Hello! Welcome to The Reprise, a new music website where we simply chat to the artists we love. To celebrate our launch, here's an interview with The Twilight Sad's vocalist and lyricist James Graham which took place early last October.
In a small dressing room, at London's Boston Music Room, Graham was a pleasing mixture of humility and ambition, as he and the rest of the band - Andy MacFarlane (guitars), Mark Devine (drums), Johnny Docherty (touring bass) and Brendan Smith (touring keys) - prepared themselves for a lengthy album campaign in support of Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave, their fourth studio album. Since then, the album has received mostly rapturous reviews, entering the UK Album Chat at a career best of #51, and the band has seen their fanbase swell at sold-out performances at both home and overseas.
Hi James! How do you feel tonight, at what is essentially the start of the new album campaign?
JG: I am excited, but I'm also terrified; I'm a mixture of everything. I'm looking forward to just being out touring and not having to think about anything else apart from playing the gig, getting in the van - knowing what I'm going to watch in the van - and just having a good time on the road, to be honest.
[Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave] has been ours since May. It was ours to listen to and nobody else could have it; it was our thing. Now, it's almost out there for everybody to hear and that's terrifying. So, to go into the bubble of a tour just helps. These days with phones, and all that stuff, if somebody's writing something [about the band] it's coming through your phone, and you can't hide from it. Luckily people are always pretty nice about us. I'm saying that - touch wood! *knocks table*
I've been listening to the album for three straight day now - it's excellent. It feels like an exciting time to be in the band.
JG: Oh, that's great. Thank you! I am nervous, just because I do really like the album. I like all of our records, but I think this one is really important for us, and I think that's what I'm more nervous about. I think we've done a great job and I really don't think we could have done anything better. We've said everything we want to say with the album. I was just saying earlier that there are so many outlets for [responses] these days, and you can't please everyone - it's about growing a thick skin, in a way.
I am, more than anything, excited for people that like the band to finally hear the record. People have been writing to us - they've been hearing snippets and acoustic songs, stuff like that - and are genuinely excited about it. I'm more excited for them to hear it than anything else. Even though it was nice for the album to be ours for a wee while. I just want people who like the band to hear it, and, from there on, if other people, who have never heard of us before, hear it, then great - and that's been happening, to be honest! There was a guy from Algeria, who contacted us the other day. I was like, 'Cool - Let's get a tour in Algeria hooked up.'
The album is more anthemic than your previous releases. I can certainly see it reaching a wider audience.
JG: We've not compromised anything that we do within the record. I think you're right, it could appeal to a wider audience, whilst really pleasing people that liked our previous records. I think that's exciting.
We just have to work hard touring. As far as the record goes, we've done everything we can with the actual physical thing. We just have to go out and promote it - although, I don't see it as 'promoting', I see it as playing gigs. We're going to do exactly the same as we've always done, and if more people take notice, then great. I really hope they do. I like playing small gigs, but I think these songs are suited for bigger venues, you know? I love playing any venue, I just love playing gigs, but I think, for me, the songs are bigger sounding.
The are, especially compared to [the band's previous studio album] No One Can Ever Know.
JG: The last record was an insular sounding record and we needed to do that. This record wouldn't have happened if we hadn't embraced the sounds on [No One Can Ever Know]. It feels like we've opened the sounds up and Andy's guitars are back a little bit. Again, there are songs on there that are completely stripped back, like the last song on the record, ["Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep"]. For me, the album's got everything that I like about our band on one record. I think it's the most accomplished thing we've done.
Our first record, [Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters], I know everybody holds it up as a high point, but that was a record of its time and it's a special record because of that. We're never going to recreate that record, or that mood, or that feeling. I think we've written better songs, and we've written better records, but that record encompassed something, like a time or a feeling, and you can't replicate that. If you tried to, you'd fail.
I reckon your core fanbase doesn't want you to recreate that album. My favourite is actually Forget the Night Ahead.
JG: Oh, cool! I'm quite glad that you like that record. Och, I like all of our records, but you know what it's like with that first record. I think it's cool that folk do that, but we moved on from that record a long time ago - even though we reissued it this year! But, musically, and in terms of its writing, it is of that time. I think you're right, people would be like, 'What are you trying to do that for!' if we tried to recreate that.
I think anybody who's liked any period of us will like something within this new one, but it is a record again; it's not a collection of singles or songs. You don't have to listen to it to start to finish, but, to really understand it, it does help.
