INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork OCTOBER 31, 2011 - by Ryan Dombal
The Coldplay frontman on Eno, Radiohead, and his band's new LP.
Chris Martin is a charming guy. Like, very charming. "You're lucky because you're going to have hair your whole life," he says, eyeing the top of my head. "It'll get a bit thinner, but it'll be good. And that is a great blessing." Granted, it's in his best interest to play nice in any interview, and he's had more than a decade to master this dance. But still, sitting in a relatively modest Trump hotel room in downtown Manhattan, Martin seems genuinely engaged, his boyish charm never souring into smarm.
The thirty-four-year-old Coldplay frontman's easy affability is even more impressive considering the fact that, only a few hours ago, he was singing and prancing in front of a Today Show crowd at the ungodly hour of 7 a.m. Naturally, Martin's not complaining. But he does look to be taking some extra comfort in his colorless casualwear as he lounges on the couch.
The night before, I looked on from the audience as the singer answered some "tough" questions on The Colbert Report. There, he was playful and witty, gamely zinging back and forth with Colbert. But he was also deferential to a near-annoying degree. Because even though Coldplay have sold more than fifty million albums and have managed to retain some semblance of critical respect over the last ten years, Chris Martin can still seem embarrassed by his status as one of the planet's most recognizable rock stars. His band's music is completely and utterly grand in ambition and sentiment yet, offstage, Martin is mostly immune to the groan-worthy platitudes and shameless chest-puffing typical of his stadium-filling brethren.
In person, he can be as innocent as an LP-clutching teenager. For instance, he's crestfallen about R.E.M.'s recent breakup. "Why not just take a break for a bit and then play when you want to play?" he suggests. "I love R.E.M., so I prefer it when they're around, but I get it." Growing up in England's largely rural West Country, first R.E.M. album he heard was their 1991 smash, Out of Time: "Without the internet, records had to be big in order to break that barrier of ruralness."
Of course, Coldplay cleanly hurdle that same barrier on a regular basis nowadays. Their latest record, Mylo Xyloto, has the band tip-toeing outside of their comfort zone with hip-hop beats and a guest appearance by Rihanna, all under the keen ears of Brian Eno, who returns as studio guru after the phenomenal success of 2008's Viva La Vida. And while Coldplay continue to winningly explore "the tension between wanting to be one of the best bands in the world and having to settle for being one of the biggest," as our own Ian Cohen recently put it, ubiquity often comes with animosity, and Martin's well aware of his detractors, too. At one point, he asks me, "Do you think it's normal for big artists to have haters and ups-and-downs?" The question is posed with utmost sincerity.
"If someone thinks I'm a dickhead, fine, listen to someone else's record. We're not a totalitarian regime; no one's forced to listen to Coldplay."
Pitchfork: This is a little weird to say considering how many people like Coldplay, but Mylo Xyloto sounds like your attempt at a "pop" album.
Chris Martin: Yeah. We're in such a strange position, I don't even know where we fit in. Maybe it's because of our Englishness or the pantheon of brilliant bands that have gone before us, but we always feel very small.
Some people say we're talented and some say we're the worst thing ever to happen to music, and it's a bit confusing being in the middle of that. All the noise reached a zenith on the last album - we started getting lawsuits and just being taken apart. Shitty stuff. So we were like, "Fuck it, we'll make a record that really reflects what we listen to, and it doesn't matter what category it comes from." And that was part of Brian Eno's philosophy: You have to ignore all the noise around you and just have as much fun as possible when you're in that room for the three hundred days of the year when no one is watching. It's not about who sold the most records as much as it's about who's enjoying their Thursday. He helped us to enjoy being in a band rather than just feeling under pressure to keep share prices up.
So Brian wrote to us right after the last album came out and said, "You need to get back in the studio because we can go further." Which was a nice way of saying, "You can do better." Brian doesn't work with many people, so if he wants to work with you, you want to do it.
What was your experience like working with Eno on this album?
First and foremost, we do anything he says. [laughs] That goes a long way with him. So I'm secretly using him as much as he thinks he's using us, you see - by letting him do whatever he wants, we're actually gaining.
He's very mercurial - he'll come in for a few days and then disappear. On the last album, I would come to him and be like, "Here's the song and here's all twenty-eight bits to it." But this time, Eno said to me, "You need to fuck off for a bit, and then the end result will be much more about the chemistry of the band than the ramblings of a dictator."
He worked with everyone in the band one-on-one - except for me - just to make new sounds and get their confidence up. [Guitarist] Jonny [Buckland] is a naturally shy person, but after spending time with Brian , he was much more prepared to take the lead role once we started putting songs together, which was great news for me. [laughs]
Around our third record, X&Y, we all got a bit musically shy and probably made an error in terms of going for size over interestingness. That album sold well and had a lot of songs we really liked, but in terms of playing together as a band, we were relying too much on Pro Tools and using it as more of an examiner instead of as an instrument. A lot of people making records around 2004 were editing too lightly, even something like [R.E.M.'s] Around The Sun is guilty of that.
