“I have this”, The Twilight Sad's lead singer James Graham timidly says, pointing to his plastic cup filled with what appears (and smells) to be cheap red wine, “because I'm not naturally a front-man. I don't go up on stage and go, “Hey guys, how the fuck you doing?!” he adds, in a loosely-rehearsed American accent. “I just enjoy playing our songs. I'll say thank you to the crowd but it's more about what's happening on stage. But to get a wee bit more confidence, a wee pick-me-up helps”, he grins, while casually sipping from his personal elixir.
As we talk in the quiet bar of the Tolbooth in Stirling, Graham projects his brutally honest diffidence with an unusually calm smile, all the while sucking 'much-needed' Lockets to ensure his throat is still in a workable condition. Perhaps as it is the last night of The Twilight Sad's latest UK tour, his anxieties have been soothed by nine nights worth of Merlot and positive feedback from the tracks sampled from their new album 'No One Can Ever Know', due for release in February of next year. “I'm not ashamed to admit that having a drink helps me play the shows, and it helps me enjoy it more just because I kinda' feel more relaxed about stuff,” he laughs, before adding, “But if you go on absolutely blotto, you've got nae chance”.
Fortunately 'blotto' he is not, and although Graham's relaxed demeanour might partially appear to be assisted by fermented grapes, his candid and occasional jovial responses are most likely the result of finally being able to exhibit the bold direction in which his band have chosen to take their sound. After solidifying their haunting, heavily-reverberated sonic output through initial release Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters and enigmatic follow-up Forget The Night Ahead, the band have embraced the electronic facets of their influences to produce a record which infuses the dark and disturbing lyrics synonymous with the Kilsyth quartet with colder, industrial synths, a change that Graham is more than happy to discuss. “I wasn't like a deliberate change, we didn't say 'right guys, this isn't working', but we are a band that, from day one, if we started to do something that felt stale or we had done already, although we've never said this to each other, I think we'd just call it a day”.
Asked why they chose to hark back to 1980's-driven experimentation, the lead singer is adamant the audacious choice wasn't in any way planned. “We wanted to do stuff that excited us and that sound excited us, and the songs we were writing just really fitted into that kind of style. Even if we did that style with the distorted guitars on top of it, it wouldn't have worked...he pauses, contemplating, and adds, “I personally would've thought, looking objectively, 'Oh they've tried some new stuff and got scared', you know? And then just went back to the old stuff. So we took ourselves right out of our comfort zone and went down to London”.
Travelling down to the the UK's capital to work on the new album allowed them to cross paths with renowned producer and DJ Andrew Weatherall, whose expertise was, and peculiarly at the same time was not, utilized by the Scottish group. “Andrew didn't produce the album, but he was there to...” Graham pauses, sipping his wine as if to find an answer in the maroon liquid, “keep us on the right track.
"Basically we'd be doing something and he'd come into the studio and would be like “aye, that's right”. He was meant to be producing the album but he basically said, “look guys, anything I would've told you to do, you've already done it...I can't take the credit for that.” But we felt it was important to include him with the album because he was there to reassure us that we were doing the right thing. His musical knowledge is through the roof. He's the most intelligent guy when it comes to music that I've ever met in my life. So for him, when he was saying some of the sounds sounded like his favourite records of all time, we were like 'shit, that's cool',” he finishes humbly.
I ask if the title of 'Overseer' would be more fitting for Weatherall given his abstract contribution, and Graham laughs leisurely. “Yeah! Pretty much, pretty much. Ultimately we did produce it, we did a lot of work in the house before we went down there but he wanted to be called the 'anti-producer', which was pretty cool. I mean, that was his term and I don't even know what that is if I'm being honest,” he trails off, as confused as I am by the term. Although, when considering Weatherall's remote nurturing of The Twilight Sad's new direction of sound, the term 'auntie-producer' could be as equally as applicable, and I pass the thought onto Graham, who laughs before jesting, “Aye, is it anti, auntie or uncle?!”
All jokes aside, the change of sound did not mean a different method of writing for Graham's own lyrics. “I didn't change my approach at all, I've written the songs the same way I've always written the songs. If I have something to write about, I'll write a song, I didn't change at all. It was Andy (the guitarist) who obviously had different influences on this record. I've been told it's darker than the last one, which I didn't really think could happen.
