James Graham from The Twilight Sad talks to Louder Than War’s Harry Mulligan about their new album, Scots Culture, and art.
Graham is part of a new radical generation of Scots men. He’s demonstrative with his feelings, likes to talk about things, and is fully in touch with his humanity. Having had a rough year in 2013, The Twilight Sad wrote and recorded their fourth studio album, Nobody Wants to Be Here Nobody Wants to Leave, after losing Martin Doherty to CHURCHES. This album is a demonstration of their versatility, expanding and constricting sonic vocabulary, and their ethereal soundscapes. I spoke with James on Hogmany before their blissfully discordant show in front of the droves. Find out what we spoke about below…
Harry Mulligan: I’d like to start by asking about a Winifred Owen poem called: ‘The Permanent Stars’. It has the line ‘Sleep mothered them and left the twilight sad!’ Would you say that the pathos herein captures your aesthetic as a band?
James Graham: I’d love to say that it was a really poignant thing like that. Ultimately, what happened was that we were in the rehearsal room and we needed a name, and Mark had been in school that day when they went through that poem. He heard that line and came to the rehearsal and suggested it. We went ‘Aye, all right, no bother, let’s stick with that’. He came to the rehearsals that day and that was that. It was one of those ones, and that was what he was learning in school that day. I wish we had a better back-story, but we don’t. It’s been hard to realize, but I feel the name itself interlocked with the lyrics, the artwork, the visuals, and that everything about our band is a really thought-out-process, and something we put a lot of thought into. The name was just a thing that happened, and over the years, I wished it could be interlocked with ‘the stuff’. It seems to fit the mood of the band. It’s one of those ‘by chance’ things that seems to have captured what we were trying to do…
Harry Mulligan: Serendipity?
James Graham: Aye! I think so. A lot of the stuff with us is very subconscious. Not that we don’t think about it, but two or three years down the line, I kind of go ‘Oh, that’s why that happened!’ It’s something within my writing that’s very subconscious, which I prefer to it being very planned out or structured. It’s quite natural what we do, though I do wish the name had a better story than that.
Harry Mulligan: What was Castle of DOOM like to do the tracking on your most recent Album ‘Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave?’
JG: It was good! It’s Mogwai’s studio. They were a massive influence on me. I started helping out at their label the last couple of years, and I went down to the studio to see them record ‘Rave Tapes’. I was lucky to see what was happening there, and have a look around the studio. At the time, I remember we were thinking about a new record and that we wanted to stay at home, or close to home. For the last record, we were in London and I think we’d been on the road for a while. We just wanted to go home to our own beds at night. So it was good. We were in the center of Glasgow. We’d refresh our heads – you’re not in an alien kind of place, and you’d come in the next day and do your usual stuff during the day, and focus in, and work like twelve hours a day in the studio. We worked with our live sound engineer, Andy Bush, so it was just the five of us, in there with a guy that we knew, and it was just about friends making music together, with no bullshit or anything like that. There was no aim to do anything other than make a record that we really wanted to make. It was a really nice studio, and I really appreciate Mogwai for giving us the opportunity to record there.
Did Stuart Brathwaite from Mogwai have any input on it?’
On the Record? No, but I mean Stuart has been really great to us, given us guidance right down the line. He’s given us advice and I’ve taken that advice on board and then used it all the time. He’s always somebody I can go to and say: ‘What do you think about this what do you think about that?’ For me that’s a massive thing, because this guy’s music means a lot to me. Nobody influences our music apart from subconsciously. I listen to Mogwai all the time, so I’m pretty sure that Stuart has had a lot of influence on what I’ve done subconsciously, but not by telling me what to do. Nobody tells us what to do, or anything like that. The music is just the music. We don’t take any outside influence apart from (tacitly) what we’re listening to at that time. But, yeah, Stuart’s great – without his advice we’d have made a lot more mistakes.
Would you say you’re orientated more towards analogue or analogue and MIDI combined?
