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'The Twilight Sad'
'Interview (November 2011)'   

-  Genre: 'Rock'

The prospect of conducting an interview with The Twilight Sad – or, more specifically, James Graham – was a daunting one. Their live shows are noteworthy for their intensity, and James’ complete immersion in the music during performances is gripping and, on occasion, disturbing in equal measure as he battles with his demons and pours heart and soul into every word, with barely a glance at the audience. A conversational front man, he is not.

When I arrived at The Duchess in York’s city centre at the appointed time, James came up the stairs to meet me (the venue itself is below street level) and shook my hand welcomingly. We took a sofa in the corner out front of the venue, leaving his bandmates in the dressing room listening to music and tinkering about on Apple laptops. Immediately I was struck by just how relaxed he appeared – and this despite the fact that it’s 6pm, the PA is being worked on and they’re yet to soundcheck.

I comment on how this is the band’s first time playing York, after two previous shows were called off, and ask if they’ve had the opportunity to explore the city at all. ‘We were supposed to play here a couple of times, but they got cancelled. The first one, I think our van broke down,’ he says apologetically. ‘I can’t quite remember, but I think there was another one that had been booked, but we didn’t know it had been booked. But yeah, it’s our first time here and it’s great.’ He makes positive noises about the venue – his first impressions are good – and he’s raring to go. In fact, he’s had a good day, and is warming to York in the brief time he’s spent in the city. ‘We were in Preston yesterday, and, not to put Preston down, but...’ he pulls a face. ‘This is a lot better, a more picturesque.’

Unfortunately, the city’s many wonderful pubs hadn’t made the itinerary. ‘We started off with a bit of a hangover the day,’ he explains. ‘But we’re usually steamin’ by the time we’re out,’ he admits. Ah yes, the rigours of touring. We rap for a while on the nation’s drinking habits, in particular those north of the border. Having lived in Glasgow for a while myself, I’m aware of just how different the hostelries are – functionality takes precedence over style, and the approach to imbibing is pretty damn hardcore. ‘When you’re out, it’s pretty hard to have a casual couple of drinks and then head home. Once you’re out, and then you see somebody and then you see a friend and then it’s a case of you’re out until the early morning...’

There’s no sign of a hangover now, though, and he looks decidedly chipper as he sups from his bottle of lager, and I ask him how the tour – now a week in – has gone so far, and in particular, how the new material has been going down. ‘Great, aye!’ he says with a real enthusiasm. ‘Last night was the first English date we played on the tour after we did a lot of Scottish gigs, and, yeah, it was good, trying out new stuff, it’s good. It’s been the first tour where we’ve really had the opportunity we’ve had to try out new stuff, we’ve got a lot of new equipment and things like that, so it’s basically kinda... I don’t want to say it’s a dummy run, but it’s like a case of getting used to it. The old songs are seeming a lot fresher now with the new stuff in with it. The crowds have been great, really, really good.’

And as for the reception to the new material: ‘I think it’s been great as well.’ He pauses momentarily. ‘It’s hard to tell for me...’ he ponders, ‘’cause I’ve never really... I’m not the kind of front man that really interacts with the crowd that much, I just get lost in my own wee world and try to remember why I wrote the song in the first place.’

Obviously, out front, it’s an extremely intense experience. I should know, I’ve been there a fair few times now, and The Twilight Sad have never failed to send shivers down my spine and make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. What’s it like on stage?

‘Pretty much the same,’ says James. ‘I always think if we’re going somewhere and we’re playing to people who’ve paid money to come and see us, it doesn’t matter if there’s five people or if there’s loads of people, then they’ve come to see us, and then I try to remember why I wrote the songs in the first place and try to bring that back to myself, and that will bring out what the songs actually mean to me, and that will help get that across. Ultimately, it’s not going to be all fun and games, because they’re pretty sad songs but... It’s pretty draining doing that every night to be honest,’ he adds with a small chuckle, ‘but that’s why we do it.’

