"It was giving Twin Atlantic every chance to succeed, and we got chewed up and spat out..." - Sam McTrusty talks new beginnings, life after a major label and revisting their classic LP, Free
There's a rich history in the music of artists putting out an album to satisfy the contractual demands of their record label.
Marvin Gaye famously promised his ex-wife Anna, who also happened to be the sister of his record company boss, half the royalties from his next album and did his best to produce an absolute dud, while Van Morrison once banged out 36 songs in a single session just to be rid of his contract. The likes of Prince, REM and Neil Young have all been open about doing it too. It's just normally they're open a good while after the thing has come out.
For Scottish rockers Twin Atlantic and their frontman Sam McTrusty, it's the same deal. For their 2020 album Power, the band had signed a two-album deal with Universal imprint Virgin EMI. Originally the plan was the album to come in two parts, but, amid changes at the label, that plan got shelved.
Contractually, and facing the onset of the Covid pandemic, the band had a choice, if they turned in a new album, which would have to be made remotely, they'd fulfil the contract and get their album out, or they'd miss out entirely.
In the end, McTrusty worked with producer Jacknife Lee, who'd worked with the band on their LPs Great Divide and GLA, on new material. Despite McTrusty being in Glasgow and Lee in sunny LA, the remote working we've all gotten used to over the pandemic meant the songs got done and the result is Transparency.
The album sees McTrusty taking on a variety of topics, including marriage, male friendship, the absurdity of social media, parenthood and medication for an LP that's raw, powerful and a whole new direction for the band.
As it turned out, the album wasn't to Virgin EMI's taste and the band are licensing the record themselves, which, as McTrusty explains, is the end of a very long saga...
The chatter around the album is that you almost made it by accident, which is a story we’ve heard a few times from bands who were suddenly handed all this time at home by Covid. Were you in a writing and seeing what happens mode?
“There was a plan, but it wasn’t this. And that’s where the accidental part comes in. The starting point was two songs that were supposed to be on Power, our last album, and were until the 11th hour. When we signed the deal to put Power out, the idea was that we would do two albums that would come out quite close together. A Part A and a Part B with names that related to each other and all building to this grand reveal.”
But you changed your minds?
“The pressure cooker environment of how we made the last album, it made us really jaded and the songs felt stale. We kept working and we’d done five or six tracks for the second part, but it just felt aimless. We weren’t buying into it. We weren’t in love with it. The songs were good, the songs were going from point A to point B and we were solving the problems you have to solve with any song. But we weren’t invested in it. We were doing it to oblige a contract. That created a perfect storm for what became this record.”
“I’d been really paying attention in the October and November before Covid hit and I was telling everybody “We’re f***ed”. The rest of the band and our touring party were making fun of me. They kept telling me to stop being a conspiracy theorist and to get off the internet. So when the first lockdown was announced, I told everybody I’d send them in a year. I took all my gear home from our studio.”
Did you start writing straight away?
“In one sense, what else was I going to do? I had a vague plan that I was going to try and learn more about the intricacies of recording. Then the lockdown forecast, just how long it was clearly going to last, changed that. We needed to deliver a record. If we didn’t then we wouldn’t fulfil our contract and we’d be completely f***ed financially. We had this big tax bill to pay and I’d invested all of my savings into making our last album. It doesn’t sound very romantic to make a record for business reasons, does it?”
Sometimes that’s the reality, everybody has to eat…
“We’re very much a mid-table band. We need to work to survive. We can’t just take a year off. We take a year off, we’re bankrupt. We had to deliver the record, we had those five or six songs, which we didn’t love, but could live with. We decided we’d record two more and we’d make sure we really loved those. Then we could deliver a record, grin and bear it and still be a band. I knew I’d have to work remotely on the new songs and I was supposed to be going to Los Angeles to try and write with Jacknife Lee anyway. The label really wanted me to go. They felt like we’d hit a bit of stalemate working on our own and needed an injection of something.”
And he was the obvious choice?
“We’d had real success with Jacknife before and I sent him this photo of my little studio. I didn’t know if I would be able to work remotely, people were just starting to figure things out. Fortunately, Jacknife was free, all the people he was booked to work with had cancelled. We agreed to do a song and pass the time and that’d get the ball rolling to finish the record. But the song that came was so different and so honest and so much more fun than the songs we were slaving over that it ignited a fire. He wanted to do another song and I wasn’t doing anything else. From that moment on, right up until today, it’s been running downhill and the momentum hasn’t let up.”