"I gave the record to Aiden Moffat (from Arab Strap) and I gave it to Stuart (Braithwaite) from Mogwai, and they were the first people to come back and say “fuck sake, this is darker”. I suggest that it is perhaps the synths that carry a weighted, cold automatic sound, and Graham agrees, all be it self-depreciatingly. “Yeah, there's no space in the songs like before,” he says, and with a chuckle, adds, “And aye, I'm still a miserable bastard”.
Much has been said, since their first album's release, about The Twilight Sad's ominous, and occasionally opaque, lyrics, and Graham himself has been notoriously withdrawn during any effort to deduce any obvious meaning from them. On the emphatic 'That Summer I Became The Invisible Boy' from their first album, he warns that, 'they're standing outside/and they're looking in/they're standing outside/and they've broken in/the kids are on fire, in the bedroom' with such ambiguous ferocity that we are left to decipher any meaning purely based on our own relative experiences.
On the opener from the new album 'Alphabet', Graham wails, 'So sick to death at the sight of you now/safe to say I've never wanted you more', and such ambivalence is something Graham is contentedly aware of. “Lyrically, Alphabet is one of my favourite on the new album. It keeps people guessing what the fuck it's about as well,” he smiles seriously. “However, Sick's one of the my favourite songs I've written, if I'm being honest. It's got everything about our band that I love. I never talk about my lyrics but I'm really proud of my lyrics in that song, and I love the fact that nobody can know what it's about. I mean, people can relate it back to themselves fair enough but it's a bit of a story. I'm happy with the way I've told that story in that song.”
As his liquid diminishes, the lead singer loosens, and as we discuss further the songs on the new album, he opens up, quite unexpectedly, to reveal some of the meaning behind the stirring Nil's lyrical contents. It is instantly obvious that he holds 'Nil' close to his heart merely by his impassioned reaction and instantaneous response.
“Nil is my favourite song on the album. Once we start playing it, hopefully Nil will come across like Cold Days From The Birdhouse, hopefully it comes across in that kinda' style because there's a lot of hooks in it. Live, I think it will be a good moment in the set and it will be a perfect moment to showcase the different side of the band as well. That one...” he stops, catching his tongue almost instinctively while referring to Nil.
“Right, I'll give you an insight. I wrote Nil, and let my dad hear it, and my dad told me a deceased family member used to say a lyric in that every time I went over to their house and I had no idea that I had put that into the song. A lot of stuff like that has happened like that, like on Cold Days From The Birdhouse as well, I didn't know what I had written that about, and then a year down the line, something just clicked in my head and I was like 'fuck that's what it's about!', which is fucking weird....It must be the sub-conscious coming out, and I think that happens a lot in the songs.
"Nil, that's what happened in that as well, I've got a line in that is pretty much killing me every time I think about it but I'm glad he pointed it out because the song means a lot to me. Well, the song meant a lot to me to begin with but now I put it up on a pedestal because of that,” he concludes.
Graham's honesty appears to alleviate his own spirits far greater than the wine next to him ever could, and with this he happily moves onto answering, upon my previous inspection of the three albums, just why the title tracks have shortened significantly. “I think we just got bored of writing set-lists out,” he laughs hysterically, before continuing, “Imagine trying to write them all out, it'd be like a fucking novel You should see our set-list anyway, it's all short names and nicknames for songs we've got.
"Seriously though, with Fourteen Albums Fifteen Winters, it suited that music. The second album, there was a few long ones and a few short ones. We've moved on from that. But if a long title comes out and it makes sense, we'll use it, you know? We just got to the point where we chose a song title and thought, 'why over think it?' If Andy had named a demo, 'I Shagged A Dug...It Was Great...What A Great Time', we would've had named it that, do you know what I mean?”, he beams.
The Twilight Sad recently appeared twice in Nice 'n' Sleazy's in November to commemorate its twentieth anniversary, and they were gigs that, much like the fans who snapped up all of the tickets in under two hours, Graham had no trouble in saying yes to. “Sleazy's means a lot to me. I've drank there for years, I've met some of my best friends in there, so for me it was important to do it, and it's a pretty cool thing to do it, to go back. I couldn't believe how quickly the tickets sold out. I was just like 'that's fucking amazing!' To think we could do that many tickets in that little time, I just wonder what we could do if we had three months to promote a gig,” he finishes.
