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AU62: Snow Patrol cover feature

April 4, 2010

Bit of a delay on this one…

The feature ran as the cover for the last AU of 2009. It was a great chance to speak to Gary Lightbody, especially as the quality of his music seems to be in inverse correlation with the success of his band. Not that I quite told him that. But the most striking thing I took away from the conversation was his resolute belief that the band is on a steadily upward curve. As I hopefully make clear in the piece, I don’t believe that for a second…

As Bangor’s favourite sons reach a significant milestone in their topsy-turvy career – the release of a best-of album – we quiz Gary Lightbody on the band’s story so far: the little-heard but much-loved early albums, the impact of their massive success, and where the band goes from here.

You don’t need us to tell you that the last decade has been something of a rollercoaster ride for Snow Patrol. Their zeroes to heroes tale has been one of the most bizarre career trajectories of the last 10 years and now, eight years after being dropped by tiny indie label Jeepster (where they had played second fiddle to Belle & Sebastian), they have released a sprawling, double-disc career retrospective, fully ensconced in the big league. It seems like another world entirely from the one they inhabited seven years ago, when they played a gig in front of 18 people at a High Wycombe strip club.

As compilation albums go, Up To Now is a strange beast. Rather than go the Foo Fighters angle and compile their 15 or so most popular songs, the band has opted for the scenic route through their back catalogue, with 30 tracks spread over two CDs. All of their five albums are represented pretty much equitably (though the 1998 debut Songs For Polarbears contributes only two tracks), and they are joined by B-sides, live recordings, a couple of songs from Lightbody’s short-lived Scottish indie supergroup The Reindeer Section (featuring members of Belle & Sebastian, Idlewild, Teenage Fanclub and Arab Strap among others), and three brand new songs.

“It’s a history, you know,” says Gary Lightbody, shivering outside the London studio where the band is preparing for their current ‘Reworked’ tour, where they are playing relatively intimate venues and showcasing versions of songs from their entire career, backed with a 16-piece mini-orchestra. “We’ve been together 15 years and we’ve started to write some of the strangest music we’ve ever written. We’re out of our comfort zone, or what people might imagine our comfort zone is. We thought it was time to say goodbye to past Snow Patrol, and start afresh.”

The strangest music they’ve ever written? If Lightbody is talking about the three new songs on Up To Now, it’s hard to agree with him. Lead single ‘Just Say Yes’ may have come a shock to some fans, but only in its neon, synth-pop veneer, because under the electronics is a typically lovelorn, mid-tempo, latter-day Snow Patrol song. Meanwhile, ‘Give Me Strength’ is a hopeful acoustic ballad, and ‘Dark Roman Wine’ is a plaintive, organ-backed lament. It’s really nothing we haven’t heard before – more introspective than the likes of ‘Run’ and ‘Chasing Cars’, sure, but the band are hardly reinventing the wheel. In any case, as Lightbody admits, they’re never likely to stray too far from the template they’ve established in the last five years for melodic, accessible songwriting.

“The song is king,” he asserts. “We’re never going to start a song with a beat or some sort of squiggly noise. We’re always going to start a song with a piano or a guitar and whether or not we remove that piano or guitar and turn it into something else further down the line is still to be discovered, but it’ll always be a song to begin with. It was meandering in the early days, but now we’re a little more pointed.”

That change in approach and sound, though we might put it differently ourselves, makes listening to the compilation a strange experience. Anyone who has ever heard the first two albums (and there are now a fair few – they’ve both belatedly gone Gold in the UK, aided by reissues in 2006) will struggle to reconcile the youthful, ragged charm of the band they hear on Songs For Polarbears and When It’s All Over We Still Have To Clear Up with the arch professionalism audible on Eyes Open and A Hundred Million Suns. Up To Now seems to have been sequenced pretty randomly (though Lightbody claims that they intended it to “flow”), so at times it plays like a collection of different bands. You’ll find the gossamer-light twee-pop of When It’s All Over… track ‘Batten Down The Hatch’ sandwiched between two anthemic singles in ‘You’re All I Have’ and ‘Just Say Yes’, while elsewhere the stately ‘The Golden Floor’ leads into the crunchy, ‘Teenage Kicks’-esque power-pop of their early signature song ‘Starfighter Pilot’.

It’s all a little disorientating, but then that’s the nature of the band’s story and it is to to their credit that they have not shied away from it, choosing instead to present to fans old and new their entire history – or at least a version of it, for we could argue passionately for the inclusion of ‘Wow’, ‘If I’d Found The Right Words To Say’, ‘One Hundred Things You Should Have Done In Bed’, ‘One Night Is Not Enough’ or any number of others. All of this makes you wonder how the man himself feels about the very different music they made in those difficult early days; under-the-radar albums that are still much loved by the small band of fans they had at the time.

“I really, really enjoyed listening back to both of them,” he says. “There are some moments where I cringe – if you do anything creative in any way, the things that you created in the early stages of your career are always going to leave you slightly embarrassed. I’m not distancing myself from those albums, I’m just saying that there are parts of them that I would like to erase from all memory.”

