January might only just have come to an end, but already there's been a number of serious contenders for the coveted album of the year. One of those happens to be IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME, the fifth album by longtime DiS favourites The Twilight Sad. Their first for new label Rock Action, it's an album that bares all the hallmarks of its predecessors whilst representing a major progression in the band's development.
It's a Monday night in Nottingham and DiS is sat in Rough Trade with singer James Graham and guitarist Andy MacFarlane prior to the band's in-store. The album currently sits at number five on the official UK album charts' midweek sales (it will eventually go in at number seventeen, still a remarkable achievement for an independent act in the current climate), which is where our conversation begins.
DiS: It’s been an incredible week for the band with the album receiving glowing reviews from numerous publications, while it’s currently sat at number 5 in the official midweek charts. Did you expect any of this?
James Graham: No, not at all. It’s pretty humbling. Even people that like the band writing and telling us the album’s amazing. It’s just taken us so long to get it finished and get it out, so no, I don't think we ever expected this.
Andy MacFarlane: Folk have always been nice, but this time the volume that’s come through has been quite overwhelming. I’ve had to take a step away and refresh.
JG: You've never really looked at anything before, whereas this time you've seen it for yourself. You can't put any expectations upon yourself. Maybe in the past I have, and I've learned the hard way from that to be honest.
Do you think one of the reasons is because you’ve been away for so long? It’s five years since Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave came out, so I guess there is a genuine sense of anticipation from people wanting the next record.
JG: I think we’re seeing this with bands that are coming back where they're now playing venues double the size of those they played first time round. People missed them, so I guess you’ve got to give people a chance to miss you every once in a while.
AM: Sometimes it takes a while to digest an album, so if you go out on tour straight away it might not be working because people haven’t had enough time with it yet. That’s probably the same with those bands who’ve got back together because people will have spent a lot more time with those records and, as a result, it’s grown into something else.
When did IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME start to come together? Which songs were written first?
AM: Probably after The Cure tour. We had a couple of things before.
JG: ‘Videograms’ came very early. There’s a really early version of that kicking around somewhere.
AM: That was there before The Cure tour but everything else came after.
When did you start bringing the new songs into your live set? I remember a couple of them featuring at last summer’s Primavera and Hyde Park shows.
JG: I think we only played ‘The Arbor’ at Primavera, which would be the first time we played it. The last time we were there in 2014 we played ‘Last January’ for the first time so we thought it best to introduce another new song this time around as well! That was a very emotional gig for loads of reasons, and also the most nerve-wracking for loads of other reasons. We’ve been playing three to four songs off this record since so people have got to know them a little bit more before the album came out. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing?
AM: We did ‘VTR’ and ‘The Arbor’ at Hyde Park. I can’t remember if we did any others? Maybe ‘I’m Not Here (Missing Face)’ as well?
JG: No, I didn’t think we played that anywhere before the first BBC 6 Music session we did. That was definitely the first time we played it because I remember nearly shiteing myself! I vowed never to play a song for the first time live on the radio again.
Were there any other songs written around the same time which didn’t make it onto the album, and if so, will they be revisited in the future?
AM: There’s two we’ve recorded that will see the light of day. There’s also a ton more that were in different stages of development.
JG: Those two that are already recorded we’ll definitely do something with. They do fit in with the style of the album, but I’d also say they’re quite a lot heavier, and we had enough of those kinds of songs on the record. I don’t know what we’re going to do with them yet. It could be some kind of double A-Side single because we like to do physical releases where possible. We just wanted to get the album out first and see what happens, then start to plan what comes next.
The Twilight Sad’s sound has developed considerably with every album. There have always been elements of shoegaze and folk but now it’s combined with a lot of industrial, electronic and post-punk elements too. Were The Cure influential in that development, not just with the sound but also the way they approach making and producing records as well?
AM: Massively. Just being around them and watching them work. When they were away they were rehearsing 150, 180 songs. Things like that are a real eye-opener. To still be putting that level of effort into something when you’ve been doing it so long...it made us step our game up for sure. Also, the number of amazing tunes coming from that one group as well. It definitely bled through and influenced us in so many ways.
It must be incredible, reaffirming even, to hear Robert Smith coming out and say one of the reasons he’s making a new Cure album is because The Twilight Sad has inspired him?
