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Gary Lightbody willingly refers to himself as a “calamity magnet,” without much prodding or inference. He also estimates that, personally, the distance “from a sitting still vantage point to chaos is four beers away.” It’s this kind of blunt and awkward honesty that makes the Irish singer such a delightful interview subject. That, and his superb taste in contemporary literature. (Currently on his nightstand: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.)

The affable and garrulous Lightbody is once again out on the frontlines for his band, Glasgow-based Snow Patrol, ahead of the release of its phenomenal fifth record, A Hundred Million Suns. He doesn’t like to censor himself, but does admit to the power of restraint after press reports quoted him as calling it Snow Patrol’s best record to date.

“I have to reign myself in because…some people have said ‘it’s good,’ or ‘it’s okay,’ and I’m thinking, ‘this is fucking brilliant!’ I don’t want to say that out loud, and I don’t want you to put that in big letters or anything, but to me, this is just beyond anything we’ve ever achieved,” Lightbody tells me during a phone interview in late September.

“It’s at a level with the other records. We tried, but we just weren’t good enough, I don’t think. This time around everybody got lessons at their various instruments. We had lots of fun making this record, but we worked harder than we’ve ever worked for it.”

Much of that hard work is credited to frequent Snow Patrol collaborator and producer, Garret “Jacknife” Lee, whom Lightbody considers to be a “brother,” a “member of the band,” and the “energy source” on the band’s albums. A Hundred Million Suns was recorded at the famed Hansa studios in Berlin (home to David Bowie’s Low and U2’s Achtung Baby) and in the Irish countryside, and Lee, as Lightbody relates, was able to “imagine the whole record in his head before we start. The songs that I wrote, the demos that I had, right from that point, he could imagine what it sounds like finished.”

spalbumcoverOne of those “other records,” specifically 2006’s Eyes Open and its massive hit single “Chasing Cars,” made Snow Patrol international chart-hoggers quickly thanks to the inclusion of the ballad during the emotional highpoint of Grey’s Anatomy’s Season Two finale. The popularity of the song would send the band around the world multiple times, and find them booked as guests on Good Morning America. Lightbody’s rich, resonant voice could be found at any time of day on the adult-contemporary side of the dial, instead of college radio where the band had originally found its loyal audience in the US. The loose-limbed Lightbody also arguably became indie rock’s answer to John Krasinski and his Office alter-ego Jim Halpert, although he emphatically and bashfully denies the presence of any “swagger…confidence or sexuality” and pledges allegiance to Kings of Leon in that department.

Problem was, Snow Patrol, while grateful for the attention and airplay, was not that band. Sure, romanticism was always present in the band’s canon of “break-up records,” but this was the band that recorded the song “How to Be Dead,” (off of 2004’s Final Straw), that found Lightbody intoning, “Dr. Jekyll is wrestling Hyde for my pride,” among other darker, more humbling admissions.

The “Chasing Cars” phenomenon (and fall-out) was still fresh for Lightbody when it came time for Snow Patrol to choose the first single off of A Hundred Million Suns.

“I don’t let things get to me too much. Maybe it’ll get to me at the time, [and] I can shake them off eventually, but there’s some criticism of us saying, ‘They’re that band that did ‘Chasing Cars,’ whatever, and there’s so much more to all of our records than just the one type of song. Singles don’t mean anything. Albums mean everything. This is the way things are, and you’ve got to adapt or die. We’re not Led Zeppelin; release an album and no singles, and get away with it.”

The lead single honor and duty eventually went to “Take Back the City,” a peppy, spunky ode to Belfast, Lightbody’s hometown; a city he acknowledges a rocky relationship with, but has ultimately come to realize that “it’s one of my favorite places on the planet, [and] I’m proud to say I’m from there.” Finally, a Snow Patrol song that isn’t about a failed or failing relationship, but rather the exploration of a place called home, and the delicate fibers that make us who we are.

“It rings a bell. It’s a rabble-rouser. I’m not political. I’m not religious. It’s a song about the city where I’m from. There’s nothing controversial, and I’m not trying to say I’m one thing or another. This is my city; it’s a place that’s informed me, inspired me, gone more into my personality than I probably care to even think about. All the good, all the bad, and I’ve come out the other side to realize that I actually love the place.

