Interview: James Graham of The Twilight Sad

words by Jon Aubin | photo by Nic Shoenfeld
| Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

To the uninitiated, the best way to describe The Twilight Sad’s sound is as such: imagine Ian Curtis singing in a Scottish brogue, backed up by a band comprised of Sonic Youth’s and My Bloody Valentine’s dissonant guitars, and the precision of Radiohead’s rhythm section.  Sounds overwhelming?  Well, it is.

The Twilight Sad has achieved the rare feat of attaining their very own sound.  Components of that sound include a singer with a flat, detached affect, loud, churning, distorted guitars, and bludgeoning percussion.  While there are plenty of bands that fit that description, none sound anything like The Twilight Sad.  Their latest record, Forget the Night Ahead, combines these elements in an alchemy of noise.  There are few bands that sound this great turned up to 11.  If you haven’t yet, do yourself a favor and pick up the record, then shoot yourself for not having given them a listen earlier.

I had a chance to speak with jetlagged front man James Graham over the phone before the band’s show in Portland, Oregon during their latest North American tour.  In the ensuing conversation, James sheds light on the inbred Glasgow rock scene, The Twilight Sad’s creative technique, and a drink with magical attributes called Buckfast.

You’ve played a lot of shows in the US over the last few years. Are you starting to get a feel for the country now?
This is our seventh tour of America, so we know what to expect every time we come over here, but it’s different every time.

Do you have any favorite venues?
The Bowery Ballroom in New York City was one of the best shows we ever played, so we’ll always remember that one.  We like San Francisco.  We like Seattle.  We like a lot of places.  We just like coming over here, to be honest.

I was watching the film Stand by Me recently and I noticed the narrator say the line, “That summer at home I became the invisible boy.”  Now that must be where you got the title of your song, right?
Mark, our drummer, was watching it one day, and we were looking for a title for the song, and I related the lyrics back to that, and it somehow became the title of the song.  It’s always been one of my favorite films.

What is your approach to songwriting?
Basically what happens is that Andy writes the music and then it goes over to me and I put the vocal melodies over the top of it. Then we’ll add a basic structure to the song, and then I send the shorts to Mark. He’ll come in and write his drum parts and give ideas as to whether we should add arrangements or change the structure of the song.

So it is a collaborative effort then.
Basically, we write the song before we add arrangements to it.  Once we see whether it’s a strong song to begin with, then we can layer on the noise and all the other instrumentation.

It seems that there are a disproportionate number of great bands that hail from Glasgow: Teenage Fanclub, Mogwai, Sons and Daughters, 1990s, Arab Strap — the list goes on and on.  What is it about Scotland that inspires such much great music?
I don’t really know.  There’s not a lot to do in Scotland apart from drink and write songs.  We just seem to have a good feel for…I don’t know, it’s a strange one. I do agree there are a lot of good bands that come out of Scotland, but I can’t quite put my finger on why that is, to be honest.  It’s probably because there’s nothing else to do apart from be in a band and write music.

Do you see yourselves fitting in with a particular scene or group of musicians?
Not at all — we try not to.  We’re friends with a lot of bands, but that’s about where it ends. We like to stand on our own two feet and not really tag along on anyone’s coattails.

We just want to do our own thing, but at the same time we’re friends with a lot of bands, and I think once you know one person from one band from Glasgow, then basically you begin to meet everybody — it’s a very small community.

There’s a long tradition of UK bands who — consciously or unconsciously — seem to have an Americanized vocal style.  In your case, it’s quite the opposite: you sing with a very distinct Scottish brogue. I imagine this is a natural choice, but is it deliberate?
It’s the only way we can make the songs, honestly. The songs are about where I’m from and people I know, and myself.  It wouldn’t be true to the songs or what they’re about if I put on some sort of fake accent.  There was no discussion about it — it was just “This is how we’re doing this.”

I saw your band a couple of years ago at the Oasis in New London, Connecticut, and I recall being overwhelmed by the volume. You guys also use a lot of distortion and overdriven guitars. Do you see volume as essential component of your live experience?
It’s pretty important, but at the same time we try to make everything else quite clear as well — to try to get the vocal through to complement the noise — but it can be hard to do that in a small room.  But it’s very important that it be loud, because that’s how the songs are meant to come across, and I don’t think they would if they weren’t.

Your songs have pretty dark themes.  Do you ever see yourselves making a more upbeat record?
Not really. We really are quite upbeat people, but when it comes to writing music, we focus on the darker side. We’ve always enjoyed darker songs, so we go that way with the music as well.  I don’t like music that goes on about how great life is and everything’s amazing because it’s basically not that true.  There are bad things and good things, and basically I take more interest in writing about the darker side of life.

Your band name comes from a poem [“But I was Looking at the Permanent Stars” by Wilfred Owen].  Are you influenced by literature or film?
I was reading a poem one day and I came to the rehearsal room and said, “What do you think of this?”  It was one of those names where we couldn’t think of anything better, so when it came time to book gigs, it just kind of stuck.  I try to be honest in the writing.  I don’t want to pretend to be intelligent, like I’ve read a lot of books or anything.  I have the same interest [in literature and film] as everybody else.  It’s just honest songwriting; there’s nothing pretentious about it.

You mentioned before that a favorite pastime Glaswegians is drinking. Do you and your mates have a drink of choice?
It’s a drink called Buckfast and it’s made by monks in England, but it’s really popular in Scotland — and it’s the most caffeinated drink ever. There’s something like 12 cans of Coke worth of caffeine in one bottle of Buckfast.  It has been blamed for a number of crimes, actually.

It probably helps with the jetlag then.
It might also help you get kicked off the flight.

Have you found anywhere that serves it in the US?
No, I think you can only get it in the UK.

Too bad. I’ll have to call my importer.
Just try it. It will make you go a bit crazy, but it’s worth it.

Are there any other activities you enjoy doing aside from playing music and drinking Buckfast?
I visit the cinema basically twice a week.  We also follow football.  It’s pretty intense; I think Mogwai, as well, are big fans of Celtic football.

Are there any plans for a follow-up to Forget the Night Ahead?
Yeah, we’re recording later this year.  We’ve got an EP coming out some time this year with two brand new songs and a remix by Mogwai, and another by a Scottish band called Arrows who are on Mogwai’s label [Rock Action]. We’re friends with both of those bands and they’re doing us a favor by remixing some songs for us, so that will be coming out some time soon. The record will be out next year.

You do a lot of experimentation with odd instrumentation.  Are there any groups or artists that have inspired you in this respect?
It’s hard to say.  I grew up listening to a lot bands on Chemikal Underground — the Scottish label — bands like Mogwai and Arab Strap and things like that. But it changes from day to day.  We wouldn’t say there’s one band we can put our finger on and say, “That band has definitely influenced us.” It’s one of those things where we just write the songs, and what comes out, comes out.

Are there any bands in Scotland that you think are underappreciated?
Arrows — definitely Arrows.  Our new bass player, Johnny, plays in a band called Take a Worm for a Walk Week and they’re quite good as well. DeSalvo on Rock Action, Remember Remember…  There [are] some good bands in Scotland; unfortunately they get overshadowed by the shite ones.

If you could put together a dream bill, who would be on it?
(James confers with the band on this one) Us, Guns N’ Roses, The Stooges, The Cure, and we’d probably ask our friends Mogwai as well.

If you hadn’t made it as a band, what do you think you’d being doing for work?
I would be a baker, but I think we’d be pretty lost if we weren’t doing this.