Billboard AUGUST 12, 2011 - by Ray Waddell


After hearing eight songs recorded for Coldplay's fifth album, Mylo Xyloto, Billboard's Ray Waddell had the chance to discuss the project with the band's Chris Martin backstage at the Los Angeles Tennis Center prior to an August 3 performance. What follows is the transcript of that conversation, where Martin weighs in on baptisms by fire, the art of making a good sandwich, and why Coldplay would have kicked ass in the 1840s.

In listening to the new music, it seems like there is a lot going on, a lot of forces pulling in opposite directions. It's a restless-sounding album that doesn't stay in one place very long. Did you have a goal or theme starting out, or does that find its legs as you progress?

Because we haven't sequenced it yet, the goal is to leave it in a peaceful place when we finish it. The hope for the record is to be free from any musical kind of box. It very much comes from the Brian Eno professorship of 'go anywhere. As long as it's you guys, you can go anywhere.' [There is] also a story, supposed to be loosely a kind of romance in an oppressive environment. It's sort of a love story. It will have a happy ending, so you either didn't hear that song today or you didn't hear it in the right sequence.

It does seem you're in a narrator role at times, particularly in a song like Paradise. That's something you don't always do.

I started that listening to Bruce [Springsteen] and Bob [Dylan]. I'm still in the middle of it, so I haven't had any time to sit back and work out how to talk about it. Which is bad news for this interview.

It's nice to be in on it early. Was the process of recording this record different from previous albums?

Only in that we've tried not to be scared. We accept now that anything we do will invite a certain degree of negativity, so instead of letting that constrain us, this time out, it's 'well, fuck it. We'll just go for it.'

Negativity from whom?

Our career has happened at the same time as the rise of the Internet and everyone having an opinion. The shock of that wore off in about 2006, because at first it was like "what the hell is this? Thousands of people who hate you." But then you forget about the people who really like what you do. So the combination of getting over that worry, and working with [producers] Brian Eno and Markus Dravs, familiar people, made us feel like we'll just run with it this time and worry about what everyone says later.

You're at this stage in "band years" where perhaps it's time to throw caution to the wind. Do you feel that way?

Yes, I do. I always feel like each record is our last, but at the moment I'm in the stage where I really mean it. I just can't imagine how we would do another one, because we've thrown everything. When it's finished, which hopefully should be pretty soon - it has to be pretty soon - we won't have been able to put more work into it, which I guess is the only thing we can really do.

So in two years will you feel like doing all this again?

I don't know. But I never know. I think it would be bad if I was like, "yeah, we've got fifteen songs up our sleeves." I don't have anything left.

But you're only going to put ten or so on the record, and haven't you recorded like fifty?

No, no. We're going to finish thirteen. We've started like four hundred and ninety or something crazy. But it's such a harsh culling process within the group, because it's such a democracy, that a lot of songs don't even make it 'til the end of Thursday.

You've gone out without a net and played quite a few new songs live at the festivals. What has that been like?

Well, that's a good baptism of fire. So there's a couple of songs which I know are pretty good, because I know that when we're playing it I don't feel stupid. Really, the only time I admit to myself whether a song is good or bad is live. Like some songs we've recorded and I've convinced myself it's good, but then we play it live I'm like, 'ah, this is a damn squib.' So we tend to drop it. But so far with the new ones we've been playing it's been OK. I like playing them.

Even at the sound check I could tell you were very into playing the new ones.

If I'm honest, I feel proud of our band at the moment, I feel very proud to be in it. I feel like the limelight is very split, balanced out more than ever, which is a nice thing.

It seems like Jonny Buckland's guitar makes a bigger contribution this time.

