Snow Patrol challenge their detractors
Gary Lightbody tells Eamon Sweeney why he loves being called boring, how a homeless guy inspired him, and why Dublin feels like home
Since forming at the University of Dundee in 1994, Bangor boys Snow Patrol have sold nearly 12 million albums, making them our biggest modern musical export after U2, Westlife and, lest we forget, Enya. They played their first live show in the Duke of York in Belfast to just 30 people, but have since graduated into an unstoppable, arena-headlining force of nature.
What's also noteworthy is how they managed to hit the big time during the topsy-turvy Noughties as both the music industry and the world economy hit the skids. Their 2006 single Chasing Cars became the most downloaded song in the United States. In 2009, participants in a Channel 4 poll named it song of the decade. One other staggering statistic to chew on; it's the second longest-running UK chart single of all time, beaten only by 'Ol Blue Eyes himself and the evergreen classic My Way.
They're one of the most omnipresent bands of recent years with blanket radio play and a sound-bed ubiquity that precious few musical acts ever achieve. At this precise moment, somewhere on the planet, Chasing Cars is humming from the speakers of several supermarkets and elevators simultaneously.
But Snow Patrol have a considerable number of detractors. Only last weekend, in a rare interview, rock's contrarian in chief Mark E Smith of the Fall found it hilarious that in one of those grandiose surveys instigated by Prime Minister David Cameron to establish what makes Britain unhappy, one response simply read, 'Snow Patrol on the radio'.
Manic Street Preacher and flamboyant rent-a-quote motormouth Nicky Wire went one further. On an interview at a festival that both bands were headlining, Wire opined: "Snow Patrol is the biggest divide in Britain. They're probably the biggest band in Britain, but they're also the most hated. It's a weird dichotomy for them. They are utterly deplorable, there is something unredeemingly utterly shit about them, you just cannot put your finger on. It's a desperate form of music, the endless repeated lines, over and over, the same drab fucking little thing on and on and on. They're the great losers turned into the great winners, that's their redemption. I won't be watching them."
"Bless his heart, he (Wire) has got the right to say what he wants," Gary Lightbody laughs. "You don't want to get wrapped with that sort of stuff. It's not important and, in fairness, it is funny. I laughed when I read it. I quite like the tagline 'the most boring band in Britain'. It hides the truth and it's also a little mask we can hide behind.
"People won't follow us around taking pictures because we're boring, well great! We're left to our own devices and we can do what we want. You've been out with us and it's far from ever being boring. It's just a perception of the band that comes from the ubiquity of certain songs on the radio. It's been hard to get away from, but it's not something I worry about too much."
Snow Patrol's sixth album Fallen Empires will surprise many. It's easily Snow Patrol's most ambitious and expansive-sounding studio outing to date. "At the Q Awards last week, a few journalists came up to me saying, 'To be honest, I never liked your band, but I really love this record', Lightbody reveals.
He has every reason to be commended and justifiably proud of the album. Written and recorded in California, it opens with one of Snow Patrol's best ever songs, the euphoric, electro-tinged anthem I'll Never Let Go.
"Every day in Santa Monica, I'd go for a walk and I'd meet the same homeless guys, so I'd get to know them a bit," he says. "The President is about one of those guys, and I'll Never Let Go was about another one. He'd always be singing songs that he'd just made up. One day when I was heading off, I said, 'Take care of yourself'. He raised his fist in the air and shouted, 'I'll never let go!'
"I was trying to walk away, but I couldn't lift my feet from the ground and my heart was lying around in a puddle. I said, 'Man, that's amazing. Can I write a song about it?' He answered, 'You want to hear a song?', and off he'd go. When Gareth and the rest of the band got a hold of it, they turned it into the giant beast that it is. It became the rallying cry and that's why it's the first track on the album and the engine room for the rest of it."
Fallen Empires took a little longer to complete than previous Snow Patrol albums, partly because of a bout of every artist's bugbear and party pooper, writer's block.
"In the end it made me a better writer," Lightbody reflects. "Obviously, I didn't think that at the time and I thought I'd never write again. It went on for three months and it was a fucking nightmare, but the advice I got from a lot of amazing people, including Michael Stipe, was just to write and write and write. So I'd just go off and write nonsense and it was like this stream of consciousness drawing out the poison. Then, suddenly I found myself writing three songs before I even realised it.
"Going to California helped me get enough distance from home, as it should being as it's 8,000 miles away after all," Lightbody says.
"You carry home around with you in your head and all your memories and images of it. But when you're there, you never appreciate it for what it is and that's what this record is connecting with. Even when I'd be sitting out on a beautiful sunny day staring at the ocean, there would be all sorts of turmoil in my head about some pointless bullshit or other. When I got to grips with what I was after, it was like getting rid of all the nonsense. It's a bit like emptying all the files in the trash folder on your computer, but, in fairness, that's easy. The human brain is far more different and complex than that."
What's not as well documented is that for every Nicky Wire, there are countless people who have chosen the band's music to soundtrack the biggest day of their lives.
"The songs have become public property," Lightbody agrees. "A lot of people have got married to Run, which is a very strange song to get married to if they ever knew how I wrote that song. The electricity had been cut off in my house in Glasgow, it was absolutely freezing and I was playing guitar with gloves with the tops cut off. It was all about hopeful aspiration and me projecting out to the world that I wanted something to change. It's a great image of hope, but there was nothing romantic about its conception whatsoever. I love the fact from that moment, which was a low point in my life, people have given it all sorts of meanings. The fact that the first steps down the aisle of a couple's new life together are soundtracked by it means the world to me."
While Snow Patrol are the North's multi-million selling band, the local scene has been enjoying a prolific purple patch of late with Two Door Cinema Club, Cashier No 9 and And So I Watch You From Afar leading the charge.
Lightbody and company have certainly done more than their fair share in giving something back, as Gary was one of the three founders of the Oh Yeah Centre in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. Personally, I was extremely impressed with the facility when I visited the Oh Yeah to interview ASIWYFA earlier this year.
"I always hoped it'd work, but in the beginning it was just about finding somewhere for people to get together," Lightbody explains. "I'm not that involved in it anymore as obviously I'm busy with the band, but there's so much stuff going on now."
On another local note, on the new song Lifening Gary yearns for Ireland to qualify for the next World Cup. "Well, we're in a new dawn of enlightenment now and I'm not the first to say it," he says. "There's not the same divide there once was in people's minds. I was brought up in a household where I was free to do what I wanted. I could have started supporting Celtic and it would have been fine (laughs), but I never did and I stayed out of that whole thing."
It's been said that Snow Patrol have three homecoming gigs; Belfast, Dublin and Glasgow. "Yeah, Eyebrowy took the piss out of that very well," Lightbody laughs. "But in all seriousness, they are all hometown shows. We lived in Glasgow for 10 years and Dublin was the first place outside Belfast to get us way back. We'd play to 500 people there at a time when we were playing to hardly anyone in the UK. Dublin was quicker on the draw. We know so many people there by now that it's like a family reunion every time we come back."
Whatever way you look at it, two nights in The O2 is one hell of a family reunion. Maybe even Nicky Wire will go when he hears Fallen Empires. Put it this way, it's a lot better than some of the Manic's albums.
Fallen Empires is out today. Snow Patrol play The O2, Dublin, on January 20 and 21 (Saturday show sold out) and the Odyssey, Belfast, on January 23 and 24
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