A deeply personal interview with Gary Lightbody about life, love, loss and the crisis that kept Snow Patrol apart for years
Gary Lightbody has not had a girlfriend in eight years. He’s a handsome rock star, the lead singer in Snow Patrol, known for great anthems of love and longing like Run and Chasing Cars, but still he’s single. “Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, does it?” says Lightbody with a wry smile, running a hand through his longish black hair.
“I wasn’t a great boyfriend. I cheated and I was shut down, emotionally. All the clichés of terrible boyfriends. So I wanted to sort myself out before I started anything with anyone. That coincided with us coming off tour seven years ago. I started drinking heavily. And I thought, ‘That’s another reason not to get involved with anyone.’ I didn’t want them to be with me in this mess…”
What a terrible mess he was in, it turns out as we talk in a deserted hotel bar in New York, ahead of an intimate warm-up gig at the Irving Plaza (see video for a clip of the band performing Run). Today, Lightbody is feeling much better and ready to solve the mystery of where Snow Patrol have been all this time, and why they quit at the height of their fame back in 2012 …
They are warming up to release and tour a terrific new album called Wildness, featuring songs as good as any they have recorded – but Gary Lightbody admits it nearly didn’t happen. The band nearly ended. And again he blames himself.
“The period of time off just kept extending, it wasn’t meant to be this long. I couldn’t write the songs. I didn’t know what to write about …”
The road to recovery
The deeper truth – as he subsequently tells it – is that Gary Lightbody got lost in a fog of drink, drugs and depression that drove him to think about the end of his own life, let alone the band. The story of how he got himself and his band back together is a fascinating one, involving a therapist called Gabrielle, a singer called Ed Sheeran and Monica from Friends. But first the crash.
“The last tour of America was very tough. We were all just tired of each other’s company. No-one could see the funny side of anything anymore. We’d been doing album, tour, album, tour, album, tour, album, tour. So on that last one everybody was in the middle of a nervous breakdown at some point. We sort of swapped nervous breakdowns.”
They had been together since their days at Dundee University in the early Nineties, and slogged away as a band for a whole decade without any success, before sudden global fame brought a relentless schedule. “You can’t stop anything, you have to keep moving and it’s all organised a long way in advance. I would look in the diary to see when we had some time off and I would count the days.”
He makes the rock and roll life sound like a prison. “It’s a really bad way of living your life. We were going to burn out at some point. Everybody was like, ‘I just want to see the finish line, I don’t care about anyone else.’ It became a toxic environment.”
Yes, but they were superstars: himself, the guitarists Nathan Connolly and Johnny McDaid, the bass player Paul Wilson and the drummer Johnny Quinn were at the top of their game. This was everything the band had wanted, back when they were down on their luck and wrote Run as a kind of desperate plea for something good to happen: “Light up, light up, as if you have a choice …” It worked. The song was an unexpected hit in 2005, then again when Leona Lewis took a cover to number one.
What happened next was extraordinary. Eyes Open became the biggest-selling album of the year in Britain in 2006 and gave the world Chasing Cars, one of those songs you hear everywhere, all the time. The video has been seen on YouTube 185 million times. Their songs have been streamed online a billion times. So however tough it was on tour after that, surely they were rich, famous, adored and living their own rock and roll dream? “One hundred per cent. I felt so guilty about feeling so bad. If I ever complain, my brain is immediately like, ‘Shut up you wanker!’ I’m fully aware it sounds like complaining about having the best life. But even when you’re having success, you go through periods of questioning everything or having a shit time. We needed to deal with that, before we could even think about being a band still.”
This 41-year-old from Bangor in County Down is not like other rock stars. Gary Lightbody is thoughtful, articulate and wants a conversation rather than to deliver an address. He’s also more than a bit crumpled, in a grey hoodie and jeans. We first met when Snow Patrol were at the height of their fame and played the Royal Albert Hall, with an orchestra and a lovely set of supporting musicians led by my friends Iain and Miriam Archer. We saw each other backstage over three days and Lightbody was edgy, nervous but bright and apparently loving life. Between then and now, he fell apart. Today, Lightbody is disarmingly honest about what he has been through.