When we finished the last record Viva La Vida, we were all feeling pretty pleased with ourselves when it was like Number One or whatever. Then... Brian Eno wrote to us and said, "Dear Coldplay. I really think we've made a good record here. But I do think we can do a lot better, and I feel we all need to get back to work as soon as possible because I feel like [guitarist] Jonny [Buckland] especially is on the route to something, and he hasn't got there yet." We're like "ah, fuckin' hell, man," this was like a week after the record came out. So we took the challenge, and I feel very proud of [Buckland]. He's pushed himself a lot. Five albums in, everyone who likes Coldplay or doesn't like Coldplay, is kind of used to the singer, so the challenge is to try and keep it interesting for the listener. When someone's on their first album, everyone is just excited by the sound of their voice, whether it's Amy Winehouse or Adele or Bono or whoever it is, when it's a fresh voice. By the fifth album, everyone takes that bit for granted.

The guitar does feel more prominent on this record.

Very much so. [Buckland's] a very shy person. It makes me giggle to see how many moments he has. And we've deliberately kept all of them.

What pressures do you face as a band going in to make a new record, commercially or artistically?

The honest answer is I want anyone who spends money on us to be really pleased with their purchase. If you want to speak purely how I really feel about it, it's we don't make it for us, we don't make it to sell millions, we don't make it to answer critics or anything. We make it so that if you're in a store and you buy our record, or a ticket, like a good sandwich, you go, 'that's good!' That's all it is. And I look to my heroes on both record and live and I think that the people I like the most are the people that are really working for their audience, Bruce being the number one example. I don't really like the whole 'we're just doing this and if you like it, great.' I don't subscribe to that.

So ultimately you want the approval of the people that love you, your fans?

Yeah. But it's not even approval, it's enjoyment. I just want them to enjoy it.

Well, you are entertainers.

Basically, yes. And especially in this day and age people have so many options of how to spend their time.

There seems to be this unspoken hope in the industry that Coldplay can fill a void as the next global band beyond U2 that can last for the next twenty years.

I don't think like that. I think a year, max. The shadow of U2 is a very beautiful one. But there's no point. We're twenty years in a different place. I fucking love U2, I don't mind admitting it. But it's just impossible to... we haven't... yeah, I just wouldn't know how to answer that.

Let's talk about some specific songs. Major Minus is a real beast and sort of keeps the listener off-guard.

Should that go on, then?

In my opinion it should. Why, is it one you think might not make it?

I don't know; at the moment there's about four different incarnations in the track listing, and it's four very different [ones]. I remember on our first album, we went to Paris and a guy had a version of Parachutes that was in a different order, and he basically said, "this album is so depressing." So I was like, "oh fuck," and we changed the sequencing around to make it a bit more optimistic. And at the moment we have a group of songs there's sort of three different routes from beginning to end, and I'm a little bit lost today on what to leave off.

Personally I would hope Major Minus is not one that's left off.

I don't think we'll leave that one off, because it's supposed to be a sort of villainous, dark piece. The baddie. The Bond villain, an Orwellian thing. It came from reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

There's almost a feeling of paranoia there.

Very much so. It's the idea of two people running away from a Kafka environment, or an Orwellian thing.

That song and other new ones seemed to fit nicely alongside the older material at Glastonbury.

Glastonbury to us is kind of Mecca. All our songs are almost designed to be played there.

I guess one risk of playing songs live early in the process is you might mess up on them, as you did on Us Against The World at Glastonbury, a real beauty.

We just finished the mix of that today with Spike [engineer Mark Stent]. That's a keeper, for sure. We did fuck that up in Glastonbury.

Yes, but it turned out to be a special moment.

(laughing) It was a moment. We have a rule that one fuck-up is charming, but any more than that is unprofessional. When you have that, you think, 'that's ok, this will be a nice moment,' but then you're terrified because you've played your card.

This is an a la cart world now in terms of music consumpton. Yet sequencing the album seems to be very important to this band, why is that?

Because there are still people who care about it. And we just can't compete in a singles world, we're not good enough at singles to do that. So we have to play to our strength. We have some good singles, sure, but we can't compete with Gaga or Beyonce or Justin [Timberlake], if he would only fucking make a record. It's good news for all of us that he isn't, because it gives everyone else a chance, but it's a great loss to music that he doesn't do it.