On that note, how important is the sequencing of an album to you, and how many songs did you enter the studio with? Are there songs that you left off to benefit the album as a whole?
JG: We had written loads of songs, but we didn't necessarily develop them all. I think Andy... it's weird talking about him when he's sitting in the corner. [Andy is in the corner]
James: We developed the ones that we felt were the strongest. There were some really good ideas, though, and maybe we might go back to them at some point. Andy, how many did we go into the studio with?
Andy: 10 million?
James: Sweet. Was it twelve? Thirteen? Twelve?
Andy: We went in with twelve.
James: We went in with twelve. We did write more, but we developed those and we could see the story unfurling within the songs. We did the sequencing after everything was recorded, and that happened really quickly, actually.
You always seems to have consistently strong closing tracks.
JG: "Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep" was one of the first songs written for the album, and was always going to be the last song on the record. It was the same with "There's a Girl in the Corner". When that was written, we were like, 'That's the first song.' This album seemed to fall into place, and it has a story going all the way through it. That's why it fell into place; it told itself. Aye, I'm glad you like the last song.
[Touring bassist] Johnny Docherty contributed a lot on this album . Have you guys ever considered..
JG: Kicking him out?
Making him a full member of the band?
JG: That's not something we've talked about yet. But Johnny's been with us for a long time. To me, he is part of the band and so is [touring keyboardist] Brendan [Smith]. That's definitely a future discussion that I would be up for having. At the moment, it works for all of us. There are lots of elements you have to take into consideration, but at the moment it works well for Johnny and Brendan.
Andy and I have always written the songs, and then [drummer] Mark [Devine] writes his parts. The songs were mapped out and then Andy gave Johnny free reign to come up with his own bass parts. Johnny definitely added loads to the record and he played on nearly every song. If the record's a smash hit, he's not getting anywhere near my royalties! I do hope it's something we can talk about if we're still around.
Speaking of the core trio, I caught your stripped back performance at Parc de la Cuitadella, in Barcelona, this summer. [NB: The day after their performance at Primavera Sound, James, Andy and Mark performed an additional mid-afternoon set.]
JG: Oh, fucking hell! I had food poisoning that day. I felt horrendous, but, when we got on and played, it wasamazing. Did I not say, 'Fucking hell', a few times?
I'm pretty sure that you did. It was a great turnout for a small gig so far removed from the main festival site! Plus, it was so clammy that day.
James: Aye, storm clouds and whatnot. It was one of those gigs where we didn't know what to expect, to be honest. We were on a high from our main set.. in fact, I wasn't on a high because I was fucking dying. The night before, when we played the gig at Primavera, it surpassed all of our wildest imaginations, and we were like 'Fucking hell, we can't top that.' Now, I don't know if it topped it, but it was a just a different thing. It was probably the best weekend, performance-wise, we've ever had as a band. I think when it feels special you notice. And then after it I was feeling shite.
Andy: That's because you were steaming the night before.
James: Eh, I'm trying to get the sympathy card here. Aye, after the gig, there was a queue of folk lined up to talk to us. I noticed that Andy had sneaked off, so he didn't have to talk to anybody. I love talking to people, though, I thought it was great. That's never happened before either. It was pretty strange, in a nice way.
From your end, would you say that the band's fanbase has increased at a steady pace, or was there a point where you noticed that it had suddenly became a lot bigger? To me, it felt likesomething changed between your second and third albums, and that there was a lot of anticipation prior to the release of No One Can Ever Know.
James: As that record came out there was a definite good feeling about it. The year after that, not so much. It was a pretty tough year. We were questioning a lot of what was going on - 'Are we going to do another record?' Things like that. But, over the past year, I've noticed a big difference.
Would you say that 2014 has been a defining year for the band?
I think it is a defining year, and I think [Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave] is a defining record. Doing the first album tour reminded people that might have forgotten about us..
About why they became fans in the first place?
JG: Exactly. People really came out from all over the world to come and see us. It was pretty mindblowing, I really didn't expect it. It was a really good thing for the band, and then we had Primavera and T in the Park. It seems like, every so often, a really cool thing happens. It just feels like people are starting to take a wee bit more notice of us, if you know what I mean? And I hope that continues.
I think we've worked hard enough, and I'm not saying I want us to be a huge, massive band or anything. We don't write pop songs, but we have the ability to reach a lot of people, I think. I hope the record reaches as many people as it possibly could. I think it's got the ability to, but a lot of it is out of our hands now. There are people who work for you, and work a record, and they seem really passionate about it, and that's the main thing. It's just putting the record in front of the right person, to do the right thing. But we'll just be constantly touring.
