It takes a brave band to make a bold change in their sound on their sixth album – even more so when it’s made and released in the middle of a pandemic. But that’s exactly what Twin Atlantic have done with their challenging new LP, ‘Transparency’. Recorded at home with a producer on the other side of the world, the record was also made against the backdrop of Twin Atlantic being dropped by their record label and dealing with the departure of a long-serving band member.
Frontman Sam McTrusty admits to NME that he “has a headache” even talking about the story behind ‘Transparency’. And we haven’t even mentioned yet how the new album’s first few singles polarised their fanbase. The preview tracks, which were released between August and December, debuted the two-piece’s striking new sound and a change in vocal delivery from McTrusty; their traditional rock style making way for electronic drums and spoken-word-inspired vocals, with lyrics that skewer pop culture as well as mimic it.
Many TA fans were therefore unsure of what to expect from the full album when it arrived earlier this month, but we can reassure any doubters that they’re in for a pleasant surprise: ‘Transparency’ still features plenty of songs that sound like the Twin Atlantic they know and love.
In the latest instalment of NME’s ‘In Conversation’ series, we spoke with McTrusty as he tried to determine exactly how the band ended up with a record as daring as ‘Transparency’.
The ‘Transparency’ singles were a red herring in terms of Twin Atlantic’s current sound
Singles ‘Get Famous’, ‘Bang On The Gong’ and ‘One Man Party’ received mixed reviews from TA’s fans as they veered away from the band’s traditional sound. McTrusty now explains that he wanted to keep people on their toes. “I quite like that the four singles that were out before [the album] led people on this other path,” he grins. “It meant the first song on the album hits even harder. It was a really deliberate move.”
The opening track, ‘Keep Your Head Up’, is a deeply personal song. “It’s about male friendship and mental health, and I’d never really written a song about either,” he says. “I’d always disguise that with a love story between a boy and a girl, or metaphors of myself like ‘I’m driving a car’ or whatever. I tried to do the whole Springsteen cinematic metaphor thing.”
McTrusty also says that he and Ross McNae got to what they thought was the end of the record, but then found that something was missing. “I knew we didn’t really have a song that represented the theme of the album yet. So that’s where ‘Keep Your Head Up’ came in, and it was really purposefully written to try and have a song to tie the thread that was going through the record as a lyrical theme.”
Recording ‘Transparency’ was stressful, but rewarding
Recording at home mid-pandemic with a young baby and a student nurse wife for company was both a blessing and a curse, says McTrusty: “In a logistical sense, it was absolute fucking hell. But in a creative sense, it was the most freeing, fun, revealing thing that we’ve done yet.”
With producer Jacknife Lee dialling into the sessions remotely from LA, the eight-hour time difference between the US and Glasgow complicated things further – as did McTrusty’s living situation at the time.
“I was in a two-bedroom all-tenement flat in Glasgow, and the buildings are over 150 years old,” he recalls. “I’ve developed this [vocal] style where our choruses are really big, but you can’t do that when you’ve got a baby sleeping in the next room. I could hear my neighbours just talking through the wall, so I couldn’t really get to the chorus and do the whole Scottish Axl Rose thing.” He stops, then catches himself: “I don’t know where I’ve pulled that [comparison] in from! I’ve never heard anyone say that about us. Watch that be the first line of Wikipedia now.”
Twin Atlantic often concealed the times when things weren’t going so well
From an outsider’s perspective, things seemed to be going swimmingly for Twin Atlantic pre-pandemic. But McTrusty says it wasn’t always the case: “You always have bumps in the road, but we’ve always strived to look super-powerful. I don’t mean that in a sinister way: I just mean we wanted to look like we know what we’re doing.”
The frontman thinks the band’s origins probably had a lot to do with that outlook, as there wasn’t much of a community spirit to draw from at the beginning. “When we were starting out it was a kill-or-be-killed mentality, and that’s probably a really bad thing. Parts of that stayed with us when we were then hiding all the really interesting stuff about being in a band. We were like, ‘No, sweep that under the rug’ – which is partly why the new album’s called ‘Transparency’ because we’re trying to lift the veil on that a little bit.”
McTrusty says that Twin Atlantic have always been keen to avoid falling foul of stereotypes: “We’re now real family people; we’re not partying every night. We kicked the absolute fucking shit out of our 20s, way more than we ever probably let people know because you don’t want to be a Scottish stereotype, either. So we always used to hide that side of things, too.”
‘Transparency”s sound was unavoidably inspired by the pandemic and being dropped by their label
The circumstances that ‘Transparency’ was recorded in were less than ideal, but McTrusty says Twin Atlantic had no other choice. “We couldn’t just be like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll take two years off’. We didn’t have a choice. We’d just got dropped by our label at the time as well, which was a bit of a curveball for us,” he recalls. “That was a gut punch: to be in the midst of trying to fix something to then be dropped by basically the biggest record label in the world.”
Saying that the “rug was pulled from under our feet”, McTrusty continues: “I know this sounds like, ‘Oh fucking poor us, boo-hoo, I’m in a band’. That’s like 10 million people around the planet’s dream job and I get to do it – so I’m not looking for sympathy, just trying to tell the truth. That is why we made the album: we needed it because [we had] bills to pay and shit, and that’s the reality of being a mid-level band.”
‘Transparency’ candidly addresses McTrusty’s mental health struggles
While touring their fifth album ‘Power’, McTrusty started to struggle with an unknown illness and his mental health deteriorated. “I had a kind of private mental breakdown – I mean, they’re all serious in their own right, but I’m still downplaying it,” he says. “It’s such an alien concept to me. I hit a brick wall in my mind, then my mind was shutting down my body. We were having doctors come out to the studio, and I was trying to walk on stage saying to the guys, ‘I can’t fucking do that, I’m going to faint, I’m going to be sick’. Still to this day, I don’t really know what that was.”
To compound those battles further, the coronavirus pandemic then hit. “Then it was, ‘Oh, my god, I’m gonna be bankrupt next week. We can’t tour, we’re not doing any festivals. Everything’s fucked,'” McTrusty recalls of his thought process at the time, which impacted his subsequent songwriting outlook. “I just wasn’t really in control of my thoughts, I don’t think. A year later I was reading back through the lyrics like, ‘Oh my god, man, you were really decompressing, organising your mind and coming to terms with a lot of things on the introspective songs [on the record]’.”
Twin Atlantic’s new album ‘Transparency’ is out now.