Oh, you’re asking the wrong person that question. If Andy was here, he’d be able to answer you. I’m sure Andy always prefers analogue. I just write the lyrics and the melodies. I don’t call myself a musician, or anything like that. I call myself a Professional Moaner when it comes to anything like that – music questions… I’d probably say the wrong thing.
In terms of the lyrics, can you, in your own words, explain the context and evocative emotional bedrock for ‘Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave’ your fourth studio album?
I’ve always said since Day One with my lyrics that I don’t say too much. I leave it to the listener to really try and connect with it in their own way. My favorite songs are the ones where I don’t know what they’re about. I can usually find something within them that I really connect with and then I can maybe relate them back to a time, a place, a person even – and anytime I hear that song, I’ll remember that. It’ll be a fond, or maybe not a fond memory. I like that. I wanted to do that with what I do. What I do say about my lyrics is that they are all very personal, about where I’m from, my family, my friends, things that have happened to us. I mean you can probably tell – not good things. It’s usually the darker kind of things! I enjoy writing that kind of thing because it helps me get things off my chest that I possibly couldn’t talk about in everyday life. It’s an important thing in my life that I can do that, because it does help me. With the new record -I suppose in the title, it explains it: ‘Nobody wants to be here, nobody wants to leave’. That’s not just a place; it can be a relationship, a job, a situation you find yourself in. I think we’ve all been there, where we’ve been maybe in a set relationship, where it’s been coming to an end, and maybe you don’t want to give up on it – that’s what that kind of means. I also grew up in a small town…
Kilsyth, yes, that’s where I went to school. Andy & Devine stay there. I stay two miles outside it in an even smaller town called Banton. There’s a thing, when you’re younger, when you want to get out, and you want to go and experience the world, and you’re like ‘Ah, fuck this town – I want to get out!’ I’ve found there is something that keeps drawing me back to it. There’s something I love about coming from a small town. There’s also the small town mentality, which is not a good thing. There are areas and themes within both of those things that have probably been explained I suppose.
In the past when you’ve been asked about the content of your songs, you’ve been noted for making the distinction between what happened to your family as opposed to what happened in your family. Would you like to elaborate on that?
I come from a good background. I ’m not from a privileged background – but from a really supportive background, whereas a lot of people think that – people who have listened to the very first album – that I come from a bad background, which is totally not right, that’s false. Again, I want tell you exactly what happened – have, has or will… Its other people having an influence on your life when they don’t know their actions can make big differences to your day-to-day living, and things… little things to some people – can be massive things to other people, and their actions can cause big ripple effects. That’s what I mean by that. I come from a really good, supportive background. Everybody has got that in their life, you know? I just decided to write about it! People influence your life – that you can’t help; things happen to you, and it’s not your fault a lot of the time. I basically just moaned about those people and called them ‘Dicks’ in my music, ha!
Was it part of your purpose as a song writer to evoke feelings that people might not necessarily want to experience willingly? Is that some sort of musical catharsis?
I didn’t think I was when I did it, but I have definitely found that it was the case. I don’t think its feelings that people haven’t felt. It’s more feelings that people are afraid to share, experience or talk about, and maybe they can see something within what I’m talking about that they can relate too, and can feel vicariously through our music. I didn’t set out to be like that. I was doing this for myself. This was a purely selfish thing; to write music – to get things off my own chest. However, when you see the reaction when people writing-to-you-tell-you what the music and lyrics mean to them. It’s not why I got into it, but when I think about it, it’s quite an amazing thing! I’m not here to be somebody’s Agony Uncle. I’m here to tell stories about what happened to me, and I think we go through the same things in life – certain things. Sometimes people are afraid to talk about it! I’ve been afraid to talk about it, but I do it within my music, so I suppose it’s something people can relate to that’s within our music. I found that more and more as time’s gone on. People have been very open with me. Even the other day someone messaged me saying that they loved one (song) and telling me they were fans of the band, and that what we did meant something to them. I obviously wrote back and I spoke to the person. I didn’t realize fully that music had that effect on people when we started. I still don’t think about it when I’m writing music. I still write from a very personal place. When people share those stories with you, it goes to show me that I’m doing something right.
