The Twilight Sad have been a regular feature on Drowned In Sound since their first record Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters landed on our doormat in the spring of 2007.
This week will see them release their fourth long player, Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave. Currently out on a tour that will see them play five shows across the UK before embarking on a Stateside trip with longtime associates We Were Promised Jetpacks until late November.
DiS caught up with singer James Graham post-soundcheck prior to their storming set at Nottingham's Bodega.
DiS: What have the shows been like so far?
James Graham: We did two gigs in Scotland, maybe a couple of weeks ago, and then we've just played in Manchester and London. They've all been great. We put six new songs in the set so we were all pretty nervous actually. I don't think we've ever gone that heavy with a new album in the live shows before. We really threw ourselves in at the deep end. So I guess we should have rehearsed a wee bit more, but it's quite difficult as Andy (MacFarlane, guitars) now lives in London. And we've all got jobs as well so finding the time to rehearse is quite hard. So we just did it and the songs went down really well. A lot better than I thought they would. It wasn't that I didn't have any confidence in the new songs because I do, it's just that playing them for the first time was really daunting. I was literally shitting myself! It was probably the soberest I've ever been playing a gig. I drank water all the way through it. But people reacted really well and we saw what people were writing to us on Facebook and Twitter after. Pretty much every one of them was saying how much they loved the new songs. It's nice to hear. When you play the old songs it's like going back into your comfort zone, but I'm at the point now with the new stuff where I'm feeling quite comfortable and I'm enjoying it when we play them. We've been playing 'Last January' for a while now. We first played that when we supported the Manics in April. We thought nobody would notice us anyway so we may as well throw a new song in!
DiS: Do you see yourselves incorporating all ten songs from the new record into the live set at some point?
James Graham: I would like to. We're starting to play longer sets. We've been notorious for just playing for an hour and then walking off. We don't do encores just because they're seen as the divine thing to do. I think if you say to a crowd, "Look, we're gonna go off stage. Maybe somebody needs the toilet. We're gonna get a drink, but we'll be back shortly," then fine. But it's knowing how to build your set around it. What if the crowd don't ask for an encore?
DiS: It can be really awkward. I've been to gigs in the past where the headline act has obviously pre-planned their encore but no one's really that bothered and by the time they've come back out, half the audience have left.
James Graham: It's not that we think encores are shite. It's more a case of us not wanting that to happen! I think the new record will make the live set a lot more dynamic. We're gonna be able to build it up and bring it back down again. Not that I don't think our live set was good anyway. I just think it's going to add to it. I don't want to say we're a more professional band now, but I think the experience of seeing us play live will be much more intense. So going back to the original question, I would like to put them all in. It's just finding the time to rehearse that's the problem. After the American tour we're hoping to get a few more of them ready for when we go back out again next year. We've been relearning 'The Wrong Car' as well. I don't why that's not been in our set for a while.
DiS: I saw you play 'The Wrong Car' at Primavera in May.
James Graham: It's been in the stripped down sets but not the full band ones. We've kind of rearranged it so it sounds much better now. And we are going to have to play longer sets, although with this record it should be an easier thing to do. It's more difficult deciding what not to play. It's a weird situation to be in.
DiS: It must be a nice situation to be in as well, having such an extensive catalogue of songs to choose from?
James Graham: It's got to the point where people ask for songs that we haven't played in years. We're actually quite surprised anybody even liked some of the songs we get asked to play! It's great that people have their favourite songs but the ironic thing is when we started out we didn't have enough songs to fill the live set. We had about ten songs but only really knew how to play half of them. Now we're in a situation four albums in where we have loads of songs. Only the other day we were writing a setlist and I said to the others, "Why are we not playing that? And why are we not playing that?" I didn't realise we had that many songs.
DiS: Was the Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters tour earlier this year closure on that record?
