Interview: The Twilight Sad
The Twilight Sad seem like a happy-go-lucky bunch, so what about those doom-laden lyrics, asks Aidan Smith
I HATE it when the newly interviewed say, “You really got a lot out of us today”, as The Twilight Sad have just done, because that really piles on the pressure back at the office. Can I present the great revelations wittily? Can I even find them on the tape? “I don’t think we’ve ever talked as much before,” adds singer James Graham.
Let’s start with what I haven’t got: the big exclusive on Graham’s super-dark lyrics and what they’re about. Better men than me have failed here. “I dinnae discuss them and I never will,” he says. “All my favourite songs by other people are complete mysteries to me; you’ve got to let the listener interpret for himself.”
The Graham lyric that all the band profiles quote is: “The kids are on fire on the bedroom.” Maybe there’s nothing quite as dramatic on third album No One Can Ever Know but “I preferred her when she lied” is intriguing and “I still watch you” is plain creepy. And then there’s Graham’s reworking of the classic “Love/Hate” fist tattoos: “So sick to death of the sight of you now/Safe to say I never wanted you more.”
Graham – who claims never to have read a proper novel, preferring comic books – doesn’t say much more about the lyrics in Glasgow today but tantalisingly he adds this: “They’re all about me, my family, people I know, where I live. I’m talking about Scots folk and Scotland in our songs – they’re all personal. I would feel like I was cheating if I just made stuff up.” So those kids in the bedroom, it seems like they really were on fire.
The band – down to the trio of Graham, Andy MacFarlane and Mark Devine following the departure of Craig Orzel – have come into the big city and a Byres Road pub from Kilsyth, Lanarkshire, where they all still live with their mums. “We can’t afford to buy our own places and it’s pointless renting when you spend nine months of any year on tour,” adds Graham. So what’s the view from his kitchen window? “Some fields and a couple of lochs – pretty Scottish.”
The Twilight Sad, though, don’t make pastoral music. Quite the opposite. Thunderous guitars are their thing, similar to their friends Mogwai and label-mates at Fat Cat Records, Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks. It’s industrial music for a land that no longer has any industry, although this time they’ve added – to great effect – melodramatic synths. Andy Weatherall, who worked sonic magic for Primal Scream and is a fan of the band, was slated as producer, but after listening to a couple of sessions told them they were doing just fine and didn’t need his assistance.
Graham is wearing a jumper from The Killing; guitarist MacFarlane sports bodypaint artwork from the band’s previous albums. Devine, the drummer, doesn’t say much, seems to be the butt of most band jokes, but emerges as the funniest, such as when he reminds Graham of the exact whereabouts of the latter’s “I love Devine” tattoo (“It’s on your arse cuz I put it there”). And when he relates with pride, doubtless for the umpteenth time, the story of how he got himself rescued from the Arizona desert after the tour bus had left him there at 4am in his pyjamas trying to buy a packet of Skittles, the other two are forced to concede: “Very resourceful. If that was us we’d still be stuck there.”
The band – Graham and MacFarlane are 27, two years younger than Devine – have known each other since school. Because of those gloomy lyrics, the amateur psychologist that’s in every journalist presumes Graham at least must have had an unhappy upbringing. “Nothing like – childhood was brilliant,” he says. “And I’m sure my mum and dad continue to wonder, when they hear our songs: ‘What the hell did we do to piss that guy off?’ ”
The first record Graham owned – “I sneaked it in my mum’s trolley going round Tesco’s” – was the Manic Street Preachers album Holy Bible. Devine has a similar story from a childhood holiday in Folkstone. “That would be [Guns N’ Roses] Use Your Illusion I?” asks MacFarlane. “Nah, II had mair swearing.” Since the band took proper shape in 2005, inspiration has come from Public Image, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Can. “Nothing current,” says MacFarlane. “It’s all so tame and bland and boring.” Graham’s evocative voice is the one that got away for folk music. He credits Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton when they were Arab Strap with giving him the confidence to sing in the local brogue.
Who likes them? “Well, at first it was really angry old guys,” laughs MacFarlane.
Graham: “Then, after being mostly boys, some girls started coming to our shows.”
Devine: “Aye, and then they seen what we looked like.” The band had a New York residency before playing Edinburgh. Their most devoted fan is probably Danish.
MacFarlane again: “That’s just because we’re Scottish. He’s obsessed with Scottish football and Partick Thistle in particular. He knows more Scots words than we do, told us what a stoorsooker was.”
How Scottish do they feel? “Well, we don’t wave saltires and ham up the Scottish angle, but the landscape is in our music,” says Graham. Ever-modest, he gets self-conscious talking about the band’s “fans”, preferring “people who like our music”. These people, though, are loyal, will travel long distances to shows, and 80 per cent of them buy the music physically. “They’re not just looking for the latest fad. Ourselves and the other Scottish bands we get compared with, none of us are on commercial radio or magazine covers. We’re just normal guys from a small country making our music and there’s an honesty to it.”
Soon it will be time for The Twilight Sad to leave the small country again and the guys can’t wait to get back on tour. Maybe this time we’ll get to play Japan,” says Graham.
MacFarlane: “And maybe this time we’ll get to meet Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart. I’m not that bothered about movie stars; give me wrestlers any day.” The new album is, for them, almost a year old already and all the hanging around for the optimum release date has been a drag.
“Me and Andy have spent too long in the Scary phoning up our bookie,” admits Devine, referring to their Kilsyth local, the Scarecrow.
“And I’ve spent too long watching crap daytime telly,” adds Graham. “The crappiest was Coach Trip, this reality guff where holidaymakers on a bus vote each other off. I watched so much of it that one day this boy turned up wearing a Twilight Sad T-shirt. He got booted right away.”
• No One can Ever Know (Fat Cat) is out now. The Twilight Sad play Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry on Thursday