INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Times NOVEMBER 28, 2008 - by Peter Paphides
CHRIS MARTIN ON COLDPLAY'S SUCCESS AND CELEBRITY
Coldplay's frontman has rediscovered his passion - he may even be enjoying himself. He talks about coming to terms with celebrity, and being just a little bit 'gangsta'.
Two hours before showtime in Denver, a crack team of feng shui masters have been working around the clock to make Coldplay's "family area" a haven of zen security. Or that's how it seems. Low pastel lights, fine wines and wooden bowls with artfully scattered fruit adorn the place. If it weren't all being dismantled and recreated for tomorrow's show in Salt Lake City, you would want to stay here forever. Amid the impeccable serenity, Coldplay's "other three" - guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion - are a triumvirate of calm. The only thing out of place here is the manic energy of Chris Martin.
Could it be that Coldplay's frontman is nervous? Martin's last two British interviews were notable for the fact that he walked out of both without warning. And even though further inquiries concerning his marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow or their children Apple, four, and Moses, two, would almost certainly make it three in a row, Martin seems more interested in exploring the semantics of what constitutes a walk-out. "Hey man, isn't it a bit harsh to say I walked out?" he says, before looking to Buckland for back-up. "If you come back two minutes later [as he did when The Observer asked him about Paltrow] is that a walk-out? Strictly speaking?" But Martin's desired response doesn't materialise. "I think it sort of is," says the guitarist - to which a chastened Martin says, "OK. Fine. I'll take it."
In fact, he couldn't be more different to the prickly singer who, in May, revealed that he felt like he was about to be "fed to the lions". When he says he's homesick, I ask him if there's anything he can get in Britain but not America. The words barely leave my mouth before a response leaves his. "Laid," he beams. "Oh, and maybe a Toffee Crisp." Is there any truth in recent tabloid reports that Coldplay have two years left in them? Not really, says Martin - although the singer stops short of an outright denial. "I've got some strange superstition about trying to write as many songs as possible before I reach thirty-three. And I'm thirty-one now. It's more about imposing deadlines on myself."
If, in the past six months, Tigger has rediscovered his bounce, it might have something to do with the reception that finally met Coldplay's fourth album. Since its release in June, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends has made them the biggest band on the planet, averaging more than one million sales a month - propelling them to number one in thirty-six countries.
If critics were slower to acknowledge Coldplay's achievement, that might have been because Viva La Vida was a reinvention that - on first inspection - seemed to stretch credulity. Enlisting Brian Eno to help rebuild their sound with woozy violas, dulcimers and feverish flamenco rhythms, the end result erased almost all the things that Coldplay's detractors found annoying: the palliative vagueness of the lyrics, the sense that Buckland, Berryman and Champion were there to tastefully fill out the space around Martin's melodies. Even Martin himself had found a reptilian new baritone on Yes. I confess to Martin that since meting out a lukewarm three stars to Viva La Vida, it's become my favourite record of 2008. In recent months, it's been the album I've listened to when I go out on my morning runs.
Martin, who gave up running because it conflicted with his yoga, places his pristine trainers on the table. "Where do you live? Crouch End?" he asks, for reasons that will later become clear. "Did you know Guy ran the London Marathon this year?" How did he do? Martin speaks on his behalf: "He came in the top two thousand... an accurate reflection of our musical standing at this moment. Right now, I would say that we're definitely one of the world's top two thousand British soft rock music acts."
Martin's droll whimsy notwithstanding, nothing quite prepares you for just how pan-generationally adored the band, who met as freshers at University College London in 1996, are over here. America loves Coldplay, even if, at times, it struggles to understand their humour. Martin talks about introducing a song by saying that Barack Obama's would-be nemesis Joe the Plumber wrote it. "Every night I say it, and every night, no one laughs." On election night, after they played a show in Atlanta, Martin says he shed a tear when Obama said, "I dedicate this night to the love of my life" - "but then", adds the singer, "I cry at The X Factor. I cry especially at The X Factor. If you don't cry at The X Factor, you're not human."
No prizes, then, for guessing what Martin will be doing in the hour before Coldplay opens its UK tour in Sheffield tomorrow evening. If the presidential election gave Coldplay a first-hand opportunity to witness America become a saner place, reports from back home suggest that the opposite is true of Britain: "We were supposed to appear on Jonathan Ross. Then someone mentioned something about Manuel. Can you explain it to me?" I try. When I get to the bit about Ross telling Andrew Sachs that Russell Brand had sex with his granddaughter, Martin grimaces. "He said what? To be fair, we've done a lot of interviews at the BBC and it feels like a bunker in there. You forget there are people out there listening. You're oblivious to the outside world."
Where Coldplay are concerned, shutting out the outside world has been a more difficult task to accomplish. Featuring archetypal signifiers of the Coldplay "sound", Clocks and The Scientist, 2002's A Rush Of Blood To The Head was the album that saw the group go global. But with their new status, came higher expectations. When the group delayed the release of X&Y in 2005 only to see EMI's share prices go down as a result, a stressful situation became almost unmanageable. "We felt like we had to make music that would fill stadiums," Berryman admits.
