INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Beat JUNE 18, 2008 - by Dan Stapleton
From the outside looking in, the last few years have been quiet ones for Coldplay. After the release of their third album, 2005's prog-flavoured X&Y, and a subsequent world tour, the band stepped out of the spotlight. Many assumed they were taking a well-earned break: after all, they had just shifted ten million copies of X&Y, and frontman Chris Martin had a new-born daughter to take care of. Any band in Coldplay's position would have been more than justified in taking some time off.
But the group wasn't resting. Instead, they were hard at work on their most ambitious album to date - a record that was started almost before X&Y was released. "We started writing the day that we finished the last album, X&Y, because we felt immediately that we had something to prove," says Martin. "We felt hungry again so after concerts we would write - I would write or [guitarist] Jonny [Buckland] would write through the night. When you come off stage you have a four hour period of adrenaline, so most nights we wrote songs."
Now, more than three years since they began writing, and well over a year since they entered the studio, they are finally ready to unveil their latest opus, Viva La Vida. The new album is Coldplay's most ambitious to date, both in terms of writing and production value. It's a bold, cinematic journey that makes X&Y sound positively tame by comparison. Producer Brian Eno is partially responsible for Viva La Vida's ethereal, widescreen quality. Aside from his own singer-songwriter work in the '70s, Eno invented the genre that has come to be known as ambient music. He has also produced some of the most acclaimed records of the last three decades, including U2's The Joshua Tree.
According to Buckland, "We decided to ask Brian Eno who we should get to produce us and he said 'Me'," adds Martin with a laugh. "It's true. We asked him in for a meeting just to give us some advice. We said, 'Brian, we really want to change things up a bit. Who do you know that's good?' He said, 'Well, I could have a go'."
Eno's fingerprints are all over Viva La Vida - the spacious yet focussed acoustics that made The Joshua Tree stand out can be heard here, too; and there's a degree of experimentation (world music influences, strings, off-beat interludes) not previously heard from Coldplay. Tying all the tracks together is an Eno-inspired ambient sensibility that makes Viva La Vida feel both intimate and otherworldly.
"Brian brought a great enthusiasm for new ways of doing things," says drummer Will Champion, "for making us play live, for making us play together all the time, getting everybody involved. He's just really enthusiastic about music. He made us excited about recording again."
"Every day with Brian is like 'show and tell," Martin adds. "He'll bring in something for you to hear or to see or to look at... He brought in a hypnotist one day. It is a bit like school with him - we regarded him as a teacher. We would all come in and wait to see what he was going to do."
Although Eno brought an undeniable flair to proceedings, much of the credit for the new sounds on Viva La Vida must go to Coldplay themselves. All four band members say they were driven by a desire not to repeat themselves - to push Coldplay's sound in new, unexpected directions. Champion, for example, abandoned live drums altogether on many tracks. "We did end up using a lot more programmed beats and programmed stuff, sometimes as the sole rhythm track, sometimes to flesh out of drum track," he says. "The production values in hip-hop music inspired me - they're just impeccable and to a large degree it's ninety percent, or ninety-nine percent of the charm or the appeal of a song: the production. So for an early period I was writing a lot of stuff on computers, and it just came from the desire to have something that would sound enormous in your car - you know, one of those banging songs.
"It was just a desire to make things sound more punchy and bigger, and more groovy," he adds. "There are songs on this record, we haven't ever grooved as much, I don't think, you know? It sounds a bit cheesy but there are songs that you can kind of move to, which I'm really proud of."
Elsewhere, on tracks like the unlisted Reign Of Love, the group lets loose like never before. It, and several other songs from the album, was spawned from spontaneous jam sessions - a new way of working for the band. "We recorded Reign Of Love live all together," says Buckland. "The original one went on for sort of twenty minutes. We were so into the moment. We cut it down a fair bit. I'm not sure anyone else would have been quite as into it as we were for twenty minutes, but it's quite a fresh sounding song."
Adds Martin, "Say what you like about our album, but it's the most concise that we could have made it, so even if you don't like it, just be grateful that it isn't longer! We spent a long time making things as short as they could be. I think that should win an award for best editing."
The album also marks the first time that Coldplay have collaborated with another songwriter: the track Life In Technicolour, which opens and closes the record, was written by English wunderkind John Hopkins. "John Hopkins was a guy that Brian brought in to help us out on some keyboard sounds and some various piano bits," Champion explains.
"He played us this song one day that he'd written and we instantly felt it was just incredible and it didn't have any vocals on it and it was about nine or ten minutes long but we listened to it over and over again. It was wonderful and then Chris, I think, late one night, Chris wrote a vocal part on it and asked John if we could appropriate it and he was very kind and said, 'Yes'.
"But then a film company had approached us - they wanted to use a new song for a film called The Escapist, which is about a prison break. It's actually coming out I think this summer and Life In Technicolour just features right at the very end of it, at a very opportune moment. But it's unlike anything we've ever had on our record before but, by virtue of the fact that it wasn't actually written by us, or ninety-nine percent of it wasn't, which, like Chris said earlier, is a good thing, you know? Starting from somewhere else will always end you up in a different place."
Despite all the new sounds and styles that colour Viva La Vida, it is still very much a Coldplay album, with the same intrinsic qualities that made the band's first three records so successful. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the new recording is how cohesive all the new ideas sound sitting next to each other. "The last album was like an enormous multi-pack of Weetabix," says Martin: "very tasty if you like Weetabix but even the biggest fan of Weetabix tires after the nineteenth packet. This is more a sort of Alpen muesli kind of affair, a little smaller but with fruit, nuts, grains, oats - and no added sugar."