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    Snow Patrol: Postcards From The Edge

    To Turn Winston Churchill's famous comment about Clement Attlee on its head, Gary Lightbody is a modest man with a lot to be immodest about. Since the release of Last Straw in 2003, the unassuming Irishman and his band Snow Patrol have scaled the Olympian heights of rock music, selling more than two million records, touring with U2 and being widely hailed as the new Coldplay.


    Yet the group's singer and main songwriter remains refreshingly free of pop star swagger, and seems to have checked his ego at the door when we meet to discuss the imminent release of the much-anticipated follow-up. Asked about the Coldplay comparisons, he politely refuses to be drawn.

    Undeterred, I press the point from a different angle. So which Snow Patrol song made him realise that his band could rival Chris Martin and company as purveyors of emotional and literate melodic rock with a big heart, and even bigger tunes? I expect him to answer 'Run', the band's anthem of love and longing that gave them a top five hit and turned them into festival favourites around the world - but he's still not having it. "I don't want to battle with anyone," he insists. "I like Chris Martin, and Coldplay are a great band. Music's not a competition." Try telling that to Liam Gallagher.


    snowpatrol20060423.jpgA little later I ask him how Snow Patrol celebrated the band's first million sales. "We didn't really," he admits in a soft voice that betrays his Northern Ireland upbringing, although the band formed in Scotland a dozen years ago. "We kept being given different figures so we weren't exactly sure when it happened. And we spent 2004 touring, so we didn't have time to sit back and smell the roses."


    Such quiet humility isn't exactly rock 'n'roll, and could be taken to indicate a lack of passion. Yet a listen to Snow Patrol's new album, Eyes Open, suggests otherwise. Like its multi-platinum predecessor, it's full of yearning tunes and poignant, confessional lyrics that foster an intense and highly personal sense of identification between the band and its fans.


    At the same time, according to Lightbody, it's also subtly different from anything they've done before. Bigger, bolder and better. "There were a lot of chinks in Final Straw, which was recorded very quickly," he admits. "With Eyes Open we were determined to take more time and that's made it more experimental and elaborate, without losing the intimate core."


    A year in the making, the album began life in early 2005, when the band convened in Dingle on the west coast of Ireland in a remote clifftop cottage once used by Kate Bush. Lightbody arrived with just three songs half-written and the rest of the album took shape "on the edge of a precipice" - quite literally, he explains, for the waves of the Atlantic could be heard crashing on the rocks below.


    There were breaks while the band supported U2 on the Vertigo tour around Europe and played Live 8 both in London's Hyde Park and in Scotland. But otherwise, the writing and recording process was "monastic", says Lightbody. Snow Patrol's attitude to success is austere to say the least. "None of that stuff counts unless what you do next is exceptional," Lightbody reasons. "Don't look back admiringly at your own footprints. You could say we are hard on ourselves and self-critical. But that's what brings out the best in us."


    THE SINGER HAS been accused by former colleagues of being a control freak - an accusation we shall come to. Yet if he is, then he's a particularly laid-back and affable one. At 28, and despite his success, he still exudes the air of a tousle-haired indie romantic, and his current unattached status makes him one of rock's most eligible bachelors.


    He's also painfully anxious not to give offence, and you wonder if he's almost too nice for his own good. In conversation we discuss the power of music to get us through those dark nights of the soul. He suggests a great record is more reliable than human beings in such circumstances, for a song is always there and will never let you down. It's an unexceptional observation, but the following day I receive a concerned telephone call from the band's press officer. "Gary's been thinking about what he said and he's worried that if his friends read the interview, it might be misconstrued. He wants to make it clear that his friends have never let him down."


    When I relate this story to someone who knows him well, I'm told this is typical. "Gary spends a lot of time on his own and he analyses everything," the friend notes. "And he gets mortified if he thinks anyone might be hurt by anything he says."


    On the other hand, he has proved himself capable of ruthlessness. Last year Lightbody sacked the band's only other founder member, bassist Mark McClelland, with whom he formed the band when both were students at Dundee University in 1994. A shocked McClelland said he was taken completely by surprise and claimed Lightbody had ousted him because he wanted total dominion over the band. "Gary said to me, 'We're not getting on. I don't feel I can write music with you in the band and you're going to have to go'," he told NME at the time. "I wanted an explanation but there was none forthcoming."


    A year on and there's still no real elaboration. Lightbody speaks of "unexpected pressures" that took their toll on working relationships. The parting of ways was "best for the band" he says, and the situation "had got to the stage that things couldn't go on as they were". But it was a sad end to a friendship and professional partnership that had endured for more than a decade, during which time the pair had steered Snow Patrol from indie hopefuls to rock aristocracy.


    In 2003 they secured their major label deal with the Polydor imprint Fiction. The result was Final Straw, and suddenly Snow Patrol were struggling indie perennials no more, transformed into major league players. The single 'Run' debuted at number five in Britain and helped to break the band in America, with 28,000 plays on American radio in 2004 alone.


    Further singles 'Chocolate' and 'Spitting Games' also charted and helped Final Straw to number three in the British charts. In America the album outsold Muse's Absolution and Coldplay's Parachutes. Friend and songwriting collaborator Iain Archer won a coveted Ivor Novello award for his contribution.


    Eyes Open is cut from similar cloth, but with some smart new embroidery. The song Lightbody is most proud of is 'Set The Fire To The Third Bar' featuring the guest vocals of Martha Wainwright. "I wrote it as a love song to her voice. I'd never met her but she sounded like a dangerous angel," he says. "Then we called her and as fate would have it she was in Ireland, so we booked a studio and she sang on it. I think it's the best thing we've ever done."


    Other stand-outs on an album he describes as "postcards from the cliff's edge" include first single 'You're All I Have', the electronica-laden closer 'Finish Line' and 'Chasing Cars', which he describes as "the most pure and open love song" he has ever written.


    With Coldplay sidelined while Chris Martin is off on paternity leave again, Eyes Open promises to be one of the biggest British rock albums of the year, and 2006 is certain to be another hectic year for Snow Patrol, with an extensive American tour and festival dates already in the diary. Lightbody will be even busier: he has another album on the way with his side-project Reindeer Section, featuring moonlighting members of various other Scottish-based bands.


    There isn't time to look back admiringly, however illustrious those footprints have become.


    The single 'You're All I Have' is released tomorrow. Eyes Open is released on May 1, and Snow Patrol play the ABC, Glasgow, the same night


    Source: http://living.scotsman.com

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