Snow Patrol – A Hundred Million Suns

It’s hard to fathom that back in the ‘90’s Snow Patrol, a student band from Scotland, was teetering on thin ice.  So thin that frontman Gary Lightbody had to sell his record collection to meet his monthly nut.  Yet in the next 14 years, they not only reached land, but crossed over the universe…a story that unfolds through their albums, particularly the last three:  From Final Straw, where Lightbody hit personal rock bottom to Eyes Open, the commercial wake up call, and the latest release in October, A Hundred Million Suns …as if to say “to infinity and beyond”.  But these mild-mannered Irishmen would never say that, no less think it.   As global as they’ve gone, the band still has their feet firmly planted on the ground.

Back in 1995, they signed to the Jeepster label, home of their Glaswegian heroes, Belle and Sebastian.  Although they were always local favorites in Belfast, Dublin and Glasgow, the word was slow to spread and the label lost faith, dropping SP after their 2001 album, When It’s All Over We Still Have to Clear Up failed to hit big.  After signing with Fiction label in 2003 and hooking up with producer Garrett ‘Jacknife’ Lee, life would change as they knew it…or would it?  Somehow, SP managed to maintain their anonymity while seizing the airwaves.  First with their top 5 hit “Run” off the Final Straw CD and then with their larger-than-life single “Chasing Cars” off the Eyes Open album.  With over 100,000 radio plays in the UK, 2m downloads in the US, and the accolades of “Best Song Of All Time” from Virgin Radio, “Chasing Cars” pushed the album over the top, leading to a final sales tally of 4.7m copies worldwide.

 Their latest endeavor, A Hundred Million Suns orbits down a different path, although SP did revisit an old haunt:  Ireland’s remote Grouse Lodge recording studio, where the band was holed up for six weeks. With Jacknife’s guidance, they then took a 180-degree turn and headed for the city of Berlin to continue recording at the legendary Hansa Studios – where Bowie, U2 and other luminaries recorded seminal work.   The results were stellar  — A Hundred Million Suns taps into their Jeepster and Fiction years, while evolving into a bolder, brighter sound. Without question, the most outstanding departure is the last track, “The Lightning Strike” – a 16-minute piece in three movements.

Glide had the good fortune of catching lead guitarist,  Nathan Connolly while on tour in New York.  Here’s his take on life in the last couple of years…

Instead of asking you what the difference is between A Hundred Million Suns and Eyes Open, I’d like to know what’s the difference in your band between now and then?

I reckon that we’re just a lot better.  We’ve found what we’ve always been about…especially live.  We’ve become stronger musicians, stronger songwriters and we’re much more comfortable in the studio.  Ya know, freer to experiment.  We try things that we’ve never had the conviction to do before.

 …And you’re definitely happier, yes?  Your past albums focused mainly on the breakdown of relationships, but this album is much more spirited.

Well, there’s still a few dark moments on it…it wouldn’t be a record if there wasn’t but I think generally, Gary is writing from a much more positive place.  As a band, we’re much more confident.  We’re a lot more honest with each other and we’re much more in love with the band than we’ve ever been. 

 Grouse Lodge and Hansa Studios are polar opposites.  What was it like recording in two totally different environments?

They both had a huge effect on certain songs.  We started off in Grouse Lodge because it was familiar territory and we have great affection for that place and the people there.  We had an amazing time, but Grouse is smack in the middle of Ireland.  To get anywhere you have to drive half an hour before you see civilization.  In the past we needed to be isolated because we were easily distracted, but we’ve matured musically, so this time being isolated felt a bit restricted.  We needed a change…somewhere we didn’t know very well, that we weren’t as comfortable with.  Berlin created a huge shift in the record and definitely had a huge effect on us. It had its own kind of unique attitude that definitely seeped thru onto the record. And being in such a vibrant city, it was nice to feel like part of the world again.  We just fell in love with Berlin.  From the day we arrived, our confidence levels grew. Something like the song “The Lightning Strike” makes me wonder… if we didn’t go to Berlin, would we have the balls to record that or at least attempt it?  We may have tried anyway, but I don’t think it would have sounded anywhere near as magnificent and wonderful as it does without recording it at Hansa.

Speaking of “Lightning Strike”, what was the impetus to record a 16-minute song?

Well, we certainly didn’t set out to do it.  Again, this was all Berlin.  We also wanted to be careful not to sound like the previous record.  But we wanted to keep what we’re about, which is melody and honesty.  We wanted to grow, progress and move away, which was partly how “The Lightning Strike” evolved.  I think this record is a grower – requires repeated listening.

They used to call Hansa Platz “the big hall by the wall” – meaning the Berlin Wall. It was known for its very special sound.  With the wall gone, I wonder if it still has that aura…

I think it’s still there.  And whether it was the ghost of Bowie or all the other bands that recorded there, we definitely felt their spirits.  We were enamored with the place and had all those feelings of excitement and nervousness that you get when you go somewhere that you’ve heard so much about –it has so much history to it.

