The Scottish/Irish band’s song “Chasing Cars” went supernova when it was prominently featured in the 2006 season finale of Grey’s Anatomy. According to PPL, a UK-based music licensing company, “Chasing Cars” was the most played song on UK radio during the first decade of the millennium. Between them, the Snow Patrol albums Final Straw, Eyes Open, A Hundred Million Suns, and the compilation Up to Now yielded “everyone can hum them” hits such as “Run,” “You’re All I Have,” “Take Back the City,” and “Just Say Yes.”
The title of the band’s sixth record Fallen Empires (2011) turned out to be prophetic. Though it entered the Billboard charts at number five, the album and its singles didn’t make as big a splash as earlier successes. Snow Patrol disappeared like a trail of boot prints in a blizzard.
Six years later, the band has returned with a new record, Wildness. Snow Patrol has just begun an epic, three-month tour of the U.S. So, what accounts for Snow Patrol’s protracted absence? Singer and principal songwriter Gary Lightbody offers a candid explanation: writer’s block. It stemmed from deeper problems in his life, mainly alcoholism. It’s been over two years since his last drink.
“There’s a lot of reasons I’m sober and a lot of people have got me there and kept me there and I couldn’t have done it without [them],” Lightbody says in a phone interview. “The culture that has helped sustain it is kind of an Eastern one. I meditate. I do Qigong. Those practices appeal to me and that lifestyle appeals to me.”
In facing up to his addiction, Lightbody was able to begin writing again. Wildness is Snow Patrol’s first album in six years. Gone are the romance and breakup songs that the band once specialized in. Lightbody looks outward at the state of the world as well as inward at the state of his life.
Yet Wildness isn’t a downer. “Empress” could soundtrack a confetti parade. On the anthemic “Wild Horses,” a cantering acoustic verse becomes a galloping electro-groove chorus. Lightbody’s lilting voice buoys the somber piano ballad “What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get?” Snow Patrol’s longtime producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee (R.E.M., U2, Silversun Pickups) stripped back the layers of electric guitars from previous albums in favor of more elemental, acoustic-based instrumentation. That approach is particularly effective on epic album opener “Life on Earth.” Its six-string chimes are as hushed as a nursery lullaby until startling drum fire introduces a punchy chorus in which Lightbody laments, “It shouldn’t need to be so fucking hard/This is life on Earth.”
The band-which is rounded out by Nathan Connolly (guitars), Jonny Quinn (drums), Paul “Pablo” Wilson (bass), and Johnny McDaid (guitar, keyboards)-is now on tour in the U.S. with a mix of headlining shows and stadium dates supporting Ed Sheeran. Afterward, Snow Patrol will cross the Atlantic to tour Northern Ireland, United Kingdom, and Europe through February. (See U.S. tour dates at the end of the article and visit www.snowpatrol.com for the European itinerary.)
Under the Radar chatted with Lightbody from his home in Los Angeles.
Stephen Humphries (Under the Radar): There’s a teaser video for the album of you sitting on a raft in the ocean. There’s a piano on the raft. I saw that image and it got me thinking of your song “Lifeboat”! Which song is the video for and can you tell me about filming that?
Gary Lightbody: We shot a video on the Irish Sea for a song called “What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get?” It was shot on a raft, with me playing piano. It was January. The shoot was postponed four times because of the weather. We get a phenomenon in Ireland, sideways rain, a combination of rain and wind that hits you in your face in a way that makes it impossible to do anything outside. We had four days of that. On the day that we filmed it wasn’t wet, but it was freezing cold. It was really fun, actually.
Floating on the ocean, what’s the metaphor?
It connects with the song, particularly that song, because of the isolation. That’s what the album’s about as well, that sort of isolation we all feel and I have certainly felt in recent times. With “What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get?” it’s a song about feeling completely isolated and yet all we need to do is reach out to someone. All we need to do is pick up the phone, go around and see a friend. You know what I mean? It’s me telling myself, it’s me telling my friends, it’s me telling everybody, “I’ve been in this place, too. I know what it’s like. I know how it feels. I can share this with you. We can feel in this together.”
What did writer’s block feel like?
The last album was plagued by writer’s block. This one was, too. I’ve spent my musical life writing about love, or the lack of love, or the warmth of love or the disintegration of love. I haven’t been in a relationship since the last album. It’s not something I could have drawn from on this record, so I had to think what else do I want to write about. Because I can’t just drag up old love from the past that I’ve already written about. It just doesn’t feel right. So I have to think about all the things that were in my life that I’ve never really addressed. My father’s dementia, which I write about in the song “Soon.” The world in general, the way the world has been, the way it was. I think this album looks inward further and looks outward further. I tried to address a lot of things I haven’t spoken about.