Am I right in saying you have a huge American tour coming up after this short UK run?
JG: Out first gig's on the sixteenth of October. We play the first record in New York again, and it's a six week tour. We'll be doing our first album again, in a city, at the end of the tour, and that will be end of doing that. America was the first country to take notice of us, so it's nice to go over and play that record for anybody that wants to hear us play it. I'm excited about the tour, but, my liver, I can feel it going euuughh.
Is it tough for a mid-sized indie rock band..
JG: Mid-sized is a compliment! I'd have said in the gutter.
Is it tough to maintain financial stability on an American tour like the one coming up?
JG: For a band of our size, financially it is tough. In the past we've not had jobs - we now all do outside the band - but to commit to a full album campaign is a lot. We're lucky that we have people that care about what we do, that support us back home and push us to do what we want to do.
If you think about it, we're away six weeks. We're not making any money from that tour. We might be breaking even, and I don't think a lot of people realise that. They think, 'Ah they're away,' but it is a job and it is tough. That's why the band needs to progress as well. I'm 30 now and there are certain things you want out of life. Being in a band is a selfish lifestyle, I suppose, but we're really lucky that a lot of people want us to do well. We're really lucky to have that, and I can categorically say we'd never have gotten this far without the people back home, and the people that come to the gigs. And tonight's the fifth gig we've played in London this year and it's sold out again!
And the new album isn't out yet!
JG: Exactly, and it's the same front row, all the time. That's a good thing. These people are constantly coming back. We have a core group of people, around the world, that really appreciate what we do and buy our records, and that's what's keeping us going. It sounds quite corny, but it's not. Without them we wouldn't have got this far in a market where nobody's buying records. I think we attract the right people.
You do attract the kind of fans that actually buy albums.
JG: I think we do, and I like to think we appreciate that. We've given a lot of things away for free; The Paisley Abbey thing, an acoustic record. We always like to show our appreciation by giving something like that away.
On that note, I really enjoy the mini-album, Here It Never Snowed. Afterwards It Did. [the mini-album featuring mostly reworked songs from their debut album.]
JG: I really like that one as well. It was one of those ones that wasn't planned.
Without revisiting the past too much, I've always wondered why you decided to release that as the immediate follow-up to Fourteen Autumns?
JG: I think that was the start of us doing things stripped back. I think we wanted to show that we weren't a one-trick pony. There are different sides to this band and we can introduce our songs in different ways. I think people have got into us through the acoustic stuff.
I think you're right. I was recently at the acoustic gig at Oslo where you and Andy supported Owl John [Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison].
JG: Oh, that dick!
I think people in the audience, that weren't already familiar with the band, certainly came away interested - I overheard some conversations. The stripped-back performances really show off the strength of the songwriting.
JG: We've found that quite a lot recently. Andy and I actually really enjoy doing it now, and that's good to hear. You find out through Twitter. People write to you saying, 'I've never heard of you before, but that was great.' [To Andy] Let's sack the rest of them!
One song that seems to have found a new life in a stripped-back context is [Forget the Night Aheadouttake] "The Wong Car".
JG: We're not playing it tonight, but we just practiced it full-band for the first time in ages, so it's making a comeback. There was a guy [who came to see us] in Dunkeld, and he had came up from Glasgow for his wedding anniversary. He got a hotel there and he only came to see that song.
JG: And we did not play that song. He was fucking raging. So I said, 'Right come to the ABC, in December, and we will play that song.' [Two months after this interview, The Twilight Sad performed a sold-out gig at Glasgow's 1362-capacity venue, ABC.]
Do you ever wish you'd put that song on Forget the Night Ahead?
JG: No. I'm quite glad it stands on its own, and I don't know where it would have fit on the record. We wouldn't have known where to put it.
It definitely sounds like an opening track. It has a similar feel to [album opener] "Reflection of the Television", but they go on different paths.
JG: Yeah, it was like, 'one or the other'. When we finished the recording, it wasn't the best version of the song, so we went back to it after the record. I'm glad it sits on its own, and I think the Paisley Abbey thing gave it a new level of people knowing it.
You mentioned your forthcoming gig at Glasgow's ABC. How do you feel about the gig?
