Coming in from the cold


Last updated at 18:18 29 December 2006

In 2006, we couldn’t give a Monkeys for anyone else – Snow Patrol’s Eyes Open was the top-selling album of the year, bigger even than Dire Straits in their prime. Throughout, they refused all major interviews – until Live invited them to headline our music special...

Ask Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody to sum up his year and he responds by reeling off a string of superlatives. ‘Fantastic, phenomenal, amazing – but you know, none of them do it justice really.’

Indeed not.

Even the band’s staunchest fans seem to have been taken completely by surprise at the dizzying speed with which Snow Patrol have become all-conquering rock heroes.

Only at the start of December did it become apparent just how jaw-droppingly successful the band have been this year. As newspapers and magazines were publishing their traditional end-of-year round-ups, all the musical accolades were being handed out to Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen, 2006’s most conspicuous breakthrough acts.

Then the year’s sales figures were released, revealing that it was Snow Patrol who set Britain on fire. Their latest album, Eyes Open, sold a whopping 1.3 million copies at home, more than anyone else by a country mile.

To put this in perspective, this is more than Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms in 1985 and Madonna’s True Blue in 1986, both record sellers in the pre-digital age. And it wasn’t just the UK that was smitten. By tonight, the year’s end, the band’s worldwide album sales will have topped five million.

This is a staggering change of pace for a band that first came into being in provincial Scotland 12 years ago and who, even as recently as 2003, were being thought of as also-rans.

Like Coldplay, they are long on graft and short on gimmickry; their only weapon is a cultured mystique. Arctic Monkeys made their music free on the internet.

Lily Allen promoted herself on MySpace. Then they piled in with TV and print exposure. Until Live persuaded them and Polydor otherwise, Snow Patrol have refused to do a shoot or interview for any publication other than music magazines.

As Lightbody dryly observes, ‘No other band has sold a million records without that attention.’

This is why Lightbody might be the frontman of the band of the moment but is not the type to stand out in a crowd. An hour before he’s due onstage at Manchester’s G-Mex, he wanders out into the 10,000-strong audience to check out the support band; there are few whoops of recognition.

‘Our record sales would suggest that we’re famous,’ he says. ‘But the way I see it, it’s our songs that are famous. I can’t imagine anything worse than spending my whole life trying to escape from people. Snow Patrol have got as big as they are and the fame is still manageable. At least it has been up to now.’

Lightbody is now in his backstage dressing-room. There are no scantily clad groupies, hard liquor or class-A drugs. The band are warming up for the show at the ping-pong table that always accompanies them on tour. Unlike Pete Doherty, they choose not to flaunt the trappings of rock success.

As their Belfast-born guitarist Nathan Connolly says, ‘We party a lot. But we don’t do it at the expense of our music. We keep each other in check.’

Lightbody is a thoughtful interviewee, measuring each word carefully. His passion for music is obvious. ‘It’s all I really think about,’ he says. ‘It’s all-consuming.’

He has the unkempt Gallagher-brother look about him: dark haired, with an outfit that looks as if was hastily grabbed off the peg from a provincial Oxfam shop. His unshapely haircut would strongly indicate that he’s a

complete stranger to the attentions of stylists and image-makers.

‘Stylists have had a try with us but they haven’t got very far,’ he says. Clearly. Despite appearances, the band’s fan sites teem with testimonies from female Snow Patrol fans, attesting to Lightbody’s irresistible sex appeal.

‘Success makes anyone more attractive,’ he says. ‘But it’s not like I’m reaping the benefits of it. I’m not saying I didn’t in my younger days but I was never a rock slut. The average age of the band now is 30 and it would be a little sad and seedy if we were concerned with keeping count of notches on the bedposts.’

As the only unspoken-for member of Snow Patrol (the other members, Connolly, drummer Jonny Quinn, bassist Paul Wilson and keyboard player Tom Simpson, are all in committed relationships), there’s a delicious irony in the fact that the runaway success of the band has largely been built on songs that document Lightbody’s abject failures with the opposite sex. Or what he describes as, ‘the absolute gormlessness of my love life’ and, ‘my uncanny knack of finding new ways to hurt people’.

