Rock and roll superstar Gary took time out from promoting latest album ‘Fallen Empires’ to attend the graduation. The singer told The Journal the tour is going well, and said he’d just played what he described as the best two gigs of his year last weekend - Scotland’s ‘T In The Park’ and the Phoenix Park in Dublin.
The honorary award of a Doctor of Letters degree is a welcome addition to Lightbody’s CV, as by his own admission: “I didn’t think I was going to pass my English degree.”
In fact, the award-winning singer-songwriter commented; “English is a language I’ve struggled with all my life.”
That undergraduate course was taken, of course, at the University of Dundee, where Gary founded Snow Patrol.
At the Magee ceremony, his own success and the success of the band was outlined in as succinct a fashion as possible by Univeristy of Ulster Provost, Deirdre Heenan: “Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, Grammys and MTV music awards, as well as a 2005 Ivor Novello Award for ‘Final Straw’, snow Patrol have sold over 12 million albums and toured globally, and are responsible for several era defining singles. The band also spent 104 weeks in the top 75 singles chart with ‘Chasing Cars,’ a track voted the Number 1 single of the Noughties in a Channel 4 poll and also named the most widely played song of the decade by music licence body PPL.
“The band’s excellence makes a positive and profound impact not simply within the specialised community in which they operate but in wider society, at many levels.
“In light of this, Gary Lightbody is a most worthy recipient of the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.”
Gary has strong ties to Derry as both his parents Jack and Lynne are from the city.
“It’s a while since I’ve been in this neck of the woods. I spent many a Christmas up here. My nanny was from Fountain Street, lived there her whole life. My father Jack is from Rosemount so there are lots of fond memories from here I can assure you.”
Gary said the award of an honorary doctorate at Magee “meant the world to my mammy and daddy”.
“They are very proud, particularly as my mammy lived less than 200 yards away from the Forum, where the award is being made.
“Nanna’s house was a terraced house, she had eight children, so it was a big booming house with lots of noise. There were always parties going on. My first experience of partying was listening into the adults’ parties from upstairs.”
Surprisingly it wasn’t a particularly musical house: “There was no piano to gather round but everyone sang. Mum sang in St. Columb’s Choir and her and all my aunties also sung at the Feis.”
Having first lifted the guitar to AC/DC, Lightbody admits: “It never took. It didn’t happen instantly so I put it away again.”
That was until the release of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ twenty years ago: “It all changed then. They deconstructed everything, simplified it. That band are still in my heart.”
Asked to compare getting the honorary doctorate to his first graduation, Gary revealed: “I was so relieved to pass my degree. It was a rushed experience, my graduation. I found out one week before the ceremony that I could graduate. Mum and Dad flew over and they were delighted I had passed as they thought the band had taken over my life.”
With the power of hindsight Gary admits that is exactly what had happened: “We were on tour most of the time. I used to thank my lecturers in sleeve notes and inlay cards for letting me off coursework. I always had to make coursework marks up through written exams but there were long times when I just wasn’t at class.”
The band are currently touring and promoting their latest hit album ‘Fallen Empires.’
Sales are in excess of the one million mark, perhaps suggesting not too much more promotion needs done.
The band’s last four albums have all topped the Irish charts and hit the top three in the UK. Arguably, though, it’s the strength of their live shows which ensures that the fans return.
Asked about playing live, Gary said: “Last weekends T in the Park was probably the gig of the year until we played Pheonix Park afterward which eclipsed it. It was one of the weekends of my life for sure.”
It is almost ten years since the release of Snow Patrol’s breakthrough album, 2003’s ‘Final Straw’, but has the excitement of leading sing-a-longs in sold out stadiums remained the same?
“You never get tired of that,” laughs the affable gentleman Gary. “It is the most thrilling thing ever. Lyrics I wrote in solitude are sung back to me by large groups of people. It completely redefines what the songs mean.”
Gary’s links to Derry have been strengthened by the city’s adoption of the Lightbody penned ‘Just Say Yes’. Asked about the song he suggested: “Well in Northern Ireland we’re too used to the word ‘no’, so we need to reclaim the word ‘yes’.
“It is a very important word and that’s what the new generation here have done. I can’t claim that the song was written for Derry - it is a love song, but one which has now been imbued with new meaning. The song has been claimed by Derry and the City of Culture.”
Gary unfortunately confirmed Snow Patrol, contrary to reports, will not be performing as part of the City of Culture programme.
“I’ll be as involved as I can personally. I plan to come and tutor kids in Derry next year. My friend Bronagh Gallagher is involved and she’s been flying the flag so I want to help her out.”
Snow Patrol have performed with Martha Wainwright and Cheryl Cole, while currently Gary is working with Ed Sheeran - “My awesome brother with a different mother”. But who would he most like to duet with?
“I’ve sung live with Lisa Hannigan so much, I’d really like to write and record something with her,” he said of the singer he was once romantically linked to in the press.
Asked has he any advice for the students who are graduating alongside him today, Gary stuck to his rock and roll principles. With a cool sigh he simply says; “Don’t worry about tomorrow, just celebrate today.”