Back in spring, one album took Scotland entirely by surprise. It began with a resonant guitar, timed to a staccato piano rhythm under a haze of feedback that forebode of things to come. Then a raw west coast voice glides in: “Another hotel, with woollen plans / Romantic gesture, with woollen plans” – lyrics like shards of memory that withhold their full meaning. On cue, a scintillating rush of overdriven guitar blasts in, propelled by pounding drums, before the song ends like a fire fading to embers.
The remainder of Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters, the debut album by Kilsyth’s The Twilight Sad, only heightened curiosity in a local band who seemed to come from nowhere with an instant classic. Or so we naively thought. By the summer, The Twilight Sad had already conquered America – or its more cultured regions anyway. Fourteen Autumns received an 8.6/10 rating from taste-maker website Pitchfork and the band toured the Eastern Seaboard extensively, playing to full houses most nights.
With 2007 now drawing to a close and best-of lists being feverishly formulated, we decided to drop in for a chat with singer/songwriter James Graham and guitarist/music man Andy MacFarlane in their broom-cupboard-proportioned dressing room at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, shortly before their final support slot on tour with Idlewild. Luckily they’re expecting us.
Looking back on a successful year, Graham’s still playing catch-up while he takes it all in: “If somebody had said to us a year or two ago that we’d have supported all these bands and played all these places and had all this stuff said about us we’d have said ‘shut up’. It’s been a bit of a blur.” MacFarlane agrees: “There’s not really been any time to think about it ‘cos you’re away and you just keep going.”
As much as he’d like to ignore the influence of the media, Graham admits that the the reviews made a huge difference. “We were on tour with Aereogramme at that point but they couldn’t come across ‘cos of Visa problems so we headlined the first half of the tour and it was alright […] But the Pitchfork review came halfway through the tour and when that happened it was like… [blows air out dramatically]” MacFarlane picks up the thread: “We’d turn up for gigs and it was rammed and we were like ‘fuck, we need to tell them that Aereogramme aren’t coming’ and they always stayed there anyway.”
But the success they initially enjoyed in America didn’t travel with them back to Scotland, at least not overnight. “Every Sunday night for three weeks we played in a place called Piano’s in New York […] and every time we played it was packed,” Graham recalls. “And then we came back [to Glasgow] and we played Sleazy’s or somewhere like that and it was empty. It’s a bit of a comedown you know. But the album came out later over here and every gig we play more and more people come and more and more people are talking about us.”
Another highlight of 2007 arrived when Jimmy Chamberlin of the Smashing Pumpkins asked The Twilight Sad to support them at the Glasgow leg of their tour in August. But what should have been a memorable occasion didn’t turn out so. “What happened was we got told to be there for four o’clock outside the Academy,” Graham says. “Soundchecks were closed for the Pumpkins and we weren’t allowed in the building at all.”
MacFarlane adds: “They soundchecked from two in the afternoon till half six and the doors opened at seven and we still hadn’t soundchecked. Their egos were fucking ridiculous.” Graham: “We were standing outside with our drum kit and everything next to the queue of fans waiting to go in, waiting for someone to say, ‘you can come in now’. But I actually really enjoyed the gig… Not their’s, I enjoyed mine!”
When the band aren’t taking the indie underground by storm or left hanging on the streets of Glasgow, Graham is kept busy fielding questions on the album’s lyrical content. It ranges from the dark – “These walls are filled with blame” – to the darker – “The kids are on fire in the bedroom.” Is Graham exorcising some personal demons, or is it more figurative than that?
“The songs are all about where I’m from, people I know, things that have happened to me, things that have happened to other people,” Graham says. “I kinda look at them like folk songs ‘cos I stay in a small village and you hear stories. The album’s completely personal but I never give out what it’s about because I like people to make their own decisions.”
And is there an undertone of adolescent anxiety to it, as many have suggested?
“I’ve read that a lot, like people saying it’s about being young and I hadn’t really thought about it to be honest,” Graham says. “I’ve read things saying I must have a troubled background. And I’ve got nothing wrong at home or anything like that, it’s just that sometimes I focus in on the bad things ‘cos it’s a way of getting something out.”
The music is equally challenging. It generally flows between two levels – acoustically plaintive accordion-led folk and ear-splitting waves of guitar drone – but amounts to much more than its constituent elements. MacFarlane elaborates: “There was no plan to say ‘oh we need to sound like that’. We just started doing it seriously and the sound came out the way it did. Obviously what you listen to influences it a bit but it’s not like you think ‘let’s make this a wee bit shoegaze-y’. I don’t like getting put into genres because it’s like a category.”
As for the future, Graham and MacFarlane stress that the last thing they want to do is just rehash the triumphs of Fourteen Autumns on the follow-up album, which they plan to begin writing in the new year when the touring finally subsides.
MacFarlane: “We’re never gonna stick with the same sound ‘cos that would just get boring. We want to develop and develop and eventually just get completely our own sound. Folk that play the same stuff all the time are shit… Apart from The Ramones.”
Graham: “He’s backtracking!”
MacFarlane, laughing: “Wait a minute, I was just talking a big heap of shite there!”
A version of this article originally appeared in The Skinny magazine.