‘Don’t get me wrong, I love happy songs as well, I just don’t think I could write one‘ – Siobhán Kane talks to James Graham of The Twilight Sad.
– Wilfred Owen
The Twilight Sad‘s three records; Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters (2007), Forget the Night Ahead (2009), and last year’s No One Can Ever Know honour Owen’s poem But I Was Looking at the Permanent Stars in many ways, not least through their layered, nuanced soundscapes, and their acceptance that life is often desperately sad. Their records are explorations of acute melancholy, filtering various influences such as shoegaze and krautrock, with folk as a familiar touchstone, yet their rendering of folk is drenched in a wall of noise that reveals a debt to industrial music.
There is a complexity to their compositions, which unfold like a catherine wheel when experienced live, and they have the ability to completely immerse the audience, their melodies fighting their way through the noise – something like “Cold Days from the Birdhouse” (from their first record) is a clattering template, a luminous statement of intent, and this is all before mentioning James Graham’s unusual, evocative voice.
Their last record inspired remixes from a diverse set of artists; Liars to Com Truise, which speaks to the band’s reach, and though there is a unifying theme of darkness and sorrow throughout all of their records, their desire never to repeat themselves is thrilling, with their third record exploding aspects of their first two, bringing Andrew Weatherall along to produce, who helped to place rhythm as a central focus. Yet for all of their experimentation, their emotional impulse is possibly their greatest resource; authentic, searching and full of meaning, almost calling out, as Owen might have it, for the “receding voices that will not return”. Siobhán Kane talks to James Graham.
With your most recent record, No Can Ever Know, Andy Weatherall came on board to help produce the record – how did you meet him? He is such a shape-shifting kind of artist himself, transformative in many ways because he has so many influences, and experiences to bring to bear. I wondered if in part he was brought in to help produce because of the nature of much of his own work, leaning towards a more electronic sound, and I also thought it a nice coda to your beginnings, which were rooted in a more experimental ethos.
We met Andrew through Alex Knight from Fat Cat. Weirdly the first time Alex came up to see us play we went to see an Andrew Weatherall DJ set after our gig, that must have been about 7 years ago. They’d known each other for years, and we put a list of people we wanted to work with together, and Andrew got back to us after hearing the demos, so we arranged to meet. He was DJ’ing in Glasgow so we went to his hotel room before the gig and talked about our songs, the sound we were going for on the new record and he was on the same page as us. He’d made us a mix tape of songs where he felt the production was in the same area of where we were looking to go with our new album.
Some time after that we booked a studio down in London to record the record. We’d been working on the songs at home and actually had nearly every song mapped out, we felt it was a good idea to do a lot of pre-production back home to save time and money. Andrew came in on day two and said to us “look you’re doing/have done everything I would have told you to do”, and he said he didn’t want to take the full production credit and said that we deserved to be credited with that. He was still very much involved, and it was amazing to have him there as a guide, and having somebody there telling us we were doing the right things definitely gave us a confidence boost and helped us progress with this album.
Experimental is a word I would associate with you, in terms of the fizzing creativity that you have – it seems you would get more enjoyment out of turning your own records inside out live than repeating yourself in any way. It always seems to be drawn from an impulse, a sense that no song is finite, that perhaps they are always part of a bigger process. what are your thoughts?
From day one we’ve never wanted to repeat ourselves if we could help it. There’s bands out there who record the same album over and over – I feel that’s cheating people that like your band, and it means you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. As we get older our musical tastes changes, and we as people change, so I think your music should evolve with you. I write very personal lyrics and we always stay very true to ourselves, which means that you can always tell its a Twilight Sad song even if we’re trying out new things. I like that you can see the progression through all three of our albums.
A lot of people have written about the ever increasing circles of darkness within your work – I wonder if it feels that way to you? I suppose grief and melancholy are such powerful emotions, and yet so is ecstasy – yet it has been said that happiness is more fleeting than unhappiness – perhaps it is that grief and heartbreak can leave a deeper scar. What is your relationship to the idea of melancholy as more of a radiant fuel for your work?