When you think of chiaroscuro in art – the use of light and dark – do you think you lean more to the shadowy areas of life in your music as an art form, like a musical version of a Caravaggio painting, and is that anything to do with growing up in the west of Scotland?
I prefer darker films, I prefer darker music. I learn a lot more from it. Pop music these days is a lot more about ‘Look what I’ve got. I’m amazing. This is brilliant.’ This is not true. Yeah there’s great things in life and I don’t understand why people aspire to the: ‘I’ve got this’ – kind of thing. You know with music, darker things, you can learn a lot more from them. You can move forward with it, you can share those experiences, as we were talking about before, and those experiences, if you share them with somebody, it’s easier for them to move forward. Just to share that: ‘Things aren’t always great, let’s talk about it’. The more you talk about the bad things that happen in your life, the better it feels, to me anyway. I just prefer that side of life. I’m not a sick weirdo – or anything like that, or maybe I am a wee bit. I just find it more interesting. I don’t know about you, but especially pop and hip-hop stuff, it’s all about: Look what I’ve got-look what I’ve got’, it’s not about: ‘Look what I’ve went through’ anymore – sharing this type of thing. I just feel that it’s important to share the ‘Shite-er’ things that happen in life, don’t you? It’s more interesting! I don’t want to hear about somebody bashful – and how good their life is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the most morose person, I just get that out within whatever I do.
Do you think that in Scottish culture, there’s a post-WWII Stiff Upper Lip, where there is an operational No-Talk Rule, especially among men when it comes to talking about feelings, and as an Artist, are you somewhat inclined to smash that tendency?
I can only give my own experience: Aye, I don’t know if I’m breaking it, I’m just being honest. I’ve always been honest. I’ve always – and I hate this term – wore my heart on my sleeve. I suppose I’m not afraid to show that. I don’t go about in Everyday Life with my friends and go ‘Oh, ‘kin hell – listen tae ma feelings, listen tae ma feelings!’ I’m the opposite, I probably hold a lot back in a way – which is the stereotypical thing to do within males and stuff, from where we’re from anyway, but I’ve just found an outlet, I suppose. Weirdly, the fact that I’ve done that, as we were talking about earlier, people are coming and messaging me about things that they might not ordinarily want to talk about. There’s a guy, and I’m not going to name-drop because I’d be scared he’d come and kicked my c*nt in, but he’s a big guy and he’s amazing – I love him. He comes to all our gigs. I wouldn’t mess with him at all – and he’s a lovely guy, and he tells me right off the bat: ‘I wiz sitting greeting’ (crying) listening tae yer record the other day’. And I was like… ‘No Shit – that’s amazing!’ I don’t know if he tells anybody else, but he can tell me that stuff. I don’t aim to make people feel that way, but it’s kind of cool that what you do can effect somebody in that way. I know what you mean though about guys not really wanting to talk about their feelings, especially from where we stay. It’s more about being seen-to-be-a-man.
If you’re not a stadium band, a lad’s band, a scenester band, an emo band, where do you think you fit in on the musical landscape/spectrum?
JG: We don’t! I’m not trying to not fit in places, you know? People say to me all the time: ‘I don’t know where to pigeon-hole you?’ I mean: ‘Good!’ At the same time, I don’t think we’re doing anything groundbreaking, or trailblazing a path for new sounds and stuff like that. It’s obvious who we’re influenced by, I think, anyway. I mean, I’ve always said who I’m influenced by, and Andy has always talked about the music he’s influenced by. In a subconscious way, you listen to that music, it’s going to have some sort of effect on what you do. Within our music, as I’ve said before, we don’t think about anything. We just go in and do it, and there’s a lot of subconscious things going on, and, if you listen to a song by the Twilight Sad – the first time you hear it, you know it’s by The Twilight Sad. We do try to push our music and try new things. There is still this inherent thing, all the way through it, that is ‘Us’. That’s going to continue, there’s just nothing we can do about that, that’s just who we are. But I like that we don’t get pigeon-holed. It might be a little detrimental in a band. We get the impression that they might like to jump on things, get on a trend. I’m quite happy about that. I don’t want to be lumped in amongst other bands. I want to stand on our own two feet, and be like: ‘This is who we are!’ Don’t get me wrong, a lot of people do try to put us in things, and that’s up to everybody else to do. I don’t care. People can put us in this: ‘Oh, we’re like them, or like them!’ That’s fine, I don’t care! We are who we are. That’s what’s got us four albums down the line. We’ve been honest all the way down. You can see we’re a band that’s tried to do new things, and through that we’ve got four albums that we’re really proud of.
