Coldplay is one of the world’s most suc­cess­ful bands. So why is the group so wor­ried about its latest album, asks Craig McLean

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

HRIS Martin is ner­vous. I’m not sure why. Coldplay is rid­ing high: the band’s come­back sin­gle Vi­o­let Hill was down­loaded two mil­lion times in the week it was avail­able free on its web­site. Heated ex­cite­ment has at­tended the band’s an­nounce­ment of three free con­certs, in Lon­don, Barcelona and New York.

Guy Hands, much ma­ligned fi­nancier boss of the band’s em­bat­tled record la­bel EMI, has de­scribed Coldplay’s new album, Viva La Vida , which is re­leased to­day, as ‘‘ right across the world . . . the most an­tic­i­pated album of the year’’. For once in the mu­sic world, board­room and shopfloor may be in agree­ment.

When Coldplay’s se­rial per­fec­tion­ism re­sulted in a de­lay in the re­lease of its last album, 2005’ s X & Y, it was blamed for a drop in EMI’s share price. When the album was fi­nally re­leased, it sold 150,000 copies in one day in Bri­tain. That week it topped the charts in 32 coun­tries. In the US, lead sin­gle Speed of Sound im­me­di­ately landed in the top 10; the last Bri­tish band to do that was the Bea­tles with Hey Jude .

But the re­views were in­creas­ingly sniffy: X & Y

Cwas the sound of a sta­dium rock band more con­cerned with its very big­ness than with mean­ing some­thing. And the lyrics were trite. It would go on to sell 10 mil­lion copies. The com­mer­cial ado­ra­tion and the crit­i­cal vil­i­fi­ca­tion got to the band, and Martin in par­tic­u­lar. Col­lect­ing two Brit Awards in 2006, the singer said, ‘‘ Thank you. That’s it. We won’t see you for a very long time . . . We’ve got a lot of work to do.’’

Ac­tu­ally, I know why Martin is ner­vous. Hav­ing spent time with the band through the years, on tour abroad and at home in Lon­don, I’m aware he’s al­ways — well, very of­ten — like that. ‘‘ We’re about to be fed to the li­ons again,’’ is how he opens our con­ver­sa­tion, all jumpy and gan­gly. ‘‘ For the fourth time!’’

Af­ter all this time, and all those achieve­ments, hasn’t he de­vel­oped a tougher skin?

‘‘ No!’’ he ex­claims. ‘‘ What makes us a bit ner­vous is, in this in­stant age, to re­lease some­thing that might take more than one lis­ten. Where ev­ery­thing is in­stantly judged on YouTube or some­thing. It’s a bit like re­leas­ing a horse and cart on a race­track.’’

Viva La Vida is a record that re­quires pa­tience and per­sis­tence. There are barely any of the sta­dium- sized cho­ruses that lifted and be­dev­illed X & Y. There are few of the falsetto pi­ano bal­lad an­thems that seemed, to some, to be Coldplay’s ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient and crash­ingly dull trade­mark.

In­stead there are am­bi­ent, quasi- in­stru­men­tals, tabla, crash­ing chords, strings that flut­ter and twang, peg- leg rhythms, multi- part songs, group singing in­flu­enced by Donna Sum­mer’s State of In­de­pen­dence , and a twitchy but lovely song ( Straw­berry Swing ) that may be an ode to Martin’s chil­dren, Ap­ple, 4, and Moses, 2 (‘‘ It’s def­i­nitely a kids’ kinda song’’). They of­fer sub­tle, nag­ging plea­sures. And for a band known for its sim­plis­tic, or sappy, love songs, it has pushed the lyri­cal boat out a bit: Martin sings of death, sal­va­tion, de­fi­ance ( in the track Lost! he sings ‘‘ Just be­cause I’m los­ing doesn’t mean I’m lost,’’ and in Vi­o­let Hill of a wea­ried sol­dier cry­ing out to his loved one). Martin still won’t print his words on the album sleeve ‘‘ be­cause no­body wants to read our lyrics writ­ten down’’.

