Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody opens up about his depression to The Big Issue
After global success, Snow Patrol have been quiet for seven years. Frontman Gary Lightbody was drawn into the ‘dirt and the darkness’ by drink and depression but now, he tells Paul McNamee, he’s found his way home
Gary Lightbody’s moment came two years ago in a gym in Santa Monica. The Snow Patrol frontman has long had a reputation for indulging his appetites. But even he was going at it on a bigger scale, with a fierce, Valhallan vigour.
The band’s last tour had finished in late 2012. And then: “I started drinking,” he says, “with a gusto that a professional boxer might train for a prize fight. It’d be mostly beer. I was quite a happy drunk. There was a hell of a lot of fun. Until it wasn’t.
“I’d get to 2am sitting on my own, have a cry, and then a glass of something [stronger]. I didn’t have any relationships and I wasn’t having sex either. I was very hermetic. Around 2015/2016 I was drinking every day and also I was hating it. I regret doing it even though I knew I was doing it out of compulsion.”
He was hitting the gym in the mornings to sweat it off. Then came the moment.
“I bent down to touch my toes and everything started spinning. It felt like the floor beneath me was moving. I thought it was an earthquake. But it kept going on. I phoned a friend who lived around the corner. I was like, ‘Are we having an earthquake?’ He said ‘Something’s going on here’.
“I had a bunch of CT scans on my head. My whole head was infected – sinus, ears, eyes, everything. I’d been having styes and stuff on my eyes. Stick a teabag on it. This was the week before I was going to France to see Northern Ireland play in their first tournament in 30 years. I said to the doctor, ‘I’m flying to France in five days’. He’s like, ‘No you’re not. If you flew with the air pressure it’d feel like daggers ripping into your head’. I was still thinking maybe I’ll be alright. I spoke to a friend, Gabrielle, an acupuncturist, an extraordinary human being. She’d been trying to get me to stop drinking for a while…”
So he stopped. Or at least, he began to stop. And in flooded the dark realities he’d been masking.
In recent weeks, as he’s been working around the release of Wildness, Snow Patrol’s first album in seven years, Lightbody has started to talk for the first time about the mental health problems which have plagued him for years. (“I didn’t talk about anything; nobody knew, the band didn’t know.”) Last year, after 12 months sober, came another key moment.
“Last summer,” he says, “I thought I’d be relieved to get the album done. We’d just finished. But I wasn’t. I was devastated. I’d opened a place in my psyche and I didn’t know how to shut the door. It was like the ark of the covenant was opened [from Raiders Of The Lost Ark] and there were melting faces left and right and I didn’t know how to shut the thing down. So instead of talking to somebody I tried to shut myself out. Let my own face melt. And the band knew something and they flew from London and arrived at the door and I broke down and told them everything.
“I have a depressive personality that has no relationship with reality. I could be having the best time on the surface and yet my depression goes, ‘You’re still a cunt. Don’t forget that. I’m dragging you down into the ink and the dirt and the darkness’. I could be playing to 15,000 people and three hours later be on a hotel room crying on the floor. That’s happened a bunch of times. The depression and the success have no relation to each other. It’s just part of me. I’ve learned that rather than running from it, which you can never really do – you can never run away from yourself – is you have and turn and face it and look it in the eye and say I’m not afraid of you anymore.”
And so he went home. Back to Northern Ireland, to North Down where he was brought up. It’s the place he was desperate to leave in 1994, when he ran to Dundee to start university, to start the band, to start years of chipping away with no success. Then he wrote Run, and everything changed.
It’s easy, given their time away, to forget just how huge Snow Patrol were for a period from the mid-to-late Noughties. Nobody, really, was bigger.
The song Chasing Cars, from fourth album Eyes Open, was picked up for US hit TV show Grey’s Anatomy and propelled them to huge fame. Lightbody moved to Santa Monica around 2009 (“Soon as my feet hit the sand in Santa Monica something just hit and I thought, I want to live here”).
Recently he claimed he’d moved back to Northern Ireland because the band were getting ready to work again and he needed to be near them. But it feels like the truth is a little more complicated.
It’s a time in Northern Ireland as well when it feels like we’re at a bit of a crossroads again.
“You’re right. There are quite a few reasons. My dad isn’t well, my mum isn’t coping very well and my niece is going to be 11 in July. I’ve missed most of her life living in LA.
“And I missed home. It’s a time in Northern Ireland as well when it feels like we’re at a bit of a crossroads again. I felt a bit of calling back here. Not that I figure I can help in any way, but I certainly won’t feel connected if I’m 5,000 miles away. I wanted to reconnect.”
We’re meeting today in the Crawfordsburn Inn, the picture-postcard hotel not far from Gary’s shorefront home, overlooking Belfast Lough.
