AS they release their fourth album, The Twilight Sad wonder if they are fated to remain musicians’ musicians, writes David Pollock
It’s been 11 years since The Twilight Sad formed in Kilsyth, eight since their self-titled debut mini-EP arrived on Brighton label Fatcat and seven since their first record, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, announced itself as a modern classic of the Scottish alternative music scene. Fast forward to 2014, a fortnight prior to the release of the fourth album Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave, and the band’s lead singer James Graham must surely be a jaded old hand at the process of releasing a record, right?
“Not really,” he says on the line from his parents’ home in the North Lanarkshire countryside. “It’s been our wee secret since we finished it in May, and now I’m terrified at the prospect of releasing it and people judging it in their own way. I’m probably quite a hard person to be about at this point in the campaign, I’m basically s***ting myself, because it’s such an important record for us. I’m excited and terrified.”
He says the feeling gets worse every time, because when they started out they could at least hide behind their own naivety and inexperience as a group. “We were just four friends who made a record and were going out to play some gigs, it was all very new and fresh to us,” he says.
“Then as we went on we started to understand it a bit more.” Yet his own reaction to the new album is unequivocal. “I genuinely think it’s the most accomplished record we’ve ever written.”
There are reasons for his caginess. Throughout their entire career, The Twilight Sad have met commercial success just modest enough to allow them to continue, while critics have rightly fawned over a sound which is
unashamedly downbeat, but which has powerfully captured the spirit of much of the last three decades’ finest alternative styles, particularly those with roots in the 1980s.
From Shoegaze to a kind of motoric New Wave to the similarity of recent comeback track There’s a Girl in the Corner to The Cure, they combine an often overwhelming emotional onslaught with strident accessibility.
“That’ll do us,” says Graham upon hearing The Cure comparison, speaking on behalf of his absent bandmates Andy MacFarlane (guitar) and Mark Devine (drums). “They’re brilliant, they’re one of the bands each of us has always looked up to. Stuart Braithwaite [guitarist with Glasgow’s Mogwai, friends of and de facto mentors to The Twilight Sad] once told me he gave Robert Smith some of our music, and Robert told him ‘I’ve heard them already’. Graham has sent the new album to Smith, and received a three-word response: “It is beautiful.”
Graham laughs at this: “I think we’re one of the bands other bands really like.” The implication is that they’re something of a specialists’ choice, but that the public haven’t quite caught on yet. Graham is unrepentant, and so he should be, about the air of gloom which sometimes shrouds their music.
The new record contains songs called I Could Give You All That You Don’t Want and Drown So I Can Watch, titles Morrissey would surely have snapped up if he’d thought of them first. But in a world where groups such as Interpol, Editors and The Horrors fill concert halls with a similar blend of brooding callbacks to the hard edges of the 1980s, why shouldn’t The Twilight Sad do the same?
From outside it might appear as though the band have enjoyed a long and uninterrupted run of putting out regular releases and gathering acclaim, but Graham says they recently went through a period which was “pretty bleak”.
The year following the release of their last album, No One Can Ever Know, in 2012 was fraught, he says. “We were touring so hard and some of the gigs weren’t going so well. Some of the people who we were involved with, it felt like we were shouting at a brick wall sometimes.
“We were so full of ideas for things we wanted to do and achieve with the band, and we were being told ‘no’ a lot. It felt that others didn’t have the same enthusiasm as we did. We have that around us now.”
He won’t go into detail of what these conversations were about or who they were with, but it clearly led to a period of strong reflection inside the band about what they really wanted from The Twilight Sad.
Graham says he was pleased to come back to his parents’ home to do most of the lyric writing for the new record, to reconnect with old friends and be away from the music industry – or at least from the music industry as it directly related to him.
“For me, the situation got better when I started working with Rock Action Records [Mogwai’s Glasgow-based label] a couple of years ago,” he says. “It was really useful to be on the other side of the industry, to be inside a label and to see how Mogwai have gone about things. I mean, they just had their most successful album ever with Rave Tapes earlier this year, but their music’s only part of what makes that success. There are lots of other things they do too, like putting their music in the right places, talking to the right people, getting those people to listen to them. It made me think we could implement a lot of that with our band.”
The trio and their touring bassist, Johnny Docherty, went on to record the new album at Mogwai’s Castle of Doom studio in Glasgow. “It’s like every time I write,” he says of it now, “the songs tell the story of where I am in my life at that point, but I don’t like to explain them. My favourite songs by other artists are always ones which you can put your own meaning on, rather than knowing what they’re about.”
Graham says the songs all relate to one another, that they fit together like chapters in a book, and that he only figured out what the album was about when he wrote the last one, Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep. “On every record, there’ll be one or two songs where Andy sends me the guitar part and I start to put lyrics on, and I realise we might have something special. That happened more than ever here: Last January, Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep, the title track, There’s a Girl in the Corner …
By the end of the conversation it’s excitement which rings in his voice, although admittedly, perhaps the nervous sort. But like the music, his words are deeply felt and emotional. He says this record is important – is it make or break? “I think we and our label just want the same thing, which is to keep making good music and to sell enough to make more,” he says. “Of course I want to see a progression each time we release an album, but as long as we’re allowed to keep doing this together, I can’t complain.
“Besides, it’s also about the things that money can’t buy. Mogwai were my favourite band growing up, and we’ve supported them a lot. I must have seen them 250 times. Plus, we’ve toured America a few times, and some bands never get the chance to do it once [they’re going back this autumn]. That kind of thing’s a privilege.”
• The Twilight Sad release Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave on 27 October. They play the ABC, Glasgow on 19 December, www.thetwilightsad.com