Those who’ve been following closely will have noticed that we have some massive The Twilight Sad fans here at Picky Bastards. Those who’ve been following really closely will also have noticed the band’s amazing recent performance in our Best Debut Album Tournament, where they made it all the way to the final before losing to eventual champions Joy Division. Not a bad way to go down. I reached out after the tournament to see if James Graham, their singer and half of their songwriting team, would be up for a bit of a chat. I could only think of one place to start.
James was so generous with his time here, that we couldn’t fit all of the chat into one article. This is part one and we’ll be back tomorrow with the rest….
Fran Slater: Hi James. Thanks so much for chatting to us. Let’s get it out the way and talk about the debut album tournament at the start. I want to apologise if we sort of blew up your Twitter feed for a while, but it was an amazing reaction from your fans there. I could sense some mixed reactions from you, though. So how was that experience for you?
James Graham: It’s a strange one – I purposely didn’t retweet it when I saw it because I wanted it to be a fair competition for the real winners and losers, but I think you see that the people who like our band are very passionate and as soon as they got involved we got through some rounds that I didn’t think we should have. That’s putting it lightly, actually – we definitely shouldn’t have. We shouldn’t have got through the group stages.
But it is Twitter – and it is about fanbases, and who gets involved. You’ve obviously done something to earn a fanbase that will go to bat for you like that…
And that’s one of things that was really nice about it. It reaffirmed that we have that level of support from people and that’s just a really nice thing, especially at a time like this. We wouldn’t be half the band, and not as many people would know about us, if it wasn’t for that group of fans. They’re so close knit, yet they’re from all over the world. You see them meeting up at gigs and all sorts. And for a band who never expected to get as far as we have – I mean, we never expected to be able to create friendships in the way that we have.
The other thing which was really nice about it, and the best thing about the competition for me, is that you introduced our music to new people. And for a band that’s at where we’re at that is still really important. For new people to find us. We are only going to be able to keep making music if new people are discovering us, so that was a great thing.
And yeah, there were some low points with some negative comments but, man – I need to have a thicker skin when it comes to the internet. I’ve been doing this for a long time now.
But then I suppose you manage your own Twitter, don’t you? Joy Division aren’t managing their own social media – whereas you see everything that’s said. But from what I saw there were a lot more positive comments than negative…
Oh yeah, definitely. And when I reacted to a negative comment I instantly wished that I hadn’t, as people should be free to talk about music and the competition. But it’s the nature of the band’s Twitter and how I am. It is me, it’s not a manager or anything.
But when these things happen I definitely don’t want to argue with someone, and I definitely don’t want to argue with someone about their opinion. It’s their opinion and that has to be respected. I’m just in a place with social media now when I try and stick to ‘if I’ve got nothing positive to say then I don’t say anything.’ But I know I’m fighting a losing battle with that with the internet, but despite that I’ll still just try and put that positive message out there. You’ll rarely find me saying something is shite on the internet.
But I think that’s just from the position I’m in with the band, it’s different – nobody needs to know if there’s a TV show out there that I think is shite!! And actually when I did come back on a comment during the tournament I really liked the way we handled it in the end – both parties handled it like adults.
Definitely. And it all felt like a nice thing for me in the end. In fact, it was the perfect final for me – a current band I love against an all time favourite band. And a slightly lesser known band getting some attention through something we created. And then, of course, it’s hard to look past Unknown Pleasures as the best debut album of all time so it was a pretty good conclusion…
Aye. It was quite weird for me watching it. While we were ahead I was thinking ‘oh no.’ I was kind of shiteing myself. If we’d have edged that I might have had to shut down the Twitter. The shutters would’ve been down. Ha ha.
