It’s 3.58pm in the office and my mobile phone is primed. Gary Lightbody is to ring on the dot at 4pm, but I’m a little sceptical. After all, the Snow Patrol frontman is in Florida, and it’s the night after one of their 20-plus concerts in the US alongside Ed Sheeran. Considering the five-hour time difference, what’s the chances of a rock star being up and about, fresh as a daisy, and wanting to talk to a journalist at 11am local time?
But Lightbody is not your stereotypical rock star these days. He stopped drinking alcohol more than two years ago, not for him the hedonistic after-concert parties, and you’re far more likely to find him exploring history museums while on tour than nursing a hangover.
As it is, Lightbody’s timing is perfect. The hand on the clock has barely touched four as my phone vibrates.
It’s hard to know where to start. There’s the new Snow Patrol album Wildness, the concerts coming up next month in Belfast, Lightbody’s battle with depression, and his writer’s block that threatened the very existence of a new Snow Patrol record.
The band left it seven years between the previous album Fallen Empires in 2011 and Wildness, a delay linked to Lightbody’s personal struggles.
“There were a lot of reasons why there was such a gap and I went into those reasons over the last six months,” he said. “There were personal things going on, I had writer’s block, I had all sorts of things happening. A lot of the personal things that are behind me now, or at least I know how to deal with them now.
“Whereas before I was trying to figure that stuff out, it’s not going to get in the way again. As far as the writer’s block is concerned, I think it’s about writing every day, which I have been doing again.”
Lightbody speaks about his depression with the confidence of someone who has been in a very dark place but has come out the other side with confidence and optimism. Wildness, the Snow Patrol record he ranks as their very best, tackles those issues head-on.
“The darkness is pervasive when it gets hold of you,” Lightbody, 42, said. “My depression was something I had no control over and now I do. There are many ways of getting hold of it, I know because I have been to the edge of the abyss and I’ve come back.”
Lightbody name-checks Scott Hutchinson, a Scottish singer with Frightened Rabbit who took his own life in the summer and more recently Robert Holmes from Co Antrim, who died after battling depression.
“I was devastated about Scott, but he’d never shied away from those subjects. He was an extraordinary lyricist, so profound, so deep and completely unafraid of going to those dark places, whereas it took me such a longer time to get there myself, and to talk about that stuff,” Lightbody said.
“I think mental health, depression and suicidal thoughts, it’s an epidemic at the moment. Robert took his own life recently, it is so important that we just become so much more aware of what is going on, and speak about it, because people don’t talk about it (depression) in Northern Ireland or Ireland. I didn’t talk about it until I was 40.
“We need to communicate our problems with a bit more urgency because it is taking the lives of young men and women. There has to be more light shone on it.”
Wildness doesn’t just tackle Lightbody’s personal battles. At its centre is the song Soon, a beautiful track about Lightbody’s father Jack, who has dementia. The lyrics about their relationship as father and son pack the most powerful of personal punches. Starting with the words, “Soon you’ll not remember anything. But then someday neither will I,” and ending with “just my father and I am just your son,” the words capture the brutal reality of dementia while clinging to the hope that it won’t break the powerful bond between father and son.
In May at the Ulster Hall, Snow Patrol played an intimate concert with Gary’s dad watching the band for the first time since he had been diagnosed. Gary suspected that he would struggle to get through Soon and some in the audience openly cried as it was performed. Gary himself broke down.
“That night was supercharged with my dad being there for the first time at one of our shows, not being well,” he said. “Obviously that was going to make it difficult to get through. We were going to play Soon, I barely got through it, in fact I didn’t get through without crying. It was one of those shows that I will never forget.”
Snow Patrol haven’t been the darling of music critics but Lightbody, who once took stinging criticism to heart, is at ease with it now.
“For Final Straw I remember reading every review, it was our first record a on major label, we had never seen that type of press coverage before and I was just excited about it. The reviews were mostly glowing and we briefly became a buzz band. It’s very intoxicating to be surrounded by that hype, you do get a little bit lost by it and it’s very dangerous.
“When Eyes Open came out it was such a big success but got completely trounced by the critics and I was hurt by that, and it took me a while to recover. Over the next 10 years or so I have weaned myself off reading anything and it’s so liberating. I didn’t read a single review of Wildness, not a single one. It only matters to me what the fans think.”
Now the focus is on the two dates at Belfast’s SSE and Lightbody promises great things. “It’s going to be great, I can’t wait for people to see the stage that we have put together,” he added. “It’s unlike anything we have done before, it’s so ridiculously ambitious. People are going to love it.”