The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody on drink, drugs and loneliness
As Irish rockers Snow Patrol slowly take over the world with their emotionally charged stadium anthems, their melancholic frontman Gary Lightbody tells Rob Fitzpatrick about his loneliness, how women smell his desperation, how he's dying to have kids and how coming off tour allows him to keep his relationship with drink and drugs casual
The members of Snow Patrol who aren't singer Gary Lightbody (who's sound-checking) and guitarist Nathan Connolly (who's at home with flu), are arranged across a series of generous leather sofas in a private west London drinking club.
They are having a quick break before playing a lunchtime acoustic show for the great and the good -- and, presumably, the quietly workaday -- from Universal, the entertainment behemoth that owns their record company, Fiction.
Our conversation touches on how bands ought to write apps mapping traffic flows in major conurbations (no one knows the ins and outs of a city centre like touring musicians), the pleasures of buying your own bootleg merchandise while on tour in the Far East, and how to survive the sort of after-party lock-in that only comes to an end late the following afternoon. Suddenly, from nowhere, an officious sort descends on us and introduces himself. It turns out he's the owner of the club and he doesn't really know who we are, and he's not entirely comfortable with these five people sitting in a large, unattended room that's littered with high-end booze products. He wrings his hands a little and tries not to say it outright, but he clearly thinks we're an untrustworthy bunch. We all nod politely and make the appropriate noises, and it's only when he finally wanders off, eyeing us uneasily, that anyone thinks to point out that, having sold well in excess of 11m albums, pretty much any member of Snow Patrol could buy this place for cash without thinking twice about it, shut it down immediately and have Mr Fusspot thrown in a debtor's prison.
"Cheeky fucking bastard," someone eventually laughs. They laugh a lot, the other blokes in Snow Patrol, as well they might, given their enviable position of being in one of the biggest rock groups in the world, yet able to sit in a club before one of their own gigs and still not be recognised.
It's not quite the same for Lightbody. When I meet him for a late breakfast, he's accompanied by various label, PR and management -- Q Prime, home to Red Hot Chili Peppers, Muse and Metallica -- representatives. The singer and guitarist is enormously tall, and has a powerful memory. Seven years ago, I interviewed him for a magazine and he remembers, perfectly, the last (rather snarky) line. Happily, he is still a little amused by it, and quotes it back to me at least twice. We are led upstairs to an area of the restaurant closed to everyone else and are waited on discreetly. No one, at any point, assumes we're going to leap over the counter and start hammering the optics.
Snow Patrol are fascinating precisely because the accepted narrative is that they're really boring. Boring blokes writing boring songs. The fact that those boring songs go on to connect with millions of people across the world, or that they play to, and form an emotional connection with, more people in a night than those who consider them dull could ever possibly hope to meet in a lifetime is neither here nor there in that narrative. (Lightbody remembers a T in the Park gig at which 10,000 people were crammed into a tent, and the crowd "began to move like an ocean; the people became waves of undulating liquid". The experience was so profound the band spent an hour or two after the gig shifting between tears and fits of hysterical laughter. "Backstage was like a methadone clinic," he says, before making a face that suggests he wished he'd chosen another simile.) Anyway, they're just boring, and that's that.
"Ah," says Lightbody, shifting in his seat as his coffee arrives. "Well, boring can mean many things. People see us personally as being boring. I don't think I am, but I understand it. We don't cause any ruckus, we don't slag off other bands, we don't court controversy and, for many people, controversy annihilates boredom. If you're shagging your way up and down the red carpet and calling everyone cunts then you can't be boring, but we hide in the shadows. Some bands do that and are seen as mysterious. We're seen as boring."
In reality, of course, Belfast-born Lightbody is very unboring. Some 17 years ago, aged 18, he formed a band after enrolling at Dundee University. This group were as indie as can be, and were called Shrug. They released an EP that featured a song about yoghurt. They changed their name to Polar Bear and released another EP, then changed their name to Snow Patrol and signed to Jeepster, whose first signing was Belle & Sebastian, though the label enjoyed rather less success with Looper, Salako or the Gentle Waves. Or, indeed, Snow Patrol, who initially proved so unpopular that Jeepster dropped them in 2001. It would be more than two years before they were signed by Fiction, and then another year before they actually sold any significant number of records.