But they are bet­ter this time around. ‘‘ I’m sure most English teach­ers would still put a red line through them,’’ Martin says.

‘‘ He takes things to heart,’’ says drum­mer Will Cham­pion of Martin. ‘‘ It’s amaz­ing: when you’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the up­side, it’s an in­cred­i­ble en­ergy to be around. But equally when it’s down it’s hard . . . He re­quires a lot of re­as­sur­ance.’’

In­deed. Martin’s pin­balling moods are such that soon, barely half­way through our sched­uled ap­point­ment, he will be very an­gry in­deed.

Buenos Aires, Fe­bru­ary 2007. Martin is tread­ing wa­ter in the swim­ming pool of the finest ho­tel in the Ar­gen­tine cap­i­tal.

Coldplay is mid­way through a short South Amer­i­can tour, one of the few places in the world the band hasn’t per­formed. Coldplay is huge here none­the­less. Last night the band mem­bers at­tended a re­cep­tion in their hon­our hosted by the Bri­tish am­bas­sador. All day, fans hover on the pave­ment op­po­site the ho­tel. Gui­tarist Jonny Buck­land, seated by the pool with his nose stuck in a James Bond novel, tries to ig­nore the screams drift­ing over the perime­ter wall. Bass player Guy Ber­ry­man, once the band’s most en­thu­si­as­tic partier, hides out in the ho­tel gym.

Right now, as he signs the oc­ca­sional soggy au­to­graph from the edge of the pool, the singer is talk­ing about hip hop; Martin may be seen as ‘‘ just’’ an earnest bal­ladeer, but he has widerang­ing mu­si­cal in­ter­ests. He col­lab­o­rated with rap­per Kanye West on a track on his last album, Grad­u­a­tion , and he’s good friends with rap­per­ty­coon Jay- Z. ‘‘ Chris is a mu­si­cian and he’s the real deal. He’s not like a boy band or noth­ing,’’ Jay- Z told me a cou­ple of months pre­vi­ously. The un­likely kin­ship saw them col­lab­o­rate on Beach Chair and Most Kings , two tracks for Jay- Z’s 2006 album King­dom Come.

‘‘ The only thing that’s dif­fi­cult,’’ Martin says, ‘‘ is that, when a busi­ness per­son sees who’s on the track, they wanna mar­ket it much more. Re­gard­less of whether it’s bril­liant or not. That’s what I find frus­trat­ing, the fact that it has to say, ‘ Fea­tur­ing Coldplay’ or ‘ Chris Martin’. That stuff makes me wanna gag.’’

Martin, who wants to sell a lot of records but doesn’t want to be sold, is for­ever wary of ex­ploita­tion. Par­tic­u­larly when it comes to his private life: by dint of his De­cem­ber 2003 mar­riage to Gwyneth Pal­trow, he finds him­self part of the rar­efied Hol­ly­wood and fash­ion worlds. Steven Spiel­berg is his Os­car- win­ning wife’s god­fa­ther. But you’ll never see him and Pal­trow hang­ing out to­gether on a red car­pet. The only as­pect of celebrity he finds com­fort­able is the artis­tic side. Hence his hook- ups with two of the world’s great­est hip hop artists.

‘‘ I don’t think yet that any of those col­lab­o­ra­tions have quite worked,’’ he says.

‘‘ What it’s try­ing for is some­thing new, but we haven’t quite got there yet. Which is ba­si­cally try­ing to mix two ex­treme kinds of mu­sic . . .’’

He gets some­thing else from the re­la­tion­ships, too. Some­thing that’s al­most equally alien to who Martin fun­da­men­tally is. ‘‘ Those Amer­i­can guys, they be­lieve in them­selves so much,’’ he says. ‘‘ But never in a way that’s un­palat­able. I’m al­ways just in­spired by their con­fi­dence.’’

