We interview Snow Patrol!
A decade ago, Marcus Webb played bass for a band on its backside. Now Snow Patrol arrive in Hong Kong as world conquerors. Still, it’s not the easiest of reunions…
It’s just that you’ve got a bit of a reputation for being something of a – well, a dick.” This is awkward. I’ve not spoken to Gary Lightbody – Snow Patrol’s driving force and a man who, for the record, I’ve always found to be incredibly pleasant and quick-witted – in more than a decade and judging by the silence it might be another decade before he speaks to me again.
“I… erm…” He trails off. Explaining myself only makes it worse. I tell him about gossip website Holy Moly and their generally unsavoury opinion of him and of Popbitch’s claims of ungentlemanly conduct. The silence continues. I thought he already knew…
“I had an inkling that it was going on – but that’s kind of hit me,” he finally says, sounding genuinely hurt. “It’s been quite a few years since I’ve googled myself and I don’t think I’ll be dipping my toe into that acid bath any time soon. It will send me into a dark place.”
You can imagine that Lightbody’s dark places are few and far between. This fortnight, Snow Patrol arrive in Hong Kong after more than 10million album sales under their collective belt and a status as one of the biggest rock bands in the world. I, however, seem to have been associated with the low points. Ten years ago Snow Patrol was – according to Lightbody – ‘a band on its arse’. The first two albums, Songs for Polar Bears and When It’s All Over We Still Have to Clear Up, which I’d worked on as a studio gofer and bitpart bass player – had received good reviews, but had sold fewer than 7,000 copies each. The band split from their label Jeepster and found themselves playing to ever smaller audiences, reaching a low point with a gig in a strip club watched by just 14 people. “It was 10 years of tears,” says Lightbody. “A decade of missed opportunities and the grind of playing to very few people. It almost had the better of us.”
Thankfully Lightbody is made of stoic stuff. Record collections were duly sold, ‘proper’ jobs taken and a near daily doorstopping of labels both major and minor was undertaken. “It was never a case of giving up – but it was tough,” he says. “Nobody wanted to touch us. I guess it’s the cosmetic thing of signing a band that’s seen to have ‘failed’.”
The band’s mulishness paid off and brought them to the attention of the newly formed Fiction label, an offshoot of Universal run by Jim Chancellor. “We were getting rejected by everyone but nobody was listening to the songs,” remembers Lightbody. “Jim did, bless his heart. When he heard Run he thought it was going to be a smash and he was right.”
Chancellor signed them and then teamed the band with Irish producer Jacknife Lee – who helped reform the Snow Patrol sound from what Lightbody describes as the ‘schizophrenic sketches’ of their first two albums into something ‘world-beating’.
The belief – and the tunes – were infectious. Run glued itself to the airwaves in 2003 and propelled the band’s third album, Final Straw, into the charts. Things got bigger still on album number four. The use of Chasing Cars in soppy medi-soap Grey’s Anatomy helped the band crack America and the accompanying album, Eyes Open, went platinum in the USA and was the biggest-selling album in the UK in 2006, beating the likes of Take That and the Arctic Monkeys’ debut.
After starting the decade eating cold baked beans with rusty forks, by the middle of it the band were bona fide globe-straddling rock stars. So how’s life changed? “Well, we’ve got better forks,” concedes Lightbody. “You can’t help but think about the band differently. Everything’s on a bigger scale. You have to think about the big-production show – lights, visuals, staging and all these things that never came up when we were playing [Glasgow’s] King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, where you just plug in and play.”
The growth just kept continuing, as the band supported U2 on their ‘360’ tour – the highest grossing tour of all time – and headlined larger and larger venues themselves with fifth album A Hundred Million Suns, an album Lightbody describes as ‘esoteric’, ‘strange’ and ‘not entirely successful’.
Having spent years running, the band suddenly hit a wall. Lightbody’s creative well ran dry, the songs stopped coming and progress crawled to a halt. “That was a difficult time,” says guitarist Nathan Connolly. “We never really took any time off until [‘best of’ album] Up to Now then we had a year of nothing. Gary had writer’s block; there were false starts, abandoned sessions, delays, lots of frustration.” Months passed and still the tunes weren’t coming. “We had to change things, we had to up our game, we had to get better, we had to break old habits,” says Connolly. “We just didn’t know how to do it.”
For Lightbody, the vault was unlocked by switching his muse from matters of the heart and turning his songwriting direction to broader subjects. “Obviously love, or the absence of love, is the most potent inspiration of any art,” he says, “and it’s hard to recalibrate your brain to write about something else. I also had to move away from writing about relationships because I haven’t been in one for quite a few years and I fear I might have over-analysed that one.”
The band feels they’ve moved on musically too – and the resulting album, Fallen Empires, features looser rhythms, with the ‘electro-squelchiness’ which lurked in the shadows of Final Straw pushed to the forefront. It’s an album the entire band is fiercely proud of. “I think we’ve made the record we’ve been trying to make for the past decade,” says Lightbody. “It goes into little alleyways we’ve never really been down before. You could call it a little bit slinky, a little bit sexy – and, my god, Snow Patrol have never been accused of being sexy before!” “These are songs you can move to,” agrees Connolly. “There’s swing, there’s groove and a lot more soul involved. Yeah, it’s fair to say we’re becoming a sexier band… musically, at least.”
For the past months, they’ve been on a mammoth tour that’s taken them across the world, for which Lightbody has confessed to needing to embrace his inner Bono – to a degree. “Touring with U2 for three years really was a lesson every day,” he says. “You get schooled in so many things, in stagecraft. Bono’s one of a kind.” Being a little more like Bono certainly isn’t going to appease the haters but Lightbody’s prepared this time. “At certain points you need a bit of strut and to give it some – but you don’t have to be a wanker your whole life.” In fact, it turns out you don’t have to be a wanker at all.
Snow Patrol play AsiaWorld Arena on Sat Aug 4. Tickets: 3128 8288; hkticketing.com.