dimanche, novembre 28, 2004

Snow Patrol

The band who came in from the cold

After 10 years of trying, Snow Patrol have a hit album. But they're not rushing to cash in on it, they tell Alexia Loundras

26 November 2004

Black-jacketed and designer-jeaned, several glamorous blondes totter between rooms at a private East End photographic studio. As an electric heater maintains a tropical temperature, a photographer is shooting a spread for Vogue. Everything is pretty much what you'd expect of a fashion shoot, except for the presence of four musicians - the front man Gary Lightbody, the bass-player Mark McClelland, the drummer Jonny Quinn and the guitarist Nathan Connolly, collectively known as Snow Patrol.

Unlike bands such as The Strokes, Kings of Leon and Franz Ferdinand (who were also recently featured in Vogue), today's models don't look like a band: no skinny jeans, no chest-defining vintage tops, no distressed leather, not even a favourite old belt between them. Stripped of the dapper threads selected by today's stylist, they are almost mundane. Only Connolly makes any concession to style, dressed in a black suit-jacket which is fashionably frayed at the cuffs and lapels. "We're an indie band," shrugs Lightbody, wearing "model's own" Kermit-green T-shirt and grandad-brown jumper-with-hole. "And we've been an up-and-coming indie band for 10 years. We're not like those other bands, never have been. We don't feel comfortable with celebrity and having our photos taken for The Sun's "Bizarre" column. We like drinking in old men's pubs."

Yet, despite their protestations, Snow Patrol have been dragged off their comfortable bar stools and into a debauched rock'n'roll world. The Met Bar is keen for the band to make an appearance (as DJs, but it's a start), and, earlier this year, Mick Rock, the legendary snapper of stars, photographed the four-piece for a feature in Playboy magazine. "He's shot fabulous rock stars - The Rolling Stones and Bowie - and wonderful-looking women, and now us," says Lightbody, a more than a little incredulous.

Snow Patrol are genuinely having difficulty in acclimatising to the swift shift in their fortunes. Thanks to 2003's phenomenally successful third album, Final Straw, the band are enjoying the kind of success they've only dreamed of - and all thanks to their smouldering breakthrough single, "Run", which entered the charts in January.

In just 12 months they went from playing to 15 people at a sordid strip joint ("They had to unscrew the pole from the middle of the stage before we could sound-check," Connolly recalls) to headlining two nights at Brixton Academy, one of London's top rock venues. They have toured extensively in America ("Two months there is like being in the Army," says Lightbody), Europe and Japan, and they are ending the year with a triumphant 17-date, sold-out UK tour and a Hogmanay homecoming in their adopted city, Glasgow. Final Straw - one of the year's best-sellers, outstripping even Franz Ferdinand's debut - was nominated for the Mercury music prize. And just two days before our meeting, the band spent the day ("a most bizarre, amazing, potentially life-changing, odd day," Connolly recounts) with Sir Bob Geldof, recording the Band Aid 20 single alongside Keane, Busted, Jamelia and The Darkness.

But unlike both Keane and The Darkness, Snow Patrol did not find success with their debut album. At the start of October, they celebrated their 10th anniversary, though "celebrated" is perhaps an overstatement. "It was more like waking up after a big night out and thinking, 'how the hell did this happen?' rather than, 'hooray'," says Lightbody. The intervening months since "Run" reached the Top Five, propelling Final Straw to an extended run in the upper echelons of the album charts, have been like no other in the band's largely uneventful history. Snow Patrol (originally Polar Bear) formed, remembers Lightbody, "sometime during freshers' week" at Dundee University in 1994 when the Belfast-born Lightbody and McClelland bonded over their love of The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine. Quinn was next to join, followed by a succession of fickle guitarists before Connolly finally cemented the band's line-up just in time for Final Straw (the Radio 1 DJ Colin Murray, a long-standing friend of the band, still mockingly refers to Connolly as "the glory hunter"). Signed to the independent label Jeepster (home of Belle and Sebastian) the band released two albums, 1998's Songs for Polar Bears, and the well-received When It's All Over We Still Have to Clear up three years later. But, despite gaining what Lightbody calls "a small but fanatically loyal, great set of wonderful fans," Snow Patrol were dropped.

Aside from selling his kidney, jokes Lightbody, the 18-month no-man's-land they suffered between Jeepster and eventually signing to the Polydor off-shoot Fiction was their nadir. They offered themselves to just about every label, "but nobody wanted to sign us," he says. "After releasing two albums that didn't do so well, I think people thought we were damaged goods." Understandably, this was a frustrating time for the band, but Lightbody softened the blow of Snow Patrol's enforced hiatus by indulging his muse with a side project, The Reindeer Section, a Scottish super-group that pooled everyone from Idlewild to Belle and Sebastian to perform Lightbody's aching and tender songs of human imperfection. Highlighting Lightbody's ambition, the project numbered 26 musicians at the last count, with a combined weight of 297 stone. Their number is still rising: "Just because the second incarnation doubled in size from the first doesn't mean the next one won't number 112," grins Lightbody.

The uber-band released two critically acclaimed albums and, at a one-off show at the Royal Festival Hall, the excitement of fronting this veritable orchestra got a bit too much for Lightbody: "I took all my clothes off, didn't I?" he remembers, embarrassed. He did. And not content with getting naked, he jogged jubilantly across the stage in celebration. At least Lightbody can take pride in the fact that he's quite possibly both the first and last streaker to grace the hall's formal stage.