It feels timely. We meet on the 20th anniversary of a concert in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, hosted by U2, that helped deliver a huge YES vote in the referendum for the Good Friday Agreement. In a nation where defiant NOs had been the lingua franca, a YES was significant. A political statement and a cleansing.
On that day, John Hume and David Trimble were ushered onstage by Bono, a man with a keen eye for a moment. U2 sang Don’t Let Me Down. Ash were there too, being young and hopeful. Twenty years on, as Lightbody says, Northern Ireland is at a bit of crossroads. And he’s found his way home.
The album, Wildness, is worth the wait. If Snow Patrol had touched on themes of running and movement in the past, Wildness has a leitmotif of finally settling. The word ‘home’ is laced through several songs. Two tracks in particular illustrate what Snow Patrol can really do – the anthemic reach of the huge, wondrous opening track Life on Earth (a track that took Gary five years to complete), and the intimacy of What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get?, a piece with just Gary on piano, a heartbreaker written for a friend going through a divorce.
The song Soon marks another significant theme. It deals with Lightbody’s father Jack’s battle with Alzheimer’s. It’s a simple builder, full of grace notes and sadness. There is something quietly heroic in it. The video, filmed in Lightbody’s apartment, sees him and his father watching old home movies his dad recorded through the years. As well as the sadness over what his father is losing, there is an understanding of a farewell to lost youth, that the hopefulness of that other country is worth revisiting for both of them.
I have a lot of respect for him so I wanted to honour him, but at the same time I also have a lot of guilt for being away for most of my adult life.
“I love my dad,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for him so I wanted to honour him, but at the same time I also have a lot of guilt for being away for most of my adult life. I don’t just mean LA, I mean Glasgow, London, or on tour constantly. And there is probably a place in my head where I go when I’m feeling homesick and that is both a place of calm and nostalgia and also a place of guilt and some shame.
“I’ve felt I’ve been running away, most of the time from myself. So (he pauses)… some of the home references are me feeling disconnected rather than connected…. feeling like I’d never really found a home. I never truly felt at home when I was growing up in Northern Ireland. Then I left and never really felt at home anywhere else. And then I moved back to Northern Ireland and now I do feel at home here, but that has also coincided with me feeling at home inside my own body. Which was the whole problem the whole time. I wasn’t comfortable with myself. I didn’t like myself. So you have to figure that out before you can feel at home anywhere.”
The band’s influence and legacy goes beyond their own work. They’ve helped shape the sounds that have become pervasive in post-millennial pop. Lightbody and band member Johnny McDaid have written with, among others Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and One Direction. Snow Patrol took Sheeran on the road in the States in 2011, helping him break through. They remain close.
“Between myself and Johnny McDaid we’ve written a lot of things for other pop acts, him more than me,” he says. “I would say Ed came fully formed from his first album. He’d done the groundwork. All the grafting that you need to do, when you’re a young band. He busked his ass off from the age of 15 on the streets of London, sleeping on his mate’s couch. He had turned up to gigs and said to promoters can you give me 15 minutes after the doors open. And promoters say aye. That’s how he started. He grafted harder and still does to this day – harder than anyone I know.”
Sheeran is returning the favour, taking Snow Patrol on an American stadium tour this autumn.
Refusing to accept Snow Patrol as fountainheads of a sound, Lightbody says they are more like Zelig, “probably bystanders”.
One got away, though. Mutual friend James Corden introduced Lightbody to Adele.
“It happened to be a birthday of somebody that James and Adele knew.… and I sat down with her and she said when are we going to do [a song]. We did two days – Adele, Johnny McDaid and me – the bones of three really amazing fucking songs. But we never got round to finishing it. And then the album came out and obviously we weren’t on it.”
While his own album has just come out, there is already pressure to get busy on the next. Longtime producer, friend and mentor Garret ‘Jacknife’ Lee has been in touch (“he says we need to get cracking on the next one”).
For now, ahead of their own arena tour in the winter, Lightbody is learning to cope, listening to podcasts (“Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks is my favourite one”) and Bon Iver (“I think he’s the finest songwriter alive”) and working things out.
“Me, now not drinking, I like myself but I’m socially awkward. I’d rather be sitting with bandmates, my family. I’m 41. I know what I want.”
And that is?
“Peace. I want to make sure that every day of my life I take a moment and realise everything is calmer. I’ve learned how to meditate, learned how to do qigong. Learned a whole load of practices that I do every day. They mitigate the madness. The greatest thing I ever did for my own emotional wellbeing was to talk.”
And if we went back 20 years as this all started, and said here are the successes, here are the demands it’ll make on you mentally, personally, physically – would you have taken it?
“I would have taken it for half the successes. I can’t believe what happened to us. I still can’t believe when I look back at it, at everything that is successful that has been good. At everything that is still happening. It’s a dream. It’s a bloody dream.”