But when Brian came in, he was like, "You all need to sing together." His favorite thing to do is sing a cappella, so we really clicked by singing old gospel songs in the mornings before we'd start work. We were just so happy to have a teacher, someone to remind us of the joy of everything. He's so inquisitive and he's not afraid of failure, which is major thing if you're an established artist. He doesn't give a shit if he plays something ridiculous for two hours, because maybe after two hours and three minutes, one nugget of coolness comes out - and we're very willing to play and play until that happens.
On this album, the song with Rihanna, Princess Of China, started out acoustic, with no drums and all the boys just playing in a circle. And then little noises start coming out that gave the song its identity. Everything on this record went through that process.
Did you guys actually record in the studio with Rihanna?
I played the song on piano for her in the studio, but then she went away with her magic team and turned it into greatness. I was just like, "However you like to sing, please do that." [laughs] She has my favorite singing voice - except for Bruce Springsteen or Stevie Wonder, maybe. It's so rich, but she's never showing off. She always puts the song first, not her ego, and gives you these fucking ironclad melodies. I really respond to it.
It's funny, the "para, para" hook on your new single Paradise reminded me of the "ella, ella" part on Rihanna's Umbrella.
Yeah. The repeating of a syllable is a real recent pop trick. I've been wanting to do that for ages. It came out so naturally on Paradise because I've been listening to so much of that kind of music. I find that the more varied stuff you listen to, the more you learn other peoples' tricks. I'll think, "Oh, is there a way we could try something like that, but on the opposite kind of song?" Crossing wires, as it were. There was this Hungarian chant we were listening to for a while, which informed the new song Hurts Like Heaven - there's a squashed harmony thing on there that comes from listening to these Hungarian women.
You mentioned this idea of confidence, and while you're a popular singer for a massively successful band, you're also very self-deprecating and a little goofy. Like, when you played Live On Letterman last month, you literally fell down onstage while dancing.
[laughs] Yeah, I was spinning. I lost my angles.
But everyone there loved it. And when I saw you at Madison Square Garden at the beginning of the Viva La Vida tour, you messed up a couple lyrics, too, but you make it work somehow. At the same time, I can't help but think that another area rock act like Bruce Springsteen probably wouldn't do those things.
I'm sure Bruce makes occasional mistakes - not very many, I admit, but I've heard him fuck up one or two things. [laughs] But even though some of the things I do can come across nerdy or unprofessional, it's at least true to me. Now more than ever, pretending not to be myself would end even worse. I don't think you can be a mysterious rock star the same way you could in 1965 because there's too much information. Everything you do is available all the time. So the only thing you can rely on is not being false. That's really our only rule, and I think that's what drives people crazy about us, in a bad way, because it's not mysterious enough. But it's also why people like us, because it's coming from straight from the heart. There's nothing in the way. When I fall, I fall. That actually happens quite a lot, just not on camera - that was embarrassing. [laughs]
I agree that it's more difficult to conjure this mystery around rock stars nowadays, but I feel like Jay-Z still pulls it off.
He's the only person, though. He's actually the coolest person in the world - no one would really question that. But who else?
Well, someone like Kanye...
Kanye doesn't have it - he fucking tweets about his curtains!
You're right, but Kanye's managed to make his own type of non-mysterious over-sharing cool.
[laughs] Oh, OK. I mean, I love his Twitter as much as anyone else, but Kanye's just being himself and letting people decide if they like it or not, too. You can't pretend.
Do you think it was easier for artists like Neil Young to be cool in the '60s and '70s than it is today?
One hundred percent, yeah. To establish the legend of Tom Waits would be so much harder now with people taking camera phone pictures of him changing his gas or doing his laundry. Everyone has to do all this unglamorous stuff, but in the past it was easy to believe that maybe Joni Mitchell didn't do all that and existed in this magic world. But technology has changed that.
Lady Gaga does a great job of trying to keep everything in her own universe, but then someone will find a picture of her by a pool somewhere, which makes me feel annoyed for her because I know that's not part of her creative intention. It's the same as if someone gets a clip of you tripping up or having a nosebleed. It's tough, but that's the way it is.
It's interesting to me how well you in particular can get away with those slip-ups, like on Letterman.
Well, during a show, you can get away with one massive fuck-up. But then your card is played. So if something goes wrong, it's fine, but then I am secretly a bit worried. An audience will forgive one tumble from the high wire, but if it happens twice, they'll think, "You can't even fucking do that."
I was at your recent Colbert Report taping, too, and you played the wrong chord at the beginning of Up In Flames and had to start it over. Is that just nerves?