As he stares down the bar­rel of Coldplay’s fourth album — some­thing of a make- or- break mo­ment — Martin needs all the con­fi­dence he can muster.

Lon­don, Novem­ber 2007. Coldplay HQ is a hive of ac­tiv­ity. The band is, it seems, al­most fin­ished record­ing the album. Down­stairs in this con­verted bak­ery, Brian Eno is work­ing in the stu­dio. Up­stairs, in the ca­pa­cious lounge area ( shoes must be re­moved be­fore en­ter­ing), ideas for album art­work are strewn ev­ery­where. There are books by Frida Kahlo, An­toni Gaudi and Leonardo da Vinci.

Martin col­lapses into a sofa. For a yoga nut he’s se­ri­ously jit­tery: the com­ple­tion of the album is so near yet so far. Coldplay has been to Barcelona, record­ing vo­cals in two churches and a monastery. The band has had in a vi­o­lin­ist and a key­board player. And a hyp­no­tist. Why?

‘‘ We wanted to see what hap­pened,’’ he says blithely. ‘‘ Ev­ery­thing over th­ese past few months has been about tak­ing off any shack­les. We feel like we have so much to prove and so many ideas — some­times you need a hyp­no­tist to give you the brav­ery to try. And we wrote some nice things, and it was fun and in­ter­est­ing.’’

He says that when the band re­turned from South Amer­ica, it found it­self in a dif­fi­cult po­si­tion: ‘‘ We were ex­tremely big but we didn’t think we were very good.’’

Lon­don, May 2008. I re­turn to the Bak­ery, it is a bright, sunny af­ter­noon. Martin and Buck­land ( fa­ther of a six- month- old baby) sit out­side on a roof ter­race, joined a short while later by Cham­pion ( fa­ther of a two- year- old and three­week- old twins) and Ber­ry­man ( fa­ther of a 20- month- old). The sounds from the ad­ja­cent school play­ground drift up, and a child waves to the multi- mil­lion­aire rock stars, who have just ap­peared on the Rich List, with wealth es­ti­mated at £ 25 mil­lion ($ 51 mil­lion) each.

Where Martin is skit­tish, Buck­land is quiet and cheer­ful, and Ber­ry­man and Cham­pion are con­fi­dent and lo­qua­cious. The gui­tarist talks up the im­por­tance of the ac­qui­si­tion and con­struc­tion of the Bak­ery in 2006, and the re­turn to the

camp of their ‘‘ fifth mem­ber’’ Phil Har­vey. He’s an old school­mate of Martin’s, and was Coldplay’s first man­ager. ‘‘ He can tell us how bad we are with­out mak­ing us feel we have to split up,’’ Martin says. But the ver­tig­i­nous suc­cess of A Rush of Blood to the Head made Har­vey go ‘‘ a bit crack­ers’’, the singer says breezily, and he went off trav­el­ling af­ter that album’s re­lease. But now he’s back, help­ing out with creative de­ci­sions. Buck­land says: ‘‘ Phil adds a layer of pro­tec­tion that we re­ally didn’t have on X & Y.’’

Cham­pion an­nounces him­self chuffed with the com­ment from a Ger­man in­ter­viewer that the new album is the first time Coldplay has had any trace of ‘‘ hu­mour or light- heart­ed­ness. Which is prob­a­bly true’’, the drum­mer ad­mits. ‘‘ We were maybe a lit­tle earnest pre­vi­ously. South Amer­ica gave us a sense of en­joy­ment, and the im­por­tance of colour and life in mu­sic.’’

This, Ber­ry­man adds, has fed into the band’s look for the new album. Echo­ing the album sleeve — which fea­tures a graf­fi­tied re­pro­duc­tion of Delacroix’s 1830 paint­ing Lib­erty Lead­ing the Peo­ple — the band mem­bers are dress­ing like 19th- cen­tury sol­diers.

