They’ve made a fortune from their gigs, so why did Snow Patrol scrap their hugely successful live show and invite a comedian and an orchestra to perform with them?
The singer closes his eyes and opens his arms, stepping back from the microphone. Five thousand people sing to him, taking over a song they know well.
‘If I lay down, if I just lay here, will you lie with me, and forget the world?’ Snow Patrol are playing their most popular song, Chasing Cars, at the Royal Albert Hall.
The words Gary Lightbody wrote in a friend’s garden have been sung back at him many times, by hundreds of thousands of people during a long and exhausting world tour.
But tonight, nearly at the end of it, he is in a special place. Playing here means you’ve made it. Swept up in the singing, Lightbody is emotional.
‘This is like a dream,’ he says when the voices become applause. ‘You know those moments in life when you look around you and think, “Is it real?”‘
Up in the Grand Tier, hidden in the half-dark, his mother Lynne is in tears. Only a few years ago, her boy and his band were playing in empty clubs. Snow Patrol almost gave up, but look at them now. The greatest hits album is high in the charts.
Chasing Cars has a very good chance of being named the song of the decade in a prestigious Channel 4 poll tomorrow night. So far the single has been bought half a million times by people in this country alone, and the album it came from, Eyes Open, has sold five million copies worldwide.
Another song of theirs, Run, has been a No 1 for Leona Lewis, helping Snow Patrol to become one of those bands whose music gets inside the heads of people of all ages. Cheryl Cole joined in with their last live appearance and James Corden, star of Gavin & Stacey, is standing by the side of the stage to prove he can sing as well as make people laugh.
If they survive this, they can survive the next ten years.
This then is an important moment in the lives of the five band members. Lightbody wipes his face, runs his fingers through his grown-out hair and looks up to the great domed roof: ‘Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t even have imagined being in the audience at the Royal Albert Hall, never mind this.’
Bravery is what got Snow Patrol here. Either that or foolishness. Over the past few years they have crossed the world, polishing a set of epic rock songs that sound perfect in huge arenas. That’s what they do best, and what their millions of new fans want to hear. They have chosen to scrap all that and remake their music completely, with other musicians, a brass and string section and a harp, and perform it at one of the most prestigious venues in the world – all with just seven days’ rehearsal.
If such a risky venture was to go wrong in front of this crowd, they would be humiliated. Not even Lightbody’s easy charm as a frontman could save them. This could be the end of the beginning for Snow Patrol, an experiment that leads to a new direction and even more success; or it could be the beginning of the end, the proof that they are what their critics say – a band with no artistry and only one type of song in them.
The backstage dramas behind gigs like this are usually hidden, but Live was given unprecedented access to the band before and during the three Albert Hall concerts and can reveal all the stresses, strains and logistical nightmares involved in doing this.
‘I like to throw challenges at them,’ says their American manager Peter Mensch, whose idea this was.
It sounded crazy when he said it, in the summer. Snow Patrol were halfway through a world tour and about to fly across the Atlantic to support U2 and Coldplay and headline their own arena shows. They were concentrating on keeping their music slick and magnificent, not messing it up, but Mensch had a different plan.
‘Take all your songs and break them down,’ he said. ‘Reinvent them. Get choirs or fiddle players. Didgeridoos, anything.’
This fast-talking man has eyes that look as if they have seen everything there is to see in the world, but then he has managed Metallica and the Rolling Stones.
‘Why don’t we do an intimate evening with Snow Patrol? No support act, just you guys. Two halves, with an interval, somewhere like the Royal Albert Hall.’
There is nowhere like the Albert. It is one of the great historic venues of the world, whose curved backstage corridor the Bull Ring is hung with framed reminders of great musical moments, such as the 1912 memorial concert for the band of the Titanic. If you get it wrong here, as so many rock acts have in the past by taking themselves way too seriously, you sink like a doomed ocean liner.
Then there’s the money. Anyone who hires the hall has to put up a deposit. The hall’s management asks for a guarantee of the rent and its commission on tickets, which over three nights could easily run into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The catch is that there is usually no chance of getting any income back from 1,321 of the 5,200 seats. These are owned for life by debenture holders, who can rent them out for their own profit. The ticket prices have to be high, then: £65 for the Stalls, up to £2,700 for a group of 12 to enjoy champagne and canapes in a Grand Tier Box. But Snow Patrol had already played London this year, at the O2, so would their fans really pay out again?
‘People aren’t going to be buying Ferraris out of this,’ says Mensch backstage with a chuckle.
So why on earth do it? To shake them up, he says. If they rest on their laurels, a slow death awaits: playing the same songs in the same way for years. When a band becomes as huge as Snow Patrol, they only have a short period of time – a few years at most – when everyone seems to know their songs and they are not yet over-familiar. After that, people start saying they’re boring, unless they can pull off a surprise and do it all again.
‘I’m hoping that as I throw challenges at them like this they will grow and expand rather than getting tired of each other,’ says Mensch. ‘If they can survive this, they can survive the next ten years.’
Four hours to showtime and the soundcheck is going badly.
‘It’s weird,’ says Lightbody after struggling to sing with the Albert Hall organ.
‘This is very difficult.’ The pipes loom behind him but the sound is surprisingly delicate, like a monster with a tunefully wheezy chest.
