Gary Lightbody: a deeply personal interview 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.

Snow Patrol are about to make a comeback after a very long time away, but they are still one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Lightbody can connect with whole stadiums full of people, so why does he have nobody to connect with as a partner?

“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. And 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…”

And 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 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 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. He’s 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 come from, that self-loathing he 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.”

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 …”

This is an extended version of a piece that first appeared in Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday

So long, and thanks for all the laughs: Terry Wogan’s last interview

Ah, Sir Terry. The old gent. I went to interview him at home last year and he was every bit as charming as you might hope. The piece appeared in October and sadly it turns out to have been his last interview.

The conversation was surprisingly candid, we did talk about his own end because Dignitas was in the news (he said he thought he might go, if he was being a burden) and because he had written a book of short stories that looked back to his younger days, and looking back always prompts thoughts of what is to come.

Some people are formal when they are being interviewed. Some are friendly and ask questions in return. Sir Terry was that and much more, a really lovely man. Afterwards I asked him a favour: my Mum has loved him forever, would he do her a little message on my phone?

I would not normally do a thing like that but she is one of the millions of listeners who have come to regard him as a friend, because his voice has always been there, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the car. He did, without hesitation. It was charming, self deprecating, generous and a wonderful thing for her to have.

Sir Terry Wogan died on 31 January 2016 at the age of 77.

Here is an edited version of that interview then, which appeared in Event, the magazine of the Mail on Sunday. 

‘I don’t believe in God, but when the Grim Reaper turns up, I may well think, “Oh, just in case, let me leave an exit door open. Maybe I do believe!”’

He does still go to Mass, despite being an atheist, with his wife, Helen. They have been married for 50 years, but he still refers to her on air as The Present Mrs Wogan, so clearly he likes to keep his options open.

Wogan is always playful, a charmer with a voice as rich as a pint of the black stuff (with a good creamy head, because he likes things light) but today he is in a very unusual mood, giving vent to opinions that are provocative and startling.

This is going to be a conversation about everything from his wealth (‘I should be richer, but I couldn’t be bothered’) to the fate of his beloved BBC (‘There must be a question mark over the licence fee now’) and even his friendship with the Queen. (‘Don’t say I said that, for God’s sake. Her husband will never speak to me again. The Duke’s a funny old boy’).

I can’t quite believe what I’m hearing, but maybe he is so open because he feels secure. Sir Terry and Lady Wogan value their privacy highly, but today he has invited me behind the electronic gates of his Berkshire mansion to talk about his new book, a debut novel called Those Were The Days. Inspired by his early life as a bank clerk in Dublin in the Fifties, it is charming and nostalgic.

‘In those days they used to drive the cattle all the way down the main road to the docks. I went back to see the bank. I think it’s a kebab shop now.’

He has come a long way from the cattle market to this large house in the countryside, with its mock-Tudor beams and an entrance hall dominated by a portrait in oils of the man himself.

Wogan is a little heavier than he used to be, there are flashes of white at the sides of his curious comb-over (which is clearly not a wig, despite the rumour that was once so popular around Broadcasting House) and his right hand trembles as he pours the coffee, but otherwise he looks tanned and rested in his raspberry cords and plaid shirt.

‘My health seems OK, but I am 77 now. Things will go wrong. I am clinging to the wreckage,’ he says.

He’s quoting his friend John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole Of The Bailey and the sort of witty, wistful writer Wogan aspires to be.

IMG_1180There’s a lilt in his voice that suggests he is full of the joys and absurdities of life, no matter what he is discussing.

That’s why viewers and listeners warm to Wogan and trust him. Blankety Blank and his weekday television chat show made him a household name in the Eighties, and he has hosted the BBC’s Children In Need for 35 years.

Then there was his long-running Radio 2 breakfast show, the most popular in the country, which had an audience of eight million when he handed it over to Chris Evans in 2009.

His loyal listeners, known affectionately as TOGGS (Terry’s Old Gals and Geezers), provided much of the material for the show with their emailed quips, comments and stories. You can still hear Wogan on Radio 2 on a Sunday morning.

But we can’t get too cosy, because I want to ask him about something very nasty, a long-time colleague of his who was also a national favourite but betrayed the trust of his audience in a hideous way.

