Music Features

The Twilight Sad: Live at The Borderline, London (10/05/2007)

The Twilight Sad belie their name and are in a buoyant mood tonight. After a successful showing at the Luminaire the night before, the band are preparing for the second of three supporting slots in London, this time under the inimitable wooden beams of the Borderline. And again despite initial appearances on record, James Graham, Andy McFarlane, Craig Orzel and Mark 'Man' Devine are undeniably chipper, testament to the fact that The Twilight Sad's star is very much in the ascendancy, and that this has to be the last time they play second fiddle at a venue this diddy. The band come fresh off a well-received gig the night before, despite James losing his microphone to a listener (a feat nearly duplicated tonight - if the success of the album (Fourteen Autumns And Fifteen Winters, out on Fat Cat) brings them anything, it should be some gaffa tape holding the microphone to its lead - and had recorded an acoustic set for BBC 6Music's Gideon Coe that morning, bearing up Scottish stereotypes with as much swearing as they could manage mid-morning.

The set-up there was one they had used before, the last time The Twilight Sad were in London, but bears little resemblance to the cathartic noise of the band in full flow. That bears more resemblance to the band's very early set-up. Formed in 2003 to play a couple of gigs at Glasgow's 13th Note, the sound in those days was very much noise-based. "There was vocals in the songs," says James, "there were some songs in there, there was one kind of main song with a lot of noise around it. After that we just went in the studio, just writing. We didn't do any gigs after that. We recorded just a wee four track demo. Fat Cat wrote us back and said they wanted to come and see us so we were running around trying to organise a gig, they came up and they signed us straight away."

Shows duly organised and contract duly signed, the band released Last Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy as a 7" in the UK and as an EP in the States. "It was Fat Cat's idea to release the EP - in Britain they think a 7" would go down well, whereas over in America it's the other way around." The EP was ecstatically received by the likes of Pitchfork, something the band were unprepared for: "we hate the EP, I couldn't listen to it now, but it did the job. It was just meant to lead in the album," states drummer Mark Devine, "we didn't expect the press at all, the reviews are really good but I don't get it at all."

"Every new band that comes out get compared to the Arcade Fire, oh, they're the next Arcade Fire," says Graham. The Twilight Sad have had to endure a great number of comparisons, whether Arab Strap (a lazy comparison even in my opinion, based on the accent), Arcade Fire ("I think that's lazy as well, just because there's an accordion there basically, and Mogwai: make some noise and from Glasgow...") and even U2, which has gone down like a lead balloon. James has a particular loathing of that one, "that's probably the most common comparison. I hate that comparison because I don't like U2 at all."

Guitarist Andy McFarlane discusses their actual influences, mentioning some less immediately obvious candidates, Daniel Johnston, Serge Gainsbourg, Phil Spector. We come to the conclusion that it's Spector's legendary 'wall of sound' at the heart of it, less the shooting incidents.

The Arab Strap comparisons have mostly come up solely because of James' distinctly Scots vocals, a major distinguishing factor. "On the record, I think that's part of the novelty, [Americans] love our accents; they can't understand me or him, but they can get James or Orzel." Craig Orzel is not there to confirm or deny; he's off "chatting to forty-year old women on the internet."

The Twilight Sad are, as most ordinary blokes in their situation, pretty normal, and not precious at all. They express an almost child-like wonder at Battles' John Stanier's drum-kit, whom they will be joining on the main stage at this year's Pitchfork festival, alongside Iron & Wine, Cat Power, et al. I could be wrong but it seems like so much is happening to the band so fast, it's been difficult for them to take in. They're certainly confident in their material though, although a little reticent to discuss their music too deeply: when questioned on the lyrics, it seems a subject that James (vocalist and lyricist) is none too forthcoming on - "I never really tell anybody what they're really about, but in general, people we know, things that have happened to us, nothing political or anything like that. It's just about experiences. People that I know, situations I've been in." Given the slightly troubling nature of some of the album's songs, it explains a lot about the impassioned performance he gives, his thousand-yard stare and lengthy silences interspersed with frantic beating of the drums and full-throated howls. I ask him about next single And She Would Darken The Memory, as I've never been able to quite distinguish whether lines like "I'm putting up with your constant whine" were delivered in a kind way, or less so. "Bitter! Every one's bitter."

There's been various reports of production duties from labelmate Max Richter, and also Peter Katis. The band are quick to deny this: It wasn't [produced by Max Richter], it was produced by us. Max Richter mixed the EP, we produced it. The album was produced by us, it was just mixed by Peter Katis. A lot of people keep saying that, that Max Richter produced the album but I don't know where they've got that from. It just seems like a really gross oversight to say he's produced the album. Even Pitchfork did it as well, but we got the publicist to take care of it." They're clearly proud of their work, yet consider this album a "stepping-stone" to the next one, which is promised to be "noisy but bigger." Although they rule out the likelihood of using a huge church organ a la Arcade Fire for their next release, they reveal that there's potential for that in the future: "we were playing the Holy Trinity church in Leeds and afterwards we found the huge great organ, so we broke out a bit of 'November Rain'," says Mark. "And 'Inna Gadda Da Vida'," adds Andy; "Jim Steinman is his hero," adds James.

There's not a lot of the Jim Steinman influence as The Twilight Sad take to the Borderline's little stage with I'm Taking The Train Home. No piano histrionics here, rather an intense, moody set showcasing James' wonderful voice, which soars over the top of the band. That said, there's much to be said for the rest of the band - Craig's bass carries most of the riffs while Andy's guitar howls and rages in support. Mark's drums take a real battering, and the sound is considerably more fearsome than on record, which works perfectly - on disc the songs are honed-down and very carefully crafted; on stage, there's more room for them to breath, and the near meltdowns that occur because of it only show the band's intuitive interplay.

But in some ways the show is all about James Graham. Staring coldly at the typically indifferent London crowd one moment, kneeling by the drum-kit thrashing the cymbals the next, screaming blue murder into and around the microphone the moment after, he vocalises the fraught emotions and fractured memories of Last Summer... with far more than even the recorded narrative. Further highlights included the vast, pummelling thrashes of Talking With Fireworks/Here, It Never Snowed, and the almost eerie repeated stanzas of Last Year's Rain Didn't Fall Quite So Hard. Though the band were only on stage for 30 odd minutes in a supporting slot, they demonstrated maturity and poise that suggests that their potential far exceeds the size of venue.