Interview: Snow Patrol

23 Apr

Publication: Trinity News
Date Published: April 2006
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LOOKING TO THE FUTURE WITH EYES OPEN

Not so much a stage as an architectural feat, towering twenty-eight metres high, peering over Dublin’s northside in the fading light of a summer’s evening. With no expense spared, thousands of brightly coloured lights are focused to precision, the pyrotechnics armed and at the ready. Swallowed up inside the atmospheric cauldron, 80,000 expectant fans anxiously await the homecoming of the darlings of Irish music. When it comes to concerts in this country, it doesn’t get much bigger than U2 in Croke Park.

Days later and the scene has changed dramatically. This time, the event is Live8. 200,000 people jammed into every crevice in London’s Hyde Park, and millions more glued to their television screens for the biggest charity event of the new millennium. A couple of weeks previously, it was the Isle of Wight festival, and a performance for 35,000 enraptured listeners as Michael Stipe of REM nodded approvingly from the side of stage. “I defy any band not to be a bit shell-shocked. The world decides they like you, and suddenly your heroes are in the audience”.

Rewind a few years to 1994. At the University of Dundee, two music enthusiasts, one studying financial economics, the other studying English, strike up a friendship. For Gary Lightbody and Mark McClelland, soon to become two of Northern Ireland’s finest exports, this would mark the beginning of a long road to success. Initially showcasing their talents under the moniker Polar Bear before changing to Snow Patrol in 1997, Lightbody and McClelland realised that only by virtue of hard work and sheer determination would they ever make a name for themselves. And yet, for nine long years up until 2003, it seemed that such grit and character could only get them so far. Accompanied by Belfast-born drummer Jonny Quinn, the duo spent countless years gigging around the British mainland only to see the fruits of their labour, 1999’s debut ‘Songs For Polar Bears’ and 2001’s follow-up ‘When It’s All Over We Still Have To Clear Up’, peak at numbers 164 and 163 respectively in the UK charts.

Gearing up for album number three, Snow Patrol gained a new member in the form of guitarist Nathan Connolly, and together, the quartet released ‘Final Straw’ in 2003. Rather than becoming the straw that eventually broke the back of an intolerant music industry, Snow Patrol’s sterling effort proved to be a major breakthrough, effecting a transformation that saw Lightbody and company morph from industrious underachievers to household names. The album soared to number three in the UK charts, with hit single ‘Run’ reaching number five in Britain and number fifteen stateside. After eleven years spent patiently in the wings, in 2005, Snow Patrol realised that the Guinness PR team weren’t lying – good things really do come to those who wait.

Unsurprisingly therefore, the impending release of Snow Patrol’s fourth opus ‘Eyes Open’ is shaping up to be one of the most hotly-anticipated events of 2006 on these shores. However, having taken so long to finally achieve international acclaim, Snow Patrol are only too aware of the ease with which the onset of complacency could bring about a quick and painful demise. “It’s been an amazing couple of years,” Lightbody muses. “But when it came to writing the new album we were quite monastic. It was a question of ‘we’ve had our fun. None of that counts now. Don’t look back admiringly at your own footprints. It’s all lost unless this next step is truly exceptional’”.

Composing a follow-up to a success of Final Straw’s magnitude is an unenviable task, and one might well expect to encounter a band in the throes of pressure and tension. In fact, as early as March 2005, the sceptics were already claiming to have detected the first faultlines, as bassist and co-founder Mark McClelland departed the band after ten years. The statement issued by Lightbody in the aftermath, in which he stated that ‘a whole new set of new and unexpected pressures… have unfortunately taken their toll on working relationships within the band’, served only to stoke the flames of suspicion. Yet, as guitarist Nathan Connolly rushed to assure me, when it came to recording the new album, such pressure was a non-entity. “I think the pressure that was on us was coming from ourselves. In saying that as well, once we actually started working on the record, that kinda vanished. I think the idea of making this record was a lot more of a challenge than actually making it.”

In retrospect, it is easy to see how the creation of such a laidback and relaxed atmosphere must have must have hinged on the location in which the album was conceived and developed. Well acquainted with the desolate rural magnificence of Dingle, Co. Kerry, drummer Jonny Quinn identified the perfect spot– a remote cottage on the peninsula which once hosted Kate Bush. According to Connolly, the six weeks which the band enjoyed in this rural haven were of unparalleled importance. “It was almost escapism from everything else that was going on … it wasn’t that we wanted to find each other again, but it was good for us to take that time to solidify. It was an amazing time”.