We have to talk about Jimmy Savile, I say tentatively. Wogan sighs, looks up to the ceiling and says, ‘We do.’

They were both disc jockeys at the launch of Radio 1 in 1967 and worked alongside each other for many years at the BBC.

Was Wogan really never aware that Savile was abusing so many men and women, boys and girls?

‘No. I was aware, along with everybody else, that he was not a real person.’
What does that mean?

‘There was a carapace, a front. You never had a proper conversation, it was always this…’ and Wogan attempts the trademark Savile gargle.

‘All of that ebullient northern behaviour. I have a low threshold of embarrassment, so I tend to withdraw in the face of stuff like that.

‘You couldn’t like him, but nobody ever suggested he was doing what he turned out to be doing.’

He once made a joke on air about Savile wandering the BBC late at night, making strange noises. Was he trying to tell the viewers something?

‘No. That’s all he ever did, make strange noises. You never had a proper conversation, you never heard, “How are you? Are you well? Do you have a family?” No, nothing like that. It was all this…’ And he does the gargle again. ‘Inhuman.

‘You knew he was a rascal – flash car, big cigar – but on the other hand, whatever he did was masked by the fact that he raised massive amounts for charity. Prince Charles was taken in.’

IMG_1175Suddenly the conversation takes a bizarre turn, as Wogan wonders out loud about the relationship between Charles and the DJ – and launches into an unexpected attack on the late Lord Mountbatten, uncle and mentor to the Prince of Wales, calling him a ‘chancer’ and a ‘charlatan’.

Again, I can’t believe I’m hearing this from Sir Terry, who was given his knighthood in 2005. Won’t the Queen be livid?

‘She’s always been very friendly to me. I think she used to listen to the radio show,’ said Terry of the Queen (pictured with John Humphrys, James Naughtie, Chris Moyles and Jenny Abramsky at the BBC in 2006)

‘Oh, don’t say I said that, then, for God’s sake. Her husband will never speak to me again,’ he says, laughing. ‘The Duke of Edinburgh’s a funny old boy.’
Would he consider himself to be friends with the Queen?
‘Yeah, she’s always been very friendly to me. I think she used to listen to the radio show.’

She may not be so friendly after this, but Wogan doesn’t seem to care. Nor does he mind being frank about why he has written a novel: his agent asked for one.

‘I’m not a great raconteur, I’m not a tremendous person to keep the party going with fine-sounding talk, but I do find it easy to put things down on paper.’

Wogan writes on his iPad, despite the time lag between pressing the keys and seeing the letters appear.

‘It gives me time to think.’

PG Wodehouse and William Trevor are two of his favourite writers, and he went to the same secondary school in Dublin as another. ‘They never mentioned James Joyce, not once.’

The Jesuits who ran his school practised controlled brutality.

‘The Jesuits had great intellectual pretensions, so their punishments were calculated.

‘You’d make a mess of your Latin homework, the priest would give you a little chit and you had the morning to look forward to your punishment, which I think was a bit severe.’

What happened then?

‘You lined up with a load of other penitents, put out your hand and got a leather strap hammered across it once, twice, three, four, maybe six times.

‘Then in the afternoon, it would happen again. I don’t think they thought of it as cruel. I do in retrospect, of course.’

Among the many photographs on the walls of this room, the most striking is of Helen in the Sixties, when she was a model for Vogue.

Wogan had talked his way out of the bank and on to Irish television as a newsreader when they met at a function.

‘If I was still a bank clerk I don’t think I would have crossed the room, but I wasn’t so I did. I took her off for a sandwich.’

It’s a line delivered perfectly: offhand, cheeky and a bit more Irish in the accent than usual; but it’s also true.

‘There was a sandwich bar across the road that was the only place open that time of the morning. Then I took her home in my Morris Minor.’

She was reluctant to let him meet her parents, for reasons that became obvious one morning.

‘We went to a thing called the Press Ball and I had far too much to drink. I’m swerving in and out of the trees that line the boulevards of Dublin…’

Hang on, does he mean on foot?

‘In the car. Then I eventually get her home, we arrive outside her place just as her mother is coming out to Mass. She says, ‘Oh, would you not ask Terence in for a cup of tea?’’

Helen said no, firmly.

‘As her mother disappeared down the road, I opened the car and threw up on the street outside. So there you are, Irish romance.’