James Graham: I think we'll always play the three main songs from that record; 'Cold Days From The Birdhouse', 'That Summer At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy' and 'And She Would Darken The Memory'. They'll always be in the set. I still enjoy playing them. It's not a comfort zone but I know people want to hear those songs. We're not a band that specifically plays just what the audience wants to hear but I think there is still a place for that. The sets will be more balanced over the four records now, maybe with a bit of an emphasis on the new record because it's the first time we've taken it on the road. I don't want closure on Fourteen Autumns... to be honest. I was talking to someone about it the other day. I've been talking about it a lot this year actually! We're never going to recreate that album and we don't want to because it was of a time and a place. It was special to us at that time. We were different people back then as well, so it's special for that reason. And I'm pretty sure most people don't want to hear us try to recreate that either. I think the new record is the strongest collection of songs we've written. I don't want to say it's our best record because time will tell.
DiS: All of the reviews I've read so far have been very positive.
James Graham: It's nice that people are liking it but at the same time I'm also shitting myself in case there's a backlash! I get very anxious when we're doing new album campaigns and I'm not that great to be around. It's a nerve wracking time because the album is such a special and important record for us. We want people to like it. Not because we're after acclaim or anything, but because we put a lot into it. So we hope that the time and the work and the effort we put into it comes across and people react to that. But yeah, I don't want to move away from Fourteen Autumns.... That album will always be special to me. We're not one of those bands that forgets about our older material if the latest album does well. We want people that discover us now to go back and listen to what we've done in the past. We're proud of every song we've done and we want people to hear them.
DiS: The new record seems to encompass every sound and style previously used throughout the band's entire back catalogue. There's even pop ('In Nowheres') as well as folk, heavy guitars and electronic elements. Was that deliberate?
James Graham: I agree that if I was a fan of the band previously then there is something for everybody. But at the same time it's the sound of us pushing ourselves forwards. There's stuff that we haven't done before that we've done on this record. There is some familiarity from previous records - the guitars are back a bit. Although to me they never really went away. But it wasn't a conscious thing. With us it's always pretty subconscious. From playing the stripped back gigs and the orchestra set - which even now still sounds crazy - and then doing the full band shows, we were playing a mixture of gigs all the time. I think by doing that and seeing the way people reacted may have subconsciously affected the writing on the record. We played to our strengths with this record. I would hate to think people thought we were going backwards. A lot of bands try new stuff, new directions but it turns out to be nowhere near as popular as what they've done before. So they spend their time trying to make a new record in a similar vein to their old ones. We've never done that. No One Can Ever Know was a really insular sounding record. I feel like we've taken some of that into this new record and just opened it up. That was a really important record for us to do. It really helped the writing process and production on this record. If we hadn't made that album then this record wouldn't have turned out the way it has. I'm really fond of that album. It was a brave thing to do as well. It maybe put off quite a few people who liked the band in a way. The reviews were good and everyone really liked it but it was quite a cold record. We're a really depressing band anyway but I think that took it too far for some people.
DiS: Your shows around that time were some of the best Twilight Sad shows I've ever seen.
James Graham: I think it really helped the live set. It gave the set room to breathe. It wasn't just about a wall of noise. We still had those moments but they were after some space. It's weird, because people were talking nicely about that record when it came out whereas when you talk to them now they admit to not really liking it. That's me just finding that out. It wasn't a commercial success or anything like that. I thought it would do well with people who like music.
DiS: You're supporting We Were Promised Jetpacks on their American tour this month and your friends Chvrches and Frightened Rabbit have enjoyed commercial success recently as well. Has there ever been a time when you've craved that kind of recognition?
James Graham: It's a weird one to be honest. I just want the band to be as popular as it can be. Those guys are my friends and the work they've put in to get to that point is tremendous. They deserve everything they get. Maybe it would be nice to get some of the opportunities that come along with that kind of thing? For example, daytime radio play. I don't think we've ever had that. Just the opportunity to have our music go out to people on a wider scale. Not necessarily to win over the masses, but if one or two people hear about us that weren't aware of our music before then that has to be a good thing. I don't want to be on the front of magazines and all that kinda stuff. If that ever happened I'd fully embrace it but I just don't ever see our band being like that. I see us as a band who've been working over the years and slowly building things up. Some of those opportunities would be nice because I think we'd grasp them and give it a really good go. I don't think we write the kind of songs that appeal to the masses.