Snow Patrol could have jacked it all in but, says Lightbody, "belligerence kept us going. Not a lot of people credit belligerence, but it's a very powerful force," he smiles, puffing his chest out with schoolboy pride. "Sheer pig-headedness saved my life. We knew - or believed anyway - that we would make a great album if we were given a chance."

Of course, as it turns out, Lightbody's self-belief was not unfounded. The resulting third record has proved to be well worth the wait (for band, new label and public alike). But, at the time, the belief Lightbody speaks of was more blind faith than real confidence. "There's no real reason for that belief," he admits, "except that without it, what's left? If you don't believe in what you do, you don't have any energy, any inclination."

Final Straw slots snugly into the post-Coldplay world but it's no fluke. Lightbody has been steadily polishing his craft. Listening to all three Snow Patrol albums, it's clear there's been a gradual but consistent refinement of his songwriting. Not only have his raw, no-holds-barred tales of car-crash love sharpened into blood-drawing, full-colour focus but, sonically too, the grainy film that previously smothered Snow Patrol's songs has lifted to reveal shimmering pop beneath. Gone is the scratchy, don't-mind-me, lo-fi that characterised the band's first record, and the shy, almost-there experimentation of their second. Instead, with Final Straw Snow Patrol have emerged as a fierce and confident guitar-pop band, armed with searing melodies and powered by soaring guitars that wrestle the listener into submission like an unexpectedly pleasant aural Chinese burn.

It seems practice does indeed make perfect: "Final Straw is a progression," agrees Lightbody, visibly proud of his band's work. "It's fully formed, lucid and flows much better than any album we've made before. These songs sound like they belong together. We've worked really, really hard, and if you play together a lot, which we do, you get better." "After time," adds Connolly, "you just get to know the dynamics between people. It becomes like a third sense." Lightbody affectionately looks over at his band-mate, clearly wondering where the other three senses have got to, and stifles a giggle. "I've only got two," continues Connolly, suddenly aware of his gaffe. "Is that bad?"

Over the years, Snow Patrol have become a particularly close-knit band. "We're a very tight group of lads," confirms Lightbody. "It's like the band has become my wife!" He laughs, but he's only half joking. If his lyrics are anything to go by, his relationship with Snow Patrol is the only one he is capable of maintaining. Is that really so? "Yeah, and it's OK with me," he says. "I have a very loving relationship with this particular wife. But the knock-on effect is that there's no room for anyone else in my life." Lightbody shrugs. "People have said that I can't seem to let anyone else in. And they're right. I'm terrible, I talk myself out of everything. I'm not a grass is greener-type person, believe me, I would be a bastard if I were. But I'm an inadvertent bastard, which I suppose is a grade up from bastard. It's never the girl's fault - it's always mine. I'm just not ready - I'm terrified. I'm still a boy, a 28-year-old boy."

Lightbody doesn't seem like a bastard. He appears honest, unguarded and self-deprecating. He just feels strangely compelled to sabotage his relationships. But as unfortunate as his commitment issues may be, they make great ammunition for his songs and instalments for Snow Patrol album number four are slowly underway; the lyrics currently taking shape on the singer's mobile phone.

The band are in no real hurry to release another record. Considering it's taken them 10 years to get onto Top Of The Pops, this is a little surprising - you'd imagine they'd be anxious to capitalise on their current success, to make up for lost time perhaps. Yet rather than rushing out a record, Snow Patrol are adhering to the "slowly, slowly catchee monkey" approach to ensure they don't sell themselves short. It's certainly worked for them in the past. "If we'd written a song like "Run" on our first album," says Lightbody, "we would have been 'that band with that song'. The rest of the album just wouldn't have stood up to it and we would have collapsed, as Eddie Izzard says, 'like a flan in a cupboard'."

Instead, Snow Patrol seem humbled by their success. "This trip can finish as quickly as it began," says Lightbody sincerely. "We thought we were going to be massive with our first album, so when we weren't it was like being slapped round the head - our egos were instantly kept in check. I don't think anyone really imagined we'd get this far. We've been lucky and luck's a massive part of a band's career - bad luck will be the thing that breaks your back."

Having already survived their own spell of bad luck when dropped by Jeepster, Snow Patrol are finally enjoying the fruits of a decade's worth of dogged determination: what Lightbody calls, "a wee bit of disposable income." Despite the wink that accompanies his words, he's not being coy. Snow Patrol are not a band of extravagant means and when Lightbody says "a wee bit of disposable income", he does quite literally mean some extra dosh: "It's not as if we we're staggering around with pockets full of money - selling a million records doesn't mean there's a million quid in the bank - but being able to buy all the records you want every week is like a Holy Grail for me," he says, thrilled.

No doubt the royalties will arrive eventually, but at least these days the landlord doesn't come knocking for their rent, which makes a nice change. Yet Snow Patrol refuse to take anything for granted and their aspirations remain modest. "The important thing is that we go to our graves with our souls intact," says Lightbody genuinely. "We need to make sure we keep doing this because we enjoy it and not because we're compelled to by other forces. Making music, for us, is not a job. It's a hobby that went right - our album's just gone triple platinum, what's that all about?!" Lightbody looks like a lottery winner, gobsmacked by his good fortune. They may not be rolling in cash yet, but at least he won't have to face his family empty-handed this Christmas: "This year," he says through a grin, "there'll be Christmas presents - that's a start."

Snow Patrol tour the UK until 29 December SnowPatrol

© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd