Gary Lightbody is one of rock’s good guys. Easy going, affable and a real advocate for rising Northern Ireland musical talent, the Snow Patrol frontman is always good company, happy to take the time and talk about whatever you want.
Everybody has a tipping point, however, and as we sit down in the Oh Yeah centre in downtown Belfast to discuss the band’s forthcoming SSE Arena gigs, I remind him of the one question he must have grown completely sick and tired of being asked in recent times.
“When’s the new stuff coming out?” was something he heard day in day out for years. He smiles as he remembers the pressure that built up over the seven long years between the band’s Fallen Empires album and Wildness, which finally surfaced earlier this year.
“I didn’t really have an answer for anyone other than, ‘It’s coming,'” he says laughing at the memory of the endless grilling he received every day. “It was a tough record to crack but thank God it’s done, it’s out and we’re proud of it.”
The struggle to nail that big comeback album came at a severe cost, though. Tormented by full-blown writer’s block, he fell into a depression that he found almost impossible to shake off. When it got really bad, he couldn’t even listen to music.
“I was too afraid of it,” he says with typical honesty. “When you can’t write it, you don’t want to hear it. My guitar would just sit in the corner, just staring at me, just accusingly saying, ‘Come and play me, I dare you.'”
For a man who used to write hit songs almost for fun, the fact that the well had suddenly dried up was hard to come to terms with.
“The day I wrote Chasing Cars,” the 42-year-old singer says of the band’s most globally successful time around the Eyes Open album in 2006, “I wrote nine other songs within two hours and five of them ended up on the album.”
Going from being so prolific to not being able to write at all threw the Bangor-born musician into some deeply dark places.
“I’d always struggled with depression for years but it was undiagnosed. I’d be the life and soul of the party when I was out and then when I was by myself I’d just be down in this pit that I wasn’t able to get out of. I just thought that’s the way life was. You had ups and you had downs and you dealt with your downs by self-medicating.” That self-medicating with drink and drugs got worse as the endless slog of touring and recording continued.
“Everything went mental,” he says of the destructive cycle he found himself in after international success came calling for the band.
“Our feet didn’t touch the ground for nearly 10 years. We never stopped and we should have because we were all burnt out.”
As most people dealing with addiction will tell you, stopping is easier said than done. “The thing you’re left with when you stop drinking is the reason you started drinking in the first place,” he says quietly.
“I was drinking to forget I hated myself. You’ve got to stare soberly at yourself and at your demons and it’s then that things start to get really difficult.”
The star found his way out of the darkness through talking with friends and seeking help, and he’s keen to stress how important it is that people reach out when it all becomes too much.
“We’re still losing great men and women all the time, unable to cope with their demons. I’ve lost two friends this year to suicide.”
He adds: “Keep calm and carry on – those words can be extremely damaging. There are times when you do need to grit your teeth and get on with things but there has to be a period of reflection as well because things start to pile up in your body and your mind and if you don’t deal with them they can be devastating.”
These days the singer is a changed man. Clean and sober for more than two years, he now considers Northern Ireland rather than LA home.
“This is where I do my laundry, this is where my stuff is,” he says with a laugh – and he keeps his head in a good place through regular meditation and visits to the gym whenever he can.
“I feel absolutely fabulous, I feel completely different,” he tells me as we wrap things up.
“Next year will be our 25th anniversary and it’s pretty mental when you think about it like that. I don’t think anybody saw this coming, that we would have a long career.”
Today, the singer proudly tells me, is “a good day” and there’s plenty to be positive about.
“It’s something we look forward to every time we go out on tour,” he says with a grin wider than the River Lagan. “You wake up in your own bed, in your house and later that night you’re on stage in Belfast.
“It’s in your bones, it’s in your blood, it feels like it’s coming through the floorboards. It’s not something you can replicate anywhere else on earth.”
Snow Patrol play the SSE Arena in Belfast on December 7 and 8. Tickets from http://www.ticketmaster.co.uk
Read the article at belfasttelegraph.co.uk.
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