AM: You find it incredible? We’re like, “WHAAAT?!?”
JG: That was weird. I kind of feel he might have been taking the piss!
AM: We sent Robert all the demos from this record and asked his advice. When you’ve got somebody like that at the end of a phone or email it would have been stupid of us not to.
JG: He was great. He didn’t say, “You need to do this” or “You need to do that.” He just said, “Try this” or “Try that.” They were suggestions. He did score them all out of ten and say this is an 8 but could be a 9, that kind of thing, so we knew we were off to a good start anyway. But it was really nerve-wracking sending those demos to him because he wouldn’t have pulled any punches. He told us exactly how he felt about them, which was good because it gave us a bit more confidence. I think a lot of stuff has given us a bit more confidence in ourselves, especially after doing those tours and the reception from the last record. It gave us the belief we must be doing something right, and if what we’re doing has gotten us this far, one thing we learned from The Cure was never settle on it. You’ve always got to try and be better. That more than anything sunk in with me. There were loads of subconscious things that sunk in as well, but it was that more than most. We had to keep getting better.
AM: Don't settle for anything or just think that will do. We actually like the songs on this record objectively as well.
How long did the whole process take for IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME from start to finish?
JG: Too long!
AM: The actual writing and recording wasn't that long, so probably from the summer to winter of 2017 was when all the songs were written. Then we wrote the music and sent them to James but for me, I felt we could do them better. It felt a bit like the last album mark two, and I thought we could totally better that. So I deleted it then rewrote the music around what James had done with the previous music and the songs developed from there. As it turned out, we hadn't done anything like this before.
JG: It was almost like a role reversal in many ways. I would normally write lyrics around what Andy gave to me, whereas this time he was writing music based on what I'd given to him.
AM: It meant more work, but it also made us look at things differently. It pushed me majorly to try and do something differently. Then when you realise Robert Smith's going to be reviewing them as well it makes you try even harder. So it got to the point where we were pretty happy with where it was going. It felt quite exciting.
JG: The demos Andy sent through were really great. Obviously the recorded versions are better, but hearing the songs' structures build through those early demos was so exciting. It took me a few listens because when you're used to the way something sounded in the past it becomes embedded in your head. He sent them to me and said, "Don't panic!" because he knows I'm quite impulsive, but as soon as the new versions started to sink in it felt more important in the way it sounded. Not that any of our other albums aren't important - they're all very important. Everything we've written has nailed the feelings I was going through at that particular time of my life, yet it took me a bit of time to realise that within these demos and this music. Sometimes it might not click first time, so you have to try and take it in until it does. Now I think this is the most immediate album we've ever made.
The band has changed over time and members have come and gone with each record. Do you feel the current line up is the strongest version of The Twilight Sad so far, and as a result has that given you more breadth to develop the songs?
JG: I think once the songs were written and we got in a room with Brendan (Smith, keyboards) and Johnny (Docherty, bass) there was a feeling of letting it go a wee bit and not being as precious. The songs were there but once we were all in that room it was nice bouncing ideas off each other.
AM: It felt a lot better playing these ones. It felt more like a rehearsed band actually playing which made it more enjoyable for ourselves, whereas previously we just wrote songs then went straight into the studio. We had a very different way of working.
JG: I think there's a time and a place for taking a song into the studio then figuring it out whilst you're recording it. Like 'Cold Days From The Birdhouse' off the first album for example. We went in there with no expectations and it turned into something in the studio. Whereas with this record, everything was planned out. Not a lot happened on this record we didn't know we wanted before we went into the studio.
Were all the lyrical themes already in place or did anything change as events happened over time?
JG: No, everything was there. We recorded it in January.
AM: Last January!
JG: It was just me. All the lyrical themes are in my head. But weirdly, everything that's happened since we recorded the album - things people know about and things people don't - there seems to be far too many coincidences. It's pretty scary. I was feeling very similar to how other people had been feeling, obviously the way Scott (Hutchison) was feeling as well. So it's quite scary to see things that have happened since. Weird consequences, and not nice ones.
Did the political climate have an influence on your writing? The whole Brexit fiasco for example.
JG: I don't think its something we went into this record thinking about. Everybody's living that right now.