When it comes to things like music, movies, graphic novels… I prefer the darker side to life. I just find it more interesting. Someone once asked me if writing the kind of lyrics and music that we do is some kind of therapy… I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was therapy but it’s a way of getting things off my chest and it gives me a chance to say and talk about things that I find hard to talk about in every day life. Don’t get me wrong, I love happy songs as well, I just don’t think I could write one. I also love happy and stupid movies… I’m not a miserable bastard all the time! I genuinely think we’re all very friendly, and people are always very surprised when they meet us, as they think we’ll be depressing and unsociable. For example one of my favourite bands is Abba, and one of my favourite films is Home Alone.
Would you be drawn to musicians that perhaps create work that explore unhappiness? I remember once reading that you didn’t like happy songs! Then you get The Beach Boys, when they were at the apex of their powers, and were twisting around notions of unhappiness, distorting upbeat melodies, submerging into something far more powerful.
Yeah, I couldn’t have put it better myself. The Beach Boys are one of my favourite bands, and a perfect example of exploring unhappiness within music. I find it easier to relate to musicians/music if they are putting themselves out there, and giving you an insight into something personal and possibly tragic. A lot of music these days is about “how everything is great and look at what I’ve got, I’m amazing!” and unfortunately 90% of life isn’t like that, and you have to go through the bad times to appreciate the good, and I think that’s why people relate to what we do as its good to know that you’re not the only one who goes through hard times, and in sharing that it helps people connect, which I think is pretty cool.
If you were to think of another natural evolution for your band, what might it be? I wondered if you would ever like to explore running a venue? The DIY aspect of things is a good way forward, and so many wonderful artists have been coming out of Scotland for so long, but in the last while it seems there is a boon to music-making, and more DIY endeavours, people running venues, setting up record shops, putting on shows together.
As far as another natural evolution I’m not sure. I think the best thing to do is not to think about what comes next to much and just do what comes naturally, I mean, you have to always think about what’s next, but doing what comes naturally is what we’ve done and it’s got us this far, not a lot of bands get to make three records, so we must be doing something right. At the same time, nothing lasts forever and as we get older life catches up with you, at this point we’re treating each new record as our last. We’ve been working hard on writing our fourth record, and we’ve got a collection of songs I’m very excited about.
You mentioned earlier that no song is “finite”. I like that about our band, it shows that we’re not one dimensional. There are lots of sides to this band – our records, our live performances, and then we can strip back all the production/noise and it works just as well because we pride ourselves in writing good songs.
We’ve never thought about running a venue. We’re too busy trying to make this band work and it’s hard enough to look after ourselves to be honest!
Growing up, and even now, my favourite bands are Scottish. We’ve been lucky in that the Scottish music scene has embraced what we do. When you know one guy in a band in Scotland – especially Glasgow – it’s like a domino effect, as in, you eventually meet everybody, be it someone in a big band or a new band. There is definitely a sense of community, but like most good things it doesn’t feel forced or planned, it’s just good people trying to help out other musicians/bands. On the other hand if you’re shite we’ll let you know about it!
You have always appreciated being able to make your way as a band, has it been really hard to keep going?
Yeah we have, and it has been hard to keep going. I think any other people in our position would have probably called it a day by now. We work hard and we’re away from home a lot. When we’re on tour we’re not travelling in any sort of luxury either. Not that I’m complaining, we’ve got to see and play places we would have never thought possible. It’s a privilege to be able to be able to play music for a living, but I wouldn’t consider what we make a living. We’re very lucky to have the support from our friends and family back home, without them we wouldn’t have got this far. We haven’t been the luckiest band either, and we’ve made mistakes over the years. As I said before, nothing lasts forever but we still have the hunger, passion, and drive to make this band work and release music that we’re both passionate and proud of.
America picked up on you early on, was that quite strange? It is an interesting culture, because it is one that most Europeans have lived adjacently to for so long, in terms of pop culture, music, and film – so I wonder if it was quite surreal for you? What were some of the best, earliest experiences of being there like?