If your twenties are spent establishing formulae to help you to understand the world, the ensuing years are surely about accepting the limitations of those formulae. In pop, far from facilitating genius, formulae eventually turn you into your own tribute band. Wasn't this the problem faced by Coldplay with X&Y? Even the title seems to allude to it. Buckland, thirty-one, thinks so. "When you start off, you feel like you've discovered those rules. Once you've used them again though, you realise it's a dead end."
As a U2 fan, Martin won't have been oblivious to Brian Eno's pedigree when it comes to helping bands to rethink the way they create. According to the producer, Martin and Paltrow found themselves having lunch with Eno. After fruitless hinting from Martin, Eno says it was Paltrow, on Martin's behalf, who asked Eno to produce the record. What became apparent to Eno was that, for such a huge band, Coldplay were unused to playing in the same studio together. "That was the first thing that Brian [Eno] got them to do," says one source close to the band, "get them sounding like a group again."
More than any other member of Coldplay, it makes sense to hear Martin - the son of an Exeter caravan retailer - exalting what happens when they get together. Increasingly for him, Coldplay is an iron lung, a place where the paraphernalia of celebrity holds no currency. More than anything he says, this is what makes it hard to believe those Coldplay "split" rumours. And while he wouldn't be so crass as to write songs about his "situation", it's sometimes hard not to glimpse the paranoias and preoccupations of the reluctant celebrity rising. Not least in the characters that Martin chooses to inhabit. On Viva La Vida's title track, he writes from the perspective of a deposed dictator reduced to "sweep[ing] the streets I used to own". Discuss.
"For what it's worth," he says, "I see that song as being really positive. It's more like a turning-over-a-new-leaf kind of song. Like, I fucked up, and I don't mind being punished, but I can get redemption." But isn't that the point? The only fantasy left for the man with everything is one in which he loses it all. Has he ever seen the appeal of doing a Reginald Perrin - like John Darwin, who, in 2001, faked his own death in an supposed canoe accident? Martin furrows his brow, apparently deep in thought. "There's been a few times on the Serpentine where I've thought, 'I'm gonna ditch this pedalo and run away to Brighton'. Does that count?"
You wonder if Alan McGee (the Scots music mogul) ever feels embarrassed by the verdict he passed on Coldplay in the wake of their 2000 debut Parachutes, when he described it as "bedwetters' music". McGee's comments seemed more than a little ironic in June when his chum Noel Gallagher was turned into the Glastonbury village idiot, on account of Jay-Z's masterful appropriation of Wonderwall. Of all the musicians to emerge from Britain in the past decade, it's Martin - public school-educated, first-class graduate in Ancient World Studies - that America's hip-hop tycoon wants to hang with. After Martin's 2006 cameo on Jay-Z's Beach Chair, the new expanded version of Viva La Vida sees the rapper return the favour with a cameo on a new version of Lost!. Next summer the two co-headline Wembley Stadium.
Can Martin see why his friendship with Jay-Z fascinates people? "Yes, but there's nothing strange about it. What do we chat about? We chat about how Robert Kilroy-Silk is doing on I'm A Celebrity..." I suggest that the fascination has something to do with the perceived bling/"bedwetter" interface. Their friendship that suggests there's a bit of sensitive indie kid in Jay-Z and a little bit of gangsta in Coldplay. "I see what you're saying - that he's like a turkey with stuffing in the middle, but Coldplay are more like a hotdog with the bread on the outside. It's fun to be friends with different people. You should call the editor of The Source. I'm sure you'd be great friends."
absorb his nervous energy, a relaxed Martin is told that if he wants to eat before the show, he needs to do so now. "We've been playing the same set for a while and it really feels like it's flying," says Champion, a man with a stare which, when his three children are older, will surely have them tidying their toys in three seconds flat. However, by the time the show has climaxed with the nightly but still breathtaking release of a million paper butterflies, it's notable for two exceptions. For the first time in weeks, there is no allusion to Joe The Plumber. The second deviation is something I only learn about later, when a sweat-soaked Martin - still in his quasi-French revolutionary "work" clothes - returns backstage. "Did you get it?!" he asks me. Did I get what? "The lyric in Cemeteries Of London! I changed it to "...we go running through Crouch End!"
The next day, I check on YouTube. The imagery of Coldplay's most beautiful song - written one sleepless night last year when Martin took a walk in the deserted streets around St Paul's Cathedral - has indeed been bastardised to incorporate visions of fat writers panting around North London. Back in Denver, I don't know whether to thank him or apologise. But Martin has moved on. "Tonight was also the first time I ripped my trousers. I aspire to ripping my trousers. It shows I'm enjoying myself."
It seems he really is. Celebrity is a word he continues to hate. Fame, though - even Chris Martin will acknowledge that fame has its perks. "Last year, in an attempt to impress my family I tried to cook some fish and peas, but I forgot to turn on the vent. And the thing about our fire alarm is that it's connected to the fire station. So the fire engine comes around, and I was in a panic. I said, 'Guys, I'm sorry. There's no fire'. Then, two months later, I said, 'Right - I'm gonna have another crack at this' - and the same thing happened. Just as I'm running outside, the fire engine pulls up and the fireman says: 'Have you been cooking again, Chris?' So then I had to take a walk because I was a bit shaky. As it happened, the fire engine was going the same way, and they said, 'Do you want a lift?'"
"There are good days and not so good days, you know? But, the thing is..." Long pause. "I got to have a ride in a fire engine. How cool is that?"