“It sounded so much lighter and more coherent. I sent him the songs we’d done previously, the ones I’d made at home, just to see what he could do. He did a full autopsy. I live in this tenement flat in a building that’s 150 years old, my neighbours could hear me talking, never mind singing at the top of my voice. That’s why a lot of these new songs are in a lower register, so to stop them from piercing the walls. It’s an album that I’ve let go of it being one thing, not just a big rock record or anything else.”
“There’s a real light and dark on the album. That comes from the lockdowns, you’d get these real highs and lows. I liked the idea of presenting these big swaggering glam rock guitars and every song feeling like a joke and putting it next to songs that are so beyond sincere they’re almost uncomfortable. I really liked the juxtaposition of all that. There’s a lot of thought gone into the journey anybody who listens to it will go through.”
You mentioned about negotiating with the label, but you’ve now left Virgin EMI and are putting this out on label services. What happened there?
“We submitted the record to them and the guy who signed us to the label got fired. We should never have been signed to Virgin EMI. We could not believe it. It felt like the biggest swindle of the decade. They were the biggest label in the world and had so many massive success stories. We always felt like we'd just walked in the back door and we could never shake the imposter syndrome. We'd never dreamed of signing to a major label, but we really felt like we owed to ourselves to give it a go. We'd only ever been signed to one label and it was quite a confusing one, so we went with a tried and tested institution."
"It was kind of a case of seeing what the machine does. We might think of ourselves as outside of all that, but we didn't really know. Then, we submitted the record and the machine fought back and it got pretty hardcore. I'm not sure why we ever got signed. We were a bit of a pet project for the guy at the head of the label and as soon as he was gone, the fire went out. To give the label some credit, they were trying to diversify their staff and their roster, and we're four white dudes trotting out the same music that's been going since the 1950s. At least they're trying to be an example, but maybe that's just us trying to see the good in them."
What happened to the album?
"We kept the rights to it. We kept the masters. Part of the deal of them letting us go was that we kept the album, so we had a record that was written, recorded and paid for, and it was just sitting there. We revisited a few of the songs and then we finished up and licensed the album, which is something we've never done before."
How did you find navigating the machine? There are lots of major label horror stories out there, but you're still drawn to it. It feels a bit like going to Dubai, everybody knows what it is and what they're signing up for, but you'd still like to try it once...
"I'm going to steal that line. It is exactly like that. I loved being on that label. After 13 years of effort, I had this stamp of approval. I could tell my friends who aren't that bothered about music and all my extended family that I was signed to Virgin EMI. Chipping away for all that time, it was great to have that for the ego."
"We'd spent a long time with Red Bull and I enjoyed not starting conversations with "Red Bull? Have they got a record label too?". I felt like I worked for the label half the time, I was constantly having to talk about them. I never got around to talking about the band. It was nice to not need an explanation. The people at Virgin EMI were great too and I'm not put off for life, I would sign to a major label again if I was given better terms. It ended up being quite a bad deal. It was giving Twin Atlantic every chance to succeed, and we got chewed up and spat out. But that's showbusiness."
You must have felt relieved that you'd done so much work on Power to set yourselves up. Everyone has gotten quite good at home recording now, but you'd done the work already...
"It's like I somehow knew this was coming. I don't know what happened in my head. I'd literally put everything into that album, I'd put my life savings into gear and set up the band's studio where we made Power. All that gear is now in my home studio because we had to disband the band setup we had. That was the first thing to go when it became clear we weren't going to be able to earn any money. Power was a decade of making albums. All that knowledge I'd soaked up. I got to put it into practice. I had to rework a couple of the tracks that were supposed to be on Power just by myself at home and I'd have been lost two and a half years ago. I feel vindicated by the fact that we manage to survive, not just survive as a business and not go bankrupt, but also survive as a creative force and make something exciting."
You've worked with Jacknife Lee a lot in the past, but how did you find not being in the same room? And what is it about him and you that works so well?
"We made the album the same way I'm talking to you now. Obviously, we've worked together before, we're both very driven by colour and vibrancy, if you look up his studio online it's like a fairground. On a level below, he's from Dublin, I'm from Glasgow, which feel like very similar places and they give you a very similar grounding and a real work ethic. The way we worked was I'd start at nine at night and work through until four in the morning before I got up again at seven with my daughter. I'd do a bit more when she had her nap between 12 and two."
