- 23 May 18
It’s taken seven hard years to make, but Wildness is the Snow Patrol record that GARY LIGHTBODY is most proud of. In a searingly honest interview, he talks to STUART CLARK about the personal demons he’s had to exorcise in order to get his musical mojo back, and why every Irish man has to vote “Yes!” on May 25.
“Look at this, isn’t it gorgeous?”
Johnny Quinn is showing me the vinyl version of Wildness, the seventh Snow Patrol album, which is easily the best thing they’ve done since 2006’s Eyes Open, and may after a few dozen more spins be a match for that record’s monster predecessor, Final Straw.
His Snow Patrol bandmate Gary Lightbody has gone temporarily AWOL, but with Noel Hogan, Stephen Street, Edith Bowman, Geoff Barrow and Cillian Murphy among those responsibly enjoying the free bar he’s not short of rock ‘n’ roll or actorly company.
We’re sat in one of the palatial upstairs rooms in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham where the inaugural Vinyl festival is taking place. In around an hour’s time the pulchritudinous piece of plastic that Jonny is cradling in his drummer’s arms will get its first public airing. The crowd in one of the RHK’s even more palatial rooms go mad for it, which is a blessed relief to the boys given its difficult seven year gestation period. Mr. Lightbody is eventually found wandering around the Royal Hospital grounds where one of Gary’s heroes, Nick Cave, is playing soon with his own heroine, Patti Smith.
“I would love to get over for that,” Gary says. “‘Genius’ is a horribly overused word, but Nick Cave is the dictionary definition of it.”
We’ll return to matters Cave-ian in a moment. First, though, Gary is eager to get with the ‘100 Voices For Repeal’ project.
“My thoughts have always been that women should have the right to choose and determine what happens to their own bodies,” he states. “Why should I - or anybody else – seek to deny them that? Unfortunately, although I’ve an Irish passport I can’t vote, but what I’d say to other men is that, ‘This is an issue that affects you too. We all have a mother, a lot of us have sisters, wives, aunts and girlfriends - get out on May 25 and vote ‘Yes’ for them. They need and deserve our support.’ Who else do you have doing this?”
Well, the last two to ping into the Hot Press inbox were from Derry Girls’ Sister Michael and John Lydon who similarly to Gary proffered: “I like women... my mother was one.” I did chortle.
“Fantastic!” Gary smiles. “As for Derry Girls, what a brilliantly observed, written and acted series. The response to it was so heartening. It’s not long ago that a show from there being shown on British TV would have to have been subtitled. We’ve come a long way! Johnny McDaid’s a Derryman and says they got it spot on.
“It’s very depressing that we’re not having the same debate and vote in the North,” Gary continues. “I actually think we have it tougher up there. I would love to see hearts being opened in places where they need to be opened. It’s not that there aren’t really caring, open-minded people in Northern Ireland. One of the great, great days there after the ‘Yes’ vote in the Republic was the Same Sex Marriage rally we had a few years ago in Belfast. I was inordinately proud to participate in that along with 20,000 of my fellow citizens. There were no negative vibes, just an overriding sense of hope, joy and solidarity. ‘Yes’ is the new word in Northern Ireland. As with Repeal, it’s an everybody issue, not just an LGBTQ one.”
Fans - and journalists! - were shocked in March when Gary’s anticipated “Hey, we’re back!” interview with BBC Radio 2’s Jo Whiley turned out to be something altogether more revelatory.
“The new album comes from quite a lot of soul searching, like depression that I’ve suffered with since being a kid,” he told her. “I never really spoke about that before or my father - he’s had dementia for a few years now - or my alcoholism and that I’m sober now for two years.
“When the depression hits me it takes so much, and I’m sure that’s the same with everyone and people are incapacitated. Friends of mine who I’ve spoken about it with have had similar experiences, like nothing makes sense and there is no light and trying to write in that place is extremely difficult, you have to kind of get out of that place before you can write about it.
“Plenty of people reached out to me to try and find me in my darkness, bless their hearts for doing that, it means a lot to me now but at the time I felt hurried, I wanted to stay in the place I was in.”
That Gary’s drinking had spiralled out of control wasn’t actually a total surprise. Prior to their international breakthrough, Snow Patrol gigs had been alcohol-soaked affairs as evidenced by their overly refreshed singer tumbling from the Olympia stage into the orchestra pit in 1999 and a repeat performance not long after that in Whelan’s.
