In Conversation with Snow Patrol’s Jonny Quinn
Getting a thirteen-piece band together to rearrange twenty-five years’ worth of songs for a two-and-a-half-hour set is no mean feat. Incorporating strings, brass, slide guitar and an intermission, this is no ordinary gig rehearsal. For founding Snow Patrol member and drummer Jonny Quinn, it’s just part of his day job. “We have about over a hundred songs to learn, but it’s good fun,” the Bangor native tells the Gown from his home in London. “It’s great to reimagine the songs for ourselves, as well as the people who really enjoy hearing them in different ways.”
Following a seven-year hiatus, last year’s gold-certified Wildness was their last LP since 2011’s Fallen Empires. Now, the NI legends are back and jumping in at the deep end with a new album and tour. To mark their 25th anniversary, the five-piece are releasing Reworked, a re-imagining of thirteen of their classic tracks, as well as three new songs. Fans were teased with two Reworked EPs earlier this year, including slowed down, acoustic versions of ‘Crack the Shutters’ and ‘Chocolate’. The EPs also included new tracks like ‘I Think of Home’, frontman Gary Lightbody’s ode to childhood holidays around Ireland. Hot on the heels of dates in Asia and the Pacific, the Reworked album’s accompanying tour will cross the UK and Ireland, already boasting several sold-out shows. For Jonny Quinn, the band’s success isn’t something he takes for granted.
“At one point, we thought we’d never be back. It’s great to able to get the band back together after all those years and know there’s an audience for us still there. We never planned that break, but we did want a few years off. It felt like over seven years, bands had split up and reformed –they’d done two or three albums and we thought, ‘right, you know… [let’s get back at it]’. We were pleasantly surprised that fans hadn’t forgotten about us.
We did a reworked tour about ten years ago and it was a way of playing songs we had done acoustically in various settings. People would ask us to release them, so we thought, why don’t we record all these to celebrate twenty-five years and tour the record as well? Reworked is a new way of presenting our songs and it makes you see them in a different light — almost like someone doing a cover of a song, but just a fresher way of us doing it. Reworked gives the songs a new lease of life and we have to work out how to play them in a different way, either by speeding up a song that was quite slow or incorporating some Northern Soul beats in a ballad. We’ve worked with all the people on the tour in various ways over our career, so it’s like getting a bunch of friends back together.”
The recording process of Reworked wasn’t the sophisticated studio affair you might expect from a band of Snow Patrol’s calibre. Recorded in hotel rooms in different cities whilst on tour, the album came about organically as an accumulation of what was recorded over the year.
“Johnny McDaid [Snow Patrol guitarist and piano player] is a wonder with a laptop and a few microphones. It’s the only way to really record for us because we’re always on the road, so it’s not like we would get a full week off anytime. With technology now, it’s amazing what you can do. Backstage, there was always a studio set up in a room and you’d be able to just go in there whenever you needed a guitar or percussion part laid down and do your bit. Over the course of a year, we’d got this record ready to go.” So has this had an impact on how the new material sounds?
“The new songs differ sonically; there’s an electronic vibe and we use electronic drums, for instance. It’s maybe a direction we’ll go in for the new record that we plan to start in new year at some point. The songs were simply what came out when we were recording last year. It’s a sound that we’re trying out.”
As for the re-envisioned numbers from the Snow Patrol back catalogue, Jonny hesitates in choosing a favourite. “I really like the new version of ‘Shut Your Eyes’, and ‘Time Won’t Go Slowly’ will be fantastic live as well. It’s going to be great to play another new song. ‘Dark Roman Wine’ is always good fun because at the Royal Albert Hall, they have this huge organ which, if you pay 500 quid, they’ll let you play for five minutes. They need an engineer to open up the pipes — it sounds like a low-end rumble which, coupled with Gary’s voice, is spectacular. It also works fantastically with the pipes in the Ulster Hall.”
For many artists, hometown gigs feel special and Snow Patrol have always been a band to give a nod to their roots, especially on songs like ‘Take Back the City’. The band have already sold out two nights at Belfast’s Waterfont Hall on 28th and 29th November, a noticeably smaller venue than what they are now used to. However, stadium and festival veteran Jonny doesn’t fear swapping control of massive productions for the charm of more intimate gigs. He talks excitedly about what’s in store for the hometown show, laughing off the obvious pressure on the guestlist. “There’s no support band and it’s a fairly long set, so there’ll be loads of hits and songs we wouldn’t normally play in an arena, including some less well known songs which we want to make work in a theatre environment. Theatres are just a very different beast where it’s all about being able to hear the minutiae and having a lot of detail — I am able to use [drum] brushes, for example. I treat them as different gigs. The Reworked Tour feels like less pressure than a normal arena gig. There aren’t tons of lights and glitter balls and screens and LEDs, it’s more about the songs.”