This confirms what I had been convinced of all along from the first time I witnessed The Twilight Sad performing live. It was during those forty minutes of blistering intensity, amidst which James – and his fellow band members for that matter – seemed to completely lose himself and forget the audience was even there, that the songs I had heard in recorded form came to life and really took on real meaning. The emotions being wrung out aren’t some kind of contrived performance. If one thing’s abundantly clear from seeing The Twilight Sad perform, it’s that they’re all about the distillation of real, raw emotion: rather than tidy it up and package it in pretty parcels of pop production and contrived image stylings as, say, Glasvegas are wont to do, the energy they radiate from the stage conveys in the strongest possible way that they’re the real deal. Every night he’s on stage, he’s reliving those intense, painful moments, over and over, for our entertainment. And if James is putting himself back into the place that inspired the song, it’s probably a reasonable assumption that the songs are the product of real emotion. So when you’re writing a song, I ask, how much of you is in it?

‘All of it. What I’ll do is, I’ll write a song, but I’ll not tell anyone what it’s about. But basically, every song we’re written, I’ve not written the song because I’ve had to write, or because I’ve been given some music and there was a deadline or anything, it’s a case of all the songs I’ve written I’ve written because I wanted to do it, because I wanted to write a song about that subject, or I need to get it off my chest or something, so there’s not a song that I’ve written that’s not about something about myself or related to me. It’s all very personal, so, aye, it’s all pretty daunting sometimes when you put that much into it... Sometimes I think I’ve put too much into it.’

It’s that sincerity and emotional integrity that people respond to, I venture. James agrees: ‘Aye, it’s just honesty, I think...’ Indeed. People love The Twilight Sad because they’re the real deal. They’re not manufactured. They’re not an ‘image’ band. ‘That’s not what we’re about. Basically we’re five friends and we write music together and we do it because we love it. It’s not a case of doing it to become megastars, we’re doing it because we want make albums and to produce music that we love...’

And he’s away: ‘We always start that way, we always write songs and produce songs about what we want to hear. If other people like it then great, but you’ve got to be honest with yourself to begin with. That’s what we’ve done with this record, that’s what we did with the last record.’

About this record... one the one hand, ‘No One Can Ever Know’ is a fairly radical departure. A lot of fans will probably hate it, at least initially. A great many will grow to love it, though, but only after an initial period of bewilderment, because it does sound really very different from its predecessors. And yet the key elements, in particular the monumentally thunderous percussion and the swirling guitars – ‘they’re kind of atmospheric’ – are still there, just pitched differently in the mix.

‘There’s no point in us doing another album that sounded like ‘Fourteen Autumns’ or ‘Forget the Night Ahead’ because we’d ultimately have got bored and probably called it a day. We just wanted to do things that were interesting to us. It was never really a case of us sitting down and going “we’re going to change here and do that”, we just did what we wanted to do...’ James chooses his words carefully. ‘I hate using that term “natural progression”, but it did seem that that’s what was happening, we were basically moving on to the next step.’

The band aren’t only thinking of themselves in pushing themselves creatively, though. After all, each album that’s already been released still exists as a document, and he points out that recreating the previous albums would be entirely redundant and ultimately conning the fans into purchasing a work that amounted to little more than a duplication of something already out there on the market. ‘If you want another ‘Fourteen Autumns’ or another ‘Forget the Night Ahead’, go and get that.’ Besides, repetition diminishes the impact of a work, just as a joke isn’t as funny the tenth time you hear it, and it’s fair to say that The Twilight Sad’s first two albums certainly aren’t lacking in impact (even if the gags are pretty thin on the ground). That said, ‘Forget the Night Ahead’ does develop and expand on the terrain of its predecessor while forging into new territory, and the same is true of ‘No One Can Ever Know’. ‘Stuart from Mogwai said to me the other day, “it is definitely different, but to me it’s still youse”. We’re not trying to be anybody else apart from The Twilight Sad’.

It’s an enviable position to be in, not only having friends like Mogwai, but also being allowed to grow in the directions they want, and to develop creatively in their own way without any pressure from their label: Fat Cat have been entirely supportive of the band throughout, and signed them on their own merits – and at only their second ever gig. So rather than with a view to molding them to fit their own vision, they’re happy to let the band do their own thing. ‘We basically get all the say... I mean, we’ll play it to them and they’ll say what they think and obviously we’ll take it on board, but...’