I also remember an after show where Gary did his damndest to polish off the bottle of whiskey that the band had been given for selling out Glasgow’s legendary King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut sweat-pit.
A few years later, Gary confessed to me that Jonny Quinn had taken him aside and said: “‘This has to stop, which me being belligerent, it didn’t straight away. I used to get pretty angry and kick and demolish things on stage too, which was down to me being cripplingly unhappy in my private life. Eventually though the penny dropped...”
But got stuck... Gary’s Jo Whiley confessional was similar to a conversation I had a few years ago with Adam Clayton.
“I think everyone convinces themselves - and everybody else - that it’s going to be different next time,” the U2 man told me. “In my own case, I was able to drink in a way that was destructive and detrimental to my health - but I was always able to do the gig. Until I couldn’t do the gig. I realised that if I didn’t do something about it I’d lose everything. I’d run out of excuses.”
Asked whether all that sounds familiar, Gary nods and says, “Everybody’s situation is unique to them but, yeah, that’s kind of how it was.” How disconsolate Gary had become is evident when I tell him that ‘Heal Me’ is the Wildness track I keep coming back to.
“‘Heal Me’ is about somebody very special to me that saved my life. It’s a good one to pick, which is the extent to which I can really talk about it.”
With such couplets as “Can you heal me baby I’ve been dancing in this fire for way too long/ But I kinda like it, oh I like it coz it’s more dangerous than me/ There’s a siren somewhere but I’m pretty sure it’s only in my head/ So tell me how’d you hear it, is there something supernatural in your bones”, it’s a rival in the searing honesty stakes to the aforementioned Nick Cave, who inadvertently helped Gary overcome his writer’s block.
“With the last album, Fallen Empires, it was the wise counsel of Michael Stipe that helped me see the wood from the trees,” the singer reflects.
“His input was immense and I was very humbled. This time it was Nick Cave, as filtered through (producer) Garret Lee, whose job was made even harder because of what I was going through. I won’t go into that, I’m not happy to, but I kept talking myself out of things. It was like Garret was at the party and was two cocktails in and I was sitting in the taxi being like, ‘I don’t know if I want to go in, there’s too many people in there.’ I didn’t have self-belief. I didn’t have any confidence in me. And I thank God for being in a band that never stopped believing in me. They never once gave me shit.
“I had to get through a lot to make this record and doing that meant I opened a door in myself that has never been opened before, and now it’s closed again. But now, I’m not afraid to look in that door again. I’m not afraid to go into that deep, deep place. I’m not afraid of what is going to come up. I’ve faced all my demons.
“’What does this have to do with Nick Cave?’ you ask... Well, I’d been serially listening to ‘Jesus Alone’, the first track from his recent album, Skeleton Tree. Garret, who’d been playing us a lot of obscure gospel and classic soul stuff like Mavis Staples, stuck it on one day in the studio. The punishing opening of that song, the intensity, the subject matter... we listened to it about ten times. The boys left to go and get a sandwich round the corner and when they came back I’d written ‘A Youth Written In Fire’, which is the song that unlocked everything. It and ‘Soon’ made me think, ‘If I can be this brave, nothing else is going to scare me.’ The purge. After that, everything else just fell into place.”
Revealing Gary’s hitherto unknown talent for singing in falsetto, ‘A Youth Written In Fire’ is another emotional tour de force that proclaims: “Remember the first time that we kissed/ It felt like a planet forming/ Though we were just novices at this/ It felt like an ancient wisdom/ There was lightning then/And those songs were all proved true/ No wonder I still think so much about you.”
If that doesn’t make you get your hankie out, you have no soul. Given the rigours of band life, has Gary ever thought of downsizing à la Damien Rice who averages one album every six years; mostly performs solo without a road crew; and is yachting his way to Menorca, Mallorca and the other seaside destinations he’s playing this summer?
“In 2015, in the middle of writing, I left and did a tour of my own on the west coast of America,” Gary recalls. “Seattle, Portland, San Fran and all of that: I loved it. Then I did one in Bangor Abbey. I would love to do that one man and his guitar kind of thing once in a while. But now that Snow Patrol is up and running again, I’m really looking forward to doing some big gigs, some big festivals.”