“For the ten years before Run I used to think, ‘If only we could have a hit, then everything would be okay.’ Then we did and I was like, ‘Why has nothing changed? Why am I still the same? Why do I still have the same self-loathing?’ One moment you’re standing in front of thousands of people who are singing back at you the words to a song you wrote when you were alone in your bedroom: ‘Light up, light up …’ Then you go back to the hotel or wherever and it’s quiet. The silence is deafening. I’ve spent many nights in hotel rooms just in tears, just going, ‘How did you get to this?’
“It’s kind of like having bipolar forced on you. You go from a sort of triumph to a pit of despair every night. That yo-yoing between the two means you’re never fully peaceful.”
Where does it all come from?
Where does it come from, that self-loathing Gary Lightbody talks about?
“Oh, since I was a little boy. A teenager, when the hormones kicked in and I started feeling things, in the way teenagers do. I didn’t understand what was going on in Northern Ireland. I felt like I didn’t belong. There were sides. There were very clear sides. ‘Pick.’ I didn’t want to pick a side. So I just felt alone.”
And that was how he felt again when Snow Patrol ended in 2012. The plan was for them to take a year or two away from each other. Lightbody already had a side project going with members of REM, the country-tinged supergroup Tired Pony. He moved to Los Angeles to try to break into the movies. “That was much harder than I expected it to be. I went into movie studios for meetings, not realising that’s the perfect way to get nothing done in LA. You get smoke blown up your arse then they show you out the door and you’re never thought of again.”
In the meantime, he was drinking. “I’m told I was always a pretty good drunk. I was never aggressive or anything like that. I was always having fun. Then it turned darker when I was in LA. This is about three years ago. Most of my friends there had kids or they were recovering alcoholics, so not a lot of them drank that much, if at all. I was wanting to out every night, so I would go out on my own. I had always been warned against that by my father and my friends. That’s when I realised I couldn’t stop. It was horrible to go a day without drinking.”
The feelings he had suppressed for years surged up to overwhelm him and Lightbody admits that he lost the will to live. “I thought I was wasting myself. I was drinking because I was unable to write and I was probably unable to write because I was drinking, so this snake was eating its own tail and I fell into this cycle of self-loathing compounded by my own actions.”
He thought about “not existing” – but had not got as far as working out how to actually end his life when a nasty infection gave him a jolt.
“Basically from the neck up was just infected. Gross. The doctor was like, ‘Whatever you’re doing, don’t do that!’”
He laughs at the desperate absurdity of it all. The infection was in his ears and throat and also both sinuses. Does that suggest cocaine was involved?
“Yeah. I mean, drugs were around and I never shied away. I don’t want to glamorise drugs because they’re such horrible things. But yes I did. I had good times and bad times, but mostly bad. When you turn your hangover into a come-down, the half-life of it all gets multiplied.”
The infection was very serious and the doctor wanted to operate, but Lightbody sought a gentler option. “A dear friend of mine, Gabrielle, is an acupuncturist and she is the most glorious human being on planet earth. She was like, ‘Give me a month and we can fix this. But no drinking.’”
That was a huge challenge, but he saw it as a matter of life and death.
“On my fortieth birthday I was dry. I went back to the doctor after a month of getting treatment with Gabrielle, three times a week, four times a week sometimes. And he did the CT scan again and it was clear.”
The song Heal Me on the new album is dedicated to Gabrielle. “The whole record would never have happened without her. My whole life today would not be what it is. I wouldn’t be here.” Is this a romantic attachment? “No. I mean yes, in the sense that I love her. Absolutely. But not the other way.” She’s not his partner? “No.”
There’s nobody else either. “I didn’t want to be with anyone when I was a mess. And I’ve come out the other side of it all now but I’m still not with anyone.”
The new normal
Is he wary of messing up again? “Yeah,” says Lightbody with a sigh. “I’m very vigilant about everything at the moment, because I think I need to be. I’m hoping at some point it just clicks in and I don’t need to think about it all so much. My health, my mental health. I have to do certain things every day. I have to meditate, I have to do my Qigong, I have to go to the gym. I find that on the days I don’t do those things, I start to feel the shadow.”
Routine is vital, he says.“I didn’t do Alcoholics Anonymous but I respect it. They talk about not making any big life decision within the first two years of your recovery and I’m still within that framework. In June it’ll be two years. I think that’s probably a good benchmark, before making any significant changes in my life.”
