Standing centre stage at Amsterdam’s vast Ziggo Dome arena, Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody attempts to apologise for the fact that his band have not been on tour for six years, or released an album for seven: “What can I say? We’re just really fucking lazy.”
The line gets a laugh but it isn’t the truth. Wildness, the Northern Irish quintet’s seventh album, was released last May but almost didn’t arrive at all due to Lightbody’s crippling mix of writer’s block, depression and heavy drinking. When the songs were finally written, the central sentiment of Life on Earth (“It shouldn’t need to be so fucking hard”) and titles such as Heal Me and Don’t Give In were all clear signs of his struggles.
In contrast, when we meet in a backstage lounge a couple of hours before the show, the 42-year-old is in grand form, enjoying touring sober and looking down on his troubles from the safe hilltop of recovery. “It’s blown my mind that we’ve come back to the same arenas we toured last time,” he says, anticipating imminent gigs in both of London’s biggest indoor venues – the O2 and Wembley. “I thought we’d have to work our way back up after seven years, but nearly all of them are sold out. I get emotional thinking about it. It means a lot.”
The rest of the band – drummer Jonny Quinn, guitarist Nathan Connolly, bassist Paul Wilson and keyboard player Johnny McDaid – don’t do interviews, and don’t tend to get involved in the songwriting process until it comes time to get into the recording studio. Long term producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee is generally the first pair of ears to advise, but for the most part it sounds like Lightbody toiled alone in the home he bought near the beach in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, in 2010.
“The best advice I got was ‘Just write’, which seems so simple, and yet I wasn’t doing it. I was opening my laptop, seeing that cursor flashing on and off on the white screen, and just going, ‘No, not today.’”
All the sun, sea and palm trees didn’t help. “That sunshine can be misleading,” he says. “You think you’re in paradise but when you’re writing, you’re better off being in rainy weather. It’s too tempting to be outside.” Today he’s predominantly based in his other home in significantly rainier Bangor, the Northern Irish coastal town where he grew up.
Then there was drink. He doesn’t use the word “alcoholic” but he doesn’t sound far off. “I ended up drinking on my own a lot, which I’d always said I wouldn’t do. That was the beginning of the end. I was always a happy drunk. I don’t get into fights, I’m not dribbling or talking weird shit. I’ve always been told that I would make an event better, not worse. But what would happen when I got back from the party is I would keep going on my own. That’s when it started to get messier.”
He still wrote music with relative ease, but got more and more stuck with the lyrics. “I’ll write hundreds of songs musically. Melodies come very easily,” he says, touching the wooden table between us. “The writer’s block that I have is with words. The lyrics would never catch up with the music.”
I ask why he didn’t ask for help with the writing. He wouldn’t have had to look far. His bandmate Johnny McDaid has a booming second career as a writer of hits for others, his most notable co-writer credit being on Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, the most streamed song ever. In one week in spring 2017, five of the UK’s 11 bestselling albums included his songs – two by Sheeran, plus releases from Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, James Blunt and Zara Larsson.
“When I’m standing on stage, I want to have written the songs,” says Lightbody. “It’s the same with [side projects] Tired Pony and The Reindeer Section. I’ve never been very good at singing other people’s songs. So the horrible Catch-22 is that as soon as you go, ‘I need help with this,’ your recovery isn’t your own recovery. I wanted to come out of the tailspin myself. I’ve realised now that it wasn’t the best course of action. It probably took longer. But I do look back and stand up straighter when I think about the journey that I took to make this record. If I’d said, ‘I need help with my homework,’ it might not have felt like that.”
He did need others to help with his personal problems, however. A doctor wanted to operate when he developed a serious infection in his ears, throat and sinuses. He went to an acupuncturist friend instead, who treated him on condition he stop drinking. He also saw a therapist to explore his feelings about growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. “I think people are realising now that we are suffering from a collective trauma, and that needs to be addressed by talking about it,” he says.
Today he’s a regular at the gym, meditates almost every day and feels the benefit of the Chinese martial art Qigong, too. He’s enjoying life in the creatively dynamic Northern Ireland of today, as President of Belfast’s Oh Yeah Music Centre, a music hub that is a charity and social enterprise with a live venue, rehearsal space, recording studio and other bits. “It’s so different from the place I grew up in. It has culturally blossomed,” he says. “The music scene is incredible, lots of people are doing great movies. It’s an amazing place to make art at the moment. There’s so much going on.”
He says he’s “well known” in Northern Ireland rather than famous. “I don’t cause mayhem. We’ve never gone anywhere and been screamed at.” He seems content that although Snow Patrol continue to tour arenas, their fanbase is less huge than in the days of their biggest two albums, Final Straw from 2003 (six-times platinum in the UK) and 2006’s Eyes Open (eight-times platinum). Wildness has been certified gold so far, and is well worth hearing for one of the band’s most euphoric anthems, Empress, and one of their most moving ballads, What If This is All the Love You Ever Get?
The Amsterdam crowd this evening is mature and polite. Mayhem is definitely thin on the ground. Lightbody is an upbeat, funny, surprisingly sweary bandleader. He divides the room into two halves to sing Shut Your Eyes, then says, “Of course, this is how the problem started in our country.” It’s obvious he feels at home up there, literally larger than life as he looms down in black and white from the video wall.
What would he have done if he never managed to get the songs on Wildness finished? “I don’t know how to do anything else, so I probably would have written songs for other people or the movies. But I wouldn’t have been living the life that I truly wanted to be living.”
He understands much more clearly what that life is now. “To get to play in venues like this is what I wanted as a kid. I might also have wanted to be a rock star, but I didn’t know what it entailed. Now I know. I’ve never really had to deal with fame in a real sense, but I’ve seen it up close with friends and I don’t want it. I have the life I truly want. I can forgo the rock star bit.”
Jan 26, O2 Arena, SE10. the02.co.uk; Feb 2, SSE Arena, Wembley, HA9. ssearena.co.uk