[12 March 2009]
“Fame has also this great drawback, that if we pursue it, we must direct our lives so as to please the fancy of men.”
—Benedict de Spinoza
For a band that has never actively chased fame, it’s somewhat surprising that Snow Patrol have found huge success.
With 2003’s Final Straw and it’s follow up, Eyes Open (featuring the mega single “Chasing Cars”) the band’s fate as commercial giants was sealed. They were a cash cow who (properly marketed) could very well become the next U2. Yet their success was not overnight, as the band spent the majority of the 90s sleeping on floors and bumming equipment from friends to record. At one low point, lead singer Gary Lightbody had to sell his record collection to pay the rent, but blessed with a strong, working class Irish constitution, the band soldiered on.
“We spent ten years making records that 6,000 people bought,” Lightbody says in a press release for the band’s latest album, A Hundred Million Suns. The follow-up to any successful album is tough (let alone two commercial smashes in a row), and the band is encountering a backlash from both the press and the public. Having “Chasing Cars” prominently featured on Grey’s Anatomy in 2006 didn’t win the band any street cred, and some have even accused the band of toning down their lo-fi, garage rock tendencies in favor of power pop singles to sell more records. But according to drummer Jonny Quinn, A Hundred Million Suns is the sound of a band doing exactly what they want to do, and chart success and haters be damned. I spoke to the longtime Snow Patrol drummer Quinn about the pressures of fame, inspiration, and how they will never be the next U2.
“After Final Straw and Eyes Open, to top ourselves we’d basically have to write songs to order and think about radio airplay which we can’t do at all, because that’s when we’d start to freak out about it too much and we would get a real block,” said Quinn in a hushed, Irish cadence. “On A Hundred Million Suns, we hadn’t really written any songs like ‘Chasing Cars’ or anything that might have a run on radio forever, so I don’t know commercially if we’ll sell as many with this album, but I think that we’re just really happy with what we’ve created on this record. I think it’s the best that we’ve done so far, but that may not be realized in terms of sales. We’re already really taken back at the size of the band at this point. We don’t have the ambition to be the biggest band in the world like some groups, and I don’t thank that we’ll ever try and chase that.”
The success of “Chasing Cars” was difficult for the band to fathom, as the song wound up spending an astonishing 85 weeks on the UK charts, making it the second longest running song in UK history, behind Frank Sinatra’s iconic take on “My Way”. Not bad for a group of working class Irish lads who wallowed in obscurity and poverty for ten years, slowly building a fan base through word of mouth and a strong work ethic.
“Final Straw was when we had our first real success and when we started to sell in great quantities, and Eyes Open, especially in America, Australia and Europe, helped us gain a wider audience,” said Quinn. “There’s a lot more expectation after you’ve sold a lot of albums, and you’ve got a lot more people working with you, your team and live show gets bigger, and for us it’s just a good challenge to try and improve and live up to some of those expectations, in everything that we do. We just know that we’re going to be analyzed a lot more than we ever have been, and the criticism and backlash comes a lot harder and faster. We just have to sort of up our game and succumb to the fact that we have to be professionals.”
The Snow Patrol story began in 1994, when Lightbody relocated to Dundee, Scotland from Northern Ireland to form a band. He recruited Quinn from Belfast and—along with guitarist Nathan Connelly and bassist/keyboardist Mark McClelland—the band Polar Bear was formed. In a Spinal Tap-like debacle, the band quickly had to change their name when they realized that Polar Bear was the moniker of Jane’s Addiction bassist Eric Avery’s side project. Instead of becoming The New Polar Bears, the band became Snow Patrol and signed to Jeepster Records in 1995, home to their Glaswegian indie rock heroes Belle & Sebastian. “I was just talking to some of the guys about the Jeepster days recently,” said Quinn. “Those were the days of van breakdowns and not having enough money for a room, staying on people’s floors and the tiny gigs ... there was a lot of adventure in those days, whereas today everything is so organized and quite military. Back then it was pure adventure, but it was also frustrating as well because we didn’t have a lot of promo money and it was very tough to buy equipment, and we’d end up borrowing a mate’s gear. That was the great spirit of those days.”
