Tom Simpson, keyboardist for Snow Patrol, chats to Aoife Valentine about a new approach to music videos, considering a career as a teacher and the complexities of taps.
Considering that Snow Patrol are probably Ireland’s biggest musical export since U2, it is interesting to briefly contrast the two. While most people’s problem with U2 rests in the mere fact Bono is still living and breathing, it is Snow Patrol’s music that has gotten a slightly rougher ride as of late. Gary Lightbody, the band’s frontman, causes no real fuss but apparently, neither have their recent albums, at least not in press circles. While their last four albums have consistently achieved number one slots in Ireland, they have also often been dismissed as ‘boring’ and ‘dull’; even their attempts at considerably changing their sound on their latest album, Fallen Empires, have failed to inspire critics.
This problem is a hundred million miles away from their original position when they started out. The band had pretty humble beginnings, making 250 tapes of their first EP, Yoghurt v Yoghurt Debate and trying to sell it around the campus of the University of Dundee, where they were students and had formed under their original name, Shrug. They didn’t have much success but they persevered, changing their name to Polar Bear and releasing another EP, Starfighter Pilot. Soon afterwards they released their debut album, Songs for Polarbears, under their current moniker. Critics stood up and took notice, however, glowing reviews offer little comfort when the rest of the world is refusing to listen.
The band had signed with the record label Jeepster in 1997 but just after their second album, When It’s All Over We Still Have to Clear Up, came out in 2001, they were dropped. Once again, the record was critically acclaimed but wasn’t exactly making huge sales. Fiction, a subsidiary of record label giants Polydor, nabbed them not too long afterwards, and they began constantly writing songs, eventually cumulating in their third album, Final Straw. It was with the release of this album, particularly the lead single ‘Run,’ that the band finally found commercial success.
Tom Simpson, the band’s keyboardist, is quick to give ‘Run’ all the credit for Snow Patrol’s initial mainstream success. “The first two records were critically acclaimed but never really did anything apart from give us a load of debt. We did small tours up and down Britain for many years, just playing in places the size of someone’s living room. I guess ‘Run’ was the record that shed a light on us. People started to pay attention a bit more. The gigs got bigger, the fan base got bigger and we were actually selling records and paying off that said debt. That record, we’ve got a lot to thank it for. We really did get our foot in the door with that one, and it’s still a popular record now, which is amazing.”
For the band, Final Straw marked exactly that, their last ditch attempt at ‘making it’ – had ‘Run’ not taken off the way it did, the band had decided they would seriously consider packing it all in and giving up. Simpson explained: “There were a lot of questionable looks from [our] parents and stuff, especially when you’re asking to borrow more money off them to pay your rent. I think around about that time I said ‘Right Dad, if it doesn’t work this time, I’ll go and do teacher training or something like that. I’ll go and get a job as a teacher,’ and he went ‘okay’ and then things started going well and I went ‘You know what, I think I’ll hold off on being a teacher, I’ll give this another whirl,’ but there was times where we were really, really skint.”
Though the songs on Final Straw still have the distinctive Snow Patrol style and make up an album that seems to act almost as a post-mortem for a relationship that never worked out, Simpson maintains it was a change in their sound quality that brought them success. “I thought it was a massive departure [from When It’s All Over…]. We actually had a producer on it. The other two records sounded like they’d been recorded in a biscuit tin or something like that. If you ever go back and listen to the first two records, they’re not that good, sonically they don’t sound that good. I think when we did Final Straw, it was like ‘Wow, this is a good record. This sounds like it should be played on the radio’. I think the songs are more accomplished on Final Straw.”
Since Final Straw, the band’s success has only grown. They have released two albums, Eyes Open and A Hundred Million Suns, as well as a compilation album, Up To Now, and are currently focusing all their attention on the current record, Fallen Empires. Though the classic Snow Patrol sound is very much present on some of the tracks, the album marks a shift towards a record with a much more electronic vibe to it, a move which Simpson isn’t exactly objecting to. “There’s more of an electronic feel about it. I guess these elements were always there but they kind of just sat on the bed underneath the guitars and stuff. I’m happy with that, that’s what I’m into – electronic music – so I get a wee chance to shine.”
Given that their sound, and their fanbase, is already so well established, a few nerves about the album’s release were not exactly unexpected, but the reception to the first two singles has been largely positive. “Yeah, we’re very happy. First single choice, we thought we’d go for something quite upbeat and a bit pop-y as well. It got a lot of radio play, which we’re over the moon with. Then coming in with ‘This Isn’t Everything You Are,’ it’s a bit slower, but more like a Snow Patrol record than ‘Called Out In The Dark,’ but it’s still an equally powerful song.”
The video for ‘Called Out In The Dark’ is based on the idea of Lightbody being replaced by a new frontman against his will, and attempting to sneak back into the filming of the video. The tongue-in-cheek production met with quite a lot of criticism from fans, who are perhaps used to the more sombre tone usually present. Lightbody responded to the criticism on his blog, highlighting that the video was supposed to be light-hearted and funny, and shouldn’t be taken so seriously, but Simpson, seemingly unphased by the criticism, was delighted with the band’s renewed interest in their own videos. “Yeah, it’s good. It’s funny, isn’t it? Gary’s really good and we were lucky to get a few friends on board for that one as well, some people we’d met out in LA, so that was quite good. Fair play to Gary, he directed that. He’s done the new one, though the new one isn’t as funny as that one but it’s interesting … In the past we’ve not really had good videos. We’re getting better.”
Plans are currently in motion for their next video, which will be for the title track of the album and will allow fans to get involved in the process. “That’s going to be interesting. I think the concept is that there’s lines from that particular song and fans just have to act out a video to the one line of the song. I don’t know how that’s gonna work out but I think it’s a great idea to have the fans into that, in the record in some way.”
The band worked with renowned, long-standing producer Garret “Jacknife” Lee again on this album, having worked almost exclusively with him since Final Straw. “We regard him as a member of the band, to be honest. He really puts so much into these records. He’s influential, he’s inspiring. If we were able to take him out on tour, we probably would but he’s got other records to do and he’s got family and things so we couldn’t take him out on a two year tour, but he’s definitely an asset.”
This wasn’t an album that happened overnight however. Lightbody, as the band’s frontman and main songwriter, was widely reported to have struggled hugely with writer’s block when they began getting the record together. But for Simpson, this wasn’t exactly a huge problem. “It’s just one of these things. You can’t turn taps on and off when it comes to creative things. We were over in Santa Monica so it wasn’t such a bad thing to be honest, living by the beach. It’s not a bad place to be stranded while your friend gets himself together. He went through that. Michael Stipe from R.E.M. dropped into the studio at one point to give him some words of encouragement. Gradually the wheels got back on and we finished the record by June. All in all, it was worth waiting for.”
That may be, but the work doesn’t stop once the album is put together. Currently caught up in a whirlwind of interviews and TV appearances to promote the album’s release, the band will barely have time to stop before Christmas and in the new year, their European tour begins. Starting in Dublin, with two sold out shows, the path from there seems undecided. With shows selling out across Europe extremely quickly, they have been adding extra dates in most of the major cities they’re playing in. Though excited, Simpson admits “it’s the start of a very long road.”
Snow Patrol play The O2 Dublin, on January 20th and 21st. Fallen Empires is out now.