The Twilight Sad have been plugging away for about a decade seeming almost autonomous in sound and aesthetic, progressing from the wistful, strained anthems of their first album, 2007's Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters, through to their latest, Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave, a masterstroke amalgamation of dark indie rock and cathartic post-punk. Plastering the covers of their releases with intricately drawn, morose scenes and sounding emotionally weathered and honest, they've been a model of consistency while developing their unique style. The band wrapped up a North American tour supporting fellow Scottish indie rockers We Were Promised Jetpacks last month. Brian Shultz sat down with the Twilight Sad frontman James Graham just after their set at the Boston, Massachusetts stop to chat about the record and more.
How's this tour been going?
Honestly, it's been really, really fun. We're friends with the Jetpacks anyway before we got to be a band.
So for a long time now.
Basically, we released our first album… We started touring afterwards, and then we met them through a friend, and then they got signed to FatCat. The shows have been great, but it's also good to turn up to a venue and see some of your friends and just talk shit with your friends. But the shows especially have been amazing. For us, a lot of people coming out to the shows that have been supporting us for a long time and not had the opportunity to see us. I mean, we've toured here a lot, but…
Yeah, the last time you were here was 2012? Those two tours…
Yeah. Or…did we… [looks towards their tour manager] Chris, when was that Frightened Rabbit tour?
CHRIS [tour manager]: About a year and a half ago.
All right, yeah, so it was about a year and a half ago. We did the three-piece thing where it was just me, Andy and Mark.
And I don't think you hit the east coast.
No, we didn't, actually. But I mean we've toured here a lot. The amount of…
Yeah, you played here in 2012 twice and I saw both those shows.
Yeah. But it's been pretty overwhelming in a way. Like the generosity that's been shown to the band. People bringing gifts.
Yeah! Like hand-drawn pencil drawings of the band. Beer. Clothes for us. [Sounding bewildered] And just people want to give us money and shit like that as well…
Usually you only see that for huge bands.
I know! And it just shows you what… I mean, it's been… I don't mean this in a bad way, strange for us to get that because I'm not used to that. But it's amazing and shows us how much what we do means to a lot of people. People traveling seven or eight hours to come see us. You know, like back home people don't travel to Edinburgh to go see a gig. And that's 45 minutes, you know? And the shows have been great. We've been enjoying it. We're a miserable band. [Laughs.] Like our music's miserable, but we have that 45 minutes up on stage to go do what we do, and the rest of the time we try and enjoy it and meet people and take in the sights. We've done this 15 times now and I would think that really, of our own accord, we really take in the city or see the good things. I love touring here. I think it's amazing.
In a lot of other interviews, you mentioned you'd approached this album as taking a lot of aspects from your other three albums.
Yeah. I mean, it's like we… The thing about it is that we had a year off. But it wasn't really a year off. We played gigs every two weeks. And we did those stripped-back gigs with Frightened Rabbit on tour. We played with an orchestra.
Oh, yeah, I had heard about that. Yeah, which was… I never thought would happen to our band. And then we did the occasional live five-piece thing, as tonight. So we were doing that, but it was the first opportunity we'd had in seven years to go back home and reflect on what we've achieved and we've not achieved. Get back to normal life and look and see what we've done. We always want to push our music forward. There's no point in just repeating what we've done. I feel like we've learned from the first three records. Like when we started, we were four friends that had just recorded nine songs. We had no plan -- there was no [grand scheme], like "You're gonna do this! You're gonna do this!" It was just four friends chucked in a van. We played three shows in three years. We didn't know how to be a band, to be honest. But we made this record.
And FatCat came right around that time.
Yeah. But then we made this record and it was just like…it was a fully formed record. But I don't think we were a fully formed band at that point. So we went on tour, and realized who we are and what we are. We thought about that on this record. But it was more of a subconscious thing instead of a conscious thing. At the same time, we've done things on this record that we've never done before -- like brass. We did a stripped-back everything back [version] -- piano and vocal. Things like that. There's things that encompass all the records.
Is there theremin on it?
I know Andy's got one. He may have done it and not told me. [Laughs.] But I don't know.
Maybe it's a synth tone?
Oh, that's on "It Never Was the Same." It might just be Andy's guitar with wobbling all over the place. I think he was just drunk. [Laughs.] But yeah, there's loads of stuff on there we haven't done before. But at the same time there's loads of stuff that we realized -- not what we were good at, but what our band was, and just trying to encompass that on a record.