AM: There are subconscious things in there.
JG: I didn't go in to write an album about Brexit but there are feelings that were there while we were making it. For example, the album title has been spray painted onto the streets of London and Glasgow, and there's been people taking pictures of it. They don't know who the band are yet they've still been taking a picture of it then putting it on social media with taglines like: "That title really does reflect what's going on right now."
The artwork is very striking too. Where did it come from?
AM: Same as with all the records, I do a bunch of research and find a direction to take it in. Then I send it to Dave Thomas who's done the artwork on all our records. This stuff particularly resonated with him, the lyrical themes as well. We'd been looking at a lot of old punk fanzines and tried to mix them all together in a similar way to what Julian House did with Broadcast and Primal Scream. Then we started messing about with all these digital glitch things which added a new element to it. So it all stems from that.
JG: Going back to the previous question, none of this was written about politics. It's all very personal things. Sometimes subconsciously, things sink in and you find you're writing within this moment - this is all happening around us so in some way its part of everybody's psyche. There are a few themes in the lyrics where I'm searching for some hope from somewhere. You turn on your phone or watch TV, and some days you're looking at either and it's a constant stream of shit. That happened to me for several days to the point where I just wanted to find something good out there and 99% of the time I didn't.
There's something about the album title IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME that does resonate with the period we're in right now. There's something weird about the last record as well - Scottish Independence was happening and we were saying Nobody Wants To Be Here And Nobody Wants To Leave. We didn't write that album about Scottish Independence - it was just coincidental - but then this is happening now with the title of the new album as well. When you're so close to something it's hard to see the outside world but then when you take a step back and look at some of the coincidences maybe the political climate did affect us after all?
The prospect of a "no deal" Brexit could have serious ramifications within the music industry, especially for touring bands.
JG: I've been told to look into my Irish passport! I'm a quarter Irish through my grandmother so maybe I should possibly go and get that sorted out.
AM: It will have serious consequences. Just having that extra barrier to get over for starters. It's hard enough for bands to play gigs overseas without putting another obstacle in the way. Trying to book shows in Europe when you've no idea what's going to happen? It makes our future really questionable.
JG: The last European tour we did was possibly the best turn out we've ever had where people came to see us. We thought things were looking up and then this happened. We have no idea how it will work out but I guess its inevitable there'll be some consequences.
The Twilight Sad have a very big online presence that's become this close-knit community in a similar way to Idles and the AF Gang, and as a result, built the band's following by word of mouth rather than any form of industry hype. Do you think that's a route more independent artists need to pursue?
AM: We can see that. We'll go up and talk to people after a gig and they'll tell us they've brought their friends who didn't know about us beforehand.
JG: It's a really cool thing. From looking at where the band was when we started to where it is now, and the number of people we've worked with along the way saying the onus is on us to get press and do the radio and all the other stuff that comes with it, yet that hasn't really happened for us. There's always been people who've said nice things about us whenever we've released a new record and with this one, we've been overwhelmed by all the plaudits because we're used to being the underdogs, but when it's coming straight from the fans it means so much more. We're not dismissing how we've been treated by people like yourself either - people have discovered us through interviews as well so it's nice to have both.
This record's taken a long time to come out and after four records you start to have... not expectations but wants. You want to push the band further. You want to see the development, because we feel we are as a band. You want to see everybody come with us. But more than anything the way that part of us is developing is through word of mouth. You've got friends telling friends and sometimes people telling random people in the street. It's nice, that. If we'd had everybody chasing us for interviews and TV on that first record I don't know if we'd be in this position right now. I think because we've had to work hard for this and everything's built gradually, it makes us appreciate it more. We've had to learn and adjust and struggle to get to this point. It's been hard to get where we are now but I wouldn't change anything. The record wouldn't sound like it does if we'd been different people back then. I think we are quite humble and sometimes I don't know if that's a good thing towards maintaining a career in music.
It's interesting you say that because there are some people who like certain artists because they can relate to them, whereas others want to put them on unattainable pedestals. I think The Twilight Sad strike a happy medium between the two, mainly because you don't tour the UK as much as you did two or three albums ago. Is that something you've ever been conscious of?
JG: We haven't played Nottingham in a while.
AM: Not since 2013 I think?
