"We never really wanted to make the same record twice..."

It takes all but the hardest heart not to be swayed by the Twilight Sad.

Armed with a trademark wall-of-sonics and James Graham’s cathartic vocals, they’re three albums into a career as one of Scotland’s most important bands. The latest, ‘No One Can Ever Know’, sees them turn their back on familiar ways to experiment with glassy synths and a new lyrical stand-point – resulting in a sparser, darker record with traces of Cabaret Voltaire and Joy Division around the edges. Clash caught up with singer James Graham to learn more about this unexpected change of direction.

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So, you’re just about to release the album ‘No One Can Never Know’ – which is a bit of a departure from previous albums. What provoked that change? Was it just a natural progression?
When the band started we never really wanted to make the same record twice. I felt the second one was different from the first one and we knew we kind of wanted to move on. At the same time, it wasn’t something that we sat down and talked to each other about. Andy just basically sent me over the music and I sat down and wrote the lyrics and melodies to that. We never really spoke about it. We just started playing with sounds that were interesting us. If we were to go down the same road as the other records, we’d have maybe got four more (records) and then probably called it a day because there would have been no point to it, to be honest.

How much do your listening habits influence the sound of new records? Did they change at all?

I think maybe with Andy it changed a bit. With myself, I just did what I always do. And if I had something to write about, I’d go on and write with the music that Andy had given me. I’m still listening to the same music that I always did.

And what’s that, just out of curiosity?
Last year…the Mogwai album, the Aiden Moffat and Bill Wells. All my old Mogwai and Arab Strap records, Leonard Cohen and Daniel Johnson. I do like listening to new music as well. Andy isn’t that keen, he’s kind of going back the way instead of going forwards. The stuff that he’s been listening to recently he’s always listened to, but now it’s just came more to the forefront. Bands like Cabaret Voltaire, and Can, and Wire. That kind of New Wave.

You’ve been inspired by producers like Martin Hammett. In what way?
We’ve always made it apparent that we’ve been big fans of Joy Division. I mean, 'Closer' is one of my favourite records of all time and I think it’s been pretty much the same for the rest of the band. The production style that was used on those early albums – it’s suited the new songs a lot more. The songs deserved a little bit more room than past songs have had. And basically the drumming style – Matt recorded all of his drums separately and that’s the same as the ‘Martin Hammett’ style as well. It was all pretty natural and we just wanted to do what was suiting the songs, instead of layering them up with loads of guitars /the wall of sound. We could have done that, but at the same time it would have felt like a cop-out and it wouldn’t have suited the songs.

The Twilight Sad - Another Bed

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As a writer, do you feel like your subject matter has changed? Were you exploring any particular ideas on the album?
As far as the lyrics go, I don’t really talk about them. The reason behind that is that some of my favourite songs are the ones when I don’t know what they’re about. I think if you know what a song’s about, sometimes it shapes it for you. It’s definitely not a happy album, put it that way. I don’t think we’re ever going to do that to be honest. I mean, the themes of the record are kind of tied in with the title – so I’m not going to tell anyone what they’re about. The first records, it was me kind of observing – about my family, myself, my friends and where we live. The second one was a bit more personal. Now, I’ve kind of reverted back to the kind of observational thing – calling other people dickheads, basically. At the same time, I feel like – I hope this doesn’t sound wanky at all – the album’s meant to be listened to as a whole and each song is like a different chapter in the overall theme. We’re definitely not a singles band, and I kind of wanted the whole thing to be a story.

Have you got a personal favourite song?
It changes from day-to-day to be honest. There’s a song called ‘Nil’ on the album – the fifth song – that felt special when I wrote it. I wrote it in an afternoon, Andy had given me the music across and it just kind of happened when I started writing it. I was finished it in two hours of starting. With a lot of the other songs, I come up with melodies and structures and we sort of play around with it but this one Andy said ‘I think we should leave this the way it is.’ Every song on the album means something to me, but that one is different. Like when I wrote the first song off the first album, I wasn’t sure what it was about. And then one night we were playing it live, and it just clicked.

Was that 'Cold Days from the Birdhouse'?
It was, yeah. I was writing that, and I kind of knew what it was about but that night was different. I feel like subconsciously I write things?

Does that change the song for you?
No. Well, I think in that kind of way it makes a little bit more special if something like that happens. Something like that definitely happened with ‘Nil’ as well. We’ve just started to try and play it so hopefully we can pull it off.

Since the release of the first album, you’ve built up an amazingly passionate fan base. How does it feel for you to go out and hear people singing back those lyrics to you - as the guy who wrote them?
It’s pretty weird. I mean, it’s obviously a kind of amazing compliment that people do that. I never thought that we’d been the sort of ‘sing-along’ band. When it started to happen it was quite strange and I didn’t really know how to react to it. It’s an amazing compliment when someone learns the words and sings it back to you. I’ve had that when we were in Germany, and it’s pretty strange when a German person sings it back with a Scottish accent. Especially when they’re getting the lyrics wrong and stuff.

I never thought that this band would connect as much as it has, even with people from Glasgow and where we’re from. We’ve always seen us as a pretty small band and I never really had any expectations for it. People seem to really like what we’re doing and it’s amazing. And the reactions we’ve had from old songs and the new ones have been amazing. And I never really thought we’d have that.

Are you looking forward to the tour?
Aye, definitely. I’m nervous at the same time as looking forward to it.

But you tour all the time, you’re always playing!
Aye, I know. The weird thing is though, when we started we played two gigs in two years and then we got signed…..so we got put over to America to mix our record and we got put on a tour there. I think we’ve just been learning every tour that we’ve done just how to be a real band. And now, it kind of feels like we’ve got to that point and there’s an expectation for us to go out and perform.

And deliver?
Aye, totally. I think we’ve done it in the past but we really need to do that. We’re not really – I’m not naturally a frontman either – I just like going up and singing. It’s just not something that I thought about when we started – we were just writing songs with one another. To get up on stage and perform in front of people is quite a daunting thing. I mean, I’m not really – I’m not the person who goes up and tells funny stories.

From ‘Killed My Parents and Hit the Road’ to the new album, did you expect to make it up to this point?
I mean, I hoped we would. Since the band started, we’ve seen a lot of other bands come and go. And the thing with this band was that we were in it for the long run. We knew that we weren’t going to be a big ‘buzzed about’ band, or be on the front of magazines or in NME or…we knew we’d have to put the work in to get a fanbase of any kind. We always thought of ourselves as a band that would make albums – make albums but progress in every one. I hoped we would get to this stage – there were also a lot of times I thought we would kill each other. I wasn’t sure that we would get that far.

We all hoped we would. These days, a lot of it is to do with finances – you don’t make a lot of money in the industry we’re in, and especially at the point we’re at in our career. We’re just lucky enough to have a good support base back home that gave us the opportunity to make three albums. The ambition with this album is just to do well so we can make another record. Nothing like play to thousands of people, or get on certain T.V. shows or do this, do that. We want to go out, we want to play to people but we also want to make the best records that we possibly can.

So it’s more about being a musician than being famous?
We’re not good-looking enough to be any other way! But seriously, we’ve got to rely on something. It’s more about what my favourite bands have been about – making albums that you’re proud of and being able to go and play music every night. Everything that goes along with it is great, but the most important thing is to be writing music and to be playing it every night.

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Words by Marianne Gallagher

Photo Credit: Nic Shonfeld

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