"He'd get up at five in the morning his time and work on what I'd sent him. We felt like two magnets just turning over. We kept motivating each other to keep working while the other one was away. I'd wake up to all these notes and he'd see what I'd sent him and feel like he needed to put a shift in. We worked like that for the first six weeks of lockdown. I didn't think he'd want to work remotely at all, I thought he might just want to take a break, but I guess it was a good thing to have."
Making the record sounds like it was mostly you and Jacknife, when did the rest of the band get involved? You made the record as a trio with bassist Ross McNae and drummer Craig Kneale , but now it's just you and Ross...
"It's been complicated. The proposition was so odd. We had a year of work cancelled, pretty much on the spot, but we knew had the Virgin EMI contract whereby if we delivered an album by a certain date then they'd have to pay us and all our problems would go away. Ross has got a family, I've got a family. If we'd been younger guys, we wouldn't have gone to the lengths we did, I knew it was going to drive a wedge between us. It's a f***ing massive bonus that we've got a good record out of it."
"We were prepared to put out an album that we hated. Virgin wanted the two-part album. They wanted to do Part A, then they'd learn how to market us, how to get the best out of us, so we saved a lot of the better songs for Plan B. Five of those I reworked with Jacknife, and a few of them have Ross on. Weirdly, we went back to how we were when we started the band, which was me writing on my own on guitar and being much more militant about how the songs were going to sound. Over the years we've got a lot more collaborative, especially with Ross, Power was practically 50/50. So the timing was unfortunate, I really felt like the next record we'd be writing together even more collaborative. But this record was borne from necessity."
Did they hear things as you went along?
"I sent Ross all the songs and he loved it, so though I was working on my own at 2am, I was letting him in. Other bands I know were just going to the studio, just saying 'F**k it, we'll wear masks'. I didn't feel like we could. Craig's girlfriend works in a neo-natal unit. Brand new babies in incubators. My wife was working in the same hospital in the Covid-19 wards. It felt really irresponsible to not really stick to the guidelines. It wasn't that many steps for one of us to give it to a newborn baby. We just couldn't meet up. It's been difficult to grapple with. I'm the guy who got to be creative and actually make something. Much as I've always been the creative one, it's been quite delicate to sort it all out."
How are things shaping up for you in the live department? Is Barry McKenna, who was with you full-time for a good long time, still going to play live with you?
"Barry will always play with us live. Live it works great, it was just in the studio and creatively we were always on different pages. We played TRNSMT in the summer and we had a big crowd, much bigger than I expected, and Barry was just unreal, easily the best guy in the band that day. He's had issues with that before, especially with big gigs. He's found his stride now. Craig will be impossible to replace. He's such a huge part of our live dynamic. He's this small, slim guy, but a huge drum size. He'd reached a point in his life where he just wanted to do something different. We've got a long list of drummers we'd like to work with, we just need to find someone."
How's 2022 looking? Is it filling up?
"Not really, people are getting hesitant again. We went out on tour in August and then we're doing the tour where we're playing Free in full that was supposed to be in November. Then the tour dates for Transparency got knocked way back and a lot of the festivals have been rolled over from 2020 and 2021. We'll make it work. We always do."
For the anniversary tour, was it something you wanted to do or something you were asked to do?
"A bit of both. We'd been very resistant to the idea in the past, it didn't really feel like it was in Twin's DNA. Something changed in us during lockdown. The album turned 10 and we did a listening party for it on Twitter and we suddenly felt very nostalgic. That album gave us a career, it got us on festivals and we toured around the world. I met my wife touring that record. It's more than an album for us. It's never come out on vinyl either, so that will be nice."
"As well as that, our promoter told us that so many bands are going to be touring all at once that you need to do more than just go on tour if you want to stand out. We've done six albums now and we needed to think outside the box. I'm really looking forward to it now. I've let go of my ego on it. I don't love all those songs, but I know we're quite a selfish band and we've always done what we wanted to do. This is the first time we've done something for our fans and it's the right time with the right reasons."
Are you going to play it front to back? Or do you have a wacky order planned?
"I'd assumed we'd just go from start to finish. We saw the Foo Fighters do Wasting Light all the way through, Dave Grohl didn't even bother changing his guitar and they smashed through it. Then they came back and it was a normal Foo Fighters show where he's telling stories and they played all the hits. Their hits are god-like, but we've got a little Twin Atlantic package we can do. Steamroll through Free and then it'll be a big party."