He’s clearly enthused as he warms up on the subject of the new material and becomes quite animated at this point. ‘The thing as well, with the new stuff, we’re going in with new stuff into the live set, the live set I think now is... I’m enjoying it more than I’ve ever enjoyed it, just because there’s the chance for things to flow, and there’s peaks. Maybe in the past we’ve just been “Bang! Bang! Bang!” noise, but now there’s ups and downs... it just improves the show a hundred per cent. Obviously, the more we play these songs, the more we get to think about them, too.’

Noise is certainly a predominant feature of any Twilight Sad gig. I ask how important volume is to the performance and the overall experience. ‘Aye, it is important. I mean, playing in certain size venues it’s pretty hard to get the balance right, to be honest it’s quite hard on stage for us to hear a lot of the time, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to go and see us and not get that kind of punch in the chest with it, it would feel kinda limp and it would feel kinda wrong in a way. But aye, the volume, it’s... I think this tour the volume’s been off the scale.’

I would find out precisely how off the scale a couple of hours later, before ultimately leaving with every molecule in my body vibrating in some kind of Brownean motion. ‘People have been walking away and writing me through the Internet to say “my ears are fucked”.’ He laughs. ‘And I’m like “Well, I do this every night, what do you think my ears are doing, like, y’know?”’

At least with playing at such eardrum-annihilating levels, there’s no danger of having the gig spoiled by some irritating tossers gabbing away through every song. It is, after all, a common problem. You turn up to see a band you love and some bugger just yaks on from beginning to end. ‘Yeah, well I’ve got into, not fights, but disagreements with people. There’s one song in the set where basically I sing on my own: one song in the set where I sing the start of it on my own. It’s the one time where I’m like “shut up, like, everybody just listen,” ‘cause the rest of it, everything’s going off and if you want to go off and shout in your pal’s ear or something, then fine, but aye, I hate it when people talk over you. I don’t get why people would buy tickets to gigs and talk all the way through it.’

He’s not alone. But back to the new album, and I’m curious to know about the involvement of Andrew Weatherall on ‘No One can Ever Know’ and what kind of influence he had on the sound. James rattles away at length on the process and evolution of the new album, revealing that in many ways, the legendary DJ and producer’s touch was a light one that his input was more about support and affirmation than actually steering the sound or the songs in any particular direction. Having heard the demos, he was ‘just there in the studio... It was good to have him because he wasn’t so much keeping us right as guiding us. He’s a guy who has the best musical knowledge of anyone I’ve ever, ever met.’

So how did you get in contact with him? I ask. ‘We knew he was a fan of the band, and we knew Alex [Knight, Fat Cat co-founder] was pal with him, and we knew from the past that Alex had said he was a fan of the band. That was great, so we just thought, he’ll get what we’re trying to do here, and he came down... it was just reassuring to have somebody with that kind of musical knowledge there to say “you’re doing that right”, and basically he came in and, he was talking to me and at at one point he came in and says, “everything you’ve done, you’ve done it right. I’d have done exactly the same.”’

So, about the whole ‘Scottish miserablist’ tag... ‘I think it’s a media thing,’ James opines. ‘I mean, there is that side to the music, but that’s what we do to get that side out of us... Apart from that, we’re pretty normal, well, I wouldn’t say “happy go lucky”, but like everybody else, but with the music... it brings out the dark side. It kinda helps you reflect: see, if you go through a good time, and you look back and think “I was in a dark place at that time in my life at one point, I’m so glad I’m not there any more”... Sometimes you get the good times, and sometimes you get the bad times as well, I mean everybody goes through it...’ So as for there being a trend for dour, miserable music with a distinctly Scottish flavour performed by moaning miserable Scots... ‘It’s just not true. Bands like Arab Strap, Mogwai, us, I guess we just enjoy that darker kind of thing, but we’re just normal people. Maybe it’s just the bad weather or all the drinking, the comedown from the drinking...’ He’s laughing again here, and it’s fair to say he’s proven to be anything but dour or miserable in the time he’s been chatting with me.

