Amongst the bounty of beautiful discs released this coming Record Store Day, April 19th, one reissued-and-expanded debut set stands out: that of The Twilight Sad, ‘Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters’.
The Kilsyth-formed band’s 2007 debut, recorded in a relative heartbeat at a time when the band was still feeling its way around the studio, was one of the highest-rated albums of its time, and was ranked as the second-best Scottish LP of the ’00s by The Skinny. It’s easy to hear why: the lyrics bear the mark of emotional punches; guitars scream like jets across the northern lights, like My Bloody mother*cking asshole Valentine turned up to death; and when everything crashes together the effect, even now, is entirely electric.
The new, deluxe, double-vinyl edition of the album is limited to 500 copies, and comes with additional demos from the time. The trio – James Graham (vocals), Andy MacFarlane (guitar) and Mark Devine (drums); previously starring Craig Orzel on bass – also tours the album in April and May.
Clash took the trio to our work local for pints and some chatter on the nature of nostalgia, those early recording sessions, and adding value to the fading album format…
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‘Cold Days From The Birdhouse’, live for KEXP, originally from the album ‘Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters’
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Do you feel like there’s a greater emphasis on nostalgia right now, in the music industry, than there has been in previous years? With the onslaught of new music, is it important to be able to pause, to look and listen back, and contextualise the present with that frame of reference?
James: I do.
Andy: It feels like a lot of records that come out, they come and go really quickly, and you kind of forget about them. So it’s nice to get a re-release of some recognition. It’s good to even be allowed to do it.
The album’s only seven years old, so it’s not meeting an industry-typical 10th anniversary, or anything like that…
James: It came from us being asked to do a couple of gigs, performing the record, in Glasgow. Then we realised it’d not been available on vinyl for about five years, which made us think: let’s get it back out there again. We had all these demos, too, which we’ve been able to add. I suppose the band turned 10 last year, didn’t it?
Andy: Aye. I suppose. I kind of see us starting from the EP (‘The Twilight Sad’, released in November 2006), but if you look at the period when we were trying to write, then we’re 10. We were only playing, like, one gig a year back then though. At our first gig as The Twilight Sad, when there was four of us, we just played one song, I think, and the rest was just noise.
James: I don’t actually know what I did through those gigs, if we were just playing one song. What did I do?
Mark: Well, there was a bar, right?
James: But aye, with the reissue, it’s not a 10th anniversary thing, but it felt like it was good to get it out there again on vinyl, and the demos are pretty special. There are songs there that didn’t make the album. So we think they’ll appeal to fans of the band.
The demos from the time, then – do these represent your first properly concentrated writing effort, going into the ‘Fourteen Autumns…’ period?
James: One demo, the four-track demo, is the one we sent to Fat Cat, which got us signed.
Andy: They came up to see us afterwards, but they sort of just signed us on the spot.
James: They were asking where they could see us, but we didn’t have any gigs booked. So we booked a gig, and they came up.
Andy: We were so disorganised.
James: It was a four-band bill. We played more than one song on that night. I know we played ‘And She Would Darken The Memory’, ‘But When She Left, Gone Was The Glow’, and ‘That Summer, At Home…’. So that’s three songs, at least. And there were tape loops.
Listening to the demos today, are you whisked back to that time in your lives, in your career? Can you hear them with the context of today in mind, and more clearly see the progression you’ve made?
James: The demos and the record itself, we had to listen to them in full so we could learn how to play them all again. It was weird hearing myself sounding a lot younger – but it was nice, and I quite enjoyed it. I didn’t think I would. When we do a new record, I don’t look back. Doing the older songs live is a different interpretation, of course. But it was nice to go back to these old songs. I can’t believe we quite did what we did. It’s pretty mental, knowing how stupid we were at that age.
Listening now, ‘Fourteen Autumns…’ sounds impressively full, like a lot of time went into shaping its textures. But it was recorded quickly, wasn’t it?
James: It took, like, three days or something. Four days, maybe.
Mark: I think it was a week altogether, between the places and getting it mixed. But we had no idea what we were doing, really.
James: When I listened to it, I still felt proud of it. Going back did make me think about everything that has happened since. I got a bit nostalgic.
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‘And She Would Darken The Memory’, from the album ‘Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters’
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Did it make you feel your age? Seven years ago doesn’t sound much, but you’ve achieved a lot since.