Those couple way more upbeat moments on the album -- "Drown So I Can Watch," or "It Never Was the Same" -- those are arguably some of the brightest, happiest moments of yours since the first album, musically. Were you just in a happier place?
I think lyrically it isn't happy, so I wasn't. [Laughs.] But the music -- I just think it's more melodic. And more like…not upbeat as in what music's about, but just the energy. And I think on the last record, it's a really dark, dense record, and once you go through that, you're like, "Ok…"
You have that natural reaction.
Yeah, it was a natural reaction. You go and do some -- not upbeat, but more energetic things. But I agree with you. It's maybe a little bit more melody and a little more pop. But it's still us. It's the most dynamic, melodic thing we've ever done. And I don't want to -- I hate the word "mature," because we're not mature [laughing], but it's definitely a band who started to realize what we are and who we are and what we want. We've experimented a lot, and we'll continue to experiment, but I think it's -- live especially now, we know who we are. If there was five people that like the band out of 100 people, they like the band because we give it all. You can't please everybody. I know that. I've had to grow a thick skin since the beginning of the band. But people have been really kind to us over the years. This record, this is the best-reviewed thing we've ever done. I mean, the first one was [too]. I try to stay away from it as much as I can because people say things all the time, but looking at it overall, it's the most positively reviewed thing we've done. And it's just like… but you can't please everybody. And it's fine. I'm fine with that. I don't want to please everybody.
Speaking of being miserable, were there bad relationships the three of you went through, or loss of family or friends?
There's been loss of family and friends over the seven years that we've done it. And I've reflected on that a lot. And a lot of it is stuff with me through every record and not just one record. Thing is, people think we come from a really bad background, and that's not the case. I don't want to break the illusion for them, but I also don't want to lie to people. For example, my mom and dad have come out to four of the gigs we've done in the U.S. -- and every time they come out to the U.S. it's to see us or support us. I mean, I give the darker things in my life to the music. I'm not the most… it's like therapy. The things I want to say that I couldn't say to my friends and family I say in my music. They all go through bad things and all have some shit times. The songs I write talk about the bad stuff, but at the same time, it's more than -- on this record, there's some very personal songs. It's about maybe losing something that you love and you don't leave -- or feel had fallen away that you just don't want to lose. Stupid decisions I've made as well. It's probably my way of saying sorry.
You've always had a really specific visual aesthetic. Was that something you kinda intended from the start?
Andy, Andy. This is something he can answer.
ANDY [wanders over]: Yeah, yeah, of course. Even on the demo, I would hand-make all the sleeves and cut them out and make the stamp… Something that looks eye-catching but when you look back more…
There's something twisted going on. ANDY: Yeah.
JAMES: That was why FatCat noticed. They looked at the packaging and said "Oh fuck, that's cool," and then they listened to it. And it was because of the packaging. And I think we've taken that from every record we've got. Someone walking into a record shop's just got to be like -- catch their eye. And Dave [Thomas], the person who does [our art], we always have talks about that…
ANDY: Basically, for an album, I'd keep sending him [examples of what we want]…Dave just always knows exactly what I'm talking about. And it's great. He just gets it.
JAMES: We kinda see him as part of what we do. And he's a friend.
Were there bands that inspired that imagery at all? ANDY: No, not really. It's really just…
JAMES: The Manics [likely referring to Manic Street Preachers] were kinda like that. They've always done things that were quite striking and stuff…
ANDY: Nah, but for… I went to school and stuff for that, and I always thought it was just something that was really important. Like…writing music too, but visually… The thing I always think about is, "What's gonna look good on our vinyl?"
JAMES: There are a lot of people who heard our music just because of the album cover. And that's brilliant. But hopefully they like it. That's one of the things we have control over, so… If people pick up our albums because of the story on the cover, great. Thanks, Andy. [The two share a laugh over how much I apparently resemble Dave Thomas.]
I wish I had his talent.
[James laughs.] He's a good guy.
So what's life like between tours and recording for you back home? How do you spend your downtime if you have it?
In the past, all we've done is the band. As I said before, we had a bit of downtime. Andy works for a few companies just doing music…
Soundtracks, film, stuff like that. Mark works at a venue doing sound stuff. I work for Mogwai's label Rock Action.