I read an interview with the BBC in which you said you wrote pages of notebooks of lyrics.
Yes, I hope I don’t die before I burn them all. There’s a lot of gibberish in there. There’s a lot of stuff that makes no sense at all. But every album has, the way I write it, you write a bunch of stuff that doesn’t make the album.
So what was the breakthrough moment for you in the end?
The breakthrough on this record came with a song “A Youth Written in Fire,” which is about my youth, obviously, was spent drinking and even my not-so-youth was spent drinking into my late 30s. I guess it’s a song about realizing that you’re not a young man anymore, or realizing that you don’t recover as quickly as you used to and maybe this is not the path for you.
That song was written after listening to Nick Cave’s “Jesus Alone” about eight times in a row. I hadn’t heard the new Nick Cave album yet—it’s the first track on the album and Garret put it on in the studio as he is wont to do. We listen to a wide range of records and Garret has an extraordinary music collection. I was trying to write and not getting anywhere and took a break. He put that song on and it was myself and Nathan and Garret in the studio at the time and we all kind of went into a trance. I said, “Put it on again,” and I picked up my pile of paper and I said, “Put it on again,” “Put it on again,” “Put it on again.” It was on vinyl, so he had to physically put it on again. I started to feel something happening. It was like something was about to happen. I said, “I think I’ve got something.” Garret said, “Okay, me and Nathan will just head down to get some lunch and bring you back some lunch.” He left me there a half hour and when he came back, the song was finished. From lyric one to the end was written. It felt like the way I used to write, which was always like that. I mean, I edited a bit, but I never really had to worry too much about words failing me.
In the past, many Snow Patrol songs are about love relationships. This time out, this album seems to be more about you facing yourself.
I think that was part of the problem. Not going deeper as well. It caused its own problem because you think, “Oh that’s done,” because you don’t think about it because it came so easily. On this record, everything was eked out. It just kept coming in drips. And therefore you pore over every word, you pore over every sentence, you don’t let anything be nonessential. In my eyes, anyway.
That was the first song that came out like that. But there were also all these pages before it. It was 20-30 pages of writing before it. It wasn’t like, “I wrote that in 30 minutes.” I wrote that in three months. I just started and finished it in 30 minutes. So it’s a strange thing to happen. But it took a long time to write it in an instant. And then other things started to happen. Other songs started to come into view. I finished “Life on Earth.” I finished “Heal Me.” I finished “Empress.” Things started to fall into place.
I don’t have album credits in front of me. Did you write all the songs or were there any co-writes?
The lyrics are all mine but musically we all share a credit for the music. Myself and Garret spent a lot of time together writing initially. We’ll get together initially. I’ll bring in my ideas, melodies, verses, choruses and he’s extraordinarily good at song arrangements, song developments, making it make sense. I can bring in a bunch of stuff and everything’s in the wrong order, upside down, left where right should be and right where left should be, and he’ll put it in the right place.
Sometimes I’ll bring in a song and it’ll be almost finished in terms of his initial stages and then he will grow the song. He’s the best song developer that I’ve ever heard about. He’s not just a producer. He’s a co-writer and he’s a musician. He can play everything. Initially, Garret and I will get together and we’ll put a rough demo together. We’ll work into the song so that, to the casual listener it may sound like we’ve got something close to done. And then everyone else will come in and add their bits. Everybody in the band played out of their skins on this record. I mean, the drums! Johnny Quinn’s drums are nothing like he’s ever done before. It’s extraordinary. The drums are a big feature on this record. I’m not sure they’d been quite as primarily featured on any Snow Patrol record before.
Take me into how you changed-up the sound of this record.
That’s Garret’s purview, really. He had a vision for the sound of the record. I knew that I wanted to play the acoustic guitar rather than play the electric. I guess it’s a holdover from having done the Tired Pony record. I did a solo tour of my own around America just playing acoustically. I just felt very comfortable with an acoustic. I didn’t ever really feel like picking up an electric guitar at any point on the record. It just didn’t feel right. There’s an inherent space and percussiveness in an acoustic that is missing on an electric because you’re feeding the sound into the system rather than the whole machine being the sound. Which is what happens on an acoustic guitar. You hear the plectrum on the strings, you know. It gives it many different textures and virtues. It’s something we haven’t explored in Snow Patrol that widely.
Listeners will hear that right away on songs like “Don’t Give In” and “Dark Switch,” acoustic-based but widescreen and big four-on-the floor kick drum sounds.