Playing the new songs live maybe shows how deep this album is and will entice more fans to go for the whole album.

Like I said, the hope is that somebody buys the album and, to paraphrase the '60s, they might really dig it.

Hypothetically speaking, if Coldplay could have emerged in an era of music, which would be your preference?

Probably the 1840s.

It's not as loud.

It's not as loud, there's lots of harpsichord. We would've killed it.

How do you feel Coldplay fits into the tapestry of contemporary bands today? Is there a kinship with other bands?

I think within a certain group of bands there's a real community. I definitely feel that within the world of musicians. I guess maybe because the industry's been struggling and you don't sell fifty million on your first, all the numbers are different from when we all started. I find there's quite a good camaraderie. You obviously get some people that want to get set aside from it. I don't know about musically, but backstage or in airports, everyone seems to get on pretty well.

I would think that would be a rewarding thing, not unlike the '60s or early '70s.

Yes, when the Beatles were writing for The Stones, that sort of thing. And we've been set a really good example, because a lot of people that we love have been very nice to us and generous to us. For example, when we got a Grammy one time we got a letter from Radiohead and that just meant the world, for them to say "well done." They didn't need to do that. I feel like everyone's sticking together. Everyone wants to fucking kill each other in terms of competitiveness, but to me it feels like a healthy competitiveness.

From the video I've seen there seems to be no rust on Coldplay. Does it feel good right now?

We're just so grateful and very driven. How long that will last I don't know. I don't know how long you can maintain that kind of focus, but we definitely all have it at the same time at the moment, which is unusual.

The band is working very hard on the set-up of this record, and it's a long set-up.

Yeah. But it really involves just playing music.

Now you're on the brink of a long tour...

A possible tour. It's not confirmed or anything. I'm sorry, I interrupted you.

You do intend to tour, don't you?

We'll see. I'm just one of a few decision-makers.

So it's a total democracy?

Pretty much, yeah, when it comes to things like that.

But Coldplay is a live band.

That's true.

And always has been.

Yes. Maybe you could just say that on your way out.

Provided you do tour, are you looking forward to getting out and playing these songs all over the world?

Well, in the immediate future I'm looking forward to trying to finish them. I find it very hard to deliver an album.

How do you know when a record is done?

When I see it in the bargain bin. Then I know it's over. When is it done? When it's taken from our grasp, unwillingly. Every time, we think we'll be done in two weeks, and every time it's right up to the last minute. We know we want it to come out in October, so whenever the last moment that's possible, that will be when it has to be.

Are you satisfied with this band's output over the last decade?

Eighty percent, yeah.

I'm not just talking about quality, but how prolific you've been.

That's just the way it is these days. We could have done fifteen albums, but the good songs would be spread over them. If you're lucky enough to do OK with an album, then it's silly to come back with another one too soon. Everyone needs a bit of a break, not the band, the audience.

Some bands learn that the hard way.

It's a choice, I think, isn't it? Some people have their routine and they want to hit the album every year or two years. We like to do it to its maximum, then step away and sort of rethink everything.

Today do you feel good about being in Coldplay and what this band can do?

I still can't really believe it. But everyone looks fired up to me. We've been together long enough that I know how everyone else is feeling, and it makes me excited when I can feel that the others are excited. Maybe I speak too soon, but they don't seem unexcited. They seem pretty fired up. I think we have a lot to prove to ourselves; this is our fifth record and there's no point in not going for it.

I know you've got a show to do, so I appreciate you taking the time to do this.

No, I appreciate it, too, man. It's the same for writers, everyone in music has to stick together a bit these days, don't you think?

It's a different form of expression. I'll be writing about you, I doubt you'll be writing about me.

Cut we need you, everyone needs each other. That's how I feel about it. It's just not the 'take-it-for-granted juggernaut' that it was in the '80s or '90s. We need each other.