Snow Patrol's new album, Fallen Empires, arrives with a serious reputation attached. The Irish/Scottish five piece have sold over 11 million albums and have been responsible for several era-defining singles, including Run, Chocolate, and Chasing Cars (which spent an incredible 104 weeks in the UK Top 75 and was voted song of the decade in a Channel 4 poll). Their albums have been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, Grammys and MTV Europe Music Awards, with Final Straw landing them an Ivor Novello Award in 2005. By anyone's standards, it's been a pretty good century so far.
Given its iconic status, The Joshua Tree National Park in south-eastern California seemed as good a place as any to start work on their sixth studio album. In October 2010, the band drove out into the desert with their guitars and one or two rough song ideas. A week later, their writing session at Rancho De La Luna Studios had laid the foundations of the tracks that would comprise Fallen Empires.
Over several months, the five piece - singer Gary Lightbody, guitarist Nathan Connolly, bassist Paul Wilson, drummer Jonny Quinn and keyboardist, Tom Simpson - began a musical road trip around California. They recorded tracks at Eagles Watch, a topsy turvy house in Santa Monica with widescreen windows and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Backing vocals were drawn from the LA Inner City Mass Gospel Choir in Compton, south central LA. Later, tracks were mixed at the studio owned by longterm collaborator, Garret 'Jacknife' Lee - a hacienda tucked away in Topanga Canyon, the one time hippy commune and former home to Neil Young and Woody Guthrie.
Along the way, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, US singer Lissie and Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist, Troy Van Leeuwen all popped by to lend a guitar part here, a lyric idea there. Meanwhile, Snow Patrol's new adventures seeped into every note on 'Fallen Empires'. The result is an album that promises to redefine the band as an altogether more ambitious, more expansive, creative force.
"We wanted to make a massively ambitious record," says Gary Lightbody, sipping wine by the pool at Garret Lee's picturesque, Topanga Canyon home. "Arcade Fire's last record (The Suburbs) made us realise that we had to up our game. It was amazing. We decided that we wanted to make a record unlike any other we've made before."
"We started writing songs that were more playful, even rawer than before - we were brave enough to do what we wanted as a band, rather than what convention dictated to us. It was tough at times, we were out of our comfort zone for most of it, but I think it's given us a great album."
On first listen, its immediately apparent that Fallen Empires breaks new ground for the band. Bolting distorted, electro guitar riffs, club-friendly drums and anthemic choruses to Gary Lightbody's heart-bruised lyricism, this is an album that takes its cues from LCD Soundsystem's The Sound Of Silver, U2's Achtung Baby and The Suburbs, Arcade Fire's aforementioned album. Despite the experimentation, Fallen Empires still retains the essence of Snow Patrol's appeal. The catch-all emotional dynamics are still there: the soulful New York feels like a festival moment-in-waiting; The Garden Rules a soundtrack to autumnal romance.
"I'm really happy with the words," says Gary. "I always try to write about personal experiences - New York is about a girl I was seeing over there. We both had strong feelings for one another, but we were never in the same place at the same time. It's about missed opportunities. The overall feeling of the record is home though - there are stories about my childhood (The Garden Rules) and Garret's kids (Life-ning). Home is the overall theme."
Beyond Gary's lyric writing and pop hooks, the band have flexed their creative muscle as a whole. On the album's title track and Weight Of Love Nathan Connolly is revealed as a guitarist with stadium riffs to burn; I'll Never Let Go arrives blitzed with distorted, synth like curlicues and techno-mixed effects.
"The most exciting part of making this album is that I felt able to express myself more" says Nathan. This time round I felt confident enough to be really creative when it came to recording my own parts. We also tried to record differently. I used to write my parts and play them along to Gary's songs. This time Garret would just play the song and say 'Go'. I'd improvise. I had to think on my feet, and it worked."
Gary later admits the band decided to release their "inner dance monkey" during recording sessions. "I'll Never Let Go is a proper night out track," says Gary. "It's full blown electro. There's always been a dance element to our music, but this time we've been a bit bolder with it. I'm looking forward to hearing some of these songs in a club because it'll get people going. I always see people walking off the dance floor when they play our records, we're not that kind of band. I'll Never Let Go might change that."
Elsewhere, Fallen Empires' call-to-arms anthem is powered by a clattering percussion attack - the sound of dozens of different drums picked up by Jonny Quinn from a local music store in LA. "I was inspired by the drummers I used to see on Venice Beach in Santa Monica," he says. "They were always out there playing - some of them were great, some of them were shit, but they all had different drums and drumming styles. I just went down to the store and picked up loads of different kits. I started playing them and we layered drum over drum over drum. It was so painful playing them all. By the end of it, my hands had totally swollen up."
Cameo roles were later played by Michael Stipe (Gary: "He was very supportive when I had writer's block and gave me the confidence that everything that I had already was worth pursuing further."), Queens Of The Stone Age's Troy Van Leeuwen (Nathan: "We recorded the track Called Out In The Dark with him in LA"), and the LA Inner City Mass Gospel Choir (Gary: "It brought a real soul to songs like I'll Never Let Go"). Lissie was also invited to contribute vocals to four tracks, including The Garden Rules.
"I'm a big fan of hers so I got in touch," says Gary. "I didn't write any songs with her specifically in mind, but we just got her to sing on a bunch of stuff and it sounded great, she gave us that Gimme Shelter vibe. She's a real infectious character - she lights up the room with her energy."
The overall results are an album that should mark Snow Patrol as a band big on experimental ideas as well as stadium sized anthems. Fallen Empires feels like a suitably weighty follow-up to the platinum success of 2008's A Hundred Millions Suns and the million-selling 2009 collection Up To Now - it is simply their best record to date.
"This feels like a proper record to me," says Gary. "A grown up record, but a fun record. I've always wanted to make an album that could rank with the ones that inspire me, and hopefully this one will. I'm really proud of this album. Listening to it thrills me and that is a beautiful thing indeed."