Belfast Telegraph

Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody: The night I nearly died after going on three-day bender

Star on his battle with drink, cheating on his girlfriends and band's upcoming 25th anniversary      

By Claire McNeilly

Gary Lightbody shifts uncomfortably in his seat as he recalls the lowest moment of his life. It's 18 years ago now, but the pain - and shame - of that episode are clearly still fresh in his mind. Well, at least some parts of it.

He's all too aware that he could have died that night. Indeed, as he lay at the bottom of a steep flight of concrete steps, head cracked open and drenched in blood, his Snow Patrol colleague Jonny Quinn was convinced the band's lead singer had played his last gig.

"I'd been on a bender for three days," says the 41-year-old, running a hand though that trademark mane of unruly black hair.

"I'd gone to a club in Glasgow. I was way, way too drunk and went tumbling down the stairs. Jonny, who'd just arrived, looked over the balcony and saw me lying there with the blood oozing out of my head. He thought I was dead."

We're sitting in The Dark Horse bar in Belfast, across from one of the Bangor man's favourite former haunts, the Duke of York. But today the frontman of one of the world's biggest rock groups is sipping peppermint tea because alcohol is no longer on the menu.

He's been sober for two years, the legacy of a major health scare that compelled him to turn his life around.

He's also really excited about Wildness - "the album I'm most proud of" - which is released today as the band's first studio recording in seven years.

The benders have been replaced by martial arts and meditation. But you get the impression that the old demons which sent him careering down those unforgiving steps in 2000 - several years before Snow Patrol hit the big time - are still lurking in the background.

He shows me the two replacement teeth in his lower jaw, a constant reminder of the night he was rushed to a Glasgow hospital's emergency department after that life-threatening fall.

But it's what happened afterwards that remains a source of recurring shame for the charismatic singer-songwriter.

"I was out of control," he says. "Apparently, they put me in a wheelchair and I rode off on it, shouting... I was a giant ass, running all over the place.

"Initially, none of the nurses would talk to me the following day, but I couldn't really remember what had happened the previous night.

"Looking at myself in the mirror that day was, literally, a sobering experience. That was the first time I quit the booze."

But not the last. The Scottish incident (Gary studied English Literature at the University of Dundee) prompted a dry spell lasting "a couple of months" as he recuperated at the home of his parents, Jack and Lynne. "They're always happy to see me, but they weren't happy with how I looked," he says.

Temptation soon came knocking again, however, and was invited in, accompanied by drugs and depression.

People who don't suffer from mental health issues will probably never understand how a gifted, fabulously wealthy man could be depressed about anything. But it clearly doesn't work that way.

As a teenager growing up in - and keen to escape from - a Troubles-torn Northern Ireland, ex-Campbell College pupil Gary suffered from bouts of anxiety.

Then there was that seven-year period following Snow Patrol's student-days formation in 1994 when commercial success eluded them despite building up a decent fan base and releasing a well-received debut album, Songs for Polarbears (the band was briefly called Polarbear), in 1998.

"I thought we were going to be big from the start - and then when we weren't, I started thinking, 'Maybe this is never going to happen',"Gary says.

"I had too much ego at the beginning. Over time, that gets drilled out of you.

"Looking back, I'm grateful that we were allowed a gestation period because I think I'd have been absolutely insufferable.

"I wanted too much at the beginning - I wanted world domination. I don't think I was over-confident and I certainly wasn't cool. It was more like I was charged with this energy that was probably no real use to me."

Gary insists that he doesn't regret those booze-addled early years in Scotland, where at times he felt grateful just to have roof over his head. Indeed, even the notorious Glasgow incident gave him fresh songwriting impetus.

Independent label Jeepster Records, however, gave up on Snow Patrol after their second album, When It's All Over We Still Have To Clear Up, failed to take off in 2001.

But then came a deal with Polydor, the 2003 release of Final Straw and its epic, haunting break-out single Run - and tangible success at last for a fully focused Gary, who refrained from indulgence during the album-promoting tour that put him, Jonny, Nathan Connolly, Paul Wilson and Johnny McDaid firmly on the road to mega-stardom.

The multi-platinum Final Straw was followed up by the even bigger Eyes Open (2006) - which spawned Chasing Cars, one of the most air-played songs in music history - and world-wide, sell-out stadium gigs.

It might surprise some fans, however, that Gary doesn't regard Chasing Cars as one of the best things he's ever done.

"There are better songs on Eyes Open - and better ones on our new album," he insists.

