In 2005, Glasgow-based Snow Patrol toured with U2, appeared at Live 8 at both Hyde Park and Scotland and somehow still found time to write and record a new album. Their May 2006 release, Eyes Open, is the follow-up to their phenomenally successful Final Straw, and it has exceeded all expectations. The album went straight to #1 on the album charts in the UK and Ireland and the first singles "You're All I Have" and "Hands Open" are receiving massive airplay on both sides of the Atlantic. In this Ticketmaster exclusive interview, keyboard player Tom Simpson speaks about the band's early years, the new album and their current tour. TM: Do you remember the moment when you first knew you wanted to be a musician? TS: Not really because before I started working with the band and stuff I always felt like a DJ, running clubs andstuff like that, so I probably wanted to be a DJ before I wanted to be in a band and the rest sort of followed suit. I kinda started doing stuff in the early years for Snow Patrol and not really playing an instrument and such...a couple of synthesizers and a turn table you know. So becoming a musician has become a gradual thing for me. It wasn't like a thing from when I was a child. It's just been an obvious progression for me so I can't remember at what point I said "oh hang on, I'm a musician." It just sort of developed over the years, so it's bit of weird one to ask for me, you know. But that's the best I can explain it. TM: When did you start playing the keyboard? TS: Probably in my late 20s or something like that. I just recently started doing classical piano lessons.When I was about 17 that's when I started DJing. I DJed for years and then somebody said "why don't you start doing this." And then last year or something I sent myself back to school to do proper piano lessons. And that's been quite interesting—especially when you're a little bit later in life learning to do things, it can be a bit of a challenge, but a worthwhile challenge.TM: Who do you consider your biggest musical influences? TS: This is really tricky because I've got such a broad taste in music I couldn't distill it down to one person. If you ever go to my house it's just wall to wall of vinyl. I couldn't do it off the top of my head because I would regret saying everyone I said because it's too hard to distill it down to individuals because it's all linked, my influences...If I have to name one person I would have to list another 10 people that were in that same bracket to justify it so we could be here all day listing.TM: Got it. Totally understood! So how did you come to be a member of Snow Patrol? TS: Ten years ago I was in Dundee in Scotland and Gary came over to go to university there and I used to run a few clubs in Dundee playing some crazy music and he used to come down to the club and we just ended up becoming friends and then I think one day he said "look, would you come to the university, my band's playing today. We'd love it if you'd come up and watch." At the time I didn't really even know, he never said he was in a band or anything, and I went "yeah of course I'll come along" and then after the gig he asked me if I liked it and I went "yeah I thought it was good. It had a lot of potential there, you know, a lot of soul." And he went "I'm really glad you said that because we'd like for you to do some stuff on the album"—that would be Songs for Polar Bears which is the first album. So I said "yeah ok, why not?" So I ended up doing that and he asked if I wanted to go out on tour with them and it was quite nice because I was at sort of a crossroads of my life as well, and I went out on tour with them and...I've been on tour with them for the last ten, nine years, something like that... TM: Were you a student at Dundee University? TS: I went to art school in Dundee actually. I got a degree in drawing and painting. It's part of Dundee University but at the time I think it was called Duncan of Jordanstone which was a while ago. So I did a degree in fine art. TM: So Final Straw, your third album, met with huge success in terms of sales and airplay. Since the band had already been together for nearly a decade at that point, did the immense popularity of the album come as a shock? TS: Oh yeah definitely. You know,even when we releasedFinal Straw we were still playing to crowds of like 200 people in the UK. And we were just touring and going through the whole grind of doing what's called the "toilet tour" in the UK. Just doing these small gigs about the size of a toilet. And after we released "Run"—and I think it went straight in at #3—at that point everything started moving forward. Our goal at the time was just to sell enough records so we could get to write another album. We didn't sit down with a strategy and a plan saying "right, ok this is what we're gonna do and this is how it's gonna work." We were just more concerned with like "I hope the record company is going to let us write another album." So that's how low our goals were at the time. We didn't expect the sales that we had, so it was a shock to all of us. A very exciting and very enjoyable shock. TM: Did the success of Final Straw create a lot of pressure for the band when it came to write and record Eyes Open? TS: Not really. All the pressure came from ourselves. The record company