It was in the middle of another epic Snow Patrol tour of America that Gary Lightbody found his imagination drawn back to the world of Tired Pony. The band were put together by Lightbody as a sort of Americana road-trip and their 2010 debut was a joyously melancholic love-letter to the States. Now back with Snow Patrol, back in his tourbus bunk, snapshots of the country rolling by, he began imagining how he could continue the story of the two lovers whose story was told on the first album.
“We had so much fun doing that album and I had so much more to say on the characters,” explains Lightbody. “I was fascinated by where it was taking me.” America – the country, its singers, its novels, its road life – was the fuel for Lightbody on the first record. But it wasn’t the grand landscapes and horizon-stretching vistas that lit the spark, it was the minutiae of American life; the small, intimate moments of something you weren’t supposed to see, the gestures and interactions of everyday life. Tired Pony isn’t about gawping at the Grand Canyon in collective awe, it’s about the sugar melting in a coffee cup.
Armed with verses, choruses and melodies waiting to be knocked into shape, he pulled the gang back together. Not the easiest of tasks given there’s seven of them; Tired Pony’s core members are Lightbody, Iain Archer, Peter Buck, Richard Colburn, Scott McCaughey, Troy Stewart and Garret “Jacknife” Lee, who also serves as producer. “This band is people from a lot of different backgrounds united around Gary’s songwriting,” explains Buck. “I’ve been playing rock’n’roll for 40 years and Iain Archer is more of a folk guy. Richard is from Belle & Sebastian who have a lot of different influences. Troy plays Americana. Scott is in a punk band. Garret’s playing everything. There’s a lot of different experience being thrown into the mix.”
The first album was recorded in Portland, Oregon, where the band tapped into the city’s vibrant musicianship. This time, they convened at Lee’s house in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles, to record the follow-up. Tuned in to each other’s rhythms and beats, they wrote and recorded prolifically, laying down two or three songs a day and sticking to a mantra of Less Is More. “That’s a cliché, but it’s so fucking true,” says Lightbody. “I don’t think we thought at the beginning that we wouldn’t have any other musicians on it, either. On the first record, there were around 15 guests on it. This time, we listened back to what we’d done and realised we didn’t need anything else.”
Their way of working made Buck excited to be saddling up again. “We all loved the first record,” he says. “It was very spontaneous. It’s effortless in the sense that it didn’t feel like work. The feeling was, “We’ve done this, we’re friends, we know how to do this.” The recording process was marked out by an attitude of freedom. With the pressure off, the band were liberated to make exactly the sort of record they wanted to make, even if they couldn’t exactly agree on what that was amongst themselves. “I think Gary wanted to make a California folk album,” confesses Buck. “I emailed back saying I wanted to make a Krautrock record. I think we managed to combine the two in some element.”
Each day would begin with the band meeting at Lee’s studio at noon, with Lightbody arriving with skeletal melodies and lyrical sketches. By 5pm, they would have a song arranged, recorded, finished with vocal overdubs and take a 45-minute break. A few glasses of wine would help stimulate other ideas and the band would head back in and do another song until 11pm. Buck explains, “it was certainly not hard work… other than us working 12 hour days. I feel like I’ve never laughed so much in sessions. It felt easy, there was no stress.” For Lightbody, the first record began in fits of anxiety that he was going into the studio with Peter Buck, a boyhood hero, and he was about to turn up with no songs written. Wracked with nerves, he didn’t sleep for days beforehand. This album was different. “There was nothing to be afraid of,” says Lightbody. “It was so much fun. I want to carry that into Snow Patrol’s records with me; you shouldn’t go in panicking, you should go in as loose as you possibly can.”
For the two weeks that they recorded together, they were a band in the very real sense. They would record together all day, and hang out together all night. “I was leaping and bounding into the studio with a fizzed, warped look at the world.” Buck and McCaughey were staying in a rental house nearby, and nights were spent having what the former R.E.M. man describes as “little disco parties” or simply sitting round the kitchen table listening to lots of old country and soul records. “Peter and Scott are music encyclopedias,” says Lightbody, “they don’t just know records, they know b-sides to records, where they were recorded… from the dawn of recorded music to now!”
The resultant album is coloured in that sort of hazy timelessness. Musically, it spreads its wings, gently gliding from soulful Americana to glam-influenced rock stomps to plaintive country introspection. It opens like you might wake the morning after a heavy night, the whisky-soaked lilt of I Don’t Want You As A Ghost and I’m Begging You Not To Go stretching their limbs, blinking into a rising sun. “We were listening to a lot soul music that sounds country or country music that goes soulful, and those two tracks are in that ballpark,” says Lightbody. They were the first tracks the band recorded and, as such, were the platform they leapt off. Then there’s the pounding thrum of Blood, written as a softly strummed vignette but given a rhythmical tension when producer Garret Lee retooled it as a homage to Benny & The Jets. Three songs in, it’s the track that adds a jolting vitality, the point at which you realize this isn’t just a record to sit on the porch and watch the sun go down to. “It shakes people out, makes them realize it’s a different beast,” explains Lightbody.
First single All Things All At Once is a track that sums up Tired Pony’s marriage of effortless breeze and somber undertones. It also encapsulates their creative spontaneity: the band had finished recording the album – or so they thought – and Lightbody got in at 3am from a celebratory drinking session and wrote the song from start to finish in the same time it takes to play it. “It came out as if to say, You’re not done yet,” he laughs. This loose-limbed way of working is evident in every song; in the soporific acoustics of Wreckage And Bone and in the Roxy Music-nodding and hip-swivelling groove of The Beginning Of The End (“Garret actually had me channel Bryan Ferry on the chorus,” says Lightbody). You can sense the gang spirit, whether in the suspenseful, percussive charm of Carve Our Names or in the amped-up lolloping snarl of Punishment.
Interweaving between these tracks is the tale of our two central characters dealing with an unforgiveable act that has changed both of their lives. Their story comes to a haunting climax in the final two songs, the mesmeric gospel-soul of The Ghost Of The Mountain (a song so crushingly sad that Lightbody broke down and cried after he’d written it) and the glowing hope of Your Way Is The Way Home, which features a stunning vocal from Minnie Driver. Driver is one of three female voices on the record, alongside Bronagh Gallagher and Kim Topper. “It was very clear that we needed a female presence on the album,” says Lightbody. “Those three give the album so much more depth.”
It’s a startling conclusion to an enrapturing record, an album about finding peace in extraordinary circumstances. It’s a sunshine record documenting bleak times. You’ll want to singalong to it; your heart will break when you realize what you’re singing about. “The record makes you think one thing and feel another,” says Lightbody. Tired Pony will cast a spell over your head and your heart.