JG: In the past, we've gotten the album ready, and done a small Glasgow gig which then leads on to a big gig. But the small Glasgow gig is at the ABC this time, and it's selling really well! We're not going to do quadraphonic sound like we did the last time. We'll just concentrate on trying to play the songs. It's our Christmas staff night out, and I'm excited about it. The album will be out and to see the reaction from a home town crowd will be interesting.
In terms of a hometown reaction, [Scottish monthly arts paper] The Skinny just published a 5-star review of the album today. How do you feel now that the reviews are starting to trickle in?
JG: It's just a case of who the album gets put in the hands of - and that's terrifying! Even if you don't really like what we do, I don't think you can listen to it and say that it's not an accomplished album. The worst thing that can happen is to get '3s out 5s' or '7s out of 10s' coming through. So far so good - I've seen two reviews and they've both been great. You could just catch someone on the wrong day, and there's that many outlets. Yeah, I'd be disappointed if people aren't nice about it. If the album's put in the right hands of the people that could like the band, they could be won over by it.
Pitchfork certainly has a hand in making or breaking an independent album. I don't know if you're a fan of Mark Kozelek or Sun Kil Moon?
JG: I know he doesn't like The War on Drugs!
I'm a big fan and, although he's always been a cult figure with a strong fanbase, I found that when Pitchfork posted a glowing review of his new album, Benji, its sales increased massively on Amazon. The right review, from the right place, really boosts an artist's exposure and sales.
JG: Pitchfork gave our first record 'Best New Music', and they've always been really nice about the band, but you just can't predict these things. If you try to, you'll drive yourself mental, and I have driven myself mental. If you genuinely give the album a chance, there's something on there that you'll like. That's the thing that worries me the most. There's records out there that get panned, and yet they sell a lot, and then you have the records that are critically acclaimed that haven't been selling.
Which would you rather have?
JG: I don't know, but I know what he *points at Andy* would rather have! If it's like, 'Oh, cool! We're selling loads of albums, but everybody hates the record!' How [does as a band] feel about that? Hopefully we can get a happy medium. So far so good, anyway! If we're playing gigs like this and they're sold out, then, aye, fingers crossed.
I've noticed both you and Andy have started sharing Spotify playlists with your followers on Facebook. What have been your favourite albums this year?
James: I don't think Andy likes any albums that have been out this year.
Andy: I liked that Protomartyr one. See, James usually just reads Pitchfork. Growlers - that one's good. There was something else I was listening to recently.. oh, the Shellac one! That's pretty good.
James: ..and the reissue of (What's the Story) Morning Glory?
James: Andy's right, I just like hipster shite. I like that Perfume Genius album, I think that one's really good. I like the Angel Olsen record, the Mogwai record, the Remember Remember record. I like Scott's album, Owl John, and the Under the Skin soundtrack by Mica Levi. I listened to the Gone Girl soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross last night, which I really liked.
[The rest of the band - Mark, Johnny and Brendan - arrive soaked to the bone after hunting down fast food in the rain.]
James: Bloody hell - what happened?
Andy: Everybody keeps going away and coming back sweating.
Mark: *laughs* I don't know who's idea it was going for a fucking walk for an hour.
James: I like that The War on Drugs album as well. [To Andy] Did our Jeff [Zeigler] produce that or did he just record it?
Andy: I think he might have done both.
James: Aye, our friend Jeff did that.
I love them. I remember seeing them at [small Glasgow venue] Stereo when Slave Ambient came out, and this year they've just gone woosh!
JG: It's massive. I saw them at Primavera when we were there - I loved it. I also like Lykke Li's album - she's really good - and The Phantom Band record too.
Finally, I'm always interested in what a band considers its best work to be. What are your own personal favourite Twilight Sad songs?
JG: None of them - they're all shite *laughs* I think it changes: "The Wrong Car", and the last song on the new record. "I Became A Prostitute" always seems to get a really good reaction, and "Cold Days from the Birdhouse" - I've sang that song about a fucking million times.
It's like a pseudo-hit single.
JG: It's my safe place. If a gig's going shite, then I've got that song. I think "That Summer at Home" is always special because it's the first song we ever wrote. People say, 'Do you realise that's mental that it;s he first song you ever wrote,' and I'm like, 'I don't think about it.'
[At this, the rest of the band burst out laughing at James's confidence in the song and I leave them in peace to prepare for their show and the months that will follow.]
The Twilight Sad's latest single from Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave, "I Could Give You All That You Don't Want", is available now, and comes backed with the excellent b-side, "The Airport".
- Andrew Lindsay