Sweet of Smell Success
2006 has been the year of Snow Patrol. The band sold more albums in Britain than anyone else and are currently on the sort of stadium mega tour that would make U2 blush. Singer Gary Lightbody tells Jim Carroll how the Northern Irish work ethic has paid
YOU probably think that Snow Patrol have seen it all by now. This is the year, remember, they’ve sold more albums in Britain than anyone else (1.2 million and counting sales of Eyes Open, even before the Christmas rush). The year you couldn’t turn on a radio on either side of the Atlantic without hearing Chasing Cars. The year the band headlined their own outdoor shows in Dublin’s Marlay Park and Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. The year which ended with a Grammy nomination.
But there are evidently still new experiences all the time. Deep in the bowels of Manchester’s MEN Arena, Snow Patrol step out of their tour bus and walk towards the stage for this afternoon’s soundcheck. A babble of laughter and small talk marks the band’s passage through various corridors and halls.
But there’s silence as the five members stand beside the stage and look around at where they’ll play tonight. The biggest indoor arena in Europe, the MEN Arena can handle up to 22,500 punters, depending on which blocks of seats are used. It can be flipped for basketball, ice hockey, boxing and, of course, rock and pop concerts. The Yanks would call it a “shed”, but “a bloody big venue” is just as descriptive.
It’s a long way from the compact barrooms and sweaty clubs which were once Snow Patrol’s domain. Of course, the fact that they are now playing these superdomes is a further sign that they’ve graduated to the premier league.
The demand is there because tonight’s show is completely sold out, as are all the dates on their first ever headlining arena tour. Yet, as lead singer Gary Lightbody admits back at the band’s hotel, it’s still a lot to take in. “We have been in this touring bubble all year, so we haven’t stuck around long enough in any one place to smell the roses,” he says.
“It’s hard to get a sense of what is happening, aside from playing bigger venues all the time. But we hang out together all the time so we don’t get carried away by what is happening. It’s not like we meet before every gig and go ‘wow, we’re a big band now’.”
There’s plenty of evidence to back this up. As Snow Patrol take in their surroundings at theMENArena, you’re struck by their slightly awed comments about the venue’s size. The previous night at Birmingham’s NIA, they received an award from the venue for drawing the biggest crowd ever to a show there. It’s obvious that this won’t be the last such award they will receive.
But don’t bother looking for egos to go with any of the record-breaking statistics now routinely attached to Snow Patrol’s name. Lightbody says his ego is long gone. “I definitely had more of an ego when I was younger. When I started the band and started to write songs – terrible, terrible songs – I thought I was it, I thought I would be a star.
“After eight years of that not happening, you really are doing it because you love it. It took those eight years and going the long way round to beat out the ego that I had.”
Lightbody marvels at how a band like the Arctic Monkeys have adjusted to the glare of the limelight. “I’m glad we didn’t get all this success right at the start because I couldn’t have handled it anywhere near as good as the Arctic Monkeys have handled it,” he admits. “They’re so savvy and intelligent. I was writing songs which were just pish at 18 and Alex Turner is coming up with classics.”
He has, though, now got the knack of penning classics. After the breakthrough success of 2003’s Final Straw, the album which saw the band become overnight successes af- ter eight years of hard slog, writing another batch of songs like Run and Chocolate turned out to be relatively easy. Be it the epic span of Chasing Cars or the masterly passion of Set the Fire To the Third Bar, Snow Patrol’s songwriting has hit a new high this time around.
Lightbody attributes this to a new-found sense of confidence. “We definitely went into this record a lot more confident than we had ever been before,” he says. “I don’t know if we consciously thought that people would be listening to us after Final Straw and if that energised us in any way. I suppose we had a comfort zone this time.”
When they were writing and recording in Dingle, Lightbody thinks the band became a family again. “Touring is funny because, even though you’re together all the time, you do create your own space, your own little world,” the singer explains. “All your conversations become crazy. It takes a few weeks to
get back into a normal routine and talk about normal things like what’s in the paper or on the telly.
“Going to Kerry was like going back to the old days again. We’d spend hours and hours just messing about with music and having a laugh and having natural conversations about rubbish. We’d even cook for each other, which was one of the things we missed when we were touring.” He sighs softly.
