Interview: The Twilight Sad’s James Graham

Scots rockers The Twilight Sad have gained international plaudits for third album, No One Can Ever Know, which, like The Horrors’ latest time-warp record, Skying, sees the band employ heavy use of synth to blaze a trail in an entirely new musical direction.

 

But had the band planned to switch focus so consciously from the conceptualised might of Forget The Night Ahead?

“It probably developed just as we went on,” says youthful frontman James Graham, whose broad Scots brogue is instantly recognisable in a musical landscape of bogus Yankee twangs.

“I think the main thing is, we were always conscious not to make the same album twice and because the first one was pretty big sounding and on the second one the guitars were kind of flooding everything, this time the songs we were writing deserved the kind of breathing space that we’ve given them.

“It would’ve been a cop-out to do the same thing again because it would’ve shown that we’re not as confident with the songs as what we actually were.

“We were confident that that space would give more room for other things to happen.”

And boy, do things happen.

No One Can Ever Know is a masterful record, awash with icy synths, shoegazy riffs and sparse instrumentation.

It is the sound of a band entirely content with their output, and hitting their musical peak; some reviews have already compared the album, the band’s third, to Manic Street Preachers’ 1994 record The Holy Bible.

Graham’s face betrays no pleasure at the comparison, though he is pleased nonetheless.

“Holy Bible is one of my favourites, it’s in my top five albums.

“It wasn’t meant to come through – and if it has, if people are saying that, there are worse albums for it to be compared to.

“So I’m quite happy if people do think that, then cool, it’s amazing but at the same time, I think it’s maybe the tone of the album, I don’t think it actually sounds like it.”

So what does No One Can Ever Know sound like live? “I think you’re gonna have dips in the set that will accentuate the main bits so it’s definitely improved.

“I mean, my ears were ringing more on the last tour with some of the new songs than they did before, hence I’ve now got in-ear monitors so I don’t go fucking deaf.

“So nah, it’s still gonna be loud, we’re playing all the old songs as well, people will get a wee break but then they’ll get hit, and the break won’t be that quiet anyway!”

Graham is under no illusions about putting on a performance, of course: “ultimately, if a show sounds exactly like the album, you could just stay at home and save yourself the money for the ticket.”

There are some people who say the Twilight Sad are a miserable lot, but the frontman jokingly places the blame for this on guitarist, Andy MacFarlane: “Andy sends music to me, I’ll write it and then we layer it up.

“I add the lyrics to the music Andy’s given me, I hear the music and I’ll just go with the sort of tone of it, which is usually fucking miserable, so it’s his fault we’re a miserable band!”

Perhaps miserable is being used as a byword for poignant, involving and life-affirming, because No One Can Ever Know, while bleak, exhibits the band’s standard penchant for symphonic arrangements, witty lyrics and euphoric choruses.

But what new music has the band been listening to during the NOCEK sessions?

“I listened to the same as I always listen to,” Graham states,  “maybe Andy listened to different stuff – PiL, Can, New Order and things like that.

“I just listen to stuff I’ve always listened to like Arab Strap, Mogwai… it’s quite weird, with Mogwai, you’d think someone like Andy would take more from that music cos it’s instrumental but to be honest I take more from that, cos I listen to that and certain things will pop into my head, like a feeling, and I’ll write it down.

“I find that more inspiring sometimes than some other bands with singers.”

Unlike many rock frontmen, Graham doesn’t consider himself particularly – or, indeed, at all – musical.

“I’ve tried to play guitar and I’m shite!” he laughs.

“At everything (musically)! I was in Andy’s music class at school and I’ve got a higher A in music and I canny play anything!” Andy cackles in the background.

“I canny actually play anything, I’ve tried to play guitar, got one in the house but then I got fed up and started watchin’ the TV.”

Naturally, it’s irrelevant to the grand scheme of things, The Twilight Sad are hardly a band defined by cracks and fissures of musical disharmony.

In fact, the singer’s lack of musical mastery seems to be a positive: “we’ve always said that the fact that I don’t, that I can’t play, maybe adds to the way that we do stuff because I’m not thinkin’ about the music, I’m just thinkin’ – this sounds pretty shite, like – about the mood or the feelin’ about the song and not where the chord changes here or there.

“I’m just thinkin’ about the story and what sounds good to me…”

The Twilight Sad’s story is a good one, in fact, it might come to be a classic: A headline US tour beckons, and the band will hit some favourite venues in Europe – Italy being one they are looking forward to, despite being robbed by corrupt cops on their last foray (“they claimed they were searchin’ for fake money… Luckily I don’t have any money,” Graham states archly, smirking).

Their home fans, meanwhile, will already be looking forward to their return to domestic pastures.

And what might album four sound like? Graham ponders, clasps his hands.

“The thing is, with this album, I see it opening us up to more… it opens a lot of doors for us, there’s so many ways we could go with the next one.

“I mean, I’m glad this album has been embraced by people, we’ve been blown away by the reaction to it, I think the next one will be a step on from this… unless Andy starts listening to reggae.”

Whether he does or not, it’s likely Graham and co. will continue blazing a unique path.

Words: Ronnie McCluskey
Photos: Nic Shonfeld/Jenny Anderson

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