didn't put any pressure on us. They showed a lot of trust in us. We've got a great relationship with our record company and they're music lovers and they know what we are capable of doing so they sort of left us alone to get on with it. But I think we put tremendous pressure on ourselves to come up with something, so the pressure wasn't external ...And we achieved the goals we set out for ourselves. To make something that we thought was bigger and bolder and more confident than what we had done before. In terms of that, we achieved the goals that we set out for ourselves and we think we made a better album than Final Straw... (a phone rings). Oh god. Can I just get this? TM: Sure, no problem. TS: (He picks up the receiver) Hello. (The phone continues to ring.) It's just ringing! Stop it. Just go away! Just go away, I don't know what you want! (phone finally stops.) Oh good, that stopped it. Had a bit of a panic there. I was picking up the phone and it wouldn't even stop ringing. I was going "NO!" (laughs). TM: That's strange. TS: I had a sort of loss of cool there. It was all going quite well until the phone rang (laughs). TM: Let's just hope it doesn't ring again! Alright, so Martha Wainwright performs guest vocals on "Set the Fire to the Third Bar." Was the song written with her in mind? TS: Yeah. Actually the final few days of us recording, Gary'd been doing a lot of work writing other songs...we're all continually working all the time on various different things. And he'd written "Third Bar" with Martha's voice in mind ‘cause we're all really big fans of her album. We think that she's got a tremendous voice, a very unusual voice, and Gary had written this duet with her voice in mind. And it was just a case of he'd written it, and our people phoned up her people and we just left it at that. And they came back and said they were interested and can they hear the song and blah blah blah...she was actually on tour in Ireland at the time we were in Ireland so there was a one day window of opportunity to get this done. So we built a makeshift studio in a hotel suite and managed to record her voice that one day she was in Dublin. So there was a lot of chance involved and I think that makes it such a great song as well for us ‘cause it just wouldn't work if it had been with someone else. I couldn't imagine somebody else doing that duet with Gary now. So it's one of the highlights of the album. It's been quite fortunate because she's come and played a few shows with us and it's been great for her to come down and do one song with us. TM: So let's talk about the tour. Are there any venues/cities you're particularly looking forward to playing? TS: I've got my favorite places that I love going. Obviously New York, and I've got family in Boston so that's great. I tell you what, it tends to be places with a port that I like. I think I just love being by the sea ‘cause I was brought up next to the sea. And ports seem to have the most interesting people in them just because there are so many people passing through these cities throughout the passage of history. I always find them the most exciting places and they obviously have the best music as well just ‘cause you get this sort of great mix of people who are always coming through. So anywhere that's got a port, those are the places I like going to. TM: What's your most memorable onstage moment? TS: I just had one recently actually. We played this thing called the Big Day Out and it was in my hometown of Dundee. Radio 1, which is a big radio station in the UK, they put on various gigs every year. It was the first time my parents had actually been to one of our gigs. It was quite an emotional one for me ‘cause I had nieces and nephews there as well and the whole family. It was quite nice for them to be there, so I came away feeling good just the other weekend. We'd done a lot of big gigs prior to that but personally for me that was a big one and the crowd was amazing. If you ever go to a gig in Scotland you'll know what going to gigs are all about ‘cause everybody sings every word. Sometimes Gary can't even hear himself singing. But obviously there have been a lot of other brilliant gigs also. Going out to tour with U2 and being asked to be involved in the whole Live 8 thing was amazing... But just for me on a personal level, I would say that one might be my favorite one because I was so nervous before it because it was my hometown as well. A lot of friends, you know. I probably knew about half the crowd. So it was nice to come home and be greeted like that. TM: Gary is quoted on the website as saying: "Don't look back admiringly at your own footprints. It's all lost unless this next step is truly exceptional." So what's the next step for Snow Patrol? TS: Just to move forward and do something better than what we've done before, because if you have to take a step back then that's maybe the time to give up...We're feeling really strong as a band at the moment...everybody's really focused and we're all on the same page. The future's still bright for us. We can't actually wait to get back into the studio and write another album because writing this album was such a great experience for everyone and it instilled a lot of confidence in us—as people and as musicians as well. So yeah. Always moving forward.
