Aberdeen sits at the top of Scotland, farther north than even the Highlands, and on gray days the city looks almost apocalyptic. This isn't the end of the world, but it's the edge of it it must be and the Northern Lights shine their brightest here, all blue and pink and green. Toward the end of the year, the sun sets at 2 p.m. Every day, the city's granite buildings gleam with rain and streetlight.
James Graham's mother and father are each from Aberdeen, and Graham romanticizes the place about as much as any young rocker romanticizes his parents' hometown. Which is to say: not much at all. "I still support the football team," he volunteers.
These days, Graham and his bandmates in the Twilight Sad call Glasgow home. Since the release of their much-lauded debut album, Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters, the Scottish musicians have toured tirelessly. They rocked all of the big festivals: CMJ, Pitchfork, Siren, South by Southwest. They've played nearly as many American dates as they have British ones, thanks to glowing stateside reviews and constant support from their label, FatCat. On this fall tour, though, there are just eight U.S. dates, and St. Louis is lucky to have snagged one. Despite the demanding tour schedule, Graham remains upbeat and enthusiastic; this is a man in love with music. And when the band goes back to Glasgow in December, it won't be to take a break.
"We'll take off maybe a week at most," Graham says. "I don't really want to take time off. We've started on a few ideas [for a new album]. So far it's just me and the guitarist [Andy MacFarlane]. There's been no time to even work on it in the studio. Next year we'll be taking time out to write and record again. I'm excited about it what we've come up with so far is a big step forward."
Considering that Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters dazzled even the most cynical music critics the anthemic LP frequently draws words like "bombastic" and "exhilarating" into its orbit it's hard to imagine a "big step forward" would even be possible. But if anyone can do it, it's these four musicians, who have youth (Graham, the lead singer, is just 23) and abundant talent on their side.
"The first album, those nine songs, will always be a stepping stone," Graham says. "Now we've had time to think about it, to lift everything up a level. It's louder, noisier, but it's still quite melodic." He pauses and laughs. "Eh, it could be rubbish."
Not likely. What makes Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters so remarkable is its outsized, angry beauty. Each song swells with the emotional intensity of a lovers' quarrel, with the sorrow of a childhood dream shattered. With his powerful voice and thick Scottish brogue, Graham gives chilling import to even the simplest lyrics. "So where are your manners?" he sing-screams toward the end of album-opener "Cold Days from the Birdhouse," his voice at once heartbroken and menacing.
Despite the Serious Music (swirling, richly layered instrumentals expertly mixed by Interpol producer Peter Katis) and the Serious Lyrics (death, lost love, squandered innocence), the Twilight Sad is a band having one hell of a good time.
"We're on tour with our friends," Graham says, referring to U.K. opening act and fellow Glaswegians Frightened Rabbit. "Every day is just a lot of fun."
He sneezes, then apologizes. "Sorry. There was a festival on at the weekend. We went a bit crazy. We've got a rule now that we're not allowed to get drunk before we play. A lot of people have written things, have written that I've been drunk onstage. I haven't been I just look like an idiot all of the time. We might look like we're drunk, but we're not. But after the show, we will be!"
Graham, who considers the United States his "second home" on account of all the dates the Twilight Sad has played here, is looking forward to his first trip to St. Louis. He's reserving judgment on the hometown brew, though.
"When we go to America, the beer's a bit weak for us," he explains. "So we just drink twice as much. It works out in the end."
Graham's fun-loving attitude and the fact that he punctuates much of what he says with laughter may seem a bit at odds with lyrics like "Does your fear not grow when you see that you're all mine/See that you're all mine with a knife in your chest." But it's precisely this juxtaposition that makes the Twilight Sad so charming. These are guys who make staggeringly beautiful, deeply affecting rock music, and then go home and hang out with their families. In fact, Graham still lives with his parents.
"They're putting up with me just now," he says with yet another laugh. "It's free, good food, a good bed. My parents are huge supporters. They come to every show they can, take things home from gigs in Glasgow. Our families feel this is a worthwhile thing to be doing nobody's been told to get a real job yet. Being in a band is the best 'real job' there is."
Graham and his bandmates put as much thought into their live performances as they do their studio work. It takes serious effort to bring the swirling sound of Fourteen Autumns to a live set, but the Twilight Sad is up to the task.
"There are only four of us onstage: me, drums, bass, guitar," Graham explains. "There's no accordion, no pianos. It's a different experience we wanted it to be a different experience, because anybody could replicate a record onstage. I'd rather sit in the house and listen to the record if somebody's going to do that. Live, everything's a lot noisier, and the songs are different because we haven't got the other elements."
The touring life agrees with Graham: always a new city, new friends, new fans. The Twilight Sad might never be the rock stars they deserve to be, but that doesn't seem to bother Graham, who's as happy on a couch as he is in a hotel.
"We've got friends in lots of places, so if we can't find a place to stay we just stay at their house," Graham says. "Sometimes you find yourself lying on a kitchen floor in a sleeping bag, shivering. We're paying our dues."
When the Twilight Sad's drummer, Mark Devine, begins sound-check in the background, Graham realizes it's time to go. The band is just beginning its fall tour. At this moment, the quartet's in Aberdeen. It's the edge of the world to some people; to others, like the Twilight Sad, it's a perfectly familiar place.
"It's gray here," Graham says. "I like it."