"But it's a beautiful thing and a privilege to have songs such as Chasing Cars and Run that are in people's consciousness. Those songs have taken us around the world many times and we're honoured to have them."

Subsequent album releases - A Hundred Million Suns (2008) and Fallen Empires (2012) - sold well but failed to emulate the monster success of Eyes Open, and the group's leader retreated to Santa Monica, California, and started drinking heavily again.

Gary, who lives in Bangor, says he felt "incapacitated" by depression back then.

In his darkest hours, he even thought about "not existing" any more, but he didn't go as far as to "think how to get there".

"The most important thing for anybody going through mental health problems is to talk about it," he says.

"People have said I've given them the confidence to speak up about their own problems, which makes me happy. It's the thing that I found the hardest, and it hamstrung me against recovery for such a long time.

"People were always complimenting me for being an honest songwriter - and I was, about love etc - but the inner life I was living was not something that I was able to share until now."

The health scare of 2016 - when infections ravaged his ears, eyes and both sinuses - was a major wake-up call: "I knew I had to change my lifestyle, which up to that point had revolved around booze, and I just stopped drinking."

I tell him that he looks fit and healthy.

"I feel it too," he replies.

"I'm a lean 180 pounds (12.8 stone) at the moment. I was up to 200 (pounds) before I quit drinking. It looked like my neck and my face were the same width."

He's been sober for almost two years, but he admits the first steps were really difficult.

"It was hard to be around other people drinking, so I avoided it and tended not to be very social in the first year or so," Gary says.

Any lapses?

"No, none," he replies - but stops short of saying he has banished the demon drink for ever.

"That was my problem in the past - I'd say, 'Never again', but if you've got chaotic tendencies like I have - the self-sabotaging, which has been a theme of my life - and you say you're never going to do something again, chances are you're absolutely going to do it again."

He reveals that he abstained for 12 months four years ago.

"I always said I was going to go off it for a year, And I did," he says.

"It was the year between two Grammy Awards ceremonies. The first one (2014) I'd been nominated along with Taylor Swift, and the following year I was there with Ed Sheeran, who'd been nominated along with my bandmate Johnny McDaid.

"Between those two nights I was sober, but on those two nights I definitely wasn't."

He says his life has changed "immeasurably" since he quit booze (he'd already weaned himself off drugs years before).

"It's calmer, there's less darkness, more energy... all the things you get from quitting," he adds, stressing that he's highly unlikely to do drugs (such as cocaine and ecstasy) again either.

"They were part of my life but not anymore - they didn't do me any favours," he says.

"People need to make their own choices in life, but if anyone ever asked me if drugs are a good idea, I'd say no."

So, how has going from penniless student to mega-rich global rock star changed him?

"It's made me realise that it doesn't actually matter what you have, it's who you are," he says.

"Fame, fortune, none of it matters. I know that I'm a good person."

He's extremely close to his family and "crazy" about younger sister Sarah's 10-year-old daughter, Honey - "the apple of all our eyes". But will he settle down?

Gary's last serious relationship was "nearly 10 years ago" and he's certainly not proud of past indiscretions.

"It's behaviour that I'm still ashamed of," he says. "If I could go back, I wouldn't have cheated on girlfriends."

His Snow Patrol colleague Johnny has clearly settled. Will Gary be attending his forthcoming wedding to actress and former Friends star Courteney Cox in Malibu later in the summer?

"If I'm invited," he says, adding: "Courteney's lovely". Incidentally, the long gap between Fallen Empires and Wildness had nothing to do with writer's block, as some Snow Patrol fans may have feared.

"I was writing with other people and for films and TV," Gary says. "But when it came to Snow Patrol, and it was about my life, I didn't have anything to say - or maybe I was scared of saying it."

In the end, he wrote a staggering 600 songs for the album. Only 10 made the cut.

They include Soon, about his 80-year-old father's battle with dementia, and A Youth Written in Fire, which deals with "alcoholism and recovery".

Wildness could well propel Gary and Snow Patrol back into the music stratosphere but, for him, few highs could match the Ward Park homecoming concerts of 2007 and 2010.

"2010 was the biggest gig ever in Northern Ireland... and still is," he says proudly.

"To play in our own back garden, so to speak, where I played football as a kid and where Jonny Quinn learned how to ride a bike was an extraordinary thing."

Don't bet against a similar gig next year for Snow Patrol's 25th anniversary.

Gary admits he's already planning "some big shows for the 25th year" and then another album. The fans' patience is about to be rewarded.

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