Jonny and the guys still love touring twenty-five years into the game, but he admits he doesn’t always have the energy he used to. “It is very much made for twenty-year-olds,” he laughs, hoping some kind of futuristic space travel could help: “If there was some way of travelling more quickly, some kind of Star Trek-way of beaming us to certain places, that’d be great. The gigs are fantastic; the travel bit is knackering. We’re not that old yet, but we do take on quite a lot of touring!”
One thing Jonny wants to set the record straight about is his reputation as an ardent stage-diver in Snow Patrol’s early days. “I must take that off Wikipedia because everyone asks me about that,” he chuckles, going on to explain: “I think that was about twenty-odd years ago and it ended badly in an injury. I’ve definitely stopped doing that! It was just the once, somebody wrote about it in a review. When I tried to get back on stage, the security thought I was one of the crowd and tried to throw me off. It became a bit of a scene where the crowd was laughing at the security trying to get me off stage again.” Having confirmed it as mere urban myth, Jonny is a man of his word: it has been removed from his Wikipedia page since our interview.
Speaking about the band’s early gigs and calling from Queen’s University, the conversation naturally turns to the Mandela Hall. The venue, officially closed down last year as part of the Student’s Union move, played host to a much greener Snow Patrol in 2005 and 2006. Those with a keen eye may remember the poster for the gig which adorned the wall of the underground venue, among those of other iconic acts. “It’s is a special place because I remember sneaking in when I was about fifteen to see The Black Crowes and I’ve seen so many bands there, like Therapy? among their early gigs. To end up playing a place that like one day is a massive achievement. You never imagine you’ll fill it out, we thought more in terms of ‘can we sell out the Duke of York?’. It’s a real shame it’s gone now.”
Having played to 35,000 people at Ward Park in May, any worries about filling the Duke of York are long behind Snow Patrol. The event featured a lineup of all Northern Irish artists, from established acts like Ash, to newcomers like ROE. “There are always people telling us what’s happening and sending stuff over. We’re connected to the local scene and every year, something cool comes out,” Jonny affirms. Having founded the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast and set up Polar Patrol Publishing, coupled with bandmate Gary’s Third Bar label and involvement with the Oh Yeah Centre, Snow Patrol have long had their pulse on the local music scene in the North. “JC Stewart is going from strength to strength, but he’s part of our publishing company, so I’m biased about him. Ryan McMullan’s been out on tour with us and he filled in when Johnny [McDaid] had a spinal injury. I’m also really interested to see what Jealous of the Birds will come out with next.”
“The scene in Belfast is so close-knit now,” the drummer continues. “Back thirty years ago when I was playing, it was a bit fractured, so journalist Colin Harper put together the Live at the Belfast Empire (1996) CD. It brought all these bands together and they started sharing equipment and musicians. It’s quite a cohesive scene as well. People are helping each other out a lot more — back in the day, people were scrapping over support slots. It’s really exciting to have international acts like Foy Vance and Two Door Cinema Club — people need to see that musicians are thinking outside of Northern Ireland.”
Jonny is no stranger to humble beginnings either, having cut his teeth playing in local bands and working in Teri Hooley’s now famous record store Good Vibrations. The store (and later record label) gained legendary status helping to popularise Belfast punk and releasing The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’. He fondly remembers Teri’s apparently incomprehensible record filing system and the characters that frequented the shop. “It was wonderful because there were so many musicians who used to come in to hang out and there’d be a lot of anoraks who’d come in to discuss music all day. It was a proper kind of community. It wasn’t just like a normal record shop. It’s a pity those places don’t exist anymore. Before I worked there, when it was on Great Victoria Street, bands used to hang out outside the shop all day long — it was a cool place and such a cultural centre; loads of people formed bands in that shop. It was incredible.”
From sorting records to breaking them, Jonny’s rise to fame with Snow Patrol has been monumental. A few months ago, ‘Chasing Cars’ was named as the 21st century’s most-played song on UK radio. “It’s a crazy one! I always thought Robbie Williams or Ed Sheeran would have got that — but it’s fantastic. Nobody knows the life of a song when it starts out and we certainly never imagined that, but it seems to have captured people’s emotions in a way that we didn’t expect. We can only be happy with it.” But it must get old, surely?
“We’re not sick of playing it anyway,” Jonny quips, “even though we’ve played it a million times!”
This interview was conducted as Editor of The Gown @ QUB. You can check out the original post here.