Never one to rest on his laurels, Gary Lightbody has temporarily set aside his day job as frontman of one of the world’s most commercially successful bands in order to reconvene a side project. His supergroup goes by the name of Tired Pony and features, among others, Peter Buck (formerly of REM) and Richard Colburn (of Belle & Sebastian). With the release of Tired Pony’s Americana-tinged second studio album, The Ghost of the Mountain, Gary spoke with us about rediscovering country music, the hazards of being in a supergroup, and why Snow Patrol could never get off the ground in today’s climate.
Gary, it’s good of you to lend us a few minutes. Your current side project, if I can call it that, Tired Pony, released ‘The Ghost of the Mountain’ this past week. You had initially described Tired Pony not as country, but country-tinged. Does that hold true on the latest album?
Yeah. I made a mistake when I first was describing what Tired Pony was before we’d actually started the first album. I said it was going to be my country record, foolishly, because it never really turned out like that. People were expecting country and it never materialised. It’s more Americana.
What was it that stimulated your interest in country music in the first place?
Well, growing up in my house, there was Moe Bandy and Merle Haggard and Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash records. That was the main bulk of what few records my mum and dad had. They had a few Nana Mouskouri records as well. They were records that represented my mum and dad’s music and therefore weren’t cool.
So is it true to say that Tired Pony was always a pet project of yours from those early days?
No, those records at that time were very uncool to me. It wasn’t until my thirties that I rediscovered them in the attic and started playing them again and realising how great some of those old records were and fell back in love with country music. That was where it initiated from, but I guess modern country / new country / Americana, (artists) like Wilco, Lambchop, Smog, Bonnie Prince Billy – these type of people that were more the way the record turned out I guess.
The new record is character-driven. Does that offer a certain detachment, or are there any songs on there that you think could have existed in another incarnation on a Snow Patrol record?
Well, of course it’s going to be coloured by my own personal experiences, but I’ve tried my very best to keep my life out of it. These are characters that I’ve become very familiar with, they’re characters that exist in my head, so therefore they’re going to be coloured by my experience. These are people that have done things that I’ve never done – terrible, terrible things. I kind of wanted to write from their perspective, the perspective of great American cinema and great American novels. I’m thinking Badlands and Bonnie & Clyde and things like that; this man and a woman, boy and a girl as they started out on the first album – an American journey.
Were many of these songs in existence before you came together for the new album?
No, not really. I think there’s four maybe that made the record that were written beforehand and the rest I wrote in the studio whilst we were getting ready to record something else or in some downtime. I mean, the whole record was recorded in ten days so the writing period was very hectic. That’s kind of the way the Tired Pony records are done. That’s the exciting thing about it as well. You bring yourself and your instrument and that’s it.
Is that quite refreshing, compared with the investment that might be involved in a Snow Patrol record?
It’s certainly different. Snow Patrol records take a long time. We put a lot in to it emotionally, physically, and with Tired Pony it’s much more, I guess, frantic and spontaneous maybe. Just because of its nature, it has to be. It’s a different way to write and it can only help me with my main life which is Snow Patrol, which is learning how to write quicker and learning how to think on my feet better.
Sure. And I think this record comes across as collaborative, quite organic? And I suppose with all that input from those involved, as with any supergroup, there’s a risk of it becoming quite complex in the studio.
Not with these characters, not with these guys. Everybody wants to serve the song which is really the most important thing. Nobody’s there to serve their own egos. Nobody has a hissy fit if they don’t get a lead solo on a song. It’s not a record in terms of the 1970s version of it; it’s more the kind of collaborative form that’s cropped up in more recent days like Desert Sessions or something like that, or Reindeer Section or something that I’ve done before, in that everybody brings their own personality in and that’s celebrated rather than people trying to dominate the songs.
It seems that the finished article has a sound that differs a bit from the previous record, incorporates more synth and other influences. You were saying about it being Americana. At heart, do you still label it a folk/Americana album, in spite of the vibe of songs like ‘Punishment’?
Well yeah I mean ‘Punishment’ has a quite rocky beat and a post-punky kind of vibe to it, and a song like ‘Wreckage and Bone’ has a little electronic skip to it. There’s lots of different flavours to the record, but I think the overarching theme is kind of soulful country. That’s the main thing we were going for this time. I’m fascinated by this crossover. There’s these fantastic volumes called Country Got Soul, which are compilations of great country singers and soul singers that have tinges of soul or country in them as well. It’s always kind of fascinated me, so that’s what I wanted to bring to this record. If we started with country and didn’t quite end up with country last time, then we started with country-soul and didn’t quite end up with country-soul this time. Start with a theme and just let what happens happens.
On the logistical side of things, will it be possible for you to tour this material? I believe you have one show in the pipeline, but beyond that?
We’ve one show in London and then maybe one show in America. A few gigs, but it’s virtually impossible to do a tour because of everyone’s schedule. Belle & Sebastian are back in the studio and they’ll be back on tour. Iain (Archer) is songwriting with everybody. Troy (Stewart) is with about three bands. Peter (Buck) is in about six bands, as is Scott (McCaughey). Jacknife (Lee) is producing the entire universe. I have Snow Patrol to get back to and get up and running again for record number seven. It’s hard to get everyone in the same place.
Absolutely. I know you’ve spoken before about difficulties facing new acts starting off today; you must feel in a privileged position, whereby you can pursue these other avenues with relative ease.
Yeah, yeah. With Snow Patrol, next year will be our twentieth year. We spent the first ten years of our existence in obscurity and that probably wouldn’t have been viable if we’d started in the last few years. If we’d started this year, we probably wouldn’t be allowed ten years to gestate. We would have had to pack it in well before then, so we are very privileged, we’ve led a charmed life. The first ten years may have been a struggle, but the next ten, you know, we’ve been very lucky. So yeah, I do feel for bands starting out at the moment because you kind of have to be almost the full package right from the start or you get swept away.
Tired Pony’s The Ghost of the Mountain is out now.
Interview by Killian Barry
Go to www.entertainment.ie to read the interview at its source.