DiS: Your current single 'Last January' has just been made single of the week on Radio 6. Are there any expectations for the album when it comes out?
James Graham: We've got our own expectations. We need to do our own job. I have expectations. I think you've got to because a few people have asked me whether this might be our last record and it's not. If I've said that it's not because I want it to be our last record. I'm thirty now. There's certain things I want out of life. The main thing I want out of life is to be in this band. To make enough to be able to make another record. That's the biggest problem. We're just scraping by at the minute. I don't want to complain about that because we're getting to do some amazing things like play around the world. Some people would pay to do that. Everybody puts so much time into it away from home but at the end of the day, you've still got bills to pay. So I want the record to be successful in that I want people to like it. I hope it builds and builds over time. I put everything into it. I don't know what else I could have done. I'm really proud of what everybody else has done as well. Andy's done an amazing job. He's produced it all. I've just been looking at our tour schedule for the rest of this year and next. We're doing America for the rest of this month and we've a couple of shows in Scotland when we get back. Next year we're on the road for about five weeks in March and April and then we're hoping to get a good run at the festivals. Which is something we've never done.
DiS: I can never quite understand why you've always been ignored where a lot of festivals are concerned.
James Graham: We've always been told we aren't a festival band. I can't put my finger on it either. I don't know what we did wrong. Or who we pissed off maybe?
DiS: Were the two shows you played at this year's Primavera Festival were possibly the most defining in the band's history so far?
James Graham: I'm not going to lie. That was the best weekend this band's ever had. We've had moments in this band that money can't buy, and Primavera was one of them. There's a ticksheet I had when I was sixteen and I've ticked them all now. The full band set was more than I could have ever expected. Slowdive were on at the same time as well. I was so gutted they were on at the same time as us. And then for some reason it started getting busier, which was really weird! I remember sitting in a room with the other guys afterwards and saying, "That was pretty fucking special!" Then I got food poisoning and woke up the next day feeling terrible. The next day I felt little bit better. It hadn't cleared up but I felt well enough to play. And there were so many elements where that show in the park could have gone wrong. The rain being one. And I remember saying to myself on more than one occasion, "Is this really happening?!?" Those are the kind of opportunities we want. I don't care about all the shite that comes along with all the other stuff. We just want to play gigs in front of people that want to hear us play. I still can't believe that weekend happened and I keep talking about it to people. I've had people come up to me in Glasgow wanting to talk about Primavera. It feels like half of Glasgow was there to be honest! I think those shows proved a point to a few people as well in that we should have been doing those kind of shows long before now. It's not that I think we deserve anything. Nobody deserves anything. You have to put the work in first. But when the opportunity to play there came along, we knew we had to grab it with both hands and play really well. Not that we ever go out with the intention of not playing well. We always give it 100%, but you know when there's a special moment like that you have to make it count.
DiS: Your live shows always display a level of intensity that couldn't be maintained if there wasn't 100% commitment on stage.
James Graham: The only time things can fall below that level is if I can't hear anything through my monitors. It is difficult being a singer in this band because of the type of music we make. And also because I tend to sing down low then get up quite high, it is really hard to get all the notes in tune sometimes. So I'm only frustrated or look as if I'm having a bad time when that happens. If there's people in the room that want to hear us play, I'll still enjoy it whatever happens. This is the best job in the world. Not necessarily the best paid job in the world. If it did pay it would be great! I'd never complain, I don't care where we are. This is what we wanted to do. If somebody's paid ten pounds or whatever to come and see the show, fucking right I'll give them 100%.
DiS: Peter Katis mixed the new record having also mixed your first one. Do you see him as part of The Twilight Sad's extended family now?
James Graham: As soon as we started writing the new songs I said we should go with Peter again. We ended up going to Peter's with the first album and we stayed there. Whereas on this one we only communicated via the internet, so didn't actually have much direct contact with him. Andy was talking to him most days I think. Peter was trying to tone a lot of his guitar noises down so they'd often agree to disagree and meet in the middle. It's a good balance they have when they strike it. They get a lot of power from it. These songs need to get that balance with the big guitars but also pushing the clarity through too. Whereas the second album was just full on guitars all the way.
