Jonny Quinn: Snow Patrol's Astral Boy

Belfast is a grim place. The drab concrete buildings and wary-looking pedestrians of this Northern Irish capital bear little resemblance to the romanticized Emerald Isle of the movies, especially with British soldiers on street corners and the continuous interruption of public transit at police checkpoints. “Life goes on in the North,” as they say in Van Morrison’s hometown, and yet none of its unpleasantness seems to have affected Snow Patrol drummer Jonny Quinn.

“Hiya,” he chirps into the phone with a gentle brogue. Quinn is currently in New York promoting new release A Hundred Million Suns. Warm and open in that typically Irish way, he expresses gratitude for the interview with a hearty “tanks.”

It hasn’t always been multiplatinum albums and press junkets though. Quinn met his future bandmates abroad at university in Dundee, a small industrial city along the Frith Of Forth on Scotland’s east coast. Not long after those first few months of jamming, the band – then known as Polar Bear – knew they were onto something pretty swell. A name change and several dismally performing albums followed.

The tide turned dramatically in the UK with the 2003 release of Final Straw, a Northern soul classic filled with delicate harmonies, lush instrumentation, and hooks of sweetness and light, all revolving around the angelic pipes of singer Gary Lightbody, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Quinn. For a “soft-rock” opus, Final Straw nevertheless had the sort of beats that made drummers take notice, especially hidden gem “Somewhere A Clock Is Ticking,” during which Quinn practically channels John Bonham. That or his drums were way high in the mix.

Follow-up album Eyes Open got serious traction in the U.S. after its heartstring-tugging single “Chasing Cars” was pimped heavily on top-rated TV series Grey’s Anatomy, going on to sell almost 5 million copies worldwide. The band followed this trick with the equally weepy “Signal Fire” for the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack. Nothing wrong with ballads, but it has to make you wonder how exciting the drums can be in that stultifying middle-of-the-road “adult contemporary” environment.

“A lot of the rhythm is quite minimal, but I think that’s sort of what Snow Patrol requires,” Quinn explains. “And I think a lot of drummers that I would be influenced by, a lot of quiet rock stuff like Mo Tucker from the Velvets [drummed that way]. But then Snow Patrol was always more song-led, and you know, it requires a lot more minimal playing.”

On A Hundred Million Suns, Quinn is about as maximal as a minimal player can get. This is apparent from the crash-bashing opener, “If There’s A Rocket Tie Me To It,” and the echoes of the kettle drum on “Crack The Shutters” to the skitter of electronics on “The Golden Floor” and the satisfying pocket of “Please Just Take These Photos” – and that’s only halfway through the album.

“I have a few timpani and things like that, and that’s why I’ve used these Roland triggers, which I’ve put on the floor tom and the snares,” he says of the album’s myriad effects. “There’s a lot of different, almost Achtung Baby-sounding snares.”

Orchestral veneer and loops are the perfect thing to fill the space of Quinn’s uncluttered timekeeping. “I want to keep it as light as possible,” he says. “But just the odd song where I think it can be nice to hear the difference.”

Though A Hundred Million Suns circles back to the indie grit of the band’s earlier output, Snow Patrol will always be compared to their bigger rival, Coldplay. No matter how unfair the comparison may be, it doesn’t change the fact that the majority of Quinn’s drum parts are fairly basic. Fortunately, he gets the drummy stuff out of his system with a V-drum kit.

“I get to sit and go crazy on that in the dressing room beforehand,” he explains. The Roland is also integral to the early songwriting process, when the others email MP3s for him to lay his parts on in the privacy of his flat. “That’s another good thing about the V-drums, you can have them in the house, sort of play along with stuff without having to annoy the neighbors.”

Fronted by such an unapologetic songbird, it makes sense that lyrics are the primary engine of Snow Patrol. Lightbody’s subject matter has dealt exclusively with relationships in the past, but with A Hundred Million Suns he turns his gaze outward with questions of our place in the universe and the meaning of it all. In a political turn, “Take Back The City” is an ode to Belfast, a painful topic he studiously avoided in the past (“The drums are really big on that,” Quinn adds).