Well thanks for your good humour and for getting involved – we really appreciated it. So let’s move on. I just wanted to ask a bit about the last year and a half really, since you released It Won’t Be Like This All The Time. I know this was your most commercially successful record so far, so I just wanted to get a bit of a reaction to what has been a massive time for the band…
Aye, I mean it got Top 20 in the UK and it got a Scottish number one! I didn’t get a plaque for that or anything. But yeah, it surpassed everything could have possibly expected.
You always hope when you release a new record that it does a wee bit better than the last one, just so you can see that you’re progressing in every way you know. And I think the best thing about it as well was that it was like 80% physical sales and 20% digital, which to me was just like ‘yes – people are actually out there buying physical things.’
Because that’s supporting shops as well, it’s not just good for us. It’s supporting all the record stores that we went and did in-stores in. It’s a domino effect, not just for the band but for the shops and then the industry – the independent industry as a whole. You see a lot of new music and it’s all just about what Spotify playlist it’s made it onto – but what fucking good is that doing anyone other than Spotify?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve been seeing a lot on Twitter about streaming income and I knew it was bad. But I don’t think I knew quite how bad it was…
It’s fucking criminal. I get my PRS every 3 months and you look at the Spotify thing and you’re just like ‘oh my god.’ I mean, how is that just?
But yeah, back to your question – I mean that was just great, and to have it do better than any of us expected was huge. But it was a long, drawn out process to get to that point if I’m being honest. The record was recorded in the previous January and then it wasn’t released until the January after that. We’d recorded it but then we hadn’t got it mixed – a mixer we had booked in, I won’t name any names, but he went and fucked off and went with somebody else. Even though we’d gone through the whole process with him.
But we ended up with Chris Coady and I still can’t believe we managed to get him because we were big fans of the Beach House records and the last Slowdive record. The Slowdive record was my point of reference for how I wanted the album to sound, even before we got Chris. So it was just unbelievable that we managed to get him and work with him. It’s one of those things that just worked out completely right in the end.
And through the process, whilst we were getting the record mixed, we lost Scott (Scott Hutchison, lead singer of Frightened Rabbit). And I’d had a son just two days before. And then we lost Scott, as well. And the record, I think it was totally finished just two weeks after that. It was just a lot to take in. I mean, I still don’t really think I have taken all of those things in. Processed everything. To be honest, at one point we were – we didn’t really know what to do with the record. It was like ‘well this has all happened, do we just chuck it out?’.
But thankfully the guys from Rock Action, Stuart from Mogwai and Craig from Rock Action, sat me down and said ‘you’ve got to do justice to the music you’ve made, take some time for yourself and go away and really realise what you want. And get this record out properly. Just go and take the time you need and get yourself ready to play.’
And that has to have been the right thing, I think. As someone who loves Frightened Rabbit and had a tough time there myself, not to compare it at all, but when your album came out it felt right. It felt like the right time. And I can’t imagine that you’d have been ready for a full tour at that time…
Yeah, I think everybody needed some time. I think it was only two weeks after we lost Scott that we were playing Primavera. I look back at it, and I got through it, but it obviously wasn’t easy. To even get up and get out and do something was hard. But like I say, my wife and I had just had our son and that focused me more than anything. It made me go, ‘right, you need to do this for your family as well as you. Get out there and do it.’ So, I mean, over the two years of this record coming out and up to this point it’s been a process of me just trying to process I suppose.
Yeah, I can only imagine. It must have been a strange one as well to have had such a big loss, such a big life event, and at the same time see the band go from strength to strength and the venues get bigger. So you’re having that personal success and that momentum at the same time as you’re dealing with something so huge. So how has that been? Has it helped to have that success at this time?
Well I think if the record had bombed, I would be in a pretty bad place right now if I’m being honest. We were lucky that it was received in the way it was because it meant that we were out there and it kept us busy and it meant our minds were on being out there and doing it.
And, you know, I was going through stuff in my own life at that time as well. In 2016 my mum had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. So the whole process of this record was one of learning to be a father, losing one of my best friends, and slowly losing my mum as well. I mean, the record was written before all this but it all seems linked in some ways.