Can you give us any specifics?

“Lyrically, some of it is shocking, you know? Properly, properly shocking. There are fans from those days that absolutely adore those songs, still, and ask us to play them all the time. This is what this tour’s about, really. Hopefully, it’ll be the people who are aware that we have been around for 15 years. We’re going to go and delve into those songs and recreate them in a way that we would maybe play them right now, so that we can give people an idea of either how far we’ve come, or maybe they want to run back into a time machine and go and live in those days. Part of me doesn’t.”

Given everything that has happened since ‘Run’ became an enormous, all-conquering hit (Lightbody is happy to remind me that Final Straw did little better than the first two albums until that single came out), you can’t really blame him. Gary Lightbody is now a very wealthy man and the leader of one of the biggest bands in Britain and Ireland, if not the world. Over the last five years, they have featured in countless TV programmes and (in the case of ‘Signal Fire’ from Spider-Man 3) a Hollywood blockbuster, sold out arenas all over Europe and shifted in the region of 10 million albums worldwide. They are a seriously big deal. But to many ears, they have also become incredibly dull – the very epitome of post-Coldplay, bland mediocrity. Lightbody just about acknowledges as much when he talks about the process of choosing songs for Up To Now – “When people are playing it in their cars, you don’t want them skipping tracks.” But does he not also concede that there was a palpable charm to the first two albums; that they were actually more alluring for their wonkiness?

“Well, that’s the thing,” he says. “There are plenty of songs with no click track, there’s hardly any tuning going on. Just this out-of-tune nonsense – not nonsense, that’s way too harsh – slightly wobbly guitar, and yeah there is of course a charm to it, and there’s some songs on that first record that I adore. ‘Fifteen Minutes Old’ for one, and ‘If I’d Found The Right Words To Say’ [from the second album], I still think is a stunning piece of music.”

He’s right about that one. It’s arguably the band’s finest musical achievement, an impossibly vulnerable, heart-breakingly intimate, meditation on the end of a relationship. And it’s one of many songs that makes When It’s All Over We Still Have To Clear Up, for this writer’s money, the band’s best album. That second record was a refinement on the raw and patchy – though immensely promising – Songs For Polarbears, and its lyrical content has probably never been bettered by the band since. The thing is, they were never the slightest bit cool and, in 2001, when the music press was obsessed with everything New York and achingly hip, there wasn’t much love to go around for Glasgow-based indie geeks who wore normal clothes and sounded like Sebadoh, Pavement and Beck.

“The difference between Songs For Polarbears and When It’s All Over…, I thought was astounding,” says Lightbody. “At the time, I thought we’d really leapt forward and I don’t think anybody else was really making music like that at the time in the UK. There was a lot of people making music like that in America, and that’s where a lot of our influences were coming from, but it was so out of touch with what was happening in the UK that it just sank without a trace.

So it was just the wrong time to be doing that kind of thing?

“Yeah, exactly. It was only that Final Straw accidentally lucked into a shift in what people were buying and listening to in 2004 that we had a hit album. There was a lot of luck that went into it – I don’t think the standard had got so much better between those two albums. Maybe we learned how to write a chorus here and there…”

Well, one in particular made a difference. ‘Run’ actually predates When It’s All Over…, having been written around Christmas 2000, and it had been played at gigs for some time before ending up on Final Straw. Incredibly, when Jeepster dropped the band two months after When It’s All Over… had been released, they and the band’s then publishing company already knew of its existence. It was then left to Fiction – a branch of Polydor and the only bidders in the end – to reap the rewards of their punt on the band. But even Snow Patrol themselves had no idea that the song would be such a success.

“Nah, it had been kicking about for years, mate,” says Lightbody, almost scornful of the idea that they knew what they were sitting on. “Nobody thought anything was going to be a hit. ‘Run’ is six minutes, the album version.” You thought it wouldn’t even be released as a single? “Yeah. [BBC Radio 1’s] Jo Whiley played that full six minutes on daytime radio and the record company were like, ‘Okay, can we do a radio edit of this?’. I was dead against it for ages – we were still so wet behind the ears that I didn’t realise that most bands do that. If you want to have a single and you want to get it on the radio, you fit the format. If you don’t get it played on the radio, then no-one’s going to fucking hear it. Simple as that.”

And lo, finally, the band’s career took off at terrifying speed. What happened next was arguably even more amazing. In 2006, back down to earth again after the shock of a massive hit record and relentless touring, Snow Patrol released a new album, Eyes Open, and became even bigger, propelled by a song that Lightbody himself describes as a “Goliath”.

“‘Chasing Cars’ was written on a night in Garrett [‘Jacknife’ Lee, producer]’s house, with many, many bottles of wine and many, many other songs. I wrote 10 songs, four of which ended up on the album, and ‘Chasing Cars’ was one of them. Garrett and I would just write and write and write and wake up the next day and look back over what we’d done the night before, and ‘Chasing Cars’ was just in amongst that. It was only then that it hit us – it stuck out from all of those 10 songs by a mile. We played it to the guys, they thought it would be something special, but nobody thought it would be what it was. Compared to ‘Run’, it’s a Goliath in terms of the success and the countries it appears in. That was the only worldwide hit that we had, and it stepped it up quite considerably, really.”

Rightly or wrongly, those two songs have cemented the band’s image as purveyors of earnest, lighter-waving anthems. And a glance down the track list of Up To Now supports the notion that the Snow Patrol sound has become immeasurably more commercial in recent years. ‘Crack The Shutters’, ‘Hands Open’ and ‘Take Back The City’ are three more glossy, radio-friendly singles, the like of which would never have been associated with the band in the early days. You would therefore assume that, with considerable help from producer Garrett Lee, the band have hit on a successful formula and are happy to continue churning out crowd-pleasing tracks intended for drive-time radio and mass singalongs. Not so, according to Lightbody.

“That’s the type of music that we make naturally – it’s a perfectly natural process, it’s just that these days I don’t listen to any bands that sound like us, not really. It’s just the music that I write.”

But surely the knowledge that you will be playing in front of huge arena and festival crowds changes your mindset when you are writing songs?

“I don’t know. We always go off somewhere and write – we go to Ireland, to the middle of the countryside, or we go to our houses and lock the doors and we do these things either together as a band or on our own, so there’s not a lot of people around. It’s not as if we’re writing songs in front of 80,000 people, where you feel under pressure to please them or to change the way you write for the general consensus. It’s still a very personal thing, and I can’t imagine it ever changing or us ever sitting at home, thinking, ‘Oh, well this will sound great at a festival and people can sing along’.”

You never think anything like that, even when you’re writing a big chorus?

“No, I don’t. I mean, we watched U2 18 times this summer – we were playing with them all through Europe and America – and you hear the ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’, the ‘La, la, la’, the big, singalong bits and it’s just made for huge crowds, but they have been writing for huge crowds for 25 fucking years. They have been in that arena; we haven’t. You know, we’re not shouting out for the world the way U2 are. There’s still a clumsiness to what we do, and I kind of like it that way.”

Indeed, a large part of Snow Patrol’s appeal seems to be their accessible, friendly image. There’s nothing starry about the band, and few non-fans can name any of the members apart from Lightbody himself (“the songs are famous, not the guys”), while his vulnerable, soul-baring lyrics seem to connect with people in a way that few others can manage. If the frequently compared Coldplay are austere, vague and distant, Snow Patrol just seem normal and flawed – the boys next door. Feeding into that is the fact that Lightbody has moved back to Bangor after years spent in Scotland, and it’s a genuine surprise to find out the extent to which he leads a normal life. Millions of record sales don’t equate to a complete loss of privacy after all.

“It’s only been in the last few years that I’d go out in Belfast and people know who I am,” he reveals. “Yeah, fair enough, most places people would be nudging each other. Hopefully people come over – I like it when I’m out having a drink and people come over and go, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ or, ‘Hey, you fucking dickhead, who do you think you are?’. You know, it adds a nice wee edge to the night. But I’ve never, ever thought that I couldn’t leave the house. I’m never given any hassle by anybody – certainly not in Northern Ireland – to the point where you feel like a celebrity that’s hounded. We’re not famous; we’re not celebrities. I spend a lot of time here [in London], and I have never, EVER, been stopped by anybody.”

Really? Never? “There was one time and it was somebody from home. So I’m completely anonymous here. Belfast is really the only place and it’s still fairly pleasant, completely manageable.”

So what next for the kings of accessible pop-rock? The band’s last album, the relatively low-key A Hundred Million Suns, received reviews just as mixed as those that greeted Eyes Open, and although it was the band’s biggest hit in America (where it reached number nine on the Billboard chart), its pitch at maturity and lack of a big single to match ‘Run’ and ‘Chasing Cars’ meant it sold just (!) two million copies, compared to its predecessor’s five million. Obviously fiercely proud of the album in the face of criticism, Lightbody insists that it was “an extremely brave record” and, somewhat bizarrely given its unassuming, melodic nature, that “it maybe frightened a few people off in places”.

But he is adamant that although he has eventually found a winning formula, he would like to experiment with different styles – electronics as on ‘Just Say Yes’, pure pop, country, “heavy, heavy rock” – and that the only thing that drives him to make music comes from within himself; not what critics think, not what the label wants and not what people might expect of him.

“I don’t care if the next album sells the same amount as Songs For Polarbears did when it was first released,” he says bluntly. “It really doesn’t matter. We’ve had an incredible, incredible life in that spotlight, and I just want to make music that thrills me. I never want to turn round at the end of our career and regret something. I’ve nothing to regret so far and I don’t want to break that streak.”

UP TO NOW IS OUT NOW ON FICTION

WWW.SNOWPATROL.COM

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