What do you care for?
An interview with The Twilight Sad
by Tom Johnson
At what point do you realise you’re listening to something special? The answer of course is that there isn’t one. Sometimes it can be an instantaneous reaction, on other occasions it can be much more drawn-out, the songs taking a few repeated listens before embedding themselves in your consciousness. In relation to the new album from The Twilight Sad the moment for me came during the sobering, magnificent closing track ‘Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep’; when the gravitas of all that comes before it is stripped back to the core and replaced with the a stifling piano and James Graham bare-all vocals. With a seemingly simple chord change and vocal hook it presents the kind of mood that can split the day in half; a solemn farewell of the most unsettling nature, the years most impressive swan-dive.
Nobody Wants To Be Here and Nobody Wants To Leave is the fourth long-player in seven years from the Glasgow band and it’s an altogether different beast than their previous record, the heavily synth-led No One Can Ever Know – and it thrives because of it. Not that there was anything wrong with that record, more that by significantly expanding their horizons they’ve remembered what made them so special in the first place. Bruised but strikingly confident, the ten-track collection can quite seriously be considered among the best thing that the band have ever released. And yes, that includes their debut LP.
With a month to go before the full release we caught up with front-man James Graham for an extensive chat about the albums creation, the murkiness that preceded it, and much more. Read the full interview below.
How easy – or difficult – was the piecing together of the new record?
We had a bit of downtime for the first time in ages, we played some gigs here and there, but there was a lot of time spent at home whereas before we were on the road so much. It was just after a pretty crap time for the band as well. The year preceding the writing of it was tough, nothing seemed to be going right, we weren’t working with the right people. It wasn’t a good time for us. We were kind of questioning if we were going to do this again. When we started writing the songs and had some time at home, the writing of it actually happened really easily. I don’t want to say it was fun, because if you listen to the record it’s not fun at all! I enjoyed writing it more than I’ve enjoyed writing any other album though. It’s more varied than any other we’ve made before as well…
Do you mean from a lyrical or musical point-of-view?
Musically certainly, in the way it all flows together. Lyrically, I still like to leave it all to interpretation, but it definitely wasn’t easy. I don’t want to say it’s the most I’ve ever put in to songs but there is some stuff that I’ve never touched on before that I felt like I had to on this record.
In terms of the process, it wasn’t complicated at all. Me and Andy shared things back and forth as always, and it all just worked. There weren’t really any issues; we were totally on the same page, for once! We went to Mogwai’s studio to record it with a live sound engineer, Andy Bush, and it all felt really relaxed. We kind of just bashed it out and then sent it out to be mixed. It was mixed by Peter Katis and it was great to work with him again. Andy always pushes things to the noisier side and he likes to reign it all in so they ended up meeting somewhere in the middle and that’s worked really well for us.
It sounds melodramatic to say that it saved the band, but the writing of this record really proved to us that we had something to say. We needed to make this record. The year before we were questioning if we still wanted to do this. So I don’t want to say that it saved us but in a way it kind of did. It’s breathed fresh life in to us.
You said you and Andy were on the same page from the start; have you had problems in the past on previous records?
We’ve never really had any major issues. On the first record everything was brand new to us so it was fresh and exciting, and this felt like that again.
Why do you think that was?
I think just having that time off and spending time with family and friends and getting a bit of normality again really helped our mind set for it.
Had you lost that connection a bit, do you think?
I think so. When you’re constantly touring it can be really hard coming back because it’s only ever for a wee bit and then you’re away again. It’s a weird frame of mind to be in. I definitely think I lost it a bit too; in that gap between the first and the fourth record! As a person, I didn’t quite know who I was anymore, but I think I do now. I know what I want and what I want to say and what kind of songs I want to write.
I’m really proud of the second and third records, there’s no doubt they needed to happen, and it’s the evolution of the band, but this one just feels likes everything has clicked again. We’re in a really good place and I think this record feels like the amalgamation of what we’ve done in the past within one record. We looked back and took stock to see what we were good at; hopefully it comes across like that.
I really think it does. I’ve only listened to it a handful of times on a shitty laptop but it already feels genuinely exciting.
There are big songs, quiet songs. It’s big when it needs to be. I don’t want to say it’s accessible because there aren’t any pop songs on it, but…
To me it just feels more settled, if that’s the right word to use?
Yeah, that’s what I mean. It sounds like a band who knows who they are. The guitars are back. It’s more epic than the last one, which was a much more insular album – but that needed to happen so we could explore how to work with that instrumentation and then how to open it up, which we’ve done on this record. Me and Andy feel really invigorated by it.
Was there a specific moment when it all began to come together in that way?
Weirdly, for me, it’s the last track on the record (‘Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep‘) which is just a piano track. That song opened it all up for me. I remember thinking “we’ve got that now, that’s going on the record no matter what“, and it always felt like the perfect closing statement. I played it to my friend early on and she burst in to tears – which I took as a good sign! ‘Last January‘ too. That song felt like everything I liked about this band and I thought it was what we needed to be doing.
The two songs that really make the record, and explain it as a whole, are the title track and ‘It Never Was The Same’. They explain the whole theme of the record and once they came together it felt like we were really on to something. To begin with though, in terms of the lyrics, when ‘…Fall Asleep‘ happened I suddenly knew what I wanted to say. I got it out of me. I think it’s the most fucking ‘out there‘ I’ve ever been. I usually use a lot of metaphors, but on that I didn’t really do it, I just said it how it is.
Was that a difficult thing to do?
It was – for certain people as well as me. Once I wrote it and listened to it back I did question if it was OK to do that. I’ve always put myself out there as a song-writer but it’s always been hidden somewhat. I’m glad I chose not to be for once though, because it really kick-started the whole album for me.
