This article originally appeared in The Herald newspaper (Scotland) on February 9 2012, under the heading Time To Look On The Bright Side Of Life.
Perhaps you have witnessed the ghostly artwork for The Twilight Sad’s new album, No One Can Ever Know.
It depicts a hollow-eyed cadaver, mapped out for autopsy or some-such, and the Kilsyth alt-rockers’ frontman, James Graham, is recalling its origins over coffee. “This guy DLT, who does our artwork, and Andy [MacFarlane], our guitarist, came up with a theme and ended up going to some Victorian museum in London to look at old medical instruments,” he says.
Did Graham join them to inspect the surgical utensils and anatomical diagrams of yore? “Oh no, I stayed in bed that day and watched some nice films. Romantic comedies,” he laughs.
This anecdote is characteristic of The Twilight Sad. They’re a thrilling, ear-battering trio who revel in disquieting narratives, enshrouded delinquents and unsettling visual imagery, yet they are underpinned by an affable humour. It’s a trait that’s served them well through three albums, countless tours, the loss of a band member, a drive-by robbery by fake Italian police and other nameless misadventures. It’s also a trait that’s preserved their friendship through half a lifetime in a band together.
Formed at school as a covers band with a love for Guns N Roses and Manic Street Preachers, The Twilight Sad remain rooted in Kilsyth well over a decade on, says Graham. “I don’t think we would be in a band if we didn’t stay there,” he offers. “I still stay in Banton, just outside of Kilsyth, where Andy and Mark [Devine, drums] live. Orzel too,” he says of their former bassist, Craig Orzel, who left amicably in 2010. (Live, they’re now augmented by Johnny Docherty on bass and Martin Doherty on keyboards / guitar).
“Banton’s a wee farming village with five streets and the best pub in the world,” he continues. “I was the only boy in my class at primary school, that’s how small it was.” While it’s tempting to apply this childhood outsider-status to Graham’s vigilant chronicles, he is quicker to credit the close-knit area for finding him likeminded high-school friends.
If Kilsyth was crucial to the band’s formation, so too were a couple of neighbouring acts: Glasgow post-rock leviathans Mogwai and Falkirk cult-pop poets Arab Strap. Both have since championed The Twilight Sad. “It’s the biggest compliment we’ve ever been paid, that the people I grew up listening to have taken us under their wing,” he says.
Arab Strap vocalist Aidan Moffat was a revelatory figure for Graham. “Monday at the Hug and Pint changed everything for me,” he says of Arab Strap’s 2003 album. “I saw what Aidan was doing as very honest – he was just being himself – and it made me go, ‘right, I can write this way, and I can sing this way, I don’t have to try and put on an accent that I’ve not got’. I would never have written a song without that band.”
As it is, Graham has now written three albums’ worth of bruising alt-rock psalms and searing pop arias in tandem with MacFarlane and Devine, all released via indie label Fat Cat – including their current dread-disco single Another Bed, the thundering euphoria of I Became A Prostitute (from 2009’s Forget the Night Ahead), and their show-stopping signature anthem, Cold Days From The Birdhouse (from 2007’s debut, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters).
While their first record was characterised by lengthy, narrative track names, No One Can Ever Know is punctuated by a shock of short titles. These suit its industrial pop and synth-propelled post-punk, as overseen by “anti-producer” Andrew Weatherall. Did the band pare-down the titular word count to highlight the album’s leaner aesthetic?
“Yes and no,” says Graham. “While our music always progresses, we want everything else to move forward too, and with this record, the music’s more suited to that short sharp kind of thing. But we didn’t think about it too much. Andy always sends demos over with a name attached, and Alphabet, Sick and Nil were all demo names, but they just fitted when I wrote the lyrics.” These titles, words and connotations resonate throughout the album (and the band’s back-catalogue) – hinting at untold small town atrocity, culpability and anguish.
“I wrote Nil in an afternoon,” he says of a spectral-rock album highlight and one of their strongest songs to date. “I just found what I wanted to write and it all came, in the exact structure it is on the album. It seemed to happen subconsciously. I didn’t realise who it was about at the time, but then my dad asked me about a line in it – I thought it had just come from my head, but he said, ‘no, that’s what so-and-so used to say to you’ – and now it’s going to pretty much kill me every time I sing it.” He looks away.
Graham is famously reticent to identify characters or scenarios in his lyrics, preferring to let us take what we will from the band’s sublime and menacing art. Since MacFarlane has always provided the music first, should we hold him responsible for The Twilight Sad’s foreboding tales? “Pretty much, aye – Andy sets the tone of the songs every time,” he nods.
“The fact that he’s given me that type of music means there’s no chance of me ever writing a happy song. People say I’m the depressing one, but it’s him, definitely – gie’s a break Andy. Graham laughs and buries his head in his hands. “This is all his fault.”
No One Can Ever Know is out now on Fat Cat.