Yeah, everybody gets a bit nervous. And we had only played that song once live before. With TV, you don't want to go in and be like, "We're the fuckin' greatest," because you're just the musical entertainment at the end of the show. You've got to know your place. If it's our own stadium gig, then it's a different thing. Did you see Radiohead when they played Colbert? Was that great?
It was really good. They played a bunch of songs from their new album, though I feel like some people may have wanted to hear older ones. Bands like Radiohead and U2 are famous for reinventing themselves while maintaining a huge audience, which is an especially impressive trick to pull off. I feel like Coldplay kind of does that, but have you guys ever thought about going for a more radical musical change? Does that appeal to you?
The way we differ from Radiohead - who are unquestionably brilliant - is that, at the end of the day, I'm still a slave to catchy songs. I love sing-alongs. And within the limits of that, we'll try anything. But we're in the middle because I love Last Friday Night by Katy Perry almost as much as Karma Police, and if you want to straddle that line, you have to take the slings and arrows.
Thom [Yorke] has a different philosophy, and that's why they're as great as they are. They're a lot braver, in a certain sense. They always challenge the hell out of you. When Kid A came out, I listened to it once and was really angry. I was like, "Where are all the stadium songs?" And then, sure enough, it becomes your favourite. That's so wonderful.
trying to keep changing in our own way - we're definitely a very different-sounding band now compared to the first album or the third album. I know we can never be in those guys' spheres, but we have our own thing, which is OK. Do you think it's normal for big artists to have haters and ups-and-downs?
Yeah, how could you not?
But with people like Bruce or U2, they're quite rightly beyond that - they're respected. Recently, I've adopted a Bruce line where he asks the audience a question. I kind of stole it.
What is it?
I don't even want to say.
He asks, "Is there anybody alive out there?" I fucking love that. When I first saw him about three years ago, no one had told me about the way everyone says "Bruuuuce". So, like everyone else, I was like, "Why the fuck is everyone booing him after every song?" [laughs] I've seen a lot of his shows since then.
Your friendship with Jay-Z is kind of fascinating to me. I'm curious, what do you guys bond over?
I think a lot of people wonder why we're friends, and sometimes that question is basically racist - not from you, though. [laughs] But if we were both black or both white, I don't think anyone would question it. I get it: We're from very different backgrounds. But we love the same stuff everyone else loves. I love his music, and he's a super cool guy, and he's genuine. I respect his decisions, and we have the same feelings about trying to be true in your art. It just happens that one of us is a nerd and the other is the coolest multi-entrepreneur on the planet.
I think more people wonder why he's friends with me . Of course, I want to be friends with Jay-Z - he's cool as fuck. In Britain, they're like, "How are you friends with Jay-Z?" It's almost like they're jealous. It's the same with my wife: "How the fuck did you manage to do that?" And my answer is: "I have no idea." [laughs]
Do you and Jay, like, play board games together? Trivial Pursuit?
No, we don't play that. We do play touch football. He's very good at American football - not only does he have all these other talents, but he can throw a perfect spiral. And then, on the other end, it smacks me in the head. [laughs] In England, no one teaches you how to throw a spiral, so mine looks like an egg slowly limping through the air.
When you named this album Mylo Xyloto, you must've known that everyone was going to ask about what it meant.
There's no actual answer; I've given like eighteen different answers to that. The truth is I don't know. It's like the song Yellow, there are just some things where your brain just tells you, and you can't change it. They just come out really naturally, and when you try and change it, it doesn't seem right, even though it might make more sense.
As much as you're self-deprecating and humble, it takes a healthy amount of ego to name your album that, or put out a first single called Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall knowing that there will be people who'll dismiss it as "another Coldplay song about crying" without even listening to it.
Well, for all my talking, I'm very proud of my band, and when we're playing together, I love it. It's given me everything good in my life. Everything. But I know we might not be everyone's cup of tea. So I apologise for that, but it doesn't make me want to stop. I really like that title Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall because I know it's about turning bad shit into good; music can make you escape, or it can make a situation more manageable somehow. The great thing about the internet is everyone hates everything, so you might as well just go on and do what you want. [laughs]
If I meet someone who hates Coldplay, I'll sometimes tell them to watch your guest appearance on Ricky Gervais' Extras, where you really take the piss out of yourself. Do you care if people are aware that you have a sense of humor even though there's no real irony in your music?
No, there isn't - and there isn't supposed to be. I've just given up caring about what anyone thinks. If someone thinks I'm a dickhead, fine, listen to someone else's record, then. We're not a totalitarian regime; no one's forced to listen to Coldplay. It's actually quite a compliment if you're something that people can stand against. We welcome that. But, in terms of personality and humor, none of our funny songs make it onto the records. [laughs] We have a lot of stupid ones, but our drummer Will never lets them on.
What's a funny one?
Actually [smiles mischievously], we wrote one yesterday about a girl with three boobs, but Will said, "It's not a single."