Snow Patrol have been called Slush Patrol, even Snooze Patrol, by detractors. When the Travelodge hotel chain surveyed its customers for their favourite music to fall asleep to, Snow Patrol came third. Coldplay came first, of course. In so many ways they are similar, purveyors of sad melodic anthems, nice young men.
Their lead singer, the Belfast-born Gary Lightbody, doesn’t even have Gwyneth Paltrow as an accessory to make him seem interesting. He’s never had an actress girlfriend, or a girlfriend at all for five years. His songs are often about loving somebody more than they love you back. But their latest album, Fallen Empires, has already sold nearly a million copies and has been No 1 in Britain and America. Their British arena tour sold out so fast that another two dates at the O2 had to be added.
I first saw Snow Patrol open for U2 around six years ago at Manchester City’s football stadium. Whereas Bono managed to shrink the stadium, Lightbody only managed to make it seem vast. Self- consciousness doesn’t work at such a venue. A large chunk of the crowd made a dash for the bar or chatted among themselves. But that was then. In California I saw Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show waxing euphoric about the band, who were about to play. She explained how much they meant to her and how they were Britain’s greatest musical export. They wrote the song that she and her wife, Portia de Rossi, mooched up the aisle to, Chasing Cars.
In a packed Glasgow SECC arena I watch Lightbody cajoling and flirting with the crowd. No big light show, it’s just them up there. Lightbody in skinny jeans that are too big for him, and the crowd knowing all the words to the songs and thundering cheers. I know all of these songs too; they have been fed to me subliminally in shops, bars, lifts. Musos think Snow Patrol’s music lacks edge. Of course it does. It’s a snuggly blanket.
It’s a high-street crowd in high-street jeans. Of course it is. It’s music for everyman and everywoman.
Jonny Quinn, the drummer of the band, the organiser, tells me: “In the beginning we’d been underdogs and everyone wanted it to work for us. That was a good story. Then it did work and that became a boring story. Now it’s almost illegal to write a good review about us. We understand the mechanics, but nobody likes criticism.”
Quinn, the sensible one, is also sensitive. A few years ago when the band started getting big, the touring got to him. He moved to Dingle, a fishing port in County Kerry, Ireland. It was as if they feared success rather than go all out to embrace it. “I did it as an experiment to see what it would be like sitting in a house in the middle of nowhere, because I’d always been in cities. I sat with the drum kit; there was nobody about except there would be these cows that would come up — they felt the rhythm in the soil. I felt I was able to appreciate everything, able to see everything.”
Lightbody formed the band 17 years ago when he was 18 and at Dundee University. At that time they were called Shrug. Quinn was a promoter and in a different band, but was persuaded to join them. Quinn and Lightbody both grew up in Northern Ireland. Both believed there would never be a successful rock band discovered in Belfast because none of the A&R men would come there. They were too afraid of being bombed.
They changed their name to Polar Bear and were signed to the Jeepster label, then dropped, then signed to Fiction Records, an offshoot of Universal. That’s when they toured with U2. What helped break them was Chasing Cars being picked as the theme song to the US hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy when it was one of the most popular TV shows in the world.
I suggested meeting Lightbody in the downstairs lobby lounge of a busy hotel in Glasgow, wondering how many fans would mob him. He tells me that absolutely nobody would recognise him, so he may as well do the interview in the quiet of his hotel room. It’s not false modesty. Gary Lightbody lives up to his name. He’s a thin streak of a gangling man-child. On his feet, he wears battered Converse, one black sock and one black striped sock. I don’t think it’s a style statement. He has a beak of a nose and beady eyes that have been described as poetic. His hair is dark, curly, not long, not short, not brushed. Mesmerisingly nondescript.
“We don’t engage. We’re not glamorous. We don’t do the tabloid thing. We’re not in celebrity hangouts or at parties. People invent or say we are bland, which I’m fine with.” He hugs himself further into his thin leather jacket. Sometimes he dares to look at me. These things hurt him, even though he laughs. He wonders why some bands are seen as mysterious and his is not.
“We have accumulated people around us who tell us the truth. I don’t need to read the press to find out whether I’m being a dick. We all rein each other in. Nobody thinks we are superstars.” Is he so nourished by the band he needs nothing outside of it? “Well, they don’t cuddle me at night. That’s the thing. If you get a hug it’s very over-the-jumper.” The girls in the front row seemed keen to give him cuddles under the jumper. “I’m not looking for that. It’s something in my youth I can’t deny happened a few times. But it hasn’t happened in years and I wouldn’t want it to. It’s been a while since I had cuddles under the jumper.”
There were three years between A Hundred Million Suns and Fallen Empires because of a terrifying writer’s block. “It started as a tiny thing, 30 seconds. I’d already written down a bunch of lines and one line didn’t come. It was like a little thread that pulled and pulled and then suddenly it was a massive big deal, a big hole. It had never happened to me before. The words just fell out of my head.
“I had this idea to write an album that was my version of Once upon a Time in America, where I go from childhood to adulthood, and my brain told me it wasn’t possible. I’d written too long in the one groove about relationships. I felt that I’d said everything that I had to say about it and that’s what frightened me, the new horizon. I’d wanted to step away from relationships, I’m loathe to say sexual relationships, because that degrades them.”
For a rock star, Lightbody is very much in his head. He likes the intellectual pull of love, the chess play of the relationship. “The love thing. That’s what caused the initial jarring in my brain. I had been single for a long time. It’s hard to put down foundations when you’re moving around a lot. Now I’m ready for it when it happens.”
In one of his songs, Lifening, he makes a list of things that he’d like to happen, wistful things including Ireland, north or south, in the World Cup and having children some day. It’s odd that he should put something unlikely together with something that is probable for most people.
