The Twilight Sad: “We never want to remake the same record just because it’s pleased some people”

Having lost a member but survived the fall-out, The Twilight Sad have come out fighting with a stripped back, propulsive third album. In celebration we caught up with them for a chat, a victory pint and a ploughman’s

Feature by Darren Carle | 05 Jan 2012

It’s been over two years since The Twilight Sad last graced The Skinny with an in-depth chat ahead of a new album. Back then, the Kilsyth quartet were about to unleash sophomore effort Forget the Night Ahead, having released their 2007 debut Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters to critical acclaim.

Understandably the pressure was on for its follow up, which evidently took its toll. “I think I lost my mind,” admits singer James Graham, noting the shaved head look he adopted at the time. “It’s grown back though,” he says ambiguously. “I wasn’t too happy with the last Skinny cover, me looking like fucking Richard O’Brien.” At this point the frontman glances with mock awkwardness at guitarist Andy MacFarlane, still resplendent with his own shaven bonce. “Looks good though,” he laughs.

The pressure, and any concessions to vanity, eventually paid off. Whilst it would always be a task to better that stealth missile of a debut, Forget the Night Ahead was still a blinder by any account. Louder, denser and packing a weighty thematic punch, it showcased a band unwilling to rest on their considerable laurels. Yet despite a less than chipper recording process, life didn’t get any easier post-release, culminating in the departure of bassist Craig Orzel in February 2010. “Craig leaving was a shock,” admits Graham, “but at the same time it was after a fucking nightmare tour where we got robbed. He just wanted to go and do his own thing and to be honest it was the right decision for him and it was the right decision for the band.”

Rather than find a straight-up replacement, the band have trimmed down to a core trio in the studio, enlisting Johnny Docherty of Take a Worm for a Walk Week and sometime Aereogramme contributor Martin ‘Dok’ Doherty as live members only. “If we were introducing more people into it, I think it would complicate things,” says MacFarlane of the band’s writing process. Graham agrees; “That’s the one thing that won’t change. It’s the core of what makes the band the band.”

A little objectivity goes a long way, though – a fact all three clearly embrace. Originally slated to produce upcoming third album No One Can Ever Know, legendary DJ and producer Andrew Weatherall eventually operated as something of a muse for the trio as they braved new musical climates. With demos already laid down, a sparser, glacial electro atmosphere began to take shape, with waves of vintage analogue synthesizers taking precedence over the band’s more typical layered and ferocious guitar sound.

“He was there to bounce ideas off and reassure us that we were going in the right direction,” claims MacFarlane. “We’ve always known that he was into the band and when we talked to him, everything he said was exactly along our own lines of thought.” Yet despite Weatherall’s background, and the new slant No One Can Ever Know has brought to their sound, MacFarlane is keen to point out that they were always at the helm of writing and recording. “There was no deliberate move towards more synths and less noisy guitars,” he explains. “All the pre-production and demos were finished before we even met up with Weatherall. It just happened that it was also the kind of thing he was into at that point.”

What comes through as the driving force for this evolvement is the band’s constant need to keep a fresh and interesting perspective before any external considerations come into play. “We never want to remake the same record just because it’s pleased some people,” says MacFarlane. “I remember John Peel talking about how a lot of bands don’t get the chance to progress because fans, reviewers and magazines don’t like it when things change, so bands just end up sticking to the same formula because they’re making their money.”

Whilst neither MacFarlane nor Graham show interest in calling out contemporary parties who play it safe, they both have slightly different exponents of musical diversity that they admire in mind. “With Neil Young, lots of fans would want a remake of Harvest or whatever his last album was,” cites MacFarlane. “He’d say ‘there’s no way that’s happening,’ then the reaction would be that he had failed, whereas he’d see it as him succeeding by failing to do that. And he’s still going strong, you know?” Graham opts for a different, more popular example. “Same with Madonna,” he exclaims. “She went from Material Girl to Frozen. That’s a drastic change there.”

Fans needn’t worry that their new direction is quite the curveball these references might suggest. In fact, MacFarlane claims that he tries not to listen to music when writing in order to avoid overt influences. That said, he is happy to admit that No One Can Ever Know is embedded with the DNA of some perennial favourites. “I was influenced by stuff like Public Image, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Can, Cabaret Voltaire and Wire,” he says. “At certain points in the early 80s, they all sounded really sparse but dead aggressive at the same time. I thought it was clever, not having to put that much down onto record and still get that atmosphere.”