Asked whether it feels good being back on the horse, Gary immediately shoots back, “Yeah, 100%. I didn’t realise that I missed it because it was such a long time away. My muscles got stiff: they’re loosening up again now. We’d probably have been better doing the James Cordon and Stephen Colbert shows six months in, but we bluffed our way through them! I actually got emotional yesterday when I was in the record company and they handed me a vinyl copy of the album. I was like, ‘It’s really done, it’s really finished, it’s really ready to go.’ We’ve always thought in terms of a body of work. As we were recording tracks, I knew what was going to be the opener and what was going to close it out. It’s a proper, old fashioned record, which feels really great.”
Gary was resident for most of the recording in Santa Monica. How has Californian life been treating him?
“They call Santa Monica a city, but actually it’s a perfect little town. I don’t drive, but I had everything I needed - a little beach, three cinemas and some cool record shops. Even though I’ve got what you might call ‘celebrity friends’, I stay away from that scene and see them in scenarios where they’d be away from the spotlight. I did a big Pacific coast road trip taking in Big Sur, Napa, Big Bear, Mammoth and San Diego. LA music is a genre in itself. To understand it you have to live in sunshine every day with the beach and the palm trees. I had to reconfigure my brain to write in the sunshine rather than the rain and unrelenting gloom I’m used to. It takes a while to get miserable enough in those type of surroundings! After August, I won’t be there anymore. I’ve had a place in Bangor since 2009 that I’m moving back to full-time.”
When I suggest he’s doing this to escape Trump’s America, Gary mirthlessly laughs and says, “Don’t get me started... It’s just where I want to be at the minute. My niece was born and I want to be closer to her and my folks, plus I’ve been missing all of Northern Ireland’s home games! One of the problems in America is getting information as opposed to spin and opinion. It’s - if you’re lucky - 20% facts, 80% talking heads and all about Trump. There’s a distorted view of the world over there. I read Fire & Fury recently, which it’s been suggested hasn’t entirely come from a true place. There were times reading it when I thought, ‘God, I hope this is true!’ The idea of no one asking him what he was doing sitting on the sofa outside the Oval Office. ‘You can’t have been privy to all those phone calls and meetings – but maybe you were!’ The other book that blew my mind recently for different reasons is Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers.”
Going back to his beloved Norn Iron: did Gary make it over to the Euros the summer before last?
“I was in LA, it was coming up to my 40th birthday, which would have been the day before the Ukraine game in Lyons, and by way of celebration I’d booked flights, hotels and tickets for me and five mates. The week before I was doing my fitness routine in the gym – I bet you never thought you’d hear me saying that! – and as I came up from touching my toes it felt like an earthquake. When this ‘earthquake’ didn’t stop, I phoned a friend versed in these things and he said, ‘I think you might have vertigo.’ This feeling didn’t go away, so I went for a CT scan four days before I was due to fly out and was told, ‘Your sinuses, your ears, your whole head is infected. No way can you travel.’ I was and still am heartbroken. I’d hoped to get to the World Cup but we were robbed of our place by that Romanian referee. Germany have a good shot. Brazil are looking good, Spain maybe…”
Gary also had his heart broken in August 2013 when word reached California of Seamus Heaney’s passing.
“Another thing I’d love to get over to Dublin for is the new Seamus Heaney exhibition. Johnny and myself were supposed to be playing a few acoustic songs as he read at a festival in St. Columb’s College in Derry, but he passed away a couple of months before. My favourite work of his is ‘Anahorish’, which Lisa Hannigan set to music. There’s sublime beauty in that poem. There is in all of them, but that one really strikes a chord with me.”
Gary is hoping amidst all this week’s promo madness to get to see his pal Ed Sheeran break every Irish gig record there is. How does it feel to be part of the biggest songwriting club in the world?
“With Ed, Foy, Johnny, Jamie and the rest of the crew, it really is becoming a family and that’s a beautiful thing,” he enthuses. “The love, support and inspiration we get from each other is something special. We’ve always had a very tight group of friends in music – we love seeing the Biffy, Elbow and Athlete guys.”
Given all the personal travails he had to overcome to make it, does Wildness feel like a really important record to Gary?
“Yeah, it took a lot to make,” he nods. “I think that might be muddying the water when I think about the size of it. It perhaps has extra emphasis on it because of what we went through. I refuse to say the line, ‘This is the best record yet…’ even though I’m technically about to do so! It’s the record I’m most proud of, which is something I’ve never said before. I have tremendous amounts of faith in it and a tremendous amount of love for it. I’ve never truly had this level of affection for a record.”
Wildness is released on May 25