With the recent release of their second album, the Twilight Sad are poised for that ever-elusive "next level". PopMatters talks with lead singer James Graham about life on the road, and on the dole.
To “break” in America is to have made it. That's what they say in Britain, anyway. There's something peculiar to this modestly sized island and its disproportionately immodest world status in which achieving transatlantic recognition still retains a certain stigma. The same stigma that makes U2, Radiohead and Coldplay international superstars and Oasis -- the perennial stateside underachievers -- only national icons. Touring the States is what fledgling bands enthuse about, while a number one in America means more for British stars than it does back home.
It would be overstating the case to say that the Twilight Sad have done things the other way around, but they've set out from a different angle, to be sure. Their first release initially came out only in the US, and lengthy North American tours preceded any real recognition back home in their native Scotland. One listen to their scintillating debut album, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters - its raging cacophonies, rusty kitchen sink arrangements, and traction engine rhythm section - and it becomes obvious that topping the Billboard charts wasn't on the agenda. But already the Glaswegian four-piece look like they could attain something that, in certain circles, is all the more coveted; the Twilight Sad has a real shot at mass appeal. Not “mass” in a U2, stadium-packing, daytime radio sort of way, but big in a Mogwai or Animal Collective way – that curious bracket of indie-fame in which everyone knows your name, even if they don't know your music.
The Twilight Sad became a lot of people's new favorite band with Fourteen Autumns, which, though a superb album, has just been trumped by its younger sibling, Forget the Night Ahead. Out last month, the record is darker and more destructive, and somehow achieves a higher plane of intensity. There is more than one occasion during our conversation in which James Graham, the outfit's vocalist, hesitates to use the word "fans" in relation to people who turn up to the Twilight Sad's shows, as if he thinks it a term reserved for football teams and film-stars. He may be forced to get used to the term sooner rather than later.
You're heading out on a lengthy tour of the States next week. How are you feeling about that?
We've actually got a bus this time! So it's gonna be a bit mental. I can see me needing about a month off after it, but we've only got about seven days and then we're away to Britain and Europe. We're playing some really cool places, like the Bowery Ballroom, and I think they've had to add another date in New York because it's selling really well. It's all pretty exciting to be honest.
For a while it seems you were bigger in America than you were back in the UK. Is that how you see it?
Yeah, well the first EP came out in America, so the first thing we released was there and some big websites kind of promoted us. So, aye, we seemed to be playing to quite a few people over there and then coming home and playing in front of my mum and dad and my friends, so it was a wee bit surreal.
I know Pitchfork took quite a liking to you, and that's obviously influential.
Yeah, that was probably the one that got the name about. Once they take a shining to you there's about another 50 blogs that start writing about you. They do seem to have a lot of muscle over there.
You've been previewing some of your new material live. Have you been able to gauge any sort of reaction to the new stuff?
Yeah we did that on the two Mogwai tours, the European one last year and the American one. We recorded the album kind of in between that so it was a good chance to get it out there. We really wanted to start playing them early on because we'd been playing the same stuff for about two years, so we thought we'd liven it up a wee bit. Before we'd even recorded it the new stuff was going down great. The guys from Mogwai said it was really good, and the reaction from people, from fans, they were really into it. So it was a good start, anyway.
How did you approach writing and recording the new album? Was there anything in particular you wanted to do differently this time around?
Andy [MacFarlane, guitar] writes some chords on guitar and sends them over and I write the melodies, and then we kind of piece together the best bits and make a song out of it. Then I'll come back and I'll do my lyrics for it, and then we'll get Mark [Devine, drums] and Craig [Orzel, bass] to do there stuff as well. Most of the songs were actually written this time before going into the studio. The last album we just kind of experimented around a little bit. This time, there were about three or four songs that we recorded that had that kind of feel. We had a lot more time in the studio. For the first album we had three days and for this one we had five weeks, which makes quite a bit of difference. Andy spent a lot of time, not drastically trying to change his guitar sound but trying to change it a little bit, so instead of long delays he was having shorter ones. We definitely wanted to make it a little bit noisier and a little bit more intense. The warmth that was in the first album - the acoustics, the accordion and things like that - they're not really in it this time. It's a lot darker and a lot rougher around the edges.
You said that the darkness of this album is tied-in with its subject matter. What do you mean specifically?
Usually I don't talk about exactly what the lyrics are about, but the main subject was basically I had a bit of a rough time for about two months where I just went a off the rails and some bad stuff happened to me. I lost some people and just made a bit of an arse of myself and was none-too-proud. I heard [former Arab Strap vocalist] Aidan Moffat say the other day that you write songs because you have to. And in that kind of way it was therapeutic. But it doesn't really help if you're trying to forget about stuff and you write an album about it and have to play it for two years, or maybe a while longer than that!
