Oxegen 09: Snow stormers
There's nothing quite like a home crowd to remind you who you are -- especially when they're the best crowd in the world -- Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody tells Eamon Sweeney
After U2, Snow Patrol are Ireland's most successful contemporary rock band with more than seven million worldwide sales. They've enjoyed a long association with both Oxegen and its precursor event, Witnness, performing at virtually every festival.
From humble origins in Dundee University, the fledgling band was signed to Belle & Sebastien's independent label, Jeepster. But even though the likes of Bono, Michael Stipe and Motley Crue became fans and regularly namedropped the band in interviews, Jeepster unceremoniously dropped them after just two albums.
After securing a deal with entertainment industry giant Universal, the band released their breakthrough single Run. And the rest is history, world tours and multi-platinum discs.
Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody is thrilled to be headlining at this year's Oxegen and fondly recalls their early appearances. "At the very first Witnness festival, we were first or second band on," he remembers. "At that time of the day, the sun very awkwardly shines straight into your eyes onstage. We were in our early twenties, so we'd been up all night drinking with other bands, being silly and basically preparing for it very badly. You've got to have a few festival experiences like that to realise that's not the best way to do it."
Young bands take heed, as Gary knows too well that while it might seem like a great idea at the time, hedonistic rock 'n' roll antics the night before you play will come back to haunt you with a vengeance.
"We felt like hell before we went on," he continues. "I remember Tom Simpson sweating so badly that he looked close to death. Mind you, we all probably looked the same, but he was caught in a photo for posterity having a whitey onstage. Our first Witnness forays really were just about juvenile silliness. It was so exciting to play on such a big stage. At that time, we were playing in venues where there wasn't even a stage. You'd set up in the corner of a pub and away you go.
"I think at that first one we did play the main stage, so the stage itself hasn't got bigger at Oxegen, just the amount of people that are watching us and the time we are scheduled to go on has. Irish festivals are wonderfully insane and a great crowd of people to play for."
Snow Patrol's last Irish visit at the O2 in February was a typically euphoric occasion with the band and crowd both visibly psyched by Ireland defeating England in Croke Park earlier that day.
"We were all watching the game backstage with White Lies," Gary reveals. "Obviously, White Lies are English, so we kept throwing comments over in their direction and being juvenile as ever. Winning was a really good feeling before we went on stage and it was such a good prelude to a show.
"We had two incredible nights in the O2. Some people came over from the record company and were completely gobsmacked by the crowd, which we'd been talking about for years. Jim Champion, the guy that signed us, came backstage and couldn't stop screaming. He was so blown away by the response that he was yelling at the top of his voice."
We hear it so often about Irish crowds supposedly being "the best in the world". Is it really true? "Yes, it never ceases to amaze me," Gary answers. "You just don't encounter it anywhere else. Some places come close. We were just in Cape Town and the crowd there were very, very loud, but Ireland and Australia are out on their own. I suppose there is something of a shared culture and similar mindsets, not to mention drinking habits."
In the press area at Oxegen a few years ago, I was introduced to Gary's father, who told me with absolute certainty that Snow Patrol's forthcoming album, Final Straw, would take them all the way to the top. "Ha, ha, ha ... My Dad the music impresario!" Gary laughs. "He was right, but I think that was more out of paternal pride rather than anything else. It was an incredible time for us. The success of Final Straw came from absolutely nowhere. It's been a strange but wonderful few years."
Snow Patrol's follow-up, Eyes Open,experienced a remarkably similar trajectory. It wasn't until the release of the second single Chasing Cars that the album took off, just as Run had carried the can for Final Straw. To date, A Hundred Million Suns hasn't exactly set the world on fire, but Gary sees this as business as usual.
"It never happens in the first few months after a release with us," he says. "If it did, we'd think we're doing something wrong. We're touring until the end of the year and there'll be some surprises with re-issues and unusual gigs. We feel like that we're only about half way through this campaign. There's plenty more to come and more singles. We feel like there's a lot life in this record yet. It's our best record and we genuinely believe that."
One of the best tracks on A Hundred Million Suns, one that probably won't be released as a single, is the 16-minute long The Lightning Strike, where the band go out on an ambitious limb with delicate drones and ethereal atmospheric rock.
It's a song born out of a specific event that inspired much of the album. "I was caught in a huge storm in Glasgow one night, and I was pretty frightened," Gary says. "There were 150mph winds and trees falling down, but we went outside the house, and it was also just thrilling. There was this howling wind, but it felt like silence, as if our senses were being too bombarded to cope with what was going on. So the record was born out of that feeling, of two people having a protective shell around each other. Maybe things are terrifying, but they're beautiful, too. The world is extremely surprising."
Probably a heartening surprise in an age of global uncertainty is music itself. "There are more bands around now than any time I can remember," Gary agrees. "Great music is everywhere. You go to gigs and music seems to be completely alive and kicking as a vibrant outlet more than ever before. Life has been tough on everybody, but we'll never lose our will to enjoy life and celebrate it through music and song."
Snow Patrol play Oxegen main stage on Friday July 10