James: It did, a lot. It reminded me of so much, and I did feel old, listening to it! But it was nice doing the first-album shows while working on our new record, which we’re doing. It allowed us to appreciate what we were writing music about before we went on tour, before everything else. Having that perspective before going into write a new record, it’s a nice thing to have. Although I also found it really strange.
Is it easier now to discuss, or to address, the lyrical themes on the first album?
James: I think the words have the same relevance. They’re markers of what was going on in my life at that time. Every record we write, it’s a shot of where I am, lyrically. It was good… Well, obviously ‘Fourteen Autumns…’ is not a happy record, but it was good-stroke-bad to pick through that shit. I think, overall, it was a rewarding experience, but some of the stuff I’m singing about then, I didn’t like going over again. It’s a snapshot of that time and I’m happy with the statement.
When you’ve all your life, up to that point, to make a debut full of those experiences, how hard is it to step up and do the same again on a second LP, when you might only then have 12 or 18 months to draw on for fresh inspiration?
Andy: Well, on the first album, we didn’t actually have it properly written for a long time. Half the album we wrote, I think, really in the run up to going into the studio. Like, a couple of weeks before, that’s all. So I think we probably actually spent more time writing the second, third and fourth albums! The first was very spontaneous – and it sort of had to be, as we didn’t know what we were doing.
James: We always give ourselves a bit of time to sit and write, when we’re not on tour and that. But it always does feel that it’s in that run up to going into the studio when we bash out some of the best, or most important songs. (Album opener) ‘Cold Days From The Birdhouse’ was originally written to be a B-side, I think?
James: But there was a good handful of songs written under the pressure of having this studio time booked. Like, ‘Shit, we’ve got to get ourselves together.’
Andy: I like the idea of getting back to this idea of a short studio time – to spend just a few days there, or just one day. But we think about the recording a lot more now. We’ve got more experience.
Mark: Those first recordings are our first time in a studio, ever. So we were learning a lot. Nowadays, we know to take more time.
‘Fourteen Autumns…’ got a great reception. In strictly numerical terms, the various review aggregators make it your most-acclaimed album, still…
James: That’s something you can’t control, I suppose. It’s your first impression on the world – and after that, on your second or third album, people have an impression of what you’re about, and perhaps they have grievances with that. But it was nice to see the great reception. That said, I’m sure it got some bad reviews, too. Maybe even as many as the good ones. For your first record to get so much praise, though, that leaves you with only one place to go, really! I dunno. It seems like there’s more pressure on you after that happens – I know I felt more pressure when we came to do our second album. But I think we’ve been true to ourselves – the most pressure we felt wasn’t from the reviews, but simply to not repeat that album again, to not repeat ourselves. We don’t ever want to replicate what we’ve done before. That can be a risk, but it’s the way we want to be as a band. If something’s there, and done, and people like it, why replicate it? Yeah, you want people to like you, but we want to push ourselves – which means no one album will sound just like the last. You become a different person as you get older, too.
I think that the band’s identity is never compromised across the three studio albums to date. It’s always obvious that this is a Twilight Sad record. And I don’t mean that just because of your accent – it goes beyond that. There’s a spirit there, something unspoken that resonates.
James: I think you’re right, but obviously that isn’t something we can manufacture. It’s a natural thing that comes out, that comes across – it’s where we’re from, and these are personal songs so that side of us is always going to come through, and that side will always be unique to us. If we tried to hide some of that, I think it’d still come through in the music. But I’ve actually always felt like something of an outsider. I know that sounds like a cliché, but we’ve never been pigeonholed like some other bands in Scotland. I don’t think we’ve ever been part of a scene.
There must have been bands around you, at the time of writing those early songs, that you felt a connection with?
James: Well, there were bands who we were friends with. But we always felt we were knocking on the door of other things, trying to break into other areas. We toured with Frightened Rabbit, I suppose.
The Skinny were very kind about ‘Fourteen Autumns…’, ranking it second on their list of the best Scottish albums of the last decade.
James: Aye, and I think that was public voted, too. So that was great. Only Idlewild ahead of us, and I do like that record (‘100 Broken Windows’).
Is location still important to the development of music, with the internet allowing access to new bands from all over the globe? Inspiration can come from anywhere, can’t it? Or is it important to have local support, and local peers?
