Interview – James Graham, The Twilight Sad.
Talking to EG on Monday from his home in Glasgow, James Graham – lead singer and lyricist with Scottish indie band The Twilight Sad – was still feeling somewhat groggy…
I gather you were in the States last week?
Yeah – I’m still pretty jetlagged. We got back last Wednesday, and since then I’ve been getting up at three in the morning, then four, then five, and then six today. So I’m slowly getting back to normality, if you can call it that.
Have you got much on this week?
Tonight we’ve got a BBC session, and tomorrow [Tuesday] we’re off on tour. So it’s basically home for five days, and then away for a month again. To be honest, I could have been doing with another week off – but it’s another tour, and to get to do it is pretty cool, so I can’t complain.
Where are you recording the session?
Just in Glasgow, for a guy called Vic Galloway. It’s just four songs, so it should be OK. It’ll be a good rehearsal as well, before we go off on tour. It’s actually cheaper. We’ll make money out of it, instead of having to spend money on a rehearsal room!
How long did you spend in America?
Just over a month. It was the sixth time we’ve been over there. We toured America before we’d toured Britain, or even Scotland. But it was amazing: 90% of the shows were sold out, and we got a chance to headline the Bowery Ballroom [in New York], which was a big thing. So it’s all going really well over there.
Your new album (Forget The Night Ahead) came out in the States a few weeks ahead of its release in the UK. What sort of reception has it been getting over there?
I don’t really look at reviews, but apparently the sales have been excellent. The label are really happy, and they say it’s all going really well, and it’s all setting up for a really good album campaign. It’s selling better than the first one did, and the first one is still selling a good amount each week since it’s been out – so it’s great for a small band from Glasgow.
I understand your reluctance to read reviews, but you might want to make an exception for this album. They’ve been seriously positive, right across the board.
We were forwarded some reviews from the guy who does press, but I’m one of these guys who will read five good reviews, and then one bad review, and I’ll just think about that one bad review for the rest of the week…
There’s a very intense, epic sound to the production, which is quite overwhelming on first playing. And you’ve got a big, distinctive guitar sound: a real raging squall of noise.
Andy [MacFarlane, guitarist] experimented quite a lot with the guitar sound. He wanted to change it a little bit from the first record, and he spent hours and hours with Paul [Savage, co-producer], to help produce it. He basically used a lot of space echo on everything. I think we got a bit carried away at some points. (Laughs) But it was sounding really good, and we were happy with it.
Even with the drum sounds, we were making them as big as possible. We even hitting fire extinguishers and stuff like that, just to make it sound big and noisy. We were just looking for things in rooms to hit, basically.
Your lyrics aren’t straightforward, and clearly they’re open to interpretation – but they’re also inspired by personal experience, so there’s a puzzle there for the listener. What do you see as the benefit of shying away from obvious, literal meanings?
I’ve always said, from day one, that I like to leave the lyrics up to other people’s interpretations. There are a lot of metaphors in there, and I wanted the people who are listening maybe to try and relate them back to themselves. My favourite songs are the ones that I can compare back to a time, a place, or a person in my life. I wanted to give people a little bit of work as well, to try and make out what it’s all about. Basically, they’re my songs – and if I know what they’re about, and if I’m singing them every night, I’m happy. Nobody else needs to know exactly what they’re about.
What about your fellow band members? Do they have a bit of an inside track?
None of them know what they’re about, either! Andy knows a little bit; I’ve told him now and again. I go through him as a filter. I’ll say, is this a good line, and he’ll say yay or nay, and I’ll bounce ideas off of him. He’s usually good at telling me what’s shit and what’s not. But to be honest, we don’t really talk about it too much. We just get it done. I think they understand where I’m coming from, and I understand where they’re coming from.
Is there also an element of self-protection? By disguising the meaning, you’re not laying all your emotions bare, for us to pick over.
I find writing quite therapeutic, but ultimately I don’t want to bare all and let everybody know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t feel the need to go out and announce it to the world.
What about in terms of stage performance?
We called the album Forget The Night Ahead, and basically the title meant that some nights, I wanted to forget what happened – and the other nights, I basically did forget what happened, because of going out and getting hammered and things like that.
I suppose that by writing an album about it, it’s not really good to try and forget stuff, while having to sing about it for about two years. (Laughs) But when I’m singing, I don’t really think about anybody else being there, apart from myself. You get into this state of mind where you’re just singing for yourself.
When you’ve finished a performance, do you feel emotionally drained by what you’ve put yourself through?