So come June, romantically, he will be open for business again? “Yeah. Perhaps. I’m definitely opening up again, that’s for sure. I feel more like what I hoped myself would be. Somebody lighter in spirit. Somebody that doesn’t need to drink to laugh, doesn’t need augmentation to have a good time. I feel like I’m easier to be with, quicker to laugh, quicker to have fun with.”
Part of his return to health has been writing songs with other people – including Biffy Clyro, Taylor Swift, One Direction and Ed Sheeran, who became a mate.
“Ed is unlike any other musician I’ve ever known. He has more ideas than anybody else ever! I’m not even exaggerating, you sit in a room with him and he’ll write ten songs in a few hours. It’s a thing of magic really, he’s so unfiltered, so uninhibited, so in tune with his muse, his guitar bends to his will. I bend to my guitar’s will.”
So how did they meet? “We were both doing the Energy festival in Switzerland and we clocked each other on the plane on the way over but didn’t say anything. When we got to the venue I wrote a letter and I put it in his dressing room, he wasn’t there. It just said I was a big fan of the first record, let’s get together and have a pint and a chat.”
That was sweet and Sheeran responded. “So we went out and got drunk together and we had a really good laugh. It’s funny, that night he was just starting to get into tattoos, he had a few but not the way he is now. I said, ‘The only tattoo I’d ever get is a song lyric by Bon Iver.’ Straight away he went, ‘Everything that happens is from now on!’ And I went, ‘Fuck me! Yes! That’s the one!’ That’s how we became fast friends.”
Did Lightbody get the tattoo? “No! But Ed did. I just chickened out, I don’t really want a tattoo.”
Sheeran also writes with Johnny McDaid, who is also part of Snow Patrol. “After the gig they would go to the hotel room to write songs together and they would always ask me ‘Do you want to come?’ Sometimes I would go and most of the time I didn’t. Those songs went on Multiply which obviously went on to become an extraordinary record and a massive success.”
McDaid is a highly accomplished song-writer and producer outside the band and he has written for movies including The Fault In Our Stars and Just Before I Go, the first film directed by Courteney Cox. They started dating four years ago and are due to be married this summer in Malibu. Isn’t it a bit weird for Lightbody that his mate is engaged to Monica from Friends? “Ha! No, it doesn’t freak me out at all. No. I haven’t really thought about it. She’s so down to earth and lovely though. I don’t really ever think about that. Not in a million years would you ever think, ‘You’re a star …’ We’re approaching off the record stuff here…”
Let’s talk about something closer to home then, but perhaps even more difficult. The new album features proper big Snow Patrol blockbusters like Life On Earth and Empress but there are also haunting ballads, including one called Soon. It’s about his father Jack, who has Alzheimer’s. “He was diagnosed three years ago but he was showing signs long before that. I can’t wait to sing it live.”
Will that be difficult? “When he’s there, maybe. He’ll be there.”
Lightbody’s eyes start to fill up as he recalls the last time he sang in front of his father – and 50,000 other people – in Dublin a few years ago. The song Lifening made reference to wanting to be a father like his own.“Everyone cheered the line and I looked over at him and he was smiling. He’s kind of inscrutable most of the time. He was standing side of stage, I went over and got him and the place went nuts.”
There’s a long pause now, while Lightbody fights real tears. “I stood in the middle of the stage with him and he turned to me and whispered in my ear in the way only he can: ‘Well this is great, isn’t it?’” Now Lightbody laughs. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was perfect. The feeling of sadness that I’m having right now is the feeling that I was having then, until he said that and then I just laughed and laughed.”
Is he worried for himself? “Yeah. That’s where the line in the song comes in: ‘Soon you’ll not remember anything. Some day neither will I.’ I don’t remember my own song lyrics most of the time. My memory has never been very good. So yeah, I think about that. A lot of this record is about memory. Maybe there’s something of my childhood in there.”
And he’s come full circle, because after all these years Lightbody is living in Northern Ireland again.
“When I left for university I was happy to go. When I finally bought a house there, in my thirties, I fell deeply in love with the place again. Northern Ireland is an amazing place. We punch well above our weight in sport, in music, culturally, all the art forms. We are a very small country that gives a lot out into the world and it’s something to be very proud of. So when I moved back, I did it out of love. I understood the place better. And its peace. Northern Ireland is a different place now.”
Gary Lightbody looks down at his hands and smiles, having found a peace of his own. “I’m in a very different place now myself …”