He says that dealing with these issues through his songwriting has proved hugely therapeutic. On the other hand, he admits that he’s getting no better at this relationship thing.

‘I’m getting worse, if anything, when I should be maturing,’ he says. ‘Maybe being in a band for 12 years has stunted my growth in some way. My problem is that I’m terrible in relationships and just as terrible out of them. When I’m in one, I always start out with the best of intentions. Then something kicks in and I sabotage everything.’

The rest of the band are ambivalent about Lightbody’s relationship traumas. ‘It would be great if Gary could sort out that side of his life,’ says Connolly. ‘Then again, our best songs come from the darker side of his nature.’

On the band’s most recent album, Eyes Open, one of the recurring lyrical themes is the breakdown of Lightbody’s last serious relationship, a split apparently precipitated by his own infidelity. ‘I’ve strayed in the past and that’s left me feeling guilty. The next time I get into anything serious, I hope I’ve matured a little.’

Surely, given his escalating success, it can only be a matter of time before he’s doing the right and proper rock-star thing and stepping out with leggy supermodels. Or at least do the Chris Martin thing and get hitched to a Hollywood superstar like Gwyneth Paltrow. The suggestion meets with peals of laughter.

‘Supermodels? Hollywood superstars? I’m more likely to start going out with Su Pollard. Far too showbiz.’

As recently as three years ago, the very notion of any member of Snow Patrol ever being in a position to consider the possibility of dating a supermodel would have seemed preposterous. By 2003, the band had been going for close to a decade, during which time they had been routinely dismissed as a group going nowhere fast.

Looking back, Belfast-born drummer Quinn admits that he’s now grateful for the band’s long and often difficult gestation. ‘The long hard road we’ve taken is always there to remind us where we’ve come from.’

Having relocated from his native Bangor to study at Dundee University, Lightbody formed the earliest version of Snow Patrol back in 1994. Then calling themselves Polarbear, they were forced into a name change after legal threats from an American band of the same name. Britpop was about to break but Snow Patrol’s sound, heavily influenced by leftfield American guitar groups, ensured that they were hopelessly out of step.

Even so, Lightbody was utterly convinced that he was about to make it big. ‘He had the kind of self-belief that bordered on crazy optimism,’ Quinn tells me. ‘He thought the first album was going to be massive and had already lined up his guitar-shaped swimming-pool and private helicopter.’

It wasn’t to be. Their debut album, 1998’s Songs For Polarbears, peaked at Number 143 in the chart before returning to oblivion. The follow-up, 2001’s When It’s All Over We Still Have To Clear Up, fared little better.

By this time, Snow Patrol had moved from Dundee to Glasgow, taking on soul-destroying part-time jobs to finance their touring. ‘The lowest point,’ says Lightbody, ‘was when I got a job in a call-centre, trying to sell set-top TV boxes to people who already had them.

I lasted until lunchtime on the first day.’

Worse was still to come. In 2002, the band were dropped by their record label. At the end of that year, they found themselves playing to a grand total of 18 people at a strip club in High Wycombe. To put it mildly, things were not looking promising.

Meanwhile, Lightbody sank into a state of alcohol- fuelled depression. ‘Drugs are one of those things that are around in music, but none of us were ever drug addicts. We always enjoyed a drink, though it was around that time my drinking went out of control.’

Then, miraculously, it all turned around. They recruited a new guitarist, Connolly, and began writing the songs that would make up their knowingly titled Final Straw album. When they re-emerged into the public glare, having signed a major record deal, they were unrecognisable from the scratchy indie-rockers of before.

Unashamedly populist, their new songs were skilfully turned rock anthems of romantic loss and existential angst that came complete with instantly infectious hooks. In January 2004, they released the elegiac Run and it stormed into the top five. On the back of Run’s success, the Final Straw album began to sell and sell and sell. No one was more astonished at this turn of events than Lightbody himself.