“We all have love/hate relationships with the place that we’re from. I’m 32 now. I’m old enough to realize that I can take everything as it is, and I can see the whole picture now, whereas I couldn’t see [it] when I was a kid. I was the type of person, and I have the type of personality where I needed to go and live somewhere else. Then you get away, and you feel homesick. And you realize all the good things about you: your family is from there; your identity is from there. You start to put things in context.”

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Love—not a bad break-up and the ritual of self-abuse and emotional torture that follows—is the central theme of A Hundred Million Suns, and this is because Lightbody readily admits to making “a love album…at its purest point, at its core, at its most prosaic.” And, for once, he is writing about a relationship with a different girl.

“From whatever standpoint I find myself right now, I’ll never forget, nor ever stop being wowed and wondered by the time that I had with someone, and it was very special. One of the great things that came out it, [is that] I can celebrate it, and not become trapped by it. Some of the other albums I felt like I was negating myself, and this time around I guess I’m a little wiser.”

Standout tracks “Crack the Shutters,” “Please Take These Photos from My Hands,” and “Set Down Your Glass” provide cinematic and emotional highpoints on A Hundred Million Suns. The latter being the potential centerpiece, beating heart and soul of the record, in that it’s essentially a classic Snow Patrol heartbreaker of a tune, and finds all members of the band in a stunningly tidal cohesion. It’s “a heavy mother” as I told Lightbody, to which he agrees, before genially admitting to including “a lie” in the lyrics.

“There’s one lie, and it’s the line, ‘I painted this to look like you and me forever as we’re now.’ I don’t paint! It’s a much more beautiful image to show some of the painting, and this silence. You’ve given them something that they can enjoy without pressure. They can enjoy it at their own pace and time,” he explains.

“If you write somebody a song, and play it to them, they can’t walk away and come back. They have to listen to the song. It traps them. When I write a song about someone, and…if I’ve ever played [it] for them, it’s the most oppressive atmosphere! You feel like you’ve held your breath for the entire length of the song and they’re uncomfortable, and you’re not looking each other in the eye. I wanted it to be a pure image; a pure moment where yes, this song is happening, this is a retelling of what happened, but when it actually happened there was silence. There was a beautiful moment of just…nothing. And the lyrics…I think they’re some of the best stuff that’s on this record.”

A stark tonal contrast to “Set Down Your Glass” arrives with “Disaster Button,” which finds Lightbody opening up about his past battle with alcohol and self-destructive tendencies, referring to himself as a “ripped-up ticket stub.” So much for the after party.

“There’s the tiniest molecule between me and complete disaster at any single point, any single day, and it generally involves alcohol. I’m not blaming alcohol for my problems. I used to, and it made me drink more. [laughs] It’s a vicious circle I guess, and very vicious sometimes. I’m a horrible drunk sometimes, especially back when I was angry. I’m not angry anymore. It’s knowing now that it’s me that is the problem,” Lightbody states. “It helped an awful lot, and almost took the problem away. It’s not the booze; it’s the stuff you’re carrying with you that’s causing the problems. When there’s no one else to blame but yourself, you’ve got two choices: continue on blindly or snap the fuck out of it. So that’s a song about past mistakes, but it’s also a song about the resolution of those. I have a disaster button. I know now that it’s me who’s pressing it. So I just don’t press it.”

Lest fans worry that A Hundred Million Suns ends on a downer of a note, a 16-minute spectacle in three parts called “The Lightning Strike” closes the record. It’s at first blush a confoundingly rowdy, startling, meandering journey to take listeners on. A big, shimmery kiss goodnight that doesn’t know when to say goodbye or invite us up for a night cap. But at least it’s ballsy and brazen, and bold, new sonic territory for Snow Patrol—something detractors will just have to accept.

“It’s very inspired by Berlin, and a great way to finish the record because of the way [it] energized us. It feels as if the record is ebbing away, but at the same time, it’s still fizzing and raw and vibrating. There’s still a pulse left in it. But it ends. There has to be an end. But you want it to leave with a heartbeat, you know?”

http://www.snowpatrol.com

–Carrie Alison, Photos by Steve Gullick

 
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