At this juncture, in the midst of a tour which will not end until next September, such domestic bliss is the stuff only of imagination. In February, they’ll take on America again, a country where the success of Chasing Cars has opened a number of doors for them.
“You do notice the momentum in America because of Chasing Cars, but it is still a struggle to sell albums,” says Lightbody. “We don’t want a song to define us. We think we have a lot of sides and that we write more than just slow-burning anthemic songs.”
It’s something the band notice at every American show, the people waiting to hear just one song. “There are a lot of people in the audience who have already decided they’re coming to see a band play a lot of slow, quiet songs,” says Lightbody. “Then we come out and the first six or seven songs are really loud rockers and they don’t know what to do. That doesn’t happen so much in the UK or Ireland because people know our history.”
But the American campaign will continue regardless, says Lightbody. “We’ve always wanted to do really well in America because most of our inspirations and influences are American. From very early on, we realised that the U2 blueprint was the only way to go there – tour, tour, tour and then tour some more. Wehave spent a lot of time there, maybe to the detriment of Europe.”
He jokes that 2006 was the year when touring with Snow Patrol became a hazardous occupation. “We had to cancel loads of dates because I lost my voice. Paul (Wilson, bassist) really wrecked his arm and shoulder and we cancelled more shows. And we tried to fly to America on the day when Heathrow Airport was closed down.” Indeed, Lightbody began to wonder at one stage if the band were jinxed. “The last time I was home, I nearly cut my finger off,” he says. “I went out for a meal with my family and when I got back to my house, I was steaming. I started taking these new knives out of their wrappers and I sliced right through my finger.
“My first thought was what sort of a year is this? Have I just ruined the UK and Irish tour that we’ve been looking forward to all year? That’s what ran through my head all the way to the hospital. Luckily, it was nothing serious.”
Because he spent so much time on a tour bus, Lightbody says he judged 2006 by what he heard from other bands. “Everything has impressed me this year. The Gossip, The Klaxons, Arctic Monkeys, Beiruit, the new TV On the Radio album, Cold War Kids, Desert Hearts, Oppenheimer. If Final Straw had been released this year, it might have got buried. There are so many good bands out there.”
He was particularly struck by a record from a fellow Northerner. “That Duke Special record is the most unusual record to ever come out of Northern Ireland. Its so grandiose and such a glorious pop record, but yet it’s grounded in the North because of his voice. My song of the year is Freewheel, I’ve played that over and over again. I’ve sung it in the shower, on the bus, driven everyone mad with it.”
Lightbody was also part of The Cake Sale project. “That song Some Surprise, that Paul Noonan wrote and that Lisa (Hannigan) and I sang, the lyrics are just stunning. That line ‘with circuit boards for my insides’ just kills me. He’s such a fantastic songwriter.”
There were, of course, Snow Patrol moments to treasure too. “Playing on the main stage at the Fuji Festival in Japan was incredible. You’re playing right beside a volcano. It’s an amazing setting. Playing in Marlay Park and at the Botanic Gardens, those two crowds were the best ones ever.
“Surfing for the first time in Australia was brilliant. I had never done that before and I’d never been in the water where there were jellyfish and sharks. It was terrifying. That whole day on the beach is one I remember fondly from this year.”
This arena tour also gets the thumbs up, albeit cautiously. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had this much production on a tour,” says Lightbody. “It does feel like we’ve moved up a level. We’re still testing it out for comfort and I’m still not sure about some aspects of it.” Still, it’s yet another milestone to add to a growing list. “I still remember when the goal was to play the Limelight in Belfast or Whelan’s in Dublin or King Tuts in Glasgow,” says Lightbody. “We just wanted to play a gig there, we didn’t care if we played to noone. And we did play to no-one for many years!
“All those landmarks still mean a hell of a lot to us, the first time we sold out a show in Glasgow or Dublin. We judge everything by gigs because we’re a live band, that’s our natural environment.”
When Snow Patrol step on that Manchester stage and thousands start to shout and scream, a part of Gary Lightbody will be back in Bangor where it all began.
“It’s what I used to dream about when I was a kid with the tennis racket in front of the mirror playing along to Angus Young. You always imagined yourself onstage at Wembley or the Point or a huge venue like that. You never thought it would happen, but it is happening, severed fingers aside. You have to enjoy it.” Snow Patrol play the Point, Dublin tonight and tomorrow night. Both shows are sold out