They’ve made the cos­tumes them­selves, they say; more out­put from the cot­tage in­dus­try they’ve es­tab­lished within the con­fines of the Bak­ery, ‘‘ which stops us feel­ing like we’re part of a cor­po­rate ma­chine’’. Be­cause some of the lyrics are ques­tion­ing author­ity, the bass player con­tin­ues, ‘‘ we had this idea of a group of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies break­ing into a big palace and paint­ing over the ex­pen­sive arte­facts. It all seemed to tie in.’’ They’ve even taken to smear­ing dirt over their faces in photo shoots, the bet­ter to look like real bar­ri­cade- storm­ers.

Are they pre­pared for the in­evitable snarky album re­view with the head­line ‘‘ Les Mis­er­ables’’? ‘‘ A hun­dred per cent!’’ fires back Martin. Then he says, ‘‘ God, I hadn’t thought of that. Why don’t you write that and get it out of the way? What else can you put in?’’ ‘‘ What about Let Them Eat Tofu?,’’ I of­fer.

‘‘ OK. It’s got to be a pun, right?’’ he adds cheer­fully. Now, as we sit on cush­ions on the roof ter­race, he does some yoga stretches. He says of the new look, which is the first in­stance of the pre­vi­ously stu­denty Coldplay dress­ing up the way rock stars are meant to: ‘‘ It’s hard to re­ally val­i­date it. We just think it looks cool.’’

Given Martin’s ear­lier nerves seem to have dis­si­pated in the sun­shine, I de­cide to broach the tricky stuff. I ask if, th­ese days, he’s bet­ter at deal­ing with the me­dia scru­tiny of his private life. ‘‘ No.’’ Is he still as wound up by the paps? ( Martin has tus­sled with pho­tog­ra­phers he feels have over­stepped the mark.) ‘‘ Oh, I don’t get wound up or any­thing, I just have a large col­lec­tion of hoods. And se­cret path­ways.’’

The mis­in­for­ma­tion that’s writ­ten about him and Pal­trow, about diet and health and al­leged ar­gu­ments in restau­rants: does it get to him? ‘‘ Mmm, no.’’

He’s fun­da­men­tal­ist about not be­ing seen out in pub­lic with his wife and won’t even men­tion her name in in­ter­views. Why is that? Martin puffs out his cheeks and ex­hales.

‘‘ For ex­actly this rea­son. You know, it’s pos­si­ble for two hu­mans to be in a re­la­tion­ship with­out there need­ing to be some pub­lic rea­son for that re­la­tion­ship.

‘‘ Maybe as it is with all our wives, maybe we just like each other, and it doesn’t have any­thing to do with the out­side world.’’

I have one fi­nal Pal­trow- re­lated query. In a mag­a­zine in­ter­view last month, she said of her hus­band: ‘‘ I’ve been around a lot of tal­ented peo­ple and a lot of peo­ple who work re­ally hard and I’ve never seen any­thing like it . . . I’ve never seen any­one put ev­ery atom and mol­e­cule of them­selves into some­thing.’’

Does that mean that . . . ‘‘ You know what,’’ Martin in­ter­jects, ‘‘ this is not im­por­tant enough to me to have to talk about this stuff. We don’t need to do The Ob­server . I mean, it’s like . . .’’ He stops, ex­as­per­ated. ‘‘ I don’t care if we sell a mil­lion less records. This does me no good at all. It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine,’’ he says rapidly, and now he’s stand­ing up. ‘‘ But it’s like . . .’’

Now, ev­i­dently boil­ing, he’s climb­ing back in through the Bak­ery win­dow. ‘‘ You’re not off, are you?’’ I say.

‘‘ No, I just . . .’’ But he is off. I look at Buck­land. He seems be­mused rather than alarmed ( which is what I am). I ask the gui­tarist if he thinks he’s com­ing back. ‘‘ Uh . . . I dunno.’’