That was probably the most exciting time of my life. We were a Scottish band that had played three gigs in three years, and we were on our way to tour America for three weeks. We were also mixing our album with Peter Katis while we were over there, and we had a residency in New York every Sunday for three weeks. It was all pretty mind blowing. We had no experience of touring, let alone touring America. I can’t really remember too much as we were four young guys having a good time, probably too good a time. We were travelling around in a van that looked like a can from “That 70’s Show”. We were doing interviews with big music magazines and websites. Then we played a gig back home in Glasgow a week after the tour, and we played in front of 15 people, my parents, our friends, Frightened Rabbit. That brought us back down to earth. No one knew who we were in Scotland or the UK. I love playing in America, I love the people and how passionate they are about music they like.
There is a sense that your music is rooted in aspects of folk with layers of noise over it – and I think that I was drawn to you initially because of the titles of songs such as And She Would Darken the Memory of Youth, an evocative title, and an equally evocative song – as so many great folk songs are – how important is folk to you? And did you grow up with a real sense of that world?
To be honest I don’t really listen to a lot of traditional folk music. I appreciate it but i don’t listen to a lot of it. I suppose the folk music aesthetic is rooted in what we do, as all the songs are about where we stay, people we know, things that have happened to family and myself. Nearly every song is started at the basic level of guitar and vocals. Where I grew up I knew of Scottish folk music, and traditional Scottish dancing. We were all taught the works of Robert Burns as well, I also own a kilt! I like to use a lot of Scottish language in my lyrics because it’s where I’m from and it’s how I would speak on a day to day basis. Although I only use words and language that I would use today. I hear a lot of songwriters using words that you would maybe hear your grandparents use for effect to be like “look at how Scottish I am” ……fuck that. I use words that I would use normally but if other people use the kind of words I was previously talking about, then fair enough, I suppose it keeps those words alive but it’s not for me. I think my main point is, I’m from Scotland, there’s nothing I can do about that, and I wouldn’t want to ’cause I love it. I write personal songs, I do what comes naturally and that’s why I sound the way I sound.
Do you think there is any crossover at all with Irish influences within your work? We certainly have a lot of music, poetry and weather in common.
Well I have some Irish blood in me, my grandmother was Irish. Her last name was Valentine, that would have been a great stage name eh? James Valentine! As far as any Irish influence I’m not sure, we don’t think about what we do too much when we’re doing it. What I will say is I don’t know why we haven’t been to Ireland in so long, it certainly wasn’t our fault, as I’ve mentioned it to the powers that be on many occasions. I am very excited about our trip over the Irish sea.
Thinking of weather, I remember you once saying you “hated” the summer, and it put me in mind of The Smiths song “Ask”, and the lyric, “spending warm Summer days indoors/ writing frightening verse/ to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg” – it speaks so well to misunderstood summer-hating teenagers everywhere.
Yeah, fuck summer! I am currently answering these questions with the curtains drawn and the sun shining outside. Oh how very Emo of me! Nice Smiths quote, I love The Smiths.
You have toured a lot, and I see that recently you have been to countries like Poland and Slovakia, how has the reception been?
Some of my favourite gigs over the past year and a half have been in Eastern Europe – Poland, Czech Rep, Slovakia, Turkey. The crowds there just have a real passion for music and they don’t get to see as many touring bands as we do, so they make the most of it when they do pass through. I can’t wait to play in Eastern Europe again, gigs there remind me why I’m in a band and why we do what we do. Plus the people in that part of the world make you feel so welcome and appreciated.
Aidan Moffatt is a huge supporter of your band, and I wonder if you have thought about collaborating with him. It would be a perfect pairing.
Aidan is a good friend now. I grew up listening to Arab Strap and his words and music have been a big influence on my music, so for him to give us the seal of approval is a big thing.
We’ve actually just confirmed a record store day release together. Aidan and Bill Wells have covered “Alphabet” from our recent album, and we covered their song “If you Keep me in your Heart”. It’s being released as a limited edition 7inch.
What are you looking forward to this year, and what are you listening to, reading, and watching?
I am looking forward to writing and recording a new album, playing what gigs we have booked, Iron Man 3, Star Trek into Darkness, Man of Steel, Game of Thrones Series 3, and the new series of Mad Men. I am also looking forward to drinking, and playing football, and touring Ireland. I am not really listening to anything!