Whatever the themes, the convoluted phrasing of Lightbody’s plaintive voice shapes the rest of the band’s parts in a major way, which, at least on Suns, were almost fully formed by the time they began recording. The idea is to be prepared, but not too prepared. If Quinn has learned anything, it’s that it’s never wise to become too attached to any one part.

“Gary will come in and at that point he will maybe decide we’ll completely redo the song a different way, or speed up a slow song and make it a fast pop-rock song,” he says like a well-trained soldier, recalling the hours of tracking at Grouse Lodge in rural Ireland, and Hansa, the famed studio in Germany where Bowie once recorded. “We’re collaborative in that way in the arrangements. For me, it’s based on the vocals.”

Though he may take his time cues from the singer, the Quinn-Lightbody relationship is not the symbiotic one that drummers have with, say, the bass player. If anything, awareness of the vocal lines is maintained solely to keep out of their way. “It’s important not to play fills over the vocals and to lock in the kick and bass.”

Quinn’s approach might best be described as sponge-like, in that he absorbs the rhythmic potential of his surroundings. The krautrock throb of Berlin-based Hansa seems to have seeped into the narcotic pulse on Suns, while recent film scoring work has given him a chance to stretch even more. Mild as the rhythmic landscape of Snow Patrol may be, Quinn pushes up against his parameters to an impressive degree, from recorded samples of slapping his thighs and snapping tree branches in half to the cascading toms on the “storm” section of Suns’ 16-minute finale, “The Lightning Strike.”

“I’ve just been getting into more gear than normally I had before,” he says. “Just trying a lot of different cymbals and things like that. This time we ended up renting out a concert bass drum of 42" and concert toms just to get a different sound than we could have gotten from the normal kit.”

A natural corollary of this experimental zeal is replicating it live. That’s when he rang his mate Richard Colburn, drummer for Scottish chamber-pop ensemble Belle & Sebastian, and invited him to join the tour. “We’ve got a live drummer because there are a couple of songs where we've added a lot of layers of drums. We have a sort of double-drumming setup going on.”

The attention to space has increased as the band’s compositional techniques, and Quinn’s skill in particular, have become subtler. As cuddly as Snow Patrol sometimes is, the band presents him with unique challenge as a drummer. “I think gaps are really important,” he states unequivocally. “Especially for songs in a band like us.” The noticeable restraint in his playing is at least partially due to his embrace of the metronome, something the drummer hadn’t used until the recording of Eyes Open. “I tend to find the guitarists, when they get to the chorus, when they hit the pedals, they try to go faster. So that’s kind of stopped all the arguments. [laughs] Nobody can argue with the click track.”

Suns is only a few months old and already the band is thinking of ways to keep fans guessing on the next release. As much as Snow Patrol finds the idea of being a global brand distasteful, when you’ve sold as many records as these lads, you aren’t naïve about how much boat rocking you can get away with. “We’ve been thinking that we may be taking a, you know, pretty alternative left turn,” he says. “Then again, who knows? We may have written a lot of big hits by then.”

VITALS

Band Snow Patrol
Age 37
Birthplace San Jose, California
Influences Yes, Phil Collins, Neil Peart, Ringo Starr, Ginger Baker, Stewart Copeland, Ian Paice, Mo Tucker, Buddy Rich, Dave Weckl
Web Site snowpatrol.com

GEAR

Drums DW
Cymbals Zildjian
Sticks Pro-Mark
Heads Remo
Hardware DW, Trick Pedal
Electronics Roland

QUICKS LICKS: "Engines"

Jonny Quinn’s work on “Engines” supports the song so well that its sophisticated subtleties can easily be overlooked upon first listen. Take, for example, the bass drum pattern within its four-bar phrase. Notice how the first and last measures of that phrase were conceived with each other in mind. This can be heard when the fourth bar transitions into the beginning of the fifth, extending the upbeat motif for an extra two beats into that next phrase. The hi-hat part reveals further subtleties in its unusual accent pattern where Quinn’s right hand crescendos up to a strong accent on the first downbeat of each bar, and back down again afterward, all the while maintaining a steady quarter-note accent feel. –John Natelli