Then again, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with leaning toward the darker aspects of life: it can be a liberating experience, channelling that anger and frustration in a creative way. ‘Sometimes it’s just good to get something off your chest, especially in that way... It’s expensive therapy, but...’ Again, he cracks a smile as he adds, ‘it’s expensive therapy that makes me money.’ And that’s the dilemma – or trade-off – for any genuine artist, the idea of putting oneself out there and laying one’s soul bare and undergoing a performative self-torture or self-flagellation for the entertainment of others simply to earn a crust.

So how do The Twilight Sad find the business side of being in a band? It must be difficult...‘It is,’ James concedes, ‘but at the same time, we’ve never known anything else. We’ve never had piles of cash spent on us. We’re on an independent label and I mean, they do well, but don’t have major label funding. Things are getting better and better and better for us all the time, even though the music industry’s in a state now, it’s the way it is. People ask questions like “how do you make money as a band?” We’ve not really known any different, we’ve never really made any money, but we’ve got by and are making a living out of being in a band. That’s kind of amazing. I mean, we’re not rolling in it, but at the same time, we’ve got a good support structure back home, we’ve got families that are really supportive of what we do... But with every album we’ve done, things have went up and up, and are getting better for us, so we’re just climbing that way. We’re really happy.’

He goes on to tell me how privileged he feels being in such a position. ‘It’s hard work,’ he says, ‘but that’s how it should be. There’s so many trying to do it, so many bands trying to get heard.’ Again, he’s the first to admit that the band have been lucky in making some influential friends, but is keen to point out that they’ve achieved everything that they have achieved on their on musical merits: ‘We’ve been lucky, we’ve had a lot of support from bands... we’ve not been forced on them, but bands like Mogwai, bands like Arab Strap, even Biffy Clyro. I mean, they’re the biggest rock band in Britain I suppose, and they didn’t have to take any interest in us. I didn’t think they would, ‘cause obviously we’re totally different to them, but at the same time, they did, they didn’t have to say that they liked us and I suppose it’s just because people like the music, it’s nothing to do with somebody giving them a backhand, like, “will you take this band on tour?”’

It’s common practice for bands or their labels to buy their way onto a high-profile tour or to pay their way to landing a support slot. It’s arguably a win-win situation, as the headline band get extra funding for the tour, while the support act get much-needed exposure. The trouble is, such practices can lead to some pretty incongruous – and terrible – support acts opening for big names, and ultimately no-one comes out looking good, with the support act going down abysmally and the headliners looking like they’ve selected a terrible band to tour with. Believe me, I know, having seen the same terrible support act three times in as many weeks, supporting two different and equally ill-matched headliners, and dying on stage every time. “Yeah, a hundred per cent, that happens,” James says. But The Twilight Sad don’t operate like that, and are only interested in getting places on account of the music rather than through bribery and bankrolling. ‘We’re lucky, we’ve got there just because they like the music, and that’s the biggest compliment.’

The thing is, despite rattling off names like Mogwai, Arab Strap and Biffy Clyro, James isn’t doing it to impress, he’s not name-dropping simply because he can or to make himself look big: in the first instance these acts are genuinely his band’s peers, and, moreover, he’s genuinely a fan of their work. He means it when he says that their support means so much and provides immense validation for his own output. ‘The thing is, to get that respect off of them is mind-blowing. You can’t get a bigger seal of approval than from the bands you’re fans of.’

The support acts are starting to arrive with bits of drum kit and all the rest. it’s getting louder in our quiet corner, and I’m aware I’ve occupied a good chunk of James’ valuable time – not that he seems in any hurry. Still, I decide I really should let him prepare for the show and get himself into the all-important zone, but before I do, have just one more burning question: did the rabbit die?

At this, he laughs. ‘Someone else has asked me that question as well,’ he says. Damn, and I thought I was so original! ‘Well, it wasn’t the exact same question, it was someone that had lots of rabbits and they asked me, “why do you hate rabbits?”’ And the truth of the matter is: ‘There was no rabbit. It’s a metaphor,’ he explains. ‘It’s definitely a metaphor.’

Two short hours later, I’d see a very different man on stage, wrenching his guts out amidst a musical maelstrom of mega-decibels. The volume was indeed off the scale.

‘No One Can Ever Know’ is released 6th February.

The Twilight Sad Online

The Twilight Sad - Interview (November 2011)
  author: Christopher Nosnibor

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