Still reeling from the shock of McClelland’s abrupt departure, it would seem that the break came at just the right time for Snow Patrol. Not only did it allow the focusing of the band’s creative energy, but it also provided the time and space for the induction of two ‘new’ members drafted in to broaden the band’s musical palette. Rather than recruiting musicians who had been alien to the growth and development of Snow Patrol, the band instead opted to grant two long-time friends and touring accompanists, multi-instrumentalist Paul Wilson and keyboardist Tom Simpson, permanent positions within the ensemble. The old adage says that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and staring such a daunting task in the face, one might imagine that this was not the ideal time for Snow Patrol to start reinventing themselves. “It was a lot more organic and easier than we thought,” says Connolly. “It was so natural and it just felt right. We just went with it and didn’t question it, letting things develop as naturally as they could – it’s working!” Not only is the expansion to a quintet merely ‘working’, but it is providing the new-look Snow Patrol with a whole different range of musical outlets and options for creative expression. All throughout ‘Eyes Open’, you cannot help but identify elements which you are certain you have heard before, but are now refashioned in a new and breathtaking light. The intro to “You’re All I Have” could easily be a long-lost B-side resurrected from Brian Wilson’s attic, while elsewhere music boxes masquerade as xylophones and guitar intros gurgle underwater before exploding into life.

Springing from the humble origins of twelve years ago, the band now recognisable as Snow Patrol has matured into an entity much greater than the sum of its constituent parts. “This time around, it was a lot more cooperative,” Connolly explains. Ask any of the band and they will tell you that a crucial figure in this process is one whose work often goes unnoticed. That man is Garret ‘JackKnife’ Lee, one-time member of Irish punk band Compulsion, now a producer whose credits include work on U2’s Grammy-award winning ‘How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”. It was Lee’s invaluable skill and assistance in moulding ‘Final Straw’ which saw him become an indispensable limb in the band’s quest for further success. According to Connolly, “Garret is the sixth band member … he’s an amazing person to work with. As a band collectively, he knows how to get the best out of us. Even individually, he knows how to always poke and prod you to get the best performance or idea out of you. I can’t imagine making a record without him anymore, it’s that simple.” Lightbody continues in a similar vein. “Once we’d found him, we really couldn’t consider anyone else”.

Unsurprisingly, one of the main tasks facing Lee was analysing the inherent strengths of ‘Final Straw’ with a view to maintaining and developing them in the latest effort. One such strength was the band’s ability to work in a variety of styles, alternating with ease between melancholy laments such as ‘Run’ and more up-tempo riff-driven tracks such as ‘Chocolate’. Again, this variety is very much a part of the soundscape. At one end of the scale, ‘Set the Fire to the Third Bar’ is a beautiful piano-based narrative of distance bridged by love, with Martha Wainwright providing an enchanting female vocal to perfectly complement Lightbody. Diametrically opposed is ‘Headlights On Dark Roads’, a vicious track infused with tenacity, Lightbody spewing lyrics brimming with vitriol: ‘For once I want to be the car crash / Not always just the traffic jam / Hit me hard enough to wake me / And lead me wild to your dark roads’.

It is imagery of this calibre that has given Lightbody his deserved reputation as an acclaimed lyricist, and on ‘Eyes Open’, he once again bares all in some of his most heart-rending pieces to date. Nowhere is this more evident than on the intimately moving ‘Chasing Cars’, a brilliantly evocative tale of two lovers which Lightbody claims to be “the most pure and open love song I’ve ever written”. Speaking to Connolly, you really get a sense of how grateful the other band members are to have such a gift at their disposition. “You have to write from the heart, and that’s how Gary writes … there’s a level of honesty in his lyrics that people can connect with and they realise that.” The final word goes to Lightbody. “There are swaggering bands, bands who are in your face. And then there are bands who get hold of you somewhere else. I think it’s a heart thing, an intimacy thing. Like you know them and they know you. I think we are one of those bands”. Twelve years on, it would seem that Snow Patrol have finally gotten a hold, and have no intentions of letting go.

‘Eyes Open’ is released this Friday, April 28th, on Polydor / Fiction Records. Snow Patrol play Dublin Castle on April 29th as part of the Heineken Green Energy Festival 2006 – tickets are sold out.

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