High up in the organ room is his friend Johnny McDaid.
‘I’ve never played anything like this,’ he says. ‘If you just touch the keys the bellows open and its lungs breathe out into the world.’
That’s poetic, but Lightbody is not impressed with the sound. ‘Can it get any louder?’
Nathan Connolly, the guitarist, is also frustrated. There has not been nearly enough rehearsal.
‘We came back from America, had three days off then started into this. We had a week to put it together, which was insane.’
They thought they were going to have a fortnight with the extra musicians at a studio, time enough to get it all right. They were wrong.
‘Gary Barlow asked them to play Children in Need and they couldn’t refuse,’ says Tara Richardson, Snow Patrol’s UK manager. ‘So they had seven days instead. I have never known a band work so hard. They were doing full-on rehearsals all day, ripping up the songs and rebuilding them; then they were going home to do Australian phone interviews until midnight; then up early in the morning to do Japanese phone-ins.’
Rather than hire session veterans, Snow Patrol recruited friends, including the singer Iain Archer. His wife Miriam Kaufman is musical director to the extras. She plays piano but also sings duets, including the one Martha Wainwright recorded on Set The Fire To The Third Bar.
‘This year’s V Festival (when they stepped in for the absent Oasis) was the biggest gig I have ever done by far,’ she says. ‘My first note was an octave high. I started shaking. I normally go and sit with Tom (Simpson, the keyboard player) and he calms me down. It will be the same tonight.’
She’s not the only one feeling stressed. Connolly, who usually looks like he’s trying to channel both Johnny Depp and Keith Richards on stage, stops playing, rips his earpiece out, throws it on the floor and walks off during a song.
‘I’m much happier in the big arenas,’ he tells me later when we’re in the Green Room with a black piano, a leather sofa and a huge blue plastic bucket full of bottles of lager and cider.
‘This has been great and strange and weird. It’s very different from the five of us and the big light show.’ Charmingly, he apologises for feeling any discontent about his rock-star life before saying, ‘This band always seems to be working under pressure, fighting against the clock.’
To add to the strain, they’re not just playing the Albert Hall. That would be too easy, but also too expensive. To put on a show like this, you need to hire sound, lighting and video equipment and the experts to operate it. Snow Patrol have a semi-permanent backstage crew of 24, including a rigger to put everything up, roadies to look after the instruments, sound and lighting engineers, a security man, someone to sell the merchandising, three members of the all-important catering team (currently preparing bread-and-butter pudding with chocolate and bourbon) and even the aptly named tour accountant Josh Hassel.
Spending all that money for three shows, however prestigious, was unthinkable, so they booked a three-week mini-tour of the British Isles. The first night in Brighton was a disaster. One reviewer said they had reverted to the ‘winsome indie band’ they used to be when nobody was interested. The review provoked questions about who Snow Patrol were. Had they been merely pretending to be a stadium band all along?
Jonny Quinn, the drummer, insists it is just that they couldn’t find the blend they wanted between the full-on power of a normal show and the experimental new sound.
‘We didn’t really have it together that first night,’ he admits. ‘We improved a thousand per cent the following night.’
Backstage, drinking honey and ginger tea for his voice, Lightbody recalls the time when he wrote the aspirational chorus for Run – the song that changed everything for Snow Patrol. After eight years of struggle they had been dropped by their first record company. ‘We had nothing. I was in a flat in Glasgow. No doubt it was raining. The song was me writing about an imagined world, projecting myself into better times.’
Run was a hit in 2004; Chasing Cars came two years later. Like Vienna by Ultravox, it is one of those songs that never got to No 1 but that most people have heard at some point – in this case because of the countless times it has been used to add emotional punch to films and television shows.
He won’t confirm it, but fans are convinced the title of the song comes from something his dad said about an infatuation with a girl: ‘You’re like a dog chasing a car. You won’t catch it, and you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you did.’
Is he still chasing cars?
‘You mean women?’ He’s tall, he’s skinny with big shoulders, he has the timing of a stand-up comedian on stage, but his shaggy head drops at the question. ‘I’m single. I have never got enough time to start a proper relationship. I don’t really switch off from the band. I haven’t got anybody at home.’
He has got famous mates, like James Corden.
‘Their music has meant so much to me,’ says the comedian, bouncing in for the soundcheck.
‘It has helped me over the break-up of a serious relationship.’
Well over it, to judge from his conspicuous snogging of a blonde backstage. ‘They write songs that reach out and say, “I’ve been where you are.”‘
There is doubt on the face of every member of the band as they start to rehearse Set The Fire To The Third Bar.
Then Corden sings. Brilliantly. He grins like a fan and declares himself offended that anyone doubted him. ‘My first stage job was in a musical.’
With moments to go before the show, all 16 musicians are waiting in the Bull Run, bouncing with nerves. Lightbody takes it upon himself to hug each one in turn, then says, ‘This is it.’ The house lights go down, the first cheers go up and the singer steps out onto the stage, heading for the moment when the audience at the Royal Albert Hall will echo his song, he will know this huge gamble has paid off, and he’ll think to himself, ‘Am I dreaming?’
The album ‘Up To Now’ is out now. The band feature on ‘The Greatest Songs Of The Noughties’, tomorrow at 9pm on Channel 4.
Go here to read the review at mailonsunday.co.uk