It’s hard to fathom, but it’s been seven long years since Northern Irish outfit Snow Patrol released its last album, the presciently titled Fallen Empires back in 2011. And although the group returns today with a carefully considered comeback, Wildness, frontman Gary Lightbody understands that seven years can be an eternity in other artistic genres, like home video, where Disney regularly returns its classic animated titles to that much down time in its vault, waiting for the next generation of potential viewers to come of age.
The singer laughs at the Mickey Mouse sell-by concept—a clever one, all told. “It’s perhaps been too long away, but it’s been the exact right amount of time to make this album and do it right,” he says of philosophical new song/studies like “Heal Me,” “Dark Switch,” “Don’t Give In,” and the gentle jangler “Soon,” dedicated to his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, who just turned 80. “So it certainly took longer than I ever would have imagined, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
And if you sit down with him at his local, he’ll happily dissect all the depressing darkness—including recognizing his own alcoholic tendencies, and how, after maintaining a high level of craftsmanship ever since forming Snow Patrol in 1993, with worldwide hits like “Run” and “Chasing Cars” under his belt, he nevertheless lost his Austin Powers mojo before experiencing sunny songwriting perfection again. Just don’t order him his customary pint of Guinness. Those days are long gone.
Paste: It was almost a footnote in your history, but a couple of years ago you undertook this low-key solo club tour of America’s West Coast.
Gary Lightbody: Yeah. And it was a lot of fun. And I think I was trying anything to jar some songs loose, because one thing we hadn’t done in a while was play live, and playing a bunch of shows when there was no new album arriving probably wasn’t the smartest move. But I went down the West Coast and had a great time.
Paste: Did it help you rediscover what makes your songs—and your career—tick?
Lightbody: Yeah. It wasn’t so much that it was in tatters at any point. But I didn’t really think of my career as a thing, as an organism at that point, so my life was a mess. I was drinking too much, I was too isolated, I was feeling alone, I was very unsocial. I really just felt discouraged, quite divorced from the real world. So at that point it was probably good to get out on the road and have some fun. And what seemed to happen each night was that in each city, good friends of ours also happened to be in town. In every city. In Seattle, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey from [side band] Tired Pony came out to the show, and some other friends just happened to be filming a movie in Portland when we got there. It was kismet, its own little ray of sunshine.
Paste: Were you still drinking at the time?
Lightbody: Yeah, but I don’t drink a lot on tour anyway. I drank enough off tour, until when I’m on tour I’m usually pretty sober. So I think it was the same for those acoustic shows—I’d have a beer or two but nothing too much, because my voice tends to take the hit. The problem really started when we came off tour in 2012. The plan was to take a year off and then get right back to work, and that’s what I did—I started writing the album in 2013, but I knew that the writing didn’t really feel right, and it didn’t until last year.
Paste: How many songs did you eventually discard?
Lightbody: Oh, well over 600.
Paste: No way.
Lightbody: Ha! I can show you! I’ll send you a picture. There’s over 600 songs on my iTunes voice memo from 2016. There are no titles, per se, because I don’t write the lyrics until the last minute, until we’re recording. So there will be verses and choruses and that’s all, and just made-up gibberish lines. But it was not that they were bad songs—I just didn’t feel any deep connection to them. Well, some of them are bad songs. But I didn’t feel as though I had much of anything, even though through the five years I’d started writing “Life on Earth” and “Don’t Give In.” So a lot of it I was kind of blinded to—I was blinded to what was staring me in the face. It was only by getting sober—although I don’t call it that, I just gave up drinking—that I was given the clarity to see the value in some of the stuff I hadn’t thought was good enough. Plus, then I could write a whole heap more of songs.
Paste: And your dad is 80?
Lightbody: Yes. He was 80 this year. And during the last tests that were done, he hadn’t deteriorated from the last set of tests that were done, so that’s great. It’s a real win with a degenerative disease like that. And it’s his heart which is probably worse off than his mind, because it’s his heart that’s kind of causing the dementia because his circulation is being affected by a really bad heart. So he’s in fine fettle for the most part when I’m around, but I think my mom—in living with him, day in, day out, being his primary caregiver, and even though I’ve tried to get her some help, she won’t take it—I think she takes the brunt of the day to day stuff, and it’s hard for her. But it’s interesting that he’s started telling me stories about his youth, so I’m learning more about him and how he grew up than I ever did before. It feels paradoxical to what’s going on—all the stories of the disease say that your memories will be robbed, and yet I am now gathering details about my father that I was never privy to before.
Paste: Things can always be worse. Scott McCaughey just had a stroke here in San Francisco.
Lightbody: And six weeks later, he’s playing onstage at his own benefit concert! That’s the extraordinary man that Scott is. And hearing that news was stunning, because a lovelier man in the universe there is not. Scott is one of those great lights in the world, so to hear what he went through was horrifying. And that’s the great thing about music—Mary, his partner, brought his guitar into the hospital, and he picked up his guitar within a few weeks of having the stroke, he was playing music in his hospital bed. And it reconnected him with all his faculties—it’s an amazing healing force.
Paste: Didn’t you have your own health scare at a gym in 2016?
Lightbody: Yeah. I was there doing my usual routine, touching my toes and stretching. And as soon as I stood up, it felt like an earthquake. And I was in L.A., so that’s exactly what I thought was happening. I thought I had vertigo, so I went see an ENT guy, who took a scan of my head and found that everything was infected, starting with my sinuses. And it had gotten to the point where I was drinking every day, and he told me, “Whatever you’re doing? You have to stop doing it,” And that’s what got me on the road to stopping drinking.
Paste: There’s a lot of nature in the new album. Are you all outdoorsy now?
Lightbody: I live by the side of a forest park in Northern Ireland. So every day, I’d be walking among these giant pine and oak trees, and I’d just feel like I’m breathing deeper. And when you’re not on your phone, and you’re disconnected from all the craziness of the world, you realize you can actually hear your own heartbeat. So I’m still in the hectic world, too, of course. But getting out of it is a good tonic.
Paste: And after all this time, you’re still single? It would have been nice to have a significant other to help you through the past seven years.
Lightbody: Yeah. I’ve been close a few times. I’ve had a lot of relationships that I really thought were going to work out, but they didn’t. And in recent years, I really want to focus on what was going on with myself before I put anybody else through that. I don’t think I was a very easy person to go out with in the past—I’m very shut off, and I do like my own space, and I’m kind of grumpy. And I’m sure it’s been seven or eight years since my last relationship, so it’s well past time to get back out there again and see what happens. But I think I might have left it too long now, because I don’t know how anything works anymore. I don’t even know how to say hello to a girl anymore!