Is that how the album's title came about?
Aye, it's like some nights I can't remember and some nights I want to forget, if you know what I mean. So "forget the night ahead" is based on those two ideas.
You said that you don't like going into too much detail about your lyrics. Do you see that as part of the mystique of lyrics in general?
My favorite songs are the ones where I don't know what the person's writing about. You can relate it back to yourself and, maybe a couple of years down the line, a song comes on and it might remind you of a time in your life. If people like our music, I’d like for it to have that kind of effect on them. I suppose there is a little bit of mystique there as well, but the main thing is just letting other people relate it back to themselves.
There is always a sense of disappointment when you form an idea of what a song's about and then learn that it's not actually about that.
Exactly. I've had that as well. I can't remember what songs, but you just go, "Ah shit, that's about that? Well that's just ruined that one for me, hasn't it?" Even stuff like videos sometimes ruins a song for me as well.
Given how well-received your debut was, do you feel a certain amount of pressure going into this second album?
To be honest, aye, yeah. The first one, when we released it there was no expectation at all. Nobody knew who we were or was giving a shit. This time, we know there are people out there who like us and are quite looking forward to the album, so although you don't think about that when you're doing it, once you've finished and everything's done it is pretty nerve-wracking. Obviously we want to move ahead and do as well as we can and play in front of as many people as we can as well. I'm proud and really happy with the album; there's nothing I would do differently. But it's just totally out of our hands now. You know, you can’t please everybody.
It must be pretty encouraging to tour with Mogwai and see first-hand the scale of their career and popularity, given that their sound is hardly commercial. Is that the bar for you to aim at?
Oh, a hundred-percent, yeah. Especially being on that tour, which just opened our eyes to where we'd like to be, and what kind of level to aspire to as well. Not just in terms of how many people we're playing in front of, but the professionalism and the way everything was set up for the tour. We learned a lot. All I really want out of doing what we're doing is to consistently make records that we're proud of and to keep pushing ourselves. I'd like to make a living out of it. I've not got any expectations of grandeur or filling out stadiums or headlining big festivals. I've never, ever aspired to that because the bands that I love are not like that. Just to be able to say that you do this for a living - scraping by or not - would be the perfect thing for us.
How close to making a living out of it are you?
We're getting by. The last year's been pretty difficult, if I'm being honest. I've been on and off the dole, stuff like that. People do come up to you and say, "Oh, you must be doing really well, it's great to see you touring and you must be living quite well off of it," and I'm like, "No chance". We're just lucky that we've got a good kind of backbone and that our families are really good to us. And the government, as well! But don't get me wrong, it's not been easy. It's not a great thing to be going up and signing on and trying to explain that you're looking for a job but you can't get a job because you have to job away and tour.
Is the album format, in general and as a concept, important to you in this age of disposable digital downloads?
Yeah, to me it is. I still buy CD’s and I still buy vinyl. There are so many bands these days that people judge really quickly because they can just move onto the next thing. For bands like us, that's quite worrying because for some people, it may take them 'til the third or the fourth or the fifth listen to fully understand the record itself. My favorite records are the records that I didn't get the first time. These days it seems like people have a short attention span and just want to be blown away, right away. Some music just doesn't do that to you. I love sitting down and just listening to an album. I never put my iPod on shuffle or things like that. I listen to a record. I suppose out of respect for the person who has made it, and just for my own enjoyment as well.
You'd certainly never go down this route of abolishing the album, then?
Yeah, who's doing that? I read someone was doing that.
There was talk that Radiohead might. I know that Ash have, too.
Oh aye, it was Ash, that was it. I hope Radiohead don't do it because that last record was amazing. I don't just want to hear them do songs, I want to hear a complete record. I read something that Stuart from Mogwai had said, that gone are the times when you would buy an album just on the back of reading something about it and then either learn to love it or learn to hate it, because you've spent your money on it. And that's been true with a lot of my favorite records.
While we're on the topic of immediacy, despite what you've said about the new album, I think "I Became A Prostitute" is your most immediate song to date.
Yeah, I would agree with that too, actually.
Was that an easy choice for lead single from Forget the Night Ahead?