You haven’t done what a lot of other bands have done, which is make the same album over and over again. Is there any method that you employ to keep mixing it up, keep it fresh – whether its new members or using different instrumentation – would you like to say something about that?
Well, the thing is again, it’s been the same since day one. Andy will send me music over, I’ll write my melodies, I’ll send them back over to him with a rough set of lyrics, he’ll send them back to me saying: ‘Maybe try this, try that?’, then we’ll get a song structure – I’ll write my full lyrics, that’s been the way we’ve written the simple song since the start. The difference between every record, is that I’m not the same person as when I wrote that first, second, third, or even fourth, and I’ll not be the same person that writes the next record either. I’ve grown up. My tastes change, the music I’m listening to changes, the music Andy’s listening to changes. There’s that to begin with, then there’s the want of not wanting to repeat oneself! As I’ve said before, there’s things about our band that I don’t think we can change. We’re not going to change the way that we write the songs. I’m not going to change the way I sing, I’m not going to change my writing style. That’s the way it is. But with the way that Andy sends the music over, I just do what comes naturally. I always think that Andy’s thinking is one step ahead when he’s the one who’s thinking forward, and things like that. I’d hate to think that if we found a formula that seemed to work, that we’d just copy it again, like a lot of bands do these days. That’s fine. I’m not criticizing any other band, they can do what they want. It’s just that I would rather keep myself interested. As I’ve said before, we write music for ourselves. If we’re not interested in trying to push ourselves forward, why should other people – more people, want to follow our career if we repeated ourselves? Why not go listen to the record that it sounds like – the one we were trying to repeat? It just seems pointless to me. It’s not about making a record to please other people. The records have been about making records for ourselves and documenting that time in our lives, and as we’ve said, we’ve became different people as we’ve grown up.
It’s New Year’s Eve! What can we expect from this show tonight and what would you like to communicate to a Scottish audience as we cross the threshold into 2015?
We are just going to play our songs, that’s what we’ve always done. If the crowd likes it that’s great. I want to go out and please the however-many-people-that there are. There will be a lot of people who don’t know who we are and that’s great. It’s an opportunity to play to people who don’t know who we are. I don’t want to convey anything from just-who-we-are. As we were talking earlier about the way that people feel about our music – If two or three people in that crowd get that from the gig, then Job Done! It’s not a job either, but I’m looking forward to just playing. It’s a nice way to see out the year at home. That’s how I see it. There’s a lot of people here who’ve been a big influence on what we’ve done and how successful this album has been for us. It’s a nice way to kind of cap off the year and say thanks to everybody for that! It’s weird – it’s not every day you get to play in the middle of Edinburgh, outside, in front of however many people. I just hope we don’t depress them that much. It is Hogmany after all ha! We were supposed to play Hogmany before and people said we were too depressing, so we didn’t! Aye, hopefully people will understand us. We’re not a party band, let’s be honest. However, I think there’s something that’s in our music that’s uplifting! Maybe people will experience a new thing, and I suppose that’s a good thing to have, as we take it into the New Year. Hopefully people can discover one of their new-favorite-bands – if we’re no shite, ha! Hopefully we’re all right!
James Graham, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me, and all the very best for the Gig tonight and Aw Ra Best for 2015.
Thank-you for doing the interview, and thanks for taking the time. I was going to say: Lets go and get pished, but I can’t, ha!
Hmm, yes, neither can I !!!
All words by Harry Mulligan, photos by Riagan Cook. More writing by Harry on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.