“We always found a way to get by, but it did get a bit tiring and we did that for a long time. But in those days you’d come home from tour and your landlord would be waiting outside your door because you owed him two months rent, and you only had twenty quid in your pocket. It’s romantic for the first three or four years, but after that it gets a bit taxing when you turn 30. It’s OK when you’re 21. I’m 31 at the moment and I just married last August.”
Love has certainly acted as the proverbial muse for the band, and much of A Hundred Million Suns is a reflection of Lightbody finding true love. For a man that has battled his demons with alcohol and destructive relationships, Lightbody has finally let some sunlight into the Snow Patrol world. “Gary writes the lyrics, and he had a turning point in his life when he fell in love for the first time in a long time,” said Quinn. “He was bored with writing about the negative, gloomy side of relationships, which is a lot easier to write about because its easier to focus on the negative feelings, but this time he was able to focus on the happy. There’s definitely a feeling of happiness on the record, which is good for a change. We can’t be grumpy all the time.”
For the recording of Suns, the band packed up their gear and headed to the remote studios of Grouse Lodge in rural Ireland. The epic and sprawling nature of Suns’ sixteen-minute closing track “The Lightning Strike” with its brass, choir and hypnotic sway echoes a band that had to remove itself from society to find inspiration. “At the time we set out to record Suns, everything was so crazy in our lives that taking off seemed like a good idea as a means to escape from society and everything else, and not having any external knowledge of the outside world was a very healthy thing for us,” said Quinn. “If you go to the very far reaches of Ireland where we recorded it feels like you’ve gone back in time, and the news doesn’t get there. So it was a good place for us to bring a P.A. and all of our instruments and a wee bit of recording gear and we just started writing and living a different life for several weeks. I’d do a bit of fly fishing when I got bored but that’s it.”
While not straying far from their ballad and power pop structure, Suns is indeed ambitious and multi layered. The raucous single “Take Back the City” finds the band rediscovering the joys of a garage rock spirit, while “Crack the Shutters” is a pure ode to love, with Lightbody caught up in the swell of utter adulation and worship for a woman. “I think it has more of a Snow Patrol sound than we’ve ever had,” said Quinn. “It really is the synthesis of the early Jeepster days and the band we’ve grown into. It’s one of those albums that will probably grow on you, and the more listens you give it, the more layers you’ll discover. But then again, we really don’t know anything. We never set out with a blueprint for our career. We never sit in the studio and think, ‘Oh, that’s going to be huge on radio’ or ‘That’s a definite single.’ We don’t know, and we don’t know what radio will like.
“With ‘Chasing Cars’, we were shocked with the amount of airplay it got, and it felt like it was overplayed and it was just everywhere, and at the same time we don’t want people to get pissed off at the song, which can happen. It became such a big song that we worry that it’s all people recognize us for, and there’s a weird perception that all of our albums are ballads, and anyone who knows us knows that is not true. It gets to a point where a song can become bigger than the band, and you hope that it doesn’t ruin what comes next.”
Since its release on Oct. 28, 2008, Suns peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts in November, with “Take Back the City” and “Crack the Shutters” garnering solid radio airplay here and abroad. “I think we’ve gotten a bit of a backlash, as someone in the press called us boring and the public seems to have run with it. There’s this perception that we’re bland or boring, and I’d like for one of us to get arrested to shake that image.” With their stadium ready anthems and Irish heritage, the comparisons to U2 seem inescapable, but as Quinn explained with a hint of exasperation, the Snow Patrol idea of fame is very different than Bono and Co. “We toured with U2 in 2005, and it became clear that they aimed for that goal of superstardom, especially when they started to conquer America,” said Quinn. “Touring with them, I saw that they are still as critical of themselves and still as hungry as they ever were. After every couple of gigs, they’ll watch tapes of shows from that week.”
“I don’t think we could ever be that picky about it, at whatever level of stardom we rise to,” continued Quinn. “It depends what your ambitions are, and we realize that we have a responsibility to see how far we can go with it, more than thinking about how we can conquer the world and play stadiums. That’s not really our ethos. I just want our live shows to be amazing, and for people to come out thinking that it was amazing and for those two hours that people are escaping from their lives, I just want to be the guys to provide that escape. I want to inspire people to start bands, and that’s where we are right now. That’s success to me.”