until the world takes notice. Having recorded one of the gutsiest independent rock albums of the year, the band may find themselves at the mercy of fleeting tastes and a fragmented media both at home and abroad upon its release next month. Graham is up for the challenge, with no desire to achieve also-ran status. “We never want to be the nearly men in that sense of ‘oh, remember that band, they were good.’ We want people to be saying ‘let’s go and see them again’. If people get the chance to hear our music I’m sure it’ll have broad appeal. I hope so anyway. But this is by no means a commercial record; you won’t see us on Top of the Pops anytime soon, even if they do bring it back.”

Forget the Night Ahead is released via FatCat on 5 October.