‘I wrote songs like Run and Chocolate in my bedroom and the last thing I was thinking was, “These could be hits.” If anything, they were attempts to write myself out of my own misery. Then they took on lives of their own. That summer, we played T In The Park and the entire crowd sang along. That’s when I realised how big we were becoming.’

Having toured relentlessly through 2005, they were to attain a whole other level of success with the release of Eyes Open, in May 2006. The album took root at the top of the charts and yielded a triumphant run of hit singles. Other countries began to sit up and take notice, including America where Chasing Cars became the first single by a UK band to penetrate the top five in more than a decade.

Critical acclaim continued to elude them but, suddenly, it seemed that everybody from housewives to window cleaners, students to grandmothers loved Snow Patrol. The broadness of their appeal was underlined by the celebrities who queued up to claim them as a favourite group – everyone from Elton John to football manager Gordon Strachan.

The band seem genuinely perplexed by their celebrity fan base. With wide-eyed wonder, Quinn recalls the recent occasion when the singer Pink strolled into their dressing-room, arm in arm with her boyfriend, motocross champion Carey Hart.

‘She sat,’ says Quinn, ‘and casually explained that they both relax by sitting in the bath singing Snow Patrol songs. How good is that?’

The band appear somewhat more ambivalent on the subject of David Cameron’s avowed love of their music.

‘I suppose that being liked by a politician is not the coolest thing in the world,’ says Lightbody. ‘But the people who love our records don’t seem to be bothered about that. They seem to respond to the honesty in our songs and they respond the same way whether they’re housewives or politicians.’

Lightbody gives the impression that he’d happily go through life steering clear of all forms of controversy. Then again, as he prepares to take to the stage to perform in front of a full house of 10,000, one is reminded of one particular incident in his career that suggested he is more than capable of losing his self-control in an entertaining fashion. Namely the occasion in 2003 when, during a show at London’s Festival Hall, he decided it would be an excellent wheeze to remove all his clothes.

‘It was the last gig of the tour,’ he recalls, ‘and we’d drunk all the way through it. In terms of drinking, that was the most debauched tour I’ve ever been on. We were doing this hard-riffing song and I got over-excited.

I started taking my shirt off and thought, “Hey! Why stop there?” So I took it all off. I stood there for a minute, not quite knowing what to do. Then I ran off stage. I was walking around, completely naked, trying to find my dressing-room. The whole thing was pure Spinal Tap. I can’t imagine there’d be much demand for me to do it again.’

Tonight, as the band perform in front of an ecstatic Manchester crowd, any doubts as to whether they’ve already hit their peak are quickly swept away. During the rapturous ‘light up, light up’ chorus of Run, 10,000 mobile phones are switched on and held aloft. With arms outstretched, Lightbody milks the moment to the full, reflecting on just how far he and his band have come, realising that, for Snow Patrol, there’s no turning back, that they can only get bigger.

After the show, he’s looking forward to 2007. Spring brings a huge arena tour of America, where they are currently in contention with Bob Dylan and Neil Young among others to win their first Grammy award, and where Eyes Open has already sold 750,000 copies. In the summer, they will be headlining the major rock festivals.

A fifth album should be ready for release by the end of the year. By which time Snow Patrol will almost certainly be the biggest band in the world.

‘Is it daunting? Absolutely,’ says Lightbody. ‘The sheer scale of what lies ahead... there’s so much to gain – and lose. We’re quietly bricking it because we know that there’s every chance that we’re about to emerge from our own little bubble and become really famous.’

The thought seems to horrify him. But only momentarily. Reminded of all that Snow Patrol have achieved this year, he perks up. ‘It’s been amazing, like something straight out of a dream. And at least we’ve got all of January off. I think we’re due a very big party.’

‘Eyes Open’ is out now on Polydor

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