Very much, yeah. A couple of times on that American tour, I just sat back and I was just like (sighs) fuck, that was a bit of a rollercoaster, that one! As people, we’re all very approachable. We’re always up for a laugh. I think we get that darker side out of us in our music. After that, we’re just like any normal 25 year old guys, just wanting to have a good time.
As an audience member, is it OK to leap around and have a good time at a Twilight Sad concert – or are we not taking it seriously enough?
No, I’m quite happy. In America, there were loads of people going absolutely daft. Maybe it even helps us even more, by showing that people are not scared of us. But a lot of people don’t know when the songs start and finish, because we never really stop and talk to the crowd. It’s all one big passage.
It would break the spell in a way, I suppose.
Yeah, and people just don’t know what to do. I suppose we’re really noisy and loud as well – so they’re just standing in a wee bit of a state of shock, and going, what is actually happening right now?
There can also be something perversely uplifting about listening to dark, troubling music. Are we just enjoying somebody else’s pain?
Everybody goes through ups and downs, and it’s good watching somebody singing a dark song. It shows you that other people go through the same as yourself, and it’s uplifting to think that you’re not on your own, in that sense. I think darker songs are more uplifting than songs bashing on about how good some people’s life is. I find that very depressing, to be honest.
Your first single off the album was called I Became A Prostitute. The record label must have loved you for that.
We met with quite a lot of resistance, actually! (Laughter) We never really thought too much about it, because obviously the song is not about becoming a prostitute. It basically means that you’re becoming something that you don’t want to become. You can see it happening, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Andy our guitarist named the song, and I think it’s from a Jean-Luc Godard film. It might ruffle a few feathers, and people might not like it – but we’re not a band that is going out there looking for radio play, looking to become the next big thing. We do it for ourselves, first and foremost.
When the record company gave the song to radio, they called it I Became A… and then a picture of a lady. So they tried to body swerve it that way. (Laughs) It actually got more radio play than any other of our songs, I think. We probably did shoot ourselves in the foot a little bit, but we’re not the kind of band that cares about that sort of thing.
Who is the woman that appears all the way through the video?
I have no idea! That was one of these situations where the label said we needed a video, and we said, help us then. They did a video for us, and we thought it was a little bit literal. We weren’t too sure about it. I like a lot of the footage in the video that doesn’t feature the lady. But the other stuff is maybe just a bit too risky for my liking, what with the song title in there as well.
And you have a new single (Seven Years of Letters) coming out today?
I actually just found out last night! Then I went on the label’s website, and it says “out today”. We’ve filmed a video for that – but we’ve been away, so I don’t really know why it’s not out yet.
We filmed another video while we were in America, for The Room, which will be the third single. A girl called Nicola Collins got in contact with us. She just did a film about her dad, who’s a gangster in London. It was called The End, and it won all sorts of prizes. As soon as we heard that she was interested, we got her in. She got David Lynch’s granddaughter in the video as well.
You’ve been together as a band for about six years now. Does it get easier or harder?
It gets easier in some ways and harder in others. As you get older, you want to make a career out of it. You’re not just doing it for fun. When the music itself is always going to turn out the way it does, there’s nothing you can do about it. So we’re never going to be a band that sells out, or anything like that.
As for being on the road constantly, I think we played 160 gigs in one year, all over the world – so for me, it is hard being away from home. I really enjoy being at home with my friends and family.
But things get better: the American tour is selling out places like the Bowery Ballroom, and there are hundreds of people singing your songs back at you, and that makes it all worthwhile.
In the financial case, it’s quite difficult. It’s not an easy game to get into, if I’m being honest. But I love it, so I’m not going to give up.
From a punter’s point of view, I like the fact it’s forcing bands out on the road, because there are so many more bands to see now than there were five or six years ago.
It’s a bit of a meat market now, don’t you think? But there are some good bands out there, and I’ve got a lot of respect for the bands who are out on the road constantly plugging away – and not on major labels. Bands who are out there to just try and grab three or four fans a night, and they’ll hopefully turn up the next night. I’ve got a lot of respect for anybody who’s in the same shoes as mine.
And there are lots more ways that you can build your audience, and interact with them: forums, social networking sites, all of that. So from that point of view, it’s easier to get the message out yourselves.
When our first album came out, we played in London – and a guy came up to us and said, oh, your album’s Number One in the illegal downloading chart that I go to, and 5000 people have downloaded your album, it’s brilliant! That’s a lot of money to be missing out on. But we got into the indie album chart last week, so it shows you that the record’s selling well, and more people are hearing about us. We’re in it for the long haul.