It’s a deft turnabout from Forget the Night Ahead, which MacFarlane claims had the Chem 19 mixing desk “maxed out” with countless parts to songs left on the cutting room floor. Whilst the synthesizers and drum machines of No One Can Ever Know are certainly the most obvious departure, the sparser instrumentation and production occupy something of an equal footing. Then there are MacFarlane’s more propulsive bass lines and Mark Devine’s drumming, given a metronomic edge to hold it all together.

Perhaps a stronger thread that runs through the album is Graham’s distinctive voice, coupled with his typically oblique prose. Although at times he can be a little less cryptic; opening track Alphabet centres on the key refrain 'So sick to death of the sight of you now, safe to say never wanted you more,’ setting a tone of sorts for the album. Graham agrees that he is using fewer metaphors these days but isn’t prepared to pull back the curtain just yet. “On the last album I talked a bit too much about it,” he claims. “Maybe I felt I had to give people an insight into what it was about but this time I’m keeping my cards close to my chest. I just feel that anybody who listens to it isn’t going to benefit from knowing what it’s about. There’s more benefit in taking what you want from these songs.”

The feeling from MacFarlane and Graham is that No One Can Ever Know is not that much of a departure from their own viewpoint, though they are acutely aware that it will be seen as such when it’s released in February. Album finale Kill It In The Morning was uploaded to their website back in September and is perhaps the biggest departure in sound when heard in context. “That’s probably the reason we released it,” claims MacFarlane. “We just wanted to get a bit of a reaction.”

However, both are adamant in steering clear of outside opinion as much as humanly possible. “I’ve always said that the nine good reviews I’ll read will be overshadowed by the one bad one,” says Graham, who prefers to gauge reaction from running the band’s Twitter account. “It fucks with your head and it’s definitely not good for you.” MacFarlane agrees; “I tend not to read any of that either,” he says. “Everybody thinks they’re a critic these days and I find myself thinking ‘What do you know about music?’ So fuck it, I’m no reading any of that shit.”

It’s certainly an ethos that’s in keeping with the band’s image as outsiders and not part of any particular scene. It’s something they cherish and count towards their relative longevity. “We’ve never been forced on anybody or been on the radio twenty-four seven,” Graham points out. “The only reason we’ve got to where we are is from the support of people who actually like music and want to find albums worth listening to. It’s got nothing to do with what we’re wearing or who we’re shagging.” 

No One Can Ever Know is an album that will reward those fans who put in the time and effort. Like so many greats before them, The Twilight Sad have always been a grower of sorts and this third outing doesn’t buck that trend. A cursory listen might simply flag the aforementioned changes, a second and third will likely eke out some quality moments until eventually on your fourth or fifth spin the likes of Dead City or Nil will gut-punch you into hitting that repeat button. “The fact that we attract people who will give a record a second, third or fourth listen is the reason I think we’ve got to this point,” agrees Graham. “You need to go back, you need to give it the time of day and if you do then you could hopefully have one of your favourite records.”

That all three members are enraptured by their third album is evident when talk turns to playing it live. Even Devine, steadfastly quiet throughout, can’t help but chip in here. “There’s more of a dynamic to the set now,” he offers. “It’s not just full-on raucous guitars all the time.” Graham agrees. “Devine’s got a whole new world to deal with and at the same time we’re adapting to it too. I’ve never enjoyed playing with the band more than I do with these new songs.”

“Maybe in the past we’ve been guilty of being totally ‘bwaaaarrrhhhh!’” he animatedly offers in a very rough approximation of the band’s live wall of guitar sound. “We still have that aspect; I mean, my ears are ringing even more these days.” “We either need to become a stadium band or get some ear protection,” suggests MacFarlane. All three contemplate this line of thought before Devine brings us back down to earth. “We might just have to settle for the ear protection,” he laughs.

Whilst Wembley Stadium might seem an insurmountable climb, The Twilight Sad's rise continues to be steady and meticulous, where so many others have rocketed into the hemisphere only to blow up on re-entry. “From Day One we knew this band was going to take time to grow,” MacFarlane nods. “But it’s happening. The last album seemed to take us to the next level and hopefully the same thing will happen with this one and the next.” So, they’re already thinking ahead? “We’re really happy with the album, but we’ll never feel one hundred percent content with anything. If we did then we’d just give up. We’re always thinking ‘What’s next?’”

Download The Twilight Sad's new single Another Bed here for free.

No One Can Ever Know is released via Fat Cat on 6 Feb. Playing The Jam Jar, Dunfermline on 4 Feb; Avalanche Records, Edinburgh on 8 Feb and Grand Ole Opry, Glasgow on 9 Feb.