James: I definitely think we’d sound different if we were from a different place, whatever the roots of our musical influences. Because you can only write about where you’re from – I can only write about where I’m from, or where I’m at. That’s where my whole inspiration comes from. We’d sound a lot different if we were from elsewhere.
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Kendra Sells, ‘I Became A Prostitute’ (The Twilight Sad cover)
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I can’t imagine anyone covering your songs in a fashion too removed from how they exist originally. Perhaps that’s because of the strong accent, more than the music around it, I suppose…
James: There was a girl from America who covered ‘I Became A Prostitute’, from our second record, and it sounded great (see video above). We tweeted about that. It was really nice to hear someone else’s take on that song, probably with a different perspective on it in mind. Her voice was soulful, instead of my moaning.
Andy: Tom Brosseau, who’s also on Fat Cat, has covered us but I don’t think he’s recorded a version. And the Beirut guy… he tried to sing… what was it?
James: ‘That Summer, At Home…’, it was that.
Andy: It’s weird hearing that guy, trying to do James’s accent.
Do people sing your words back at you, at shows, adopting a Scottish accent, wherever you are in the world?
James: People take the piss all the time. Well, I don’t mean that, because they mean it sincerely, and perhaps they don’t realise they’re doing it. It’s weird. Hearing people do it properly, in their own accents, is nice – but pretty strange. Sometimes in interviews abroad, people will repeat what we say in our accents and just laugh. Some places in the southern US can be funny – like, hearing Texans trying to sing along. It’s funny but off-putting. But everywhere we go there’s always a couple of people who’ll come up and sing to us, like me, and that’s just weird. We played Istanbul and I could see people singing. I couldn’t hear them but you have to wonder: what does that sound like? But don’t get me wrong, it is amazing to get that. Obviously these people have spent a lot of time with our songs, and they like them. They want to show that to us. I take it as a compliment.
Taking the album live and playing it in full – do you think this is adding extra value to the album format, at a time where people aren’t buying, and consuming, them in the way they did in the pre-download era? It’s a way of celebrating the format, isn’t it?
James: I didn’t think about it like that before, but yeah, you’re right. I was talking to someone the other day who told me they didn’t listen to albums, and I thought that was the most depressing thing I’d heard for ages. That’s all I listen to.
Andy: Any time we write an album, we automatically think about it in vinyl terms. So we think about it in two halves.
James: Some songs don’t make sense on their own. Well, they do – but they make so much more sense on an album, within that context, within its flow. An album is like a book, and every song is a different chapter in that story. Some chapters on their own just can’t make sense. So knowing that there’s this new generation that’s just into tracks, just into playlists… That’s just not who we are. And I don’t think we’ll ever want to be like that. Our mentality is that we love records. Singles are cool, but it’s always about the albums.
Talking about going through this age of people stealing digital music, we played the Luminaire in London – it’s closed now – just after we’d come back from America, and there was this guy who worked there, and he said to us: “Alright man, I’d never heard of you before today, but I went on…,” whatever the illegal download site was that he was using, “…and you were number one today with 10,000 downloads.” So, how am I meant to feel about that? Well, we were number one somewhere, which is nice. But on an illegal download chart. That was around the first record, so to hear that it was just… shit.
Andy: To make it worse, it turned out that it was a guy we knew who’d leaked it. D’ya remember?
James: I just don’t know what you get out of doing that. I don’t think I was there when he told you that. I don’t think I’d have done anything to him… I expect my head would have just exploded, though. I’d have given up, completely. Like, when things began to happen for us, around the first EP, I still had dial-up internet at my house. I’d never been on a music website before. I’d only just got an email account – but then I heard that 10,000 people had stolen my record? It made me wonder whether I even wanted to be doing this. But you need the downs to appreciate the ups. A reality check every now and then helps you realise how great things are actually going.
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‘I’m Taking The Train Home’, live for KEXP, originally from the album ‘Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters’
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The reissue of ‘Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters’ is released through Fat Cat on April 19th. Expect it to sell out.
Find The Twilight Sad online here. See the band performing ‘Fourteen Autumns…’ in full as follows:
29th – Brudenell Social, Leeds
30th – Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, London
1st – Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, London
2nd – Deaf Institute, Manchester
3rd – Exchange, Bristol
30th – Primavera Sound, Barcelona
Listen to the original release of ‘Fourteen Autumns…’ in full via Deezer, below…