I wanted to know if you had specific aspirations for the album before you started recording it. Like, was it always going to be more guitar-led and less insular than ‘No One Can Ever Know‘ or was that something that happened naturally?
I think Andy and I both knew that we wanted to open things up, compared to the last record. Since the No One Can Ever Know was finished, and we were done touring it and we had that side to the band, we knew the next record had to open up. It had to. I think from doing the stripped-back shows, the Paisley Abbey show, and the ‘debut album‘ shows, we saw what really connected. They liked the insular moments but it was the big moments that really connected people with our band – and I think this record has that. We are a guitar band. We’ve explored electronics, and they underpin a lot of stuff on the new record, but we’re a guitar band and we’re a live band – that’s when we’re at our best.
We want to play big shows for people, and create something massive, and these songs are built around playing those kind of shows. We can play any size room but we’ve played some big shows, usually when supporting people, and while we never wrote with that in mind we’ve had a taste of those experiences and they’re fucking amazing. I think subconsciously you always want more of that.
At what point in the process did the ‘Fourteen Autumn…‘ shows happen and did the reaction to them influence ‘Nobody Wants To Be Here‘?
The first shows were before we went in to record and I think they had a really big influence on us and this album. I think we had to look back before we could look forward. Having that balance with taking some time off and also listening to that record again put me in a different mind-frame and reminded me of so much; of the excitement of being in a band and writing songs and none of the shite that comes along with it.
Did you expect that when you agreed to do the shows?
I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew that the album had a special connection with some people but I didn’t realise how much. Even the reaction to the album tracks…it just blew us away.
Why did you decide to do the shows in the end? You said you initially had doubts.
I know it seemed strange to some people because it wasn’t an anniversary or anything, but it wasn’t available on vinyl anymore and it was getting a reissue and it just seemed to tie-in well with that. That’s why we did it in the first place and who knows if we’ll even be around for it’s tenth anniversary. As I said, it was also a really bad year for us before that so we weren’t sure if the band was even carrying on, so for that reason too it felt like a good idea, both for us and to remind people of who we are and to get people thinking about us again – and it really did seem to do that. We still can’t believe how well it went down.
You got to play it at Primavera too right?
We were going to do it at Primavera but then our set wasn’t long enough – but we would have done. And we’re taking it to the States soon, which is where it all started, so it’ll be nice to end that chapter there too. It’s been great but it’s time to finish it and look forward now. I still think it’s a really special album. We won’t ever re-create it because we’re different people now, but it’s been nice to look back and question how the fuck we ever managed to do it!
Are you excited to play the new songs live? Do you think it will change the blueprint of your current shows?
The new record is really geared up to being played live and I think we’re going to be a much better live band for that. I think, at this point, we’re as good as we’ve ever been on-stage. I’m not afraid to go in front of anybody anymore. We used to be pretty ramshackle but I think we can play to anybody now and win them over.
Why do you think that is?
Just through playing and the way we feel about the band now. Johnny and Brendan are really great live musicians, Doc too is a phenomenal musician. Doc added so much to us when we first started play with electronics, he made us a better and really laid the foundations for us to be a better band. I’m more comfortable than I’ve ever been too. I still don’t interact that much but when we walk on stage I know we’re going to put a good show on. We’ve got the ability to really blow people away now and it was actually the Primavera show that proved that to me. People are still coming up to me now and talking about it. I mean, I thought we were alright, but people seemed to really love us! The crowd were really going for it, the sun was going down, we were looking out at the beach and it was just like “fucking hell, this is amazing“. That show gave us such a confidence boost.
So you’re glad you chose to carry this band on then?
I’m going to wait and see what people say about the new album! I genuinely love this record and think it’s the right record for us to have made at this time. It’s a good time for us; people seem excited and interested in the band again and I want to prove them right. People have always been really kind to us, bands and critics have supported us and helped us through a lot – and money can’t be that kind of stuff – so at this point, it’s just about getting to the next level so we can make more music.
The want to make another record will always be there and we want to do this for as long as we possibly can. Over the past seven years we’ve seen so many bands come and go and most of them got more press and buzz than we ever get, but we’ve got a really loyal bunch of people who like the band and continue to follow us. We want to do this for ourselves but at the same time we want to show those people that their support hasn’t been for nothing. I’ve never been more excited than I am about this band right now.
It’s great to hear you sounding so positive, it really sounds like you’re in a good place right now.
Aye, it feels really exciting again, more than ever maybe. I turn thirty this year and I’m quite happy about it. I’m more settled than I’ve ever been. I’ve never made any money from this – if we were in it for that we would have quit a long time ago – but I’m getting older and there are things I want in life. More than anything though, I want this band to succeed. I want it to be as popular and well-known as it can be. We never wanted to be a chart-topping band, and we never will be, but to play shows like this (Glasgow’s Last Big Weekend), to tour the world and play in front of rooms that are filled with people who give a shit about us is all I want to do and if I can scrape by doing that for the rest of my life then I will. Money is nothing to me, but unfortunately you need money to do things. We don’t deserve success but we deserve to be happy within this group and enjoy what we’re doing and at the moment that’s where we all are.
Also, going back to that Primavera show, just getting asked to play that show was huge for us, just as much as the reaction to it. That those people know about us and want us to play those shows means a lot. I genuinely thought nobody gave a fuck anymore. Genuinely. And that was so stupid of me to think that because people obviously do. The same with winning the public vote at the Scottish Album Awards. That was so unexpected, and any time that we’ve been really down something like that has happened to show us how much people care about what we do. Without that kind of encouragement it would be really hard to keep going. It really does means a lot.
Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave is released next month,
via Fat Cat Records.
The Twilight Sad play O2 ABC Glasgow on 19th December. Tickets go on general sale this Friday (5th Sept) at 9am.