Is “Take Back The City” about Berlin?

Well, it’s about home, whatever city that may be.  Most people have conflicting relationships with the place they grew up in.  Without sounding too cheesy, it’s about wherever you’re from and falling in love with that place.

Do you think that song will have anywhere near the kind of effect “Chasing Cars” did?

It’s always hard to tell which songs people will gravitate towards.  I hope it will.  In the style of songs, I think there are others on the record that lend themselves more to the idea of a song like “Chasing Cars” – you never really know, but I guess you can just hope.

When you released “Chasing Cars” did you have any idea that it would catapult into what it has become? 

No.  I guess we knew there was something special about the song, but not to the level or degree it became.  It’s a strange thing though because it kind of took a life of its own.  It’s almost not ours anymore.  It’s part of pop culture and yet it’s an amazing thing to have.  In my head there’s two “Chasing Cars” – there’s the one we play every night and there’s the one that’s really ‘out there’.

You joined the band right before the release of Final Straw – when the band started to really take off.  You’ve been said to have changed their sound considerably…

Well, it’s a lovely compliment and I guess it’s partly true. (laughs) But who had a huge effect on our sound was Garrett “Jacknife” Lee.  He’s an amazing human being and this is our third record with him.  He’s a bit of a maverick.  He takes us out of our comfort zone and makes us think outside the box.  He pushes us, yet gives us confidence when we need it and he hates complacency, so it’s something he’ll never let us do.  It’s amazing to have someone who cares about our music as much as we do.  He definitely gets it.  We’re very lucky to have him and he’s a very close friend of all of ours.  Every time he works with other bands and comes back to us, he brings everything he’s learned and that’s an amazing thing to have.  He knows us inside out…sometimes better than we know ourselves.

 When you were recording Final Straw, did you see the darker side of Gary Lightbody that apparently inspired that album?

No.  I guess he had a few dark moments, but we all do.  Besides being my friend he’s been an amazing person to be around from day one.  You know we were all younger then and that was a period in his life when he was…well you know, going through some shit (laughs).  But I never saw it on a personal one-to-one basis.  The guy’s always been a joy to be around.

In Belfast you were part of a gospel church choir.  How did that shape you musically?

I grew up in church four times a week until I was 16.  I didn’t know any different at that point.  My dad’s a preacher and it was something I was always around.  Musically, it definitely pushed me towards big melody.  Maybe lyrically our albums have been darker, but musical-wise we’ve had very joyous and big gestured moments and that probably comes from a background in a gospel church.

You’ve got the best of both worlds:  fame and recognition on stage and anonymity off stage.  How long do you think that will last?  Are you fearful of that day when walking into a restaurant becomes a big deal?

We’re very lucky that it hasn’t happened yet.  It’s not something we strive for – it’s certainly just about the band and the music.  If it happens, we’ll deal with it with our heads screwed on, but I don’t see it happening to the degree it does with other bands just by the very nature of who we are.  I guess never say never, but I don’t think we’ll worry about it on a huge scale. 

It’s incredible how the band has been traveling on this organic sort of path…

Yeah, there was never a master plan.  We’ve been incredibly lucky and incredibly unlucky.  I don’t know how to describe it.  I’m glad it’s happened the way it has.  Now that we’ve come through it, we think a lot more about the responsibility that we have to each other. 

Are you all involved in the songwriting process?

We all write together.  Usually Gary brings in the melody or verse/chorus and we then work it out together. 

What was different for you personally on this album?

I usually sing back up with Gary, but I didn’t on this record.  I’m not sure why, actually.  I think I was concentrating more on guitars.  I wanted to make sure it was right and a lot more prominent than on previous records.

Did Gary ever talk about the band’s “domino effect” with you? 

No, but I can probably imagine what he means from that terminology.  I guess when “Run” was released that’s when the “knock over” effect began.  I wouldn’t say things started to run away from us cuz that makes us sound like we weren’t in control, but things escalated from there.  At the time we didn’t know what was happening…it was all coming very fast and chaotic and wonderful.  It was hard to collect your thoughts, ya know?  But in a way, you have to run with it – can’t waste time thinking about it or you’re not gonna enjoy it.  

Who were some of the bands you looked up to as a kid?

So many.  An obvious one was U2.  It’s hard not to love U2 when you grow up in Ireland – especially because they’ve become so successful especially in the states.  The Pixies, The Vagabonds, Nirvana, Teenage Fan Club, The Smiths and Sugar – they were the first bands I got into that made me want to pick up the guitar.

Where do you see yourselves in 2 years?

I know we’ll still be making records regardless of whether people will be listening to them or not.  We’re ambitious and we want to maintain what we’ve got and probably more than ever, we’ll fight for it. 

Joanne Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide and music columnist for Canvas Magazine.  She can be reached at [email protected] 

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