But 10 min­utes later, Martin is back. ‘‘ Sorry, man. Just a breather. Rather than lose my tem­per I’ve got to think about how to deal with it. I just don’t want to lose my tem­per on tape. But in an­swer to your ques­tion: I think that the fact that a re­la­tion­ship be­comes pub­lic is a bit of a bum­mer. Be­cause it can dis­tract from the real rea­son why you’re to­gether, which is that you just like each other. And I have great re­spect for what she does. That’s why I don’t re­ally like to talk about it. Be­cause I don’t . . . There’s noth­ing to sell, you know what I’m say­ing?’’

Even though I’m not a tal­ented and suc­cess­ful mu­si­cian mar­ried to a tal­ented and suc­cess­ful ac­tor, I do know what he’s say­ing. And I feel rot­ten. It’s not as if they court the pub­lic­ity, is it? And no, wear­ing very high heels or dress­ing like a revo­lu­tion­ary sol­dier doesn’t count.

Like Ra­dio­head and Jack White’s Racon­teurs, Coldplay is work­ing hard to bring its big­ness down a peg or two, and shore up the in­ti­macy of the fan- band re­la­tion­ship. Free down­loads, free sin­gles, free gigs, free songs ( two tracks on the album are spliced straight into two other tracks, which means you get two for the price of one on iTunes). ‘‘ We’re just try­ing lit­tle things,’’ Martin says, adding that the band has other ideas up its dis­tressed revo­lu­tion­ary- era sleeves. ‘‘ Most of them are lifted from su­per­mar­ket pol­icy.’’

Pleas­ingly, Viva La Vida is great. Coldplay has made an in­trigu­ing, fairly left- field rock record. It’s also, it seems, a more spir­i­tual record, with ref­er­ences to heaven, Jerusalem, saints and a hym­nal qual­ity to some of the songs.

Has Martin, raised in a Chris­tian house­hold, re­dis­cov­ered God?

‘‘ Have I re­dis­cov­ered God?’’ he pon­ders. ‘‘ Um. No. I’m al­ways try­ing to work out what he or she or it is. I’m not sure who’s right. I don’t know if it’s Al­lah or Je­sus or Mo­hammed or Zeus.’’ Pause. ‘‘ I’d maybe go for Zeus,’’ says this first- class hon­ours grad­u­ate in an­cient world stud­ies ( Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don, class of ’ 99). ‘‘ I lay claim to be­ing the only per­son in the world who still be­lieves in Zeus.’’

Buck­land guf­faws at this. But Martin be­comes mo­men­tar­ily se­ri­ous. ‘‘ It’s to do with won­der, isn’t it? The op­po­site of de­pres­sion. Any­thing that we think is in­cred­i­ble and beau­ti­ful and won­der­ful, we as­cribe to some­thing that we don’t know what it is. Be­cause no one can ex­plain to you where a rose bush or Jaffa cakes re­ally come from. And God is just a nice word to sing. But it isn’t any spe­cific god. It’s more . . . or­pheis­tic.’’

I Google or­pheis­tic when I get home. Is it a ref­er­ence to Or­pheus, ‘‘ the fa­ther of songs’’? Or did he ac­tu­ally say ‘‘ or­the­is­tic’’? There are two on­line ref­er­ences to this, but it turns out both are mistyp­ings of ‘‘ or the­is­tic’’. I’m baf­fled.

That evening, Martin texts me: ‘‘ Thanks for in­ter­view to­day.’’ Which is nice. And also I think — I hope — his way of say­ing, ‘‘ No hard feel­ings.’’ I text him back, and take the op­por­tu­nity to ask him what or­the­is­tic means. At 12.54am, Martin texts back. ‘‘ It’s a word I made up. ALLTHEISTIC. Means you be­lieve in ev­ery­thing.’’ The Ob­server Viva La Vida is re­leased on June 14. Iain Shed­den re­views Viva La Vida — Page 20

Cover in­spi­ra­tion: De­tail from Delacroix’s Lib­erty Lead­ing the Peo­ple ( 1830)

Cold com­fort: Coldplay singer Chris Martin

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