Since then the band have been touring the planet's enormodomes -- often with U2 -- chipping away at a specific sort of melodic, euphoric melancholia that has been so successful that Lightbody himself readily admits that past hits such as Run and Chasing Cars are now globally ubiquitous Modern Rock Anthems.
"I'm aware they're like nails down a blackboard to some people," he says, with a smile. "I do want to connect with people, even if I'm writing a really personal thing. Part of me must want my songs to be universal."
Snow Patrol are now on album five, a place few bands reach any more. Fallen Empires was recorded in Santa Monica with long-term producer Garret "Jacknife" Lee who has also worked with U2, REM and Weezer. Leaving behind what Lightbody calls, "the submarine environment" of the normal recording studio, this record was created in Lee's home, a place where huge windows look out on the Pacific ocean on one side and the Topanga mountains on the other. Lee's children -- Lightbody's godchildren -- would wander in and out, or sit colouring quietly while the band played.
"There was more laughter than ever before," Lightbody says. "This is the first in a new wave of albums -- we went to the sunshine and made a sunshine record. It's not a dance album, but there are electronic elements."
It's not exactly your dubstep record though, is it? "No!" he says, "but I love [electronic musician] Burial. We actually tried to get him to do something on this album."
Despite all the sunshine and laughter, the album's most powerful moments are those where the melancholy holds the whip hand over the euphoria. Those Distant Bells, The President and recent single This Isn't Everything You Are are all graceful, moving pieces, while Lifening and The Garden Rules have the stillness and poise of prime-time glum-rock heroes such as San Francisco's American Music Club or even Red House Painters.
"Well, there are moments where I'm still crippled with fear and sadness, and that's where those songs come from," Lightbody says.
What's the overriding emotion? "Loneliness," he says. "I'm on my own a lot."
The gnawing loneliness of the young, good-looking, internationally acclaimed rock star?
"I know," he grimaces. "But when I try and meet someone, it's like I'm trying too hard, and women can smell that desperation. In the past there have been times when I was really lonely. It's easy to meet people, but it's hard to keep things going. When you meet people and you have a week together then you're off on tour for nine weeks, that's hard. Now I am at my happiest when I'm in the world, when I'm around other people. Sitting at home on my own, I fester. Some people get home from tour and get all creative. I just sit there and think: 'Where is everybody?' It's pathetic in a way."
Lightbody says he likes to watch Deadliest Catch on TV or simply wander up to the local park. His best friends wouldn't even mention the band and when they start making fun of him he says it's like being at school. But you can't help but wonder if the absurd peaks he experiences being the leader of a big rock band make it harder to deal with the grinding mundanities of everyday life.
"Oh no, I love the grinding mundanities," he says. "If the tour went on 365 days of the year it would kill me. The time between shows saves your life, it shows you what life is actually like, while the American tours -- which can be up to 10 weeks -- are the ones where people fall apart. Leave me out there on the road, and I would disappear for ever into some really serious substance abuse. Instead I maintain this casual relationship that I have with the drugs and the drink."
In the song Lifening, Lightbody constructs a long list of the things he most desires from life. Ireland ("North or South") in the World Cup, Teenage Fanclub on the jukebox and "the birds and the bees" are all in there, while later on he says what's important is "to share what I've given, some kids eventually".
"That song is really about the line, 'to be a father like my dad'," he says. "That's probably the most personal thing I've ever written. I want kids for sure. I wasn't sure men had biological clocks, but I can hear mine so fucking loudly, it's right behind my eyes. But they rarely let single guys in rock bands adopt, and that's not actually a bad policy, is it? I know that my moral compass is still spinning randomly, but I want to rediscover the playfulness and innocence I had as a kid. That time when I could just round around, covered in mud, laughing out loud and not giving a shit about anything."
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