Chatting with The Twilight Sad about Touring, Recording, and Being Miserable
The Twilight Sad put on a live show unlike any other. Andy MacFarlane’s noisy, dizzying guitar and Mark Devine’s drumming seem calm compared to vocalist James Graham. His delivery is beautiful and melodic even as he paces, shakes his head, and occasionally shouts away from the microphone. It’s an intense experience that feels personal, and that power he has earned the Scottish trio a loyal following in the States. On the last night of the band’s American tour opening for Fatcat labelmates We Were Promised Jetpacks, I sat down with (the charming, not so miserable) Graham at Webster Hall to look back at the year and to touch on what’s next for the band.
So the last time you were here, you were actually playing at Rough Trade playing your entire first album [Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters]. What’s it like to go back to that while promoting a new album [Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave]?
It’s because we reissued it in April. I think it was April, Record Store Day, whenever that was. We always wanted to come over and do it in America, and we just didn’t have the opportunity to do so. We saw this as a window to try and bookend the tour because we’re doing it in Chicago tomorrow as well. It felt good. It was nice to play that for people who are big fans of that record. I think the show went really well. People seemed to be really happy with it and enjoy it. Aye, it felt good, but it feels weird coming back full circle after six weeks of touring and then coming back to New York. I mean, it’s a good place to finish a tour even though we’re playing tomorrow night, again. It was good. I did enjoy it. We had to learn the songs again because we’re rehearsed for the new stuff. We got all the new stuff learned before this tour and then were like, “Oh no, we have to remember all the old songs as well!” We gave ourselves a wee more work, but I enjoyed it. I’m glad we got a chance to do it, if I’m being honest.
Now you’re actually opening for another band, We Were Promised Jetpacks. What’s it like to be putting out a new album and be an opening act in another country like this?
We’ve done that a few times, but this time, because we’re four albums in and we’ve got 45 minutes each night, it’s quite hard to fit everything we want within the 45 minutes. But it’s been great. The Jetpacks, they’re good friends to begin with, and they do really well over here. So it was nice of them to give us the opportunity to play in front of maybe larger crowds than we would be doing and maybe nick a couple of their fans. It’s been great. The drives have been long and hard, but you get 45 minutes to show each town what you’ve got for people who don’t know your music. I’ve been relishing the opportunity to play in front of people who don’t know who we are and maybe try to win them over. It’s a different kind of mentality when you go out in front of a crowd who have paid to see you, you know? To go out in front of a bunch of people who have probably never heard you to try to impress them. I don’t know if we play any different, but it’s just trying to win them over as soon as you get out there, like do I make an impression here? So it’s been good. The only thing is not being able to play as many songs as we want, but it’s quite good to play 45 minutes and then you’re done for the rest of the night. I usually go to the merch stand and meet people, have a drink. Six weeks as well, six weeks. I can’t believe it. They’ve gone like that. It just shows you how good it has been, the fact that it’s flown by.
Putting the new album out in America whilst you’re in the middle of a tour is quite good because it took my mind off it. I wasn’t so stressed about it. We were busy doing stuff, so I wasn’t sitting at home looking at my phone going, “Oh shit, I hope people like this.” The reaction has been great. I’ve enjoyed my time over here.
This album feels a lot more diverse than your previous albums. Was that a deliberate choice to mix up the style, to have that guitar rock and at the same time also have the quieter moments?
Yeah. We had a wee break. Not a break, we just hadn’t toured as heavily as we had been, and we went home. Over a period of about a year we played different types of gigs, like we played normal five-piece gigs where it was noisy, and we stripped it down when me and Andy played some acoustic gigs. We played three-piece gigs where Mark played the organ and Andy just played the guitar. And then we played with an orchestra as well at one point. I think playing those different kinds of gigs whilst we were writing the record kind of helped make it the most dynamic kind of record we’ve made. You’re right, it’s got big, loud, noisy songs like “In Nowheres,” but then you’ve got the last song on the record that’s just me and a piano and a little sample. I think it was good to show the range of what the band has and what we’ve learned over the years. It’s the most cohesive set of songs. They all work together, but they are pretty different at the same time. But yeah, I would agree with that. It’s probably the most diverse but also, for me it’s the strongest set of songs we’ve written. People seem to be reacting to it really well. It’s been a bit ridiculous. It’s been a bit overwhelming, the amount of positivity that’s been shown to the record and to us. We’re used to being, as you can tell by our music, we’re quite miserable all the time. It’s quite hard with people being nice to us all the time. It’s been good. Fingers crossed, touch wood.
Well, you’ve made it to the end of the tour, and people are still coming out rather than going, “Oh, we’ll wait until after the opening act is done.”
Aye. The one thing is we have made it to the end of the tour. I wasn’t sure if we’d make it to the end of the tour. I think we all thought we’d probably kill each other. We’ve got there, and yes, we’re all still friends. But I think we’re looking forward to some time away from each other. Six weeks in the back of a van with five other guys. We’re ready to not be around each other for a couple of weeks, I think. You just need that one week off, and then you’re ready to go again.
And then you start itching for the road again.
Yeah, I miss it. Adjusting to being back home, doing your usual stuff, you start to miss the wee kind of things about touring. I miss playing gigs. The thing is we are all still friends, so we kind of enjoy hanging about each other. I think that’s why we’re still going. Not to say the music isn’t why we’re still going, but the fact is we’re all still friends and we’re still able to be around each other is a big thing because it’s seven years in close proximity to each other. It’s quite a testament to how much we believe in what we’re doing.