So you guys are all embedded in music stuff.
Pretty much, yeah. But I'm lucky enough Mogwai have been amazing to our band over the years…
Yeah, I knew they were a big influence on the band.
Oh, yeah. We recorded in their studio…but even before that, we supported them three times. They've promoted our band all the time. They've now given me a job, as well! But that's been really important on this new record as well. Like back home, Mogwai are in our "Top 10 Record[s]" band. Seeing how they get there and try to implement it -- obviously on a smaller scale I think with us, but -- seeing what they've done to try to do it… I hate looking at music like a business, but when you're playing live, it's not a business. When you're recording music, it's not a business. When you're writing music, it's not a business. Everything else outside that, all I care about is reaching new people and talking to people who already like our band and making sure they know about things we are doing. And Mogwai… Mogwai are an inspiration not just musically but everything they do has got integrity. So to be involved in what they do is amazing. So we've got that when we go back home, but the next year-and-a-half is pretty much none of us…
Yeah [laughing at the thought], we can't have any job. And that's the good thing of it. They understand that. Andy can at least work from the road. Mark can as well. We're very lucky. If we didn't have those opportunities to do that when go back home I don't know what we would do. I don't know if we would still be a band. And it's not because of wanting to make music… We gotta make money somehow. In order to… for me it's about making enough money to be able to make the next record. It's not about making money and having all the fucking fans [in the world]. I don't give a shit about that. I just want to keep doing this for the rest of my life, and hopefully as long as I can. I just want to make enough to be able to go on tour the next day. Make something that's important. But looking at people like back home.. .I actually miss tour, too. I never thought…
Just from being away from it so much.
It's a bit of a drug, actually, to be honest. I hated tour at first. I didn't understand it. Soon as you understand, where you go to a venue, you don't get to see the city, you miss the… You've got that hour and a half, or that 45 minutes, like tonight, that's the fun part. That's the part that means everything. It doesn't matter if you're tired, or how much sleep you've had.. .that 45 minutes is… That's it. That's the be-all end-all. So you can destroy yourself and after that… I love playing live now. I love it. It's pretty hard to say I love it when I'm like nearly fucking destroying myself [laughing] when we play now, but it's that 45 minutes where you can get all your frustrations, all your tensions out… It's definitely a drug.
When you started making this record, you said you saw it as kind of a make-or-break situation. But you said by the time you finished, it almost reinvigorated the band.
I agree with that. Well, I agree because I said it [laughing]. But, see, when we made the record, I listened to it, and I was proud of it. But then you have to love it. Then it's up to other people how they judge it and stuff, and really, unfortunately, that's how… it'll be proven how successful the record is -- people judging it and buying it and stuff. And so far, it's the most successful record we've had. I think it's a part of a collection. I don't see any record being more important [than one another]. But I do think that it's a record that has the ability to… I don't know… to reach a bit more people? And we never really went into it like that. Everything's always subconscious with us, but… we play the long game. Not the short game. Like, it started well, but we know we've got a shitload of work to do for us to actually be able to make this something we want it to be. All we want is to turn up to places and have a room full of people. Doesn't matter if it's one hundred; two hundred; three hundred people that give a shit about what we do. I don't care about anything else. I genuinely think this record is -- new people are getting into the band. And it's great to have them like this record, and then there's three records…
They can backtrack.
Yeah, find out there's more. It's an exciting time, but at the same time, we're not getting carried away. I mean, I've…worked on a con[struction] site. I've worked at a call center. I've worked in an office. I've done all that stuff. So I know you have to work for what you really want. And I'm prepared to work for it. This just isn't work for me. This isn't work. Traveling's hard, but I'm getting to travel the world with my best friends. I'll never complain about this. Never. And people that do, I look down on them for complaining. They've not done an honest day's work if they complain about doing the job we get to do. But I don't want to be negative. I've known some [touring] people that have complained and I'm like, "Fucking hell, I'll take your [place]…" You'd rather be up from 6 a.m. till 5 p.m. lifting shit and stuff? But this is what we all love. [With] this tour and this album, it feels like something's happening. And if it all falls on its head, we've done everything we've wanted to do. It's not…it's hard in this music industry. We're not a fashionable band. We never want to be a fashionable band. We just want to connect with people who actually like music and not fashion and shit like that. We're for people who like music and not for people who like trends.