“There are things that I would love to happen, but I’m not going to drive myself mad searching for it.” He says he wishes that he could be as good a father as his dad.
“You wouldn’t mess with him. His strength shines through. He’s very loving and compassionate. His calmness is great.”
His father, Jack, still lives in Bangor, near Belfast. “He runs his own business. His stillness is something that I’ve always been without. My mother, she wears her heart on her sleeve. Very kind, but a big bag of nerves and so am I. If I could find some of his calmness that would be great and I’d stop worrying about everything. But I don’t want to change too much in case I’m stuck with a writer’s block again.”
The writer’s block went on for nearly a year. The rest of the band were patient. Quinn says how shocking it was. “Gary has always been so prolific. I would sit with him and he has been able to rattle off 10 songs all into a mobile phone. The worst thing we could say was pull yourself together, so we told him not to worry and we just waited. I think it was subconscious pressure. The longer we waited, the more insecurity crept in, the bigger the spotlight on him was.” Lightbody took various steps to get through it, like turning up at the studio and sitting at his computer to write anything, good or bad. Also, he gave up alcohol.
“All my other albums were fuelled by booze and various other substances. This time round my brain was such a mess that I needed to take things out to see what the problem was. I needed clarity. I couldn’t pile on things that cause befuddlement. Alcohol removes things from your memory. So, as soon as I got clear, I started to write as close as I could get to an autobiography. The further I got from the booze, the more I found what I wanted to say.”
The new songs are autobiographical but wide-ranging, often about his childhood. There’s one about a girl from his early teens. “My first unrequited love. I lost touch with her a long time ago. I don’t even want to tell her that this song is about her. I like the way the memory sits in my brain, I don’t want to flesh it out.” It’s as if Lightbody himself never fleshed out. He stayed in his teenage body and continued to feel things as sorely and as dramatically. He never blunted off his emotions to take on responsibility. Maybe that’s the key to his success. His songs let male fans get in touch with their collective man-child.
Does he stay alone to keep himself in perpetual longing? Perhaps he fears
contentment would bring on writer’s block. Were his relationships always so unrequited? “No, there were times when I ran away. I probably thought, ‘I’m going on tour now, we won’t get the chance to see each other.’!”
So he was destructive. “For sure. I look back now and I see a 30-year-old man-child. There were definitely more than a couple of times that I seriously f***ed up. It could have been a lifelong thing. Another girl I saw for a few years, but in one year we saw each other for a grand total of six weeks, so that whole relationship was conducted on the phone.”
He blames being on the road, yet most of the other band members have significant others. “The band has been my life since I was 18. So it’s hard not to place the band above everything else. I think that’s changing.” The only other job he’s had is as a telesales person and working in a bar. “Telesales was demoralising, especially for someone with a fragile constitution like myself. I had to try and sell people Film4. They were just at home having their dinner, and I would have to say, ‘Do you like arthouse cinema?’ They would say, ‘My baby’s crying, f*** off!’ Nothing had prepared me for this.”
The more we talk, the more I find him funny. He is very extreme. One moment prolific songs, the next wordlessness. One minute he’s given up drink completely, the next spiralling out of control. “If I’m not drinking I’m not going to be taking drugs either. I eat really healthy and somewhere along the line I’ll get drunk, which will mean I’ll eat cheeseburgers, go out and do crazy things and I’ll be back on that road. All or nothing, that’s my motto.”
Once he drank so much it affected his voice. “We had to cancel gigs. I’m not sure if it’s the drinking or the shouting while drunk that makes you hoarse — or a combination of the two. I love drinking and it’s hard for me to stop, but I had to. I owed it to the rest of the band.”
Decent, well brought up, he still has a place a few streets away from his mum and dad in Bangor. He tells me what a great and happy marriage his parents have. How can somebody from such a stable background get so crazy and miserable? Perhaps because he’s constantly disappointed and feels the pressure to repeat his parents’ happiness. His eyes pop at that.
“I think there has been pressure. In the past I was desperate to find somebody to love me, and desperation is never conducive to a stable relationship. And when people did love me, I was not in the right place.”
It is almost preposterous to think that one of Britain’s most successful rock stars thought he would never find a girlfriend. “What am I looking for? We have to share the same stupid sense of humour. She’s got to like Frankie Boyle and keep me on my toes. But I want her to be hot as well.” He loves playing with his sister’s little girl, Honey. “She makes me feel more than a little broody. I don’t think they let single male musicians adopt, but I’m definitely ready.”
There are some grown-up things he’s never going to do. “I don’t drive. I love walking, my bike, running, and there’s plenty of public transport.” Surely he doesn’t mean he uses the Tube?
“For crying out loud, I don’t know whether you’re making a joke. When I’m in London I use the Tube every day and nobody notices. I get noticed in Belfast and Dublin if I go to my old haunts. I am anonymous. The cloak of boringness is very useful; I like it. I’ve been in shops where they’ve been playing Run or Chasing Cars, and nobody realises it’s me singing on that record.”
He says he wants to settle down, yet he loves touring. “You start to develop your own type of tour language that is impenetrable to those outside the tour. You don’t have any deep connection to the outside world, which is dangerous because some of your humanity is stripped away.” Every night, people hang on his every word and give him love and applause, and then he goes into ordinary rooms or on to the street where nobody notices him.
“Life is highs and lows and managing both of those things. The highs are extraordinary and can make you delusional. I’ve been on tours where an hour after the gig I’ve sank so low back in the hotel and the tear ducts start going. I’ve been swallowed in the fiery part of hell. Your adrenalin has gone, your endorphins all shot to pieces, there is a comedown. Now I’ve learnt different steps of avoiding the bends. It involves some stretching and a load of fruit and veg in a juicer.” It’s a schizophrenic life, but Lightbody would have it no other way.