JG: We haven't been to a lot of places in a while, but we've still been busy. Even when we had two years off. We needed that time away because we went so hard at it. Now we're at a place where we can't do months on the road. I think if we did an eight-week tour right now I wouldn't survive till the end. Mentally anyway, and that's not going to be good for the gigs that we do. At this point we've got to make sure every gig we do is bang on - we don't want to be turning up to a gig saying we've just played five shows in a row and we're absolutely knackered, because that wouldn't be fair to those people who have turned up to see us play. We've been looking to find a happy medium.
The new album is your first for Rock Action, having released all of your previous records on Fat Cat. How did you end up signing for the label?
JG: I'm proud of the four records we put out on Fat Cat. I wouldn't change any of that for the world.
AM: We wouldn't be here now if it is wasn't for them.
JG: When things weren't going too well for me, Stuart (Braithwaite) offered me a job at Rock Action to help out with the label. So I got to see the ins and outs of how they work and be a part of that. When the last record contract ran out we knew we needed a fresh start as well, with the music and everything. Something needed to change across the board. I felt we'd gone as far as we could.
AM: Fat Cat helped us out so much. They took us to America before we'd even played in Edinburgh! We did so much with them but it felt like the right time to move on.
JG: I did the Outlines record on Rock Action with Kathryn Joseph and it was nice to see how everything goes on when you're involved with an album from the label's side as well as the artist's. Stuart had been saying to us for years, "When are you going to sign for Rock Action?" so when we came to needing a new label it was a given. We didn't even discuss anybody else. I adore Mogwai and everything they stand for, everything they've done to build up to where they are. Rock Action are the leading record company in Scotland without a doubt - their roster is one of the most exciting in Britain as far as I'm concerned. They've got Kathryn Joseph, Aidan Moffatt and RM Hubbert, Swervedriver, and countless others so it was an unwritten thing for us to be a part of that. Plus, who else was going to have us!
Staying with Stuart Braithwaite, James I know you worked on the Minor Victories album a couple of years ago as well as Outlines. Are there any plans for a follow up to either, or any other projects in the pipeline besides The Twilight Sad?
JG: I believe Minor Victories are writing some tunes together. I was just lucky Stuart phoned me one Friday night and asked me to sing on this song of theirs. So I asked, "Who's it with?" and he said, "Rachel Goswell from Slowdive!" At first, I thought there's no chance she wants to sing a song with me, but then I did it and it was a dream come true getting to sing with her. That last Slowdive record was amazing - it's the reason we mixed this album with Chris Coady, because he mixed theirs. It would be cool for us to do something with Mogwai. I know we've toured together a few times but it would be good to go in a studio with them and record something.
AM: I don't know, there'd be too many guitars!
JG: Stuart has remixed us before so I think it would be quite exciting to sit down with them and figure out if there's a project we can work on together. I think that's what attracted them to us. We're both very similar in our approach to life. We're just normal people and the reason why we both do music is the same. They can see themselves in us and likewise, us in them. That's why we're friends and have mutual respect for one another.
What are your plans for the rest of the year? Are there any more shows or festivals booked you can talk about?
AM: We've got more festivals booked for this year than we've ever had, mostly around Europe.
JG: We've got a Cure gig in Glasgow in August. We've been offered one other festival in the UK which isn't confirmed yet. There are so many festivals in the UK that we've never played before. I can't explain why we've never got on any of these lineups - if somebody offers it then of course we'd play - whereas Europe has been offering us more than anywhere. We're busy nearly every weekend because of European festivals.
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
JG: Keep going. I don't think we're a good example for a lot of things but we are when it comes to keeping doing what we do because we believe in it. Through all the shit we've been through, there's no point doing it if we didn't believe it was something we were meant to do. I'm not going to say everyone's going to be as lucky - because we've been lucky. Very, very lucky - but then you have to be out there doing it to get that luck in the first place. Also, doing it for the right reasons and not the wrong ones is important too. That's why we're still here.
AM: I'm just really proud we've got this far.
JG: I think that shows why people connect with us. We're not trying to get on the covers of magazines. We needed to do this band for ourselves, and if we didn't do it, I know I'd be fucked.
IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME is out now via Rock Action. For more information on The Twilight Sad, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.