How important is it to have that kind of foundation in the band? There are some bands where it’s very much about the business, and they don’t really socialize when they’re away.
As I say, we’re in the back of a van together. Yeah, we’ve got our laptops and iPads to watch our favorite TV shows, but I think that helps gives you some distance from each other. We actually enjoy hanging about with each other. We go to the pub together, we drink together. I drink back home with Brendan, the keyboard player. I hang out with him all the time. Andy’s been my best friend for years, and Devine’s also a really good friend. Johnny’s a maniac but in a really, really nice way. Since he joined the band, we’ve become really good friends as well, so I think I’m really lucky, to be honest, that we all like each other. I know there’s a lot of bands where it is like a business and they function to make money, but they don’t really socialize with each other. That’s sad actually, I think. The reason I got into this was to make music with my friends. It wasn’t to make money or anything like that. I think that’s the one thing: staying true to the band. We’re all still friends, and we all still enjoy making music together and being in each other’s company. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t still be going to be honest. I’m quite glad we’ve stuck to the reasons why we’ve started it.
When you were writing this new album, were you considering how it would translate live, or is it all about trying to make it the best album tracks you can?
I don’t think about anything else apart from writing the songs. I don’t think about how to play it live or anything like that. That’s something once it’s done, we worry about that after. I’m fully connected to just trying to write the songs, and perform the songs when they’re recorded versions, as best as I possibly can. I don’t actually listen to a lot of other music whilst we’re in the studio or making the songs, to be honest. I try not to get any outside influence if you know what I mean. You always have subconscious influences in the songs, but I try to stay away from everything and think about writing the songs. I’m probably a bit of a nightmare to be around at that time, as well, to be honest. I’m probably a nightmare to be around a lot of the time. Once the record’s done, we go in the rehearsal studio and try to perform the songs as well as we can. At the same time, we try to make the live versions a bit different from the recorded version, because instead of paying money to see a band you could just sit in a house and listen to the album. They’re a bit more intense when we play them live. They’re a bit noisier when we play them live. I think that’s a good thing to just have different sides to the band, separating the recorded and the live version of what we do is an important thing. We’ve gotten better as a live band over the years. We were very young and naïve when we started out, and we’ve just learned how to be a good band over the years. For me, it’s two separate things. Focus on one at one point, and then when that’s done, move on to do that.
You’re supposed to come back next year to tour headlining, right?
Yeah. I don’t know the exact dates at the moment, but I know it’s late February/March because I know we’re doing SXSW. That’s going to be fun. We’re going to be playing for an hour and a half each night and stick all the songs in we want to do. When people write in to us saying, “Can you play this song?” we try as we can to learn those songs to play them as well. It’s always nice when people are asking for more songs being played. I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be interesting to see where the band is in the US at that point because it’s all about us at that point. This tour’s set us up really well, and I’m still really grateful to the Jetpacks for asking us along. I think we’ve won over a lot of new people, and hopefully they’ll be out there in February/March. We’ve got the next eight months constantly touring.
Yeah, I was looking at your tour dates, and everything after March is like booked so solid.
Aye, and then you add the month in America to that as well at the start of that, and there’s more coming. But I want that. I want to look at our website and see. Being busy is good. When we finished the album, I really thought it was an album that could possibly take us to places we’ve never been before. I think it’s an opportunity to get more people into the band, and that seems to be happening. So far, so good. Touch wood. I keep doing that because I keep saying things like, “Don’t jinx it! Don’t jinx it!” I’m very much looking forward to coming back. I think they’re two, three hundred capacity venues we’re playing. It’s weird coming to the end of a six-week tour and going oh, I’m going to do this all again, but the fact is I’m looking forward to it. I love playing over here. People are so generous. The amount of things people have done for us is ridiculous. Just bought us things, drawn pictures for us, traveled like eight hours to come and see us, buying us drinks. We don’t ask for it. That’s not why we do it. To get that kind of overwhelming generosity is amazing. People don’t do that back home. We’re quite miserable. Why I love coming over here is the people more than anything. It’s nice and really refreshing to see people who give a shit about music, you know? Long may that continue. We want to come over here as much as we can.
I actually had a friend who flew all the way from Detroit to come to the Rough Trade show. And she’s Scottish.
Bloody hell. That’s amazing. People don’t even travel to Edinburgh from Glasgow to go and see a gig, so it really puts that into perspective. Obviously it’s a different country, it’s a much bigger country, so sometimes if you really want to see someone, you’ve got to do that. It still blows my mind that people give a shit about our music that much they would do that. It’s amazing. If it wasn’t for people like that, it would be a lot harder to do this. We do it for ourselves to begin with. The music is for us, but after that, you want people to like it. The dedication shown to our band…We went through a really bad time a couple of years ago. If it wasn’t for those people showing the dedication to what we were doing and showing we really meant something to them, that would have been…It wouldn’t have been a nail in the coffin or anything, it’s just that whilst we were down, that was a really uplifting thing to us, to go, “Right, you know what? This does mean something. This is important.” Not just to us. It’s other people. This means something to them. I hope we can do this for as long as we possibly can. I love doing it. I hope the next tour is not the last one over here. We’ve got a year visa. The shows go well, we’ll come back again. Hopefully we will.
The Twilight Sad play Baby’s All Right on February 24. Tickets go on sale Friday, December 19.