The whole process has been massive highs and absolutely massive lows as well. I suppose, I’m like everybody else. The things that I just mentioned, everybody goes through those things. We all lose people, family members get ill, we have children – it’s not just me. But I’m lucky that I’ve got a way of venting that through my music and that definitely helps. But sometimes, you find yourself very far from home and it just gets to you as well. But we’re just lucky that we’re friends with each other and we all respect each other and we’ve been doing it for long enough that we know that we’re able to support each other.
And I’ve been really lucky that Grant from Frightened Rabbit, Scott’s brother, he’s one of my best friends as well and he’s been there for me through it all. We’ve been there for each other. Our friendship is so strong and he’s somebody I can really lean on and I have. And he’s leaned on me, too.
You know, it’s an honour chatting to you about this James. I wasn’t sure whether to bring up Scott with you tonight, and I didn’t write down any questions about him, but it means a lot that you’d talk to me about it. So thanks for that…
Scott’s a massive part of my life. He was and always will be. If we’re talking about the band, and the music, and the journey – well he’s one of the main reasons we are who we are today. I’ll never shy away from speaking about how amazing he was and what he did for us, you know.
We have to keep that music alive, don’t we…
Well thanks for that, James. Just one quick question that I’ve thought of while you were talking about this – was the title of the album always going to be It Won’t Be Like This All The Time, or did that change after all that happened while you were getting the record ready?
Well we decided the name of the album right around the time when we finished mixing it. Which was around that time. It’s a line from ‘Sunday Day 13’. And what we usually do with a record is we don’t pick the song names, or the titles, while we’re working on it or even when it’s finished sometimes. Usually it’s finished and we look over it as a piece. And then I’ll go over it and I’ll look at my lyrics and I’ll pick out lines and I’ll think which could be the song title and which could be the potential album title. And we’ll list them all out and we’ll talk about it. But this one for me, it stuck out to me as soon as I started looking at it and as soon as I started firing it out to people I was putting my money on that one. It felt right.
And that title has been in my head all through what’s going on at the minute and I’ll even say it sometimes without realising. I didn’t realise it was as poignant as it is. I had loads of messages about it when the album came out and we spray painted the title in chalk in certain cities: there was a girl who didn’t even consider herself a fan of the band and she just wrote to us one day and said ‘I’d lost a friend really recently and I was walking to work in a really bad way and I looked down at the pavement and those words were there and it helped me get through the day.’ And fucking hell, that’s massive.
So yeah, the title has definitely become bigger than us and the record. I’ve seen some people putting it in their windows during the lockdown and that’s just mindblowing as the person who sat down and wrote that in a song, you know.
Yeah – what a thing to happen. Amazing. And while we’re touching on lockdown, I don’t think we can really leave it out of the conversation. How has it affected things for you? Your music and your plans? Are you still able to work on anything or has it been a really big block?
We’re in a position where we only had two or three gigs left, other than some festival dates. We were kind of winding down. So it was going to be a big finish to play those gigs, so obviously they’ve been affected.
But as far as new music and stuff, Andy and I are just in the same process as we would have been if we’d been in lockdown or not. He’s been sending me music. And last week was the first time that I’ve sent him a song back. And he said it was really good, or at least not shite, which I was happy with. So we’re at the very, very early stages of a new record. I don’t want to put timeframes on it or anything but we’ll be working on this until the end of the year and then whenever it’s ready, and whenever we’re allowed back in the studio, we’ll be doing that again.
So as far as that’s concerned, it’s not really affected us apart from the gigs. And, without being crude at all, in terms of income. Because those gigs and those festivals that we had booked in were our wage for the year. I know a lot of bands will be in a worse position than us, but just being honest, the major affect that it’s had on is 1 – we’re gutted to be missing out on the gigs, but 2 – people have to realise that this is our job and that that income just isn’t coming anymore. We’ve had a lot of meetings about how we’re going to get through this time until we are able to play gigs again.