It really did give us a good start to maintain that space. On previous albums, where one guitar might have done, we put 10 on it to create a wall of sound. But it also tends to fill every space when you approach it like that and there’s nothing left to the imagination.
Songs like “What If This Is The All The Love You Ever Get” and “Don’t Give In” are very exposed, naked vocals. The vocal on “Don’t Give In” almost doesn’t sound like you.
I had a cold that day in the studio. My voice was sounding like it was wrecked. But I recorded it like a guide. When I went to sing it properly, Garret’s daughter—who is my goddaughter, both his daughters are my goddaughters—she came in when I was re-recording the vocals, you’d better not re-record that. So give her credit for keeping that on the record. I really love it now.
During Snow Patrol’s hiatus, your bandmate, Johnny McDaid, co-wrote hit songs for Ed Sheeran and P!nk. Did all the various side projects help the band members bring something back to Snow Patrol?
Everybody went off and did their own thing. Seven years, we weren’t being dormant. We weren’t in mothballs on other stuff. Johnny Quinn runs a publishing company, called Polar, which Nathan, Johnny, and myself own, but he runs it day to day. He was always really good at that. Of anyone in the band, he was the guy that rather incongruously for a musician, knew about logistics about keeping a proper job as well. Johnny McDaid has written and produced a lot of amazing records and worked with a lot of incredible artists. Nathan started his own band, Metal Matador. He’s from a heavy rock background, so he got to more than scratch that itch being the frontman of that band and working that rock muscle a little harder than he does with us. Pablo, same as Johnny McDaid, has worked with a lot of great pop and dance artists, producing, and writing. Paul is also in Nate Mendel from Foo Fighters’ side project, Lieutenant. Myself, you know, I was with Tired Pony and I wrote with Ed [Sheeran] and Taylor [Swift] and One Direction and got that perspective. I’m perhaps lumping it in with pop music but I think that he does something that has become pop music because it’s popular, but I don’t think that’s his background. Getting the perspective of what it takes to make those records was really interesting to me. I don’t know that it informed too much of what we did on this record, but it was interesting time in my life to work with all those people who are so driven, so interesting, so exciting to work with.
You co-wrote some songs during Snow Patrol’s hiatus. What’s the story behind the collaboration with Taylor Swift on “The Last Time Come About”?
She was making her Red album. Her and Ed were recording the song they did on the record together in Santa Monica, about two blocks away from where I am standing right now. Ed invited me, with Taylor’s permission, to come into the studio and say, “Hi.” I’d never met Taylor. She said she was a fan. Apparently, the night before, she and Ed had been playing and singing “Set the Fire to the Third Bar” together. It was lovely to hear that she knew our music, you know. I can’t remember if I was bold enough to ask if she wanted to work with me. But it might well have been me. Or if it was her who said, “Do you want to write a song together?” I can’t remember. We wrote “The Last Time” together and that was great. The three of us collaborated on it really well. I got to go on tour with her for a gig and we did a few TV shows together. She’s lovely.
So, you’re no longer adrift, safely back on shore?
I hope it’s easier next time. But I’m also not sure it should be easier. It is the reason why it feels so good to me. I’m so proud of it because I put so much work into it. I put so much effort into it. It broke me over and over again and now, when we’re in rehearsals as we are, when we’re playing those songs, it feels like they mend me. They put me back together. So yeah it’s worth it in those moments, when you realize what you’ve done is what you’re proud of. It’s something that can sustain you. But going through the actual process is probably always meant to be hard.
Finally, can you offer any recommendations of what to see and do in your native Ireland?
Dublin is a great city to have a lot of fun in. Great bars, great nightlife, great restaurants. A lot of fantastic history and great museums, too. But you’ll want to see Ireland outside of Dublin. I’m from Belfast. Go to Belfast. Go to Northern Ireland. Go to the West of Ireland. Galway is a beautiful place. The Southwest of Ireland and Kerry is stunning. That’s where we wrote the album “Eyes Open.” We wrote the album “Hundred Million Suns” in Galway. Cork is beautiful. Kinsale is a beautiful place near Cork. Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford that’s the greenest part of Ireland and Ireland is famous for being green—obviously it’s the Emerald Isle—but those three counties are the most spectacularly green place outside of New Zealand. I would suggest that even though Dublin is a great place—it’s really fun, it’s very cosmopolitan and a very modern city—I would suggest spending a little time there and spending more time traveling around Ireland because you’re going to meet some really interesting people. It’s famous for its hospitality. You can literally rock up in the middle of nowhere to a street in Ireland and probably get an offer of someone cooking you a homemade dinner.
Read the article at undertheradarmag.com.