For us, yeah it was. It was probably not a wise idea to call the song that! It probably stopped the song from getting on some radio playlists and stuff, but as I said that's just not the reason we're in it. Andy named the song after a Jean-Luc Godard film which he thought related to what the lyrics were about. It’s a metaphor for becoming something that you don't want to become, and you can see it happening but there's nothing you can do about it. But, as for the song, it's pretty melodic as well and it's got hooks. We're not afraid to embrace good melody and good hooks and go for it. We make sure that we've got a solid song there before we even touch anything like the sound. That one kind of came together and was an obvious choice for single.
While we're on the topic of songwriting, how much do your songs change after Mark [Devine] comes in? His drumming really does stamp its presence on your music, like on "And She Would Darken the Memory" or "The Room", for example.
To begin with, the songs are stripped back and quite mellow in some ways. Then Andy and Mark will go up the studio and come back and I'll be like, "Wow, that's changed!" It's always for the better, to be honest. Definitely the whole feel of them changes when Mark gets a hold of them, but he usually judges it quite well. As a drummer - and I'm not bumming him up or anything - he seems to understand the songwriting. He always tries to complement the songs and not go overboard. On "The Room" it's quite sparse in that he's not doing a lot but what he is doing is very effective. It helps paint the picture of what the story could be about as well.
The Here It Never Snowed… EP was much more pared-down than anything else you've done. You didn’t want to bring that element of sound into your second album proper?
To be honest, not really. With that EP, we'd done a few gigs where we had to strip the songs down. We played the Union Chapel in London and knew that we weren't allowed to be loud in there because, for one, the sound was shit because it was open church and, two, I just don't think we were allowed to be loud at all just due to the structure. So we stripped it back. But those songs were written stripped back anyway, so we knew that they were proper songs and they could speak for themselves. We had a song left over from the album, the title track, and we'd been covering that Daniel Johnson song for a wee while, so we just felt that it was a nice wee addition for fans of the band, just to hear what it’s like stripped back if they didn't get to see us play like that. With the new record, we were doing a lot of sessions where it was just me and Andy playing, again just to show that the songs are not just a whole lot of noise.
With the EP and the tour album combined, you had two releases out between your full albums. Were you under any pressure from FatCat to capitalize on the success of Fourteen Autumns and kind of bridge that gap?
The first CD, if you turn it over, there's some print on the back that says, "This CD was made to fund our Mogwai tour." So we were just being completely honest with everybody. We knew that a lot of people spoke about how our live show was quite different to the album, so we knew it would be cool to have some versions of those songs kicking about anyway. And we had some bits and bobs, like we had some covers that we'd be doing after the Here It Snowed thing, just for some radio sessions and stuff. So we just put them all on this CD. We wanted to do the Mogwai tour and we wanted people to hear the live CD as well, so it was one of the only ways of getting to do all that.
Is there any plan to do something similar with the new material?
We're planning on getting more live videos, like proper live videos. Again, it's moving on from not just doing another live EP, but having video for it as well. But I'm not a huge fan of any live albums myself, so I don't know if we'll carry on that, unless someone else comes and asks us to do it!
Your lyrics can be darkly suggestive, and I know you've just said you're inspired by what's going on in your life, but is there anyone who has influenced you stylistically?
I was always a big fan of Arab Strap. I don't think that I write the same kind of things that Aidan does. He does more on the going out and pulling birds thing [laughs]. But there's also a really dark element behind that, and I really liked that. I was always a big fan of Daniel Johnson as well, even though they're not really the darkest lyrics of all time. I suppose everybody who writes dark music always says Leonard Cohen as well, because let's be honest, that's probably some of the darkest stuff you can do. I suppose that's what I got from Daniel Johnson and Aidan, just to write about personal experience and not try and write about anything you don't know. Such as politics. Or literature!
Have you got any further plans for the near future, aside from the tour?
We've got two songs leftover from the album that are big, strong songs which just didn't fit. It's not like they weren't good enough, but in the context of the whole thing they just would have totally interrupted the flow of the record. So I think there could be an EP out later next year, as those songs are just sitting there waiting for other things to go around them.
Is writing a continual process for you guys, then? It's not like you just sit down and say, "Right, let's write an album."
We never write on tour because tour albums are just fucking awful. Plus, your head's in a different place - there's just no point. All the songs are about where I stay and things like that, so it makes more sense to be writing when I'm at home. But now, we've kind of got in an arc of Andy comes home and he'll write music and he'll give it across to me and I'll get started on it. Some of the songs we're writing already are completely different to anything that's on this record. I think Andy's found a new direction that he wants to go in. I don't know what that is yet! But we're definitely not going to stand still and replicate the first two albums, so it might be a drastic change.