In-depth Biography After failing to secure an international audience for nearly ten years, Snow Patrol broke into the mainstream with 2003's Final Straw, a mega-selling album that showcased the band's fondness for epic, melancholic rock. The group had originally stuck closer to the pop realm, releasing quirky albums that took more cues from Belle & Sebastian than Coldplay (to whom the band would later draw many comparisons). Final Straw proved to be a turning point, however, paving the way for the success of 2006's Eyes Open -- particularly its worldwide hit single, "Chasing Cars" -- as well as the band's future work.
Although originally from Northern Ireland, co-founders Gary Lightbody and Mark McClelland relocated to Scotland during their teenage years to attend college. While studying at the University of Dundee in 1994, they began composing music under several different band names, including Shrug and Polar Bear. The duo eventually adopted the Snow Patrol moniker and enlisted Jonny Quinn to play drums in 1997. One year later, Snow Patrol signed with Jeepster Records, a small label based in London, and released the debut effort Songs for Polar Bears.
Snow Patrol's audience was modestly growing, and the trio relocated to Glasgow upon graduation. Their second full-length album, When It's All Over We Still Have to Clear Up, was released in April 2001. Jeepster dropped the band from its roster that same year, however, prompting Lightbody to blow off steam by forming the Reindeer Section, a Scottish supergroup featuring members of Mogwai and Belle & Sebastian. He also continued writing songs for Snow Patrol, including a promising ballad entitled "Run." After guitarist Nathan Connolly joined the group in 2002, Snow Patrol signed a contract with Fiction Records and began recording a new album alongside producer Chris Lord-Alge. With the power ballad "Run" serving as its lead single, Final Straw became the band's breakthrough hit, spinning off four Top 40 singles in the U.K. and eventually selling more than four million copies worldwide.
Despite the band's growing success, founding member Mark McClelland left in March 2005, effectively downgrading Snow Patrol to a trio comprised of Lightbody, Quinn, and Connolly. Shortly thereafter, former Terra Diablo bass player Paul Wilson and touring keyboardist Tom Simpson were permanently added to the lineup, and the group honed its expanded sound by opening shows on the European leg of U2's Vertigo Tour. Upon the tour's completion, they returned to the studio and created the slickly commercial Eyes Open, which was released worldwide in May 2006. One year later, with a successful run through North America under their belt and an enduring single, "Chasing Cars," maintaining their presence on the radio, Eyes Open was certified gold in the United States. It later rose to platinum status, becoming the band's most successful release in America. Snow Patrol also became the first U.K. rock act in 13 years to break into the Top Five of the Billboard singles charts, a feat they sought to revisit with the release of 2008's A Hundred Million Suns.
Led by the single "Take Back the City," A Hundred Million Suns featured an emphasis on positive, romantic lyrics, something that Gary Lightbody had pointedly shunned in the past. The band joined U2 on the road once again, this time playing stadiums in Europe and America during the summer of 2009. Rather than record another album after the tour, however, they chose to release the comprehensive Up to Now, a compilation spanning Snow Patrol's 15-year history. Lightbody and Simpson also teamed up to compile a mix album, LateNightTales, which featured the band's own take on INXS' "New Sensation." Lightbody admitted to a frustrating bout of writer's block before embarking on the group's sixth studio album, 2011's Fallen Empires. ~ Andrew Leahey, Rovi