Time Out staffer relives playing bass for Irish band a decade ago
‘It’s just that you’ve got a bit of a reputation for being something of a…’
This is awkward. I’ve not spoken to Gary Lightbody – Snow Patrol’s lead singer, rhythm guitarist and driving force, and a man who, for the record, I’ve always found to be pleasant, quick-witted and not in the least a bad kind of guy – in more than a decade, and judging by the silence it might be another decade before he speaks to me again. Probably, on reflection, because I’ve just called him a pretty rude word.
‘I… well… erm… hmm…’ He trails off. Explaining myself only makes it worse. I tell him about a gossip website in which he regularly features negatively, of claims of ungentlemanly conduct and a bandwagon-full of c-word-swinging bloggers and tweeters. The silence continues. I thought he already knew…
‘I had an inkling that it was going on – but that’s kind of hit me,’ he finally says, sounding genuinely hurt. ‘I mean, I always try to treat everyone I meet with respect and it’s not as if my friends are going to phone me up and call me something like that. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve googled myself and I don’t think I’ll be dipping my toe into that acid bath any time soon. It will send me into a dark place.’
You can imagine that 35-year-old Lightbody’s dark places are few and far between. Next week Snow Patrol arrive in Dubai to headline regular beach party Sandance, a victory for the promoters rather than the band, who, with more than 10 million album sales under their collective belt, have earned their status as one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Yet I have a habit of being associated with the low points. Ten years ago Snow Patrol was – according to Lightbody – ‘a band on its bum’. The first two albums, Songs for Polar Bears and When It’s All Over We Still Have to Clear Up, which I’d worked on as a studio gofer and bit-part bass player – had received good reviews, but had sold fewer than 7,000 copies each. The band split from their label, Jeepster, home to the cream of Scotland’s indie scene, and found themselves playing to ever smaller audiences, reaching a low point with a gig in a strip club watched by just 14 people. ‘It was 10 years of tears,’ says Lightbody. ‘A decade of missed opportunities and the grind of playing to very few people. It almost had the better of us.’ It certainly had the better of me: realising I wasn’t cut out for a music career, I split for the marginally more stable world of journalism.
Thankfully, Lightbody – who I’m pretty sure has no recollection of me whatsoever – is made of more stoic stuff. Record collections were duly sold, ‘proper’ jobs taken and a near daily doorstopping of labels both major and minor was undertaken. ‘It was never a case of giving up, but it was tough,’ he says. ‘Nobody wanted to touch us. I guess it’s the cosmetic thing of signing a band that’s seen to have “failed”.’
Nathan Connolly was one man who wasn’t put off. The guitarist abandoned a life working at HMV in the Irish capital of Belfast to run away with the band. ‘It’s funny to hear Gary saying it was a band on its bum – to me they were a step up,’ he says. ‘I joined in 2002 and they might not have had a record deal, but they were gigging around the UK – even if it was to only 30 people at a time – and there was this belief, this passion, this stubbornness: “We’re not going anywhere”.’
The band’s mulishness paid off and brought them to the attention of the newly formed Fiction label, an offshoot of Universal run by Jim Chancellor. ‘We were getting rejected by everyone, but nobody was listening to the songs,’ remembers Lightbody. ‘Jim did, bless his heart. When he heard “Run” he thought it was going to be a smash, and he was right.’
The band teamed with Irish producer Jacknife Lee – who helped reform the Snow Patrol sound from what Lightbody describes as the ‘schizophrenic sketches’ of their first two albums into something ‘world-beating’. ‘Jacknife is our little wizard general,’ Lightbody says. ‘He changed everything for us. He started me on the path to writing the sort of songs that were in me and I just needed a bit coercion to get them out. A song like “Chasing Cars” – even the way “Run” ended up – wouldn’t have happened without him. I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be good enough to write a song like that, and he was always drilling it into me that I was. You need people in your life who believe in you.’
The belief – and the tunes – were infectious. ‘Run’ glued itself to the airwaves in 2003 and propelled the band’s third album, Final Straw, into the charts. Things got bigger still on album number four. The use of ‘Chasing Cars’ in soppy medi-soap Grey’s Anatomy helped the band crack America, and the accompanying album, Eyes Open, went platinum in the US and was the biggest-selling album in the UK in 2006, beating the likes of Take That and the Arctic Monkeys’ debut.
After starting the decade eating cold baked beans with rusty forks, by the middle of it the band were bona fide globe-straddling rock stars. So how has life changed? ‘Well, we’ve got better forks,’ concedes Lightbody. ‘You can’t help but think about the band differently. Everything’s on a bigger scale. You have to think about the big-production show – lights, visuals, staging and all these things that never came up when we were playing [Glasgow’s] King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, where you just plug in and play.’
And with bigger stages comes bigger banter: how does somebody who confesses to being a bit shy go about communicating with thousands of people during a huge stadium show? ‘I find the banter a bit more difficult,’ confesses Lightbody. ‘I love a good chat with the audience, but when it’s a big arena it’s harder to speak to them in a conversational way. It’s more like you’re screaming at them, and screaming doesn’t make for a good story – otherwise Jackanory would have been absolutely petrifying.’
Still, stories needed to be screamed around the globe as the band supported U2 on their ‘360’ tour – the highest grossing tour of all time – and headlined larger and larger venues themselves with fifth album A Hundred Million Suns – an album Lightbody describes as ‘esoteric’, ‘strange’ and ‘not entirely successful’.
Having spent years running, the band suddenly hit a wall. Lightbody’s creative well ran dry, the songs stopped coming and progress crawled to a halt. ‘That was a difficult time,’ says Connolly. ‘We never really took any time off until [‘best of’ album] Up to Now, then we had a year of nothing. Gary had writer’s block; there were false starts, abandoned sessions, lots of frustration.’ Months passed and still the tunes weren’t coming. ‘We had to change things, up our game, we had to get better, we had to break old habits,’ says Connolly. ‘We just didn’t know how to do it.’
For Lightbody, the vault was unlocked by switching his muse from matters of the heart and turning his songwriting direction to broader subjects. ‘Obviously love, or the absence of love, is the most potent inspiration of any art,’ he says, ‘and it’s hard to recalibrate your brain to write about something else – but there’s so much else to write about.’
The band feels they’ve moved on musically too – and the resulting album, Fallen Empires, features looser rhythms, with the ‘electro-squelchiness’ that lurked in the shadows of Final Straw pushed to the forefront. It’s an album the entire band is fiercely proud of. ‘I think we’ve made the record we’ve been trying to make for the past decade,’ says Lightbody. ‘It goes into little alleyways we’ve never really been down before. You could call it a little bit slinky, a little bit sexy – and Snow Patrol have never been accused of being sexy before!’
‘These are songs you can move to,’ agrees Connolly. ‘There’s swing, there’s groove and a lot more soul involved. Yeah, it’s fair to say we’re becoming a sexier band… musically, at least.’ And they’re looking forward to taking their new-found sexiness to Dubai, one stop in the midst of a mammoth five-month, 66-date tour. ‘We’re champing at the bit to get back on the road,’ says Connolly. ‘You spend forever wishing you had time off, then when you have time off you wish you were gigging.’