Flurry Of Activity

Scotland's Snow Patrol prove they're no flakes

Back in the days of Zeppelin, rock acts from Western Europe and the U.K. were often snubbed by cultured homeland audiences, and had to make their initial impact here in the U.S. Since then, however, the situation has reversed itself. Now, American bands often seek to earn a hip cachet across the pond before trying to break in the States. And it's almost always safe to assume that the latest buzzy Britrock outfit to reach our shores has been huge, or at least a burgeoning underground success, in its homeland for an album or two.

Almost.

"No, not really," says Snow Patrol drummer Johnny Quinn with a little laugh. "Nobody knew us before."

Quinn means before Final Straw, the Irish-bred, Scotland-based band's third full-length. Originally released in the U.K. in August of 2003, Final Straw achieved the kind of pop-culture success that saw it re-released in the British Isles, with two bonus tracks, before it was even put out in America last March. But the album's home-turf ubiquity wasn't the next level for a band that had been steadily on the rise since coalescing during the mid-'90s and signing with tiny Scottish label Jeepster (Belle & Sebastian) in 1998 - it was more like an overnight success that took seven or eight years to set up.

"The first two albums, we'd sold about 15,000," says Quinn in an occasionally impenetrable Irish brogue, over a tenuous cell phone connection. "We had to start all over again, really. It did happen quite quickly, but it was a new audience for us."

Snow Patrol's earnest, keys-and-blips-infused guitar-pop seems made for that new, wider audience. In places, it's a nearly perfect balance of the endearingly eccentric and the impossibly catchy, edgier than Coldplay - to whom Snow Patrol is incessantly compared - but still hung on big hooks and resonant melancholy. You can't really listen to Final Straw tracks like "How to Be Dead," "Spitting Games," and especially emerging U.S. hit "Run," and envision the quintet as an indie-scene entity.

(Not that they ever claimed to be. Frontman/songwriter Gary Lightbody has spoken often to the music press about his desire for Snow Patrol to reach as many people as possible, and it can be fairly inferred from his quotes and the band's official bio that the group was increasingly unhappy with Jeepster's hipster-oriented methodology and limited marketing and distribution resources.)

Venerable English record label Polydor apparently thought the same thing. The company reportedly signed Snow Patrol to its Fiction subsidiary after hearing early demos of the Final Straw material, and put the end product in position to receive the kind of marketplace welcome it has.

That doesn't mean, however, that American underground music fans and hipsters haven't found something to like in Snow Patrol. One of the band's earliest Colonial endorsements came courtesy of revered California indie-rock ensemble Grandaddy, which invited the group to open for it and has been known to cover "Run" in its own set. And when Grandaddy put together a mix-CD compilation of its favorite tunes for fan consumption (last year's Artist's Choice: Below the Radar, released on boutique label Ultra last October), that Snow Patrol tune enjoyed prominent billing.

"They just kind of got in touch with us and said they'd like to put it on," says Quinn. "They'd always say nice things about us on stage. They're just great guys."

In his liner notes for the record, Grandaddy main man Jason Lytle goes out of his way to refer to "Run" as a little mid-album gem, not something he sees as a hit single or The Big Song. Ironically, "Run" is turning into the tune that's breaking Snow Patrol in the States; it was featured prominently in the finale of WB night-soap One Tree Hill's last season, and has recently shown up again in promos for one of the network's shows.

The band's sense of ethics is another reason why the cutting-edge crowd may not be averse to showing Snow Patrol love. According to Quinn, the group has been offered up to 500,000 pounds by various companies looking to use its music in advertisements. While the practice of putting cool tunes in commercials has lost much of its taboo over the last decade, Snow Patrol still finds the whole thing a bit unseemly. Placing music in TV shows might not be that different than using one's music in commercials for products, but it's officially become the hot new way to get exposure, and the band is resigned to drawing a line between the two.

"We, and especially Gary, have a real problem with songs in adverts," Quinn says. "It can really hurt bands, and if you get an ad that's just annoyingly on TV night and day, it can ruin a band and a song for a person. I know a lot of people who do Gap ads, and I'm not to say it's not right for somebody else. I just don't feel that it's right. We don't need the money.

"The thing about TV, advertising and being in TV programs, that just happens, it's not something you can control."

Final Straw may only be a year old in the States, but Snow Patrol has been flogging this particular set of tunes for almost two-and-a-half years, and while Quinn certainly isn't about to complain about the success, he admits that repeatedly putting off working on new material to do another round of road dates can get frustrating.

"Yeah, hell yeah," he says. "You just play the songs over and over again. It would be worse if we were doing the same grind in the UK, but I think because we're getting to go to new places, it kind of keeps it fresh, especially because we haven't had overkill in America. But this is definitely our last tour before we go into the studio."

He might not want to say such things just yet. The band is still an up-and-coming phenomenon here in America; "Run" is still trickling down from the big, trendsetting coastal markets to nationwide airplay, and it's easy to imagine their American label pushing for another couple of runs through the country.

Snow Patrol is an album band, and no one song from Final Straw aptly introduces it to listeners. Yet America likes its singles, and "Run" is well on its way to becoming the track that defines the act for U.S. audiences. It won't be long until cover bands and karaoke nuts from Florida to Washington are belting out the song, whether Snow Patrol is interested in beating the horse that is Final Straw or not.

"We never planned it, ever," Quinn marvels. "Nobody ever said 'you guys are going to sell millions of records and be asked to do TV adverts.' It's just a strange thing to happen, to be on Leno, Letterman. We would've bet you a hundred dollars that we never would've."

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