How Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody beat writers' block
- 15 November 2011
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody talks about his "terrifying" brush with writers' block as the band recorded their sixth album, and why the record's name was changed at the last minute.
Hitting upon the perfect title for a rock album is an age-old struggle.
For every memorable moniker - Never Mind The Bollocks or Definitely Maybe - there are a dozen clunky, embarrassing misfires.
George Michael's Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 could be considered pompous (and where, exactly, is volume two?) while Leonard Cohen's 10 New Songs wins a prize for lack of inspiration.
REO Speedwagon deliberately called a record You Can Tune A Piano But You Can't Tuna Fish.
Canadian rocker Bryan Adams had a lucky escape in 1981. Stung by public indifference to his debut album, he intended to call the follow-up Bryan Adams Hasn't Heard Of You Either before his record label intervened.
Snow Patrol have always had a knack for album titles - Final Straw and Eyes Open are succinct, memorable and hold the key to the records' lyrics.
But frontman Gary Lightbody faced a dilemma when titling the band's sixth long-player.
"The working title, right from the beginning, was Where We Make Our Home," he says. "But something wasn't right. No-one could remember it."
After weeks of indecision, he settled on a new, "more obtuse, but more striking" title: Fallen Empires.
The album is not, however, a diatribe about American colonialism or the dissolution of the Commonwealth. The empires of the title, Lightbody explains, "are the empires of your childhood or the empire of your back garden".
"A lot of this record is about my childhood, about growing up in Ireland. You make your own tiny empires around you, then they gradually fall away and lead to the new experiences, the new lives that you live."
The lyrics are shot through with nostalgia for playgrounds and summer holidays - a departure from Lightbody's usual topics of fractured relationships and domestic turmoil.
He says recording in America inspired the lyrics: "When you feel far away from home it makes you look properly at the world - instead of just your own little world."
Fear of failure
The singer first moved to the US to make an album with his side-project Tired Pony, a supergroup with REM guitarist Peter Buck.
He maintains that putting Snow Patrol to one side for three years didn't cause any resentment within the band.
"In a way, any side project is like cheating on your girlfriend," he says. "But we started this band together and we are inextricably linked until our deaths.
"I do side projects because I can't go a full year between albums. The rest of the guys are married but I'm restless and, my goodness, I'd drive them mad if I couldn't go off and do other records."
For someone with a continuous drive to create music, Lightbody was shocked to find himself suffering a crippling bout of writer's block last year.
"Oh God, I never want to go through that again," he grimaces. "You've done the thing that you do every day of your life for 16 years and suddenly it's removed from you.
"I just couldn't write a single word. I was terrified. I couldn't pick up my laptop, my notepad, or anything, for fear that I was going to sit there and stagnate.
"I was actually catatonic for most of it."
There was no real breakthrough, he says, just the support of his friends and bandmates.
"The best advice I got, and this sounds ridiculous, was 'writers write'.
"Avoiding writing is the worst possible thing to do - but that's what I was doing. I was too frightened to even pick a pen up. So writers write: Even though it sounds so prosaic, it's absolutely true. You do it until it works, and that's what I did."
Lightbody's creative crisis delayed the album by more than three months and, as a consequence, it's coming out just two weeks after Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto.
The two bands are often lumped together, united by their tendency towards touchy-feely manballads. But Snow Patrol seem strangely immune to the bitter venom that some spit at their counterparts.
Maybe it's because they are more modest in their ambitions. Where Coldplay strive for some unattainable alchemy of critical approval and mass appeal, Snow Patrol just get on with making music.
Lightbody is also more relaxed and affable around the press than Chris Martin - who can be self-conscious and brittle.
Appearing at the recent MTV Awards in Belfast, for example, Lightbody joked that he would be "all over Justin Bieber like a rash".
He went on to state that Teddy Bears' Picnic was the greatest song ever written in Northern Ireland (he wasn't being entirely facetious - the lyrics were penned by an Ulsterman called Jimmy Kennedy).
His easy-going attitude to success - a mixture of gratitude and stunned disbelief - is informed by the band's long struggle for success.
"We went through 10 years of not selling any records," he says. "We used to be happy if 12 people turned up to our gigs.
"So it never ceases to thrill me when people come to our shows and know the words. It's very hard to choke back the tears at times."
There is a definite sense that the band can't quite believe they're releasing their sixth album. And although it's too early to start work on a seventh, Lightbody is already thinking about potential names.
"Richard Coburn, who is the drummer in Belle and Sebastian and the second drummer in Snow Patrol, has a great album title, which I'm very fond of," he says.
"So the next one could be called The Great Indoors."
Fallen Empires is out now on Fiction.