'I started feeling a wave of self-hatred'... Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody
Snow Patrol are back with a new album after a seven-year hiatus. Frontman Gary Lightbody tells Craig McLean about his battles with addiction and depression, and how he's adjusting to a booze and drug-free life
In a beachside restaurant in Los Angeles, Gary Lightbody, the lead singer and songwriter of the multimillion-selling band Snow Patrol, is telling me about his sinus problems.
"The doctor found massive sinus infection, both sinuses, eye infection, ear infection… my whole head was basically a mess," he confides.
There is something about these ailments that doesn't sound very rock'n'roll - fitting perhaps for a band that has enjoyed huge success, with more than 10 million album sales and two global hit singles, 'Run' and 'Chasing Cars', since its breakthrough in 2003, but has been dubbed "middle of the road" by sneerier critics.
But these recent medical problems are just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the 41-year-old from Co Down has a far darker story to tell than his radio-friendly music would suggest. Embarking on a round of publicity and having to explain the seven-year gap between Snow Patrol's last album and the band's new LP Wildness, due out next month, he has decided to open up. The truth, he says, is that he has been battling depression, depression so severe that it brought him to the brink of suicide.
"Yeah, I thought about not existing," he says, almost choking on the words. "I just felt really, really sluggish… my will to live had kinda ebbed away."
To those who have never been affected by depression, it may sound far-fetched. After all, Lightbody has fulfilled his childhood dream of being a rock star, enjoyed more success than he ever thought possible and become extremely rich to boot. But, of course, depression doesn't work like that.
Lightbody has been struggling with anxiety since his teenage years growing up in Bangor where he felt alienated from his surroundings.
"Seeing what was happening in Northern Ireland at the time, not feeling any connection to it at all, having been brought up by mum and dad to not give a crap what anybody is [in religious terms] - you can't comprehend in your young brain why people are so angry at each other to the point where they'd kill each other.
"I just used to think, 'I don't want to be here.' And that took root. And it's something I've fought with my whole life."
In adulthood, the "existential" aspect to that desire to "not be here" took on blacker hues, including drug and alcohol abuse. In the early Noughties, after Snow Patrol were dropped by their record label following two unsuccessful albums, and before they were signed by Universal and broke through with 'Run', Lightbody went off the rails, consumed with self-hatred. On one occasion, he fell down a flight of stairs and almost died after a drinking session. Success kept his demons at bay but then, after finishing the tour for their last album, 'Fallen Empires', at the end of 2012, Lightbody moved to Santa Monica, where he still lives, and started drinking heavily again.
In fact, it took a health scare in 2016 to bring him to his senses. "I was in the gym, reached down, touched my toes, came back up again… and the whole place started wobbling."
An emergency medical examination revealed the infections in his ears, eyes and sinuses - all symptoms of the cocaine and alcohol he had been putting into his system. Reluctant to have an operation, Lightbody instead took himself to an acupuncturist in LA, who recommended a month-long course of treatment.
"She gave me acupuncture, and I calmed my whole life down - stopped drinking, stopped taking drugs. Then I went back, got another X-ray, and it was completely clear."
He stopped drink and drugs on the spot? "Yeah. And I haven't touched them since." Now, "any time there's a TV show that has people drinking, and I think, 'oh, that looks good', my brain will immediately remind me of my last hangover, which was horrific. And I just go, 'Eurrgh, I don't want that.'"
However, he's by no means fixed: in fact sobriety created its own problems, forcing him to deal with a "bubbling up" of emotions he'd been repressing.
"I just started feeling this wave of self-hatred," he admits. He started avoiding friends' texts and phone calls. "Then people start landing at your door, and you don't let them in. And they're fearing the worst," he says.
How close did he get to suicide? Lightbody says he thought about "not existing" but didn't "think about how to get there".
"The thing I realise about depression now that I didn't really properly understand before is: you don't get through it on your own."
Slowly, steadily, Lightbody faced up to his mental illness. He started seeing a psychotherapist, continued with acupuncture and took up meditation and qigong ("a slow martial art").
Not surprisingly, Wildness feels more intense than former Snow Patrol albums. There are powerful songs about addiction ('A Youth Written in Fire'), loneliness ('What if This is All the Love You Ever Get?') and his father's dementia ('Soon'). But it also boasts a set of melodic and sweeping tunes that will please the band's many fans.
I ask Lightbody, who is tall, lean, and looking physically fit, how he has always managed to produce such uplifting anthems when he has been battling the sort of dark thoughts he has just described.
"I think that's the life that I wanted," he says. "I think those were the things I was telling myself… I mean: 'Light up, light up…'" he says, recounting the chorus of 'Run', "those lines were probably aimed at me more than anybody. I was living in a shit flat in Glasgow, the electricity had just gone off - and I was literally, literally, trying to bring light back into my life.
"So it's music as therapy, even though it may have seemed lighter than I was."
As we speak, it's the calm before the storm. Lightbody will soon begin a high-pressure comeback campaign for his long-mothballed band. In the modern music industry, seven years is a very long time away. But the songwriter says he is ready for the challenge.
"Winston Churchill had a great name for depression: his black dog. And I think that was probably it - it was just an animal of some sort that just lived with me… and that frightened me.
"Now I understand you have to put your arm around it. The only way to conquer a fear is to face it, and make friends with it, because then it doesn't have any power over you."
Snow Patrol play Dublin's Olympia on May 15 and Wildness is released on May 25