IMG_1182Have they ever come close to splitting up?

‘No, never. You argue about the tiny things, never about the big things. Certainly my wife took a number three iron to me once on the golf course.”

Is he serious? ‘She felt that my advice was becoming superfluous to needs. There’s nothing worse than husbands and wives playing golf together, so we rarely do it now.’

They had just married when he joined Radio 1, and she was his saving grace.
‘Because you’re well known, you’ve got to be terribly careful. You’re going to find women coming to you and you’ve got to find a stout stick with which to beat them off. I found it very easily.’

Several of his former colleagues have been accused of having wandering hands.

‘You can’t do that any more. That’s gone. Things were a bit different then.

‘You can’t justify what went on, but it was a lot more lax in the sense of the way men and women, boys and girls behaved towards each other.’

Did he think at the time that it was a bit off?

‘No. It was accepted.’

That’s a very honest answer.

‘Obviously, in my case and in the case of the great majority of disc jockeys and presenters, we weren’t that foolish.’

He would like to see changes to the way the BBC is run and funded to reflect those new realities, but still thinks we should all pay something towards its survival.

‘If you lose the BBC it will be like losing the Royal Family, it is so much of a part of life in this country.’

Wogan went freelance before there was a huge fuss about the amount BBC presenters were paid, but how much is he worth? I have read a figure of £20 million: is that true?
‘No. Nothing like it. How could I possibly be worth £20m?’

OK then, £10m?

‘Well, yeah. Maybe a bit more than that. I’m a former bank clerk, I know exactly how much money I have.’

He could have been far richer if he’d formed a production company to make his shows, as his successors have done.

‘Graham [Norton] has done it, Jonathan [Ross] has done it. I never did it because, well, I couldn’t be bothered.

‘I didn’t want to be a producer. I just want to sit in front of a camera or a microphone and make it all up as I go along.’

That’s what he’s doing now, improvising. I wrap things up by asking if he is going to leave his money to his three grown-up children?

‘I’m already doing that. You’re mad if you wait until you’ve kicked the bucket before your children get the benefit.

‘I don’t interfere with their companies, they’ve done all that on their own, but school fees for their kids and things like that? Yeah. Of course. Everybody has to. It’s the bank of Mum and Dad.’

He’s always felt weirdly like family. I remember his voice being in the room with us years ago, on cold winter mornings when my Mum poured hot milk on to cornflakes before school. Millions of us have the illusion of intimacy with him, as he well knows.

‘You’re only talking to one or two people at a time when you’re on the radio. They go out to the car and there you are again.

‘You’re not remote like a film star, you’re familiar like the wallpaper. They think of you as a friend.’
He has been a very lucky man, I say.

‘Oh God, if you are successful and you forget how big a part luck plays in your life, you’re mad. I mean, you could be born into poverty in Sudan, couldn’t you?

‘Luck plays a disproportionate part in life,’ says Sir Terry, and as he shakes my hand and flashes an expensive smile, I think that yes, he does know exactly how lucky he is.

Photograph by Harry Borden for Event magazine

Jeffrey Archer: Cancer surgery has made me impotent

He’s survived prison, penury, a very public affair, political scandal and now an illness that’s robbed him of his virility. So what if he sounds like the villain of a potboiler? He’s sold 270 million of them.

Source: Jeffrey Archer: Cancer surgery has made me impotent | Daily Mail Online

Brian Sewell: ‘I have been facing death for almost a year. I am very lucky to be still alive’ 

He’s our most ferocious art critic, the enemy of ‘detestable’ Damien Hirst and ‘vulgar’ Grayson Perry. But, Brian Sewell says his battle with cancer has exposed his inner softie.

Source: Brian Sewell: ‘I have been facing death for almost a year. I am very lucky to be still alive’ | Daily Mail Online

Sir David Frost, did you sell your satirical soul?

How do you interview the master of the sit-down interview, the man who coaxed a sweaty mea culpa from tricky Richard Nixon? By waiting until he is 73 years old, and it’s late in the afternoon, and asking if he’s a sell out. Nicely, of course. He saw every question coming, and I’m not the first person to put this to him in the long years since That Was The Week That Was and the Nixon encounters, but I do think the answer at the end is quite revealing. What do you think? Here’s the interview in full, in the Sunday Telegraph