Yeah, I think it’s a scary prospect for a lot of the bands and artists I love. If you’re not a huge, huge band then this is massive isn’t it?
Aye, and of course there are those bands and artists who have just got a record coming out and had a full year of touring planned and that’s just gone. It’s livelihoods. And that’s really sad. I mean, it’s good to see that there has been some help from certain areas of the industry and a lot of people are getting behind bands. And I think the Bandcamp thing has been really cool.
Yeah, definitely. And that ties into my next question really. I was wondering about the live album you released on Bandcamp and what the process had been. Was it always planned to be released like that? And had the album even been planned in that format before things changed?
The album was planned and we recorded the gigs last year, but we hadn’t really come to a real idea of how we were going to release it.
We were going to do something that involved record stores but didn’t necessarily involve a physical vinyl record, because we were also very conscious of the environmental aspect of things. With the last album we released loads of different versions and singles on vinyl and we do want to be conscious of that.
Then when this happened we were just like ‘fuck, well the gigs have been cancelled – we’ve got a gig here and people are in their houses.’ Like, we understand the financial implications this whole scenario is having on everybody so we decided ‘let’s just do this.’ We’ll release it on the day the gig was supposed to be so people can have a gig in their living room, they can pay whatever they want for it, and if they can only afford a penny that’s all they can afford and we’re happy that they get it, you know.
Knowing your fans I can imagine that a lot of them were pretty generous, though…
Yeah, there were some ridiculously generous people. And it’s a really weird day when you put it out like that because you think ‘is anybody gonna do anything?’ But like you say, we’ve got some really passionate fans.
And I felt really sorry for those who were messaging and saying ‘I’m really sorry, that’s all I can afford to pay.’ No need to apologise, that was exactly why we did this – we wanted you to have this. And obviously for ourselves as well, we did it in a way that might get us through the year. But the main thing was to give it people in a way that they could afford – we didn’t want to put an £8.99 price on it and then people can’t get it.
It’s weird as well because last week it went on all the streaming sites, kind of just because we have to do that, and my heart sank a wee bit about that. I mean, I want people to have it and all that but I thought about the people who had just paid for it. But I know they were doing that to help us.
And the people who paid for it will have been fans who did so because they wanted to. I mean I was happy to see it come on the streaming sites because it meant that I had easier access to it, but I was also really glad I’d paid for it and done something to support you guys.
That’s it, I think. I think people saw it as a way to help the band and it was just a really interesting process. People are paying for music, when does that happen? But saying that, even with the last record I think we were really lucky in that the people that like our band are very passionate and they like physical copies of the records. So we were kind of jumping into the unknown with the Bandcamp release, but the reaction’s been amazing.
The Tim Burgess Listening Party we did with it – that totally surprised me. I didn’t expect it to affect me in the way that it did. It just sort of all fell into place with the fact that people were all meant to be going to our gig that night and they couldn’t, and then we all weirdly went to a gig together anyway.
And it felt like a gig really. The closest thing I’ve experienced since lockdown anyway, and more than any of the livestreams I’ve been watching. The only disappointment was that when it was over I was still in my dining room and that wasn’t quite the same as going out in Glasgow, but while I was in it it felt like a gig…
Aye, me too. After the gig I was like – well I’ve been cutting down on my boozing but every Friday I allow myself a bit and afterwards I had to have some more because I felt that same anxiousness I feel after a gig. It was really strange. But ultimately it took me down memory lane. So many people were talking about old gigs that I couldn’t keep up with it. It was relentless.
It was. And brilliant.
Okay readers, that’s it for part one of this interview. Part two followed the day after and is now available if you follow this link.
See you then!
Words by Fran Slater
[…] You can always trust our friends in The Twilight Sad to deliver. Having interviewed James Graham back in May, I know first hand how he has found it difficult to think of ways forward for him and […]