Ironically, he informs me that they do in fact have three months to promote a gig; their album launch will take place in the Grand Ole Opry on the 9th of February. Despite barely playing in Glasgow before signing to Fat Cat Records (after only their fourth ever gig), Graham has a deep affinity with the city which his accent is commonly mistaken from belonging to. “Glasgow is where my favourite bands are from, it's where my friends are, it's one of my favourite places in the world. I love going back to it. I always hear bands saying 'playing Glasgow's brilliant, it's the best crowd'. Everybody is just up for it,” he smirks.
With the title of the new album fresh in my mind, I probe Graham for any stories from the tour that 'No One Can Ever Know'. He recoils in horror at my audacity with an elongated “Shiiiit,” while ensuring to take another drink for Dutch courage. “There's stuff I definitely can't say because they might come and find us....but, we knocked down Ian Quimby from Take A Worm For A Walk Week's wall whilst picking him up. I don't think Devine (drummer Mark) will be too happy I've told you that because it was him.
"And we destroyed a hotel room...no, I'm not going to say we destroyed it, because that's pretty cliché, but we played wrestling. I got power-bombed by Grant from Frightened Rabbit through two double-beds,” he trails off, laughing. I ask if the beds were broken, and Graham curls a wicked smile. “Well, we put them back together anyway. There's been past tours where we've done stuff that is unmentionable but I think because we're headlining every night, we're playing an hour set, we've never played that long before, and we've been doing it and loading out and driving right to the hotel. We've not really done anything that mad.” he ceases, only to laugh again...“Except being power-bombed, haha!”
After a brief room change, and numerous questions later, Graham's cup is getting unsettlingly empty. I ask him what The Twilight Sad want from 2012, and his modesty is just as radiant as his humility. “I think we just want to keep on going. I'm not going to lie, before every album release it's nerve-racking. When you've put everything into your music, you hope that it comes across the same way to other people and they like it.
"Our band was never going to be huge from day one, like as in we were never going to be on the front of magazines, we were never going to be on TV, we were never going to be on daytime radio, we were never going to have the opportunity other bands have got because we're on a smaller label but basically I knew a lot of work was going to have to be put in.
"From the first album it seemed to be a lot of building, that's where it started, and the second album seemed to take us to the next stage where we were playing to bigger audiences and getting a bit more recognition, maybe even from mainstream magazines and websites and stuff. We were getting a wee bit more recognition fron that. This one, I hope it takes us to the next level,” he says.
Upon hearing a preview of the album earlier on in the week, I am left in no doubt that The Twilight Sad will ascend, albeit measured, to establish themselves even more in Glasgow and beyond, and Graham is looking positively towards the future while still embracing the present, adding, “to be able to do this for a living, to be able to tour the world, to be able to play in front of people every night, it's a privilege.
"There's many bands out there trying to do it, and the fact that we've got to the point where we can do it, where we can and play in Germany, play in America, you know, it's mind-blowing. No matter if you're on a down day or an up day, you've gotta remind yourself 'I'm really lucky to be doing this'. The way Mogwai did it was perfect, it was steady and you appreciate it more, in the long run. If you've done the groundwork, and worked hard for it, you'll appreciate it and never take it for granted.”
I stand to pack away my items, and ask Graham to concisely describe The Twilight Sad in five words. He pauses, tentatively. “Buckfast...Banton/Kilsyth....ummm....Honest...Miserable...Scottish,” he says. I inform him that Scottish goes without saying if you're from Kilsyth. “Yeah, right...ummm....rockets”, he laughs. So Buckfast, Banton/Kilsyth, honest, miserable rockets?, I ask.
He explodes into a fit of laughter, barely able to muster the words, “there you go, that sounds good to me now you say it like that!”
As I go to leave, Graham immediately saunters over to refill his now empty vessel, and I can't help but think of his own methods of addressing his own unease, the one he mentioned back in the bar. “If you're doing this every single night, and if you're maybe feeling a wee bit tired or nervous, having something like wine helps me play the show,” he previously said.
With Graham's own complexity, humility and his band's consistency over the last four years in mind, I am not so certain a little tipple is such a bad thing, and when considering his own modus operandi, the phrase 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' comes to mind. Unless, in fact, he turns out completely 'blotto' tonight. Then they've got, in his own words, absolutely 'nae chance'.