DiS: Did any songs change from when they were first written to how they eventually ended up on the record?
James Graham: Not in a big way, but the one song that kept on festering was 'In Nowheres'. Andy wasn't happy with it and kept saying it could be better. He was tampering with it right up to the end of making the record. Apart from that, everything else was pretty much mapped out before we went into the studio. We left a bit of time for experimenting but generally knew what we had to do when we got in there. It was pretty concise. Here's the three weeks, this is what we have to do. When I was writing the record you could tell how it was unfolding in terms of the tracklisting. As soon as we'd written 'Sometimes I Wished I Could Fall Asleep' we knew that was going to be the last song on the record. Then we did 'There's A Girl In The Corner' and we knew straight away that would be the first song on the record. Then when 'Last January' came along that became the second track and so on. It just seemed to map itself out. It sounds like it was easy going but it wasn't. The lyrics I had to really think about, rearrange in some cases. It was enjoyable in the sense we knew what we were doing right away. Actually, one song on the record - the title track - I recorded in my bedroom within an hour. With the exact lyrics that I originally wrote. That's the first recording I ever did of that song on the record. We were in the studio and Andy said he really liked the demo. I was all set to do a different version of it because that was how I wrote it, but Andy convinced me I wouldn't get it sounding any better than the first recording. It freaked me out at first. I did that in my parents house with my dad in the next room and my family downstairs. And it's going to be on the record! I guess there's something quite cool about that, the way it came out and ended up on the album.
DiS: I've always found when listening to previous Twilight Sad records that they seem to have been written in a dark place, whereas it doesn't come through that much on this one.
James Graham: The last album was fucking miserable. Really bleak. The weird thing about it is that during the run-up to writing the record we'd just had the worst year we've ever had as a band. It was terrible. We were actually questioning why should we bother carrying on. Not so much why are we doing it but whether people actually give a shit. Looking back, that was a stupid thing to think because I know that people really did. It's just that things weren't happening the way we wanted them to. The people that were working with us maybe were the wrong people. They didn't have the passion and ideas about our band that we had. It felt like we were banging our heads against a brick wall. It felt like we were a throwaway and I was like, "Shit. Why is this happening?" So we had an extended break apart from a few gigs in between that by the time we came to write this record, we were in a relaxed situation. Once we started writing I knew that year meant something and it was going to influence the way this record would be written. I felt there was loads of pressure on us, but most of that comes from outside influences. Being in the music industry, that's where most of it comes from. And you should never feel pressured from this because it's the most enjoyable thing in the world. Being able to write songs and play live. That's the good thing about being on Fat Cat. They'd never put us under that kind of pressure. Sometimes they have to give us a boot up the backside to get things moving, but everything has always happened naturally. Someone asked me the other day if I'd ever sign to a big label should the opportunity arise. And I said I didn't think we ever would because it wouldn't be the right fit. We will only work with people that believe in what we're doing. That's the only advice I'd give to any new band just starting out. Make sure you only work with people who believe in what you're doing. I've found since we started doing that, good things have happened. Like I said earlier, I really want this band to be as popular as it possibly can be without compromising what we originally intended it to be. We've gone through so much, learned so much since that first record too, that we can cope with just about anything that's thrown at us now. I think we're sounding better than we ever have done now. Ticking all the boxes live and in the studio. Whereas we weren't doing that to begin with. We were just a young bunch of guys touring and playing gigs back then. We didn't know how to do it. Now we're prepared for anything.
DiS: Did you ever worry that The Twilight Sad might fall into the "Right Place, Wrong Time" category?
James Graham: I think we might have fallen into that. People have always been really nice about us and embraced what we do. But at the same time, I think because we don't make easily accessible pop music there's always been another option.
DiS: It's not necessarily a better option though is it?
James Graham: No, but it's sometimes easier to go with that than us. I really feel we've got to the point where we're going to ram it down people's throats no matter what. They're going to make us the right option and if they don't take it then it's their loss. You can't please everybody, but we're not going to change for anybody.
The album Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave is out now via Fat Cat Records.
For more information on The Twilight Sad including future live dates visit their official website.