INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Spin JULY 2008 - by Michael Joseph Gross
Trampolines, imaginary sixteen-year-olds, and decisions, decisions, decisions. For the world's biggest band not called U2, there's just no rest for the bleary. An exclusive look behind the scenes of Coldplay's radiant new album.
In a slightly sketchy part of North London, a cockney blonde whom we'll call Myrtle smokes a cigarette in the driveway of the plain white-fronted former bakery that serves as recording studio, office, and grown-up clubhouse for the members of one of the world's biggest bands, Coldplay. Myrtle says she works at the office next door, and when asked if the guys are good neighbours, she hedges.
"I guess so. They're pretty quiet. Always comin' in and out with guitar cases and such." Raising one eyebrow, she confides, "They say they're musicians - but you never hear any music comin' from there. Could be selling heroin, for all I know. Or maybe they are musicians. I think they're just crap at what they do, is what I think."
On this last point, Myrtle, despite her ignorance, speaks for many. Though few acts inspire such devotion - since their 2000 debut, Parachutes, Coldplay have sold more than thirty-two million records while wildly loyal fans pack their live shows, which resemble artfully lit New Year's parties - the group is often dismissed for churning out overly earnest, mid-tempo "hokum" (per the eviscerating New York Times review of their last album, 2005's X&Y). A recent Travelodge hotel survey declared Coldplay the band most likely to put people to sleep; and a sneering dig in The 40-Year-Old Virgin ("You know how I know you're gay? You like Coldplay.") inspired howls of recognition.
The band's fourth album, Viva La Vida, answers critics with canny experimentation, honed under the guidance of producer Brian Eno (guru to U2, David Bowie, and Talking Heads, among many others), with help from Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire's Neon Bible) and Rik Simpson. In the arc of Coldplay's career, Viva La Vida may be their Achtung Baby, on which U2 tweaked their self-serious image and explored new sounds in an idiom that still lured stadium crowds. Early response to Viva suggest that the experiment succeeds. Even the most bilious bloggers reluctantly praised the album's first single, Violet Hill, which bridges Coldplay's old and new styles, with Chris Martin's pretty piano picking its way across ruthless industrial beats. (Six hundred thousand people snagged the free download on the day of the single's release, crashing the band's website.) But the second single, Viva La Vida, better showcases the group's new style: A big, blasting waterfall of wide-wale strings, timpani rolls, and heart-out harmonies make this the song you'd want playing in the background if you ever got the chance to slide down a mile-long hallway in stocking feet.
The four bandmates - Martin, guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman, and drummer Will Champion - met as undergraduates at London's University College in the late '90s, that pre-Cambrian age when human beings had to leave their houses to buy albums and new artists had to sign away their lives to corporate behemoths for a shot at stardom. Martin's status as old-school mass-media royalty was ratified by his 2003 wedding to Gwyneth Paltrow; and by 2005, the group's multigenerational audience had grown so broad, and their brand so valuable, that EMI, the parent company of their label, Capitol, had to amend its profit forecast when the release of X&Y) was delayed. Where such reputations and fortunes are at stake, schadenfreude always licks her lips.
So it's easy to understand why, a few hours after Myrtle's pronouncement in the driveway, the thirty-one-year-old Martin begins a merchandising meeting inside the Bakery with this question: "Is somebody making a T-shirt that says I HATE COLDPLAY? It would sell millions." (The idea, though funny, is not unprecedented; Amy Winehouse pulled the same trick on her tour last year.) Brainstorming, Martin puts some stick in the subversion: "And sell it outside the concert, across the street from the stadium or wherever, so it looks like a bootleg."
It's the first week of May, and the band members are seated around a big hardwood dining table on the Bakery's second floor, an open-plan loft with white walls and plank floors, beanbag chairs, a brown suede wraparound sofa, and racks of clothing they designed themselves to wear on their upcoming concert tour. They purchased the building two years ago, in part so they'd have a place to gather at times like this.
"The worst thing that could happen is people would buy it," says Berryman, thirty, of the hypothetical shirt.
Mock piously, Martin adds, "Life is about bringing the positive out of the negative. Silver linings and all that."
Sometime after 2002's A Rush Of Blood To The Head, Coldplay temporarily parted ways with their original manager, an affable, exquisitely well-mannered childhood friend of Martin's named Phil Harvey, so integral to the group that he's listed on albums as the band's fifth member. On X&Y, however, Martin says, Coldplay "turned over too many of the decisions to the wrong people," meaning, basically, the label. Now, with Harvey back, they're making all the decisions themselves, from the details of the merchandising to designing the toy-crammed set for their concerts - a trampoline, lights whizzing around the stage on tracks, inflatable video globes whose projections employ planetarium technology - and, at the same time, trying to be good dads. (All four are fathers now; all but Buckland, who lives with his girlfriend, are married.)
"The problem with wanting to control everything," Buckland, thirty, complains, half joking, "is that you have to control everything." The band work down the long to-do lists on dry-erase boards hanging in the Bakery's living room deliberately, and with a bit of frenzy, because there's no way of knowing how anyone could achieve the objective they've chosen, To wit: A big photo of The Beatles dominates the hallway leading to this room. "We're goin' for the big bomb," says Buckland. Just now hitting their prime, Coldplay openly openly covet the title of Biggest Rock Band in the World at a moment when the position seems in danger of being permanently downsized.
It would be hard to overstate the importance, practical or symbolic, of Coldplay's association with Brian Eno: Gunning, it would seem, for U2's unparalleled combination of cred and commercialism, Coldplay hired the producer who helped shepherd that band's biggest hits. Martin first met Eno through Bono, and says Eno "started calling me more when he felt we were going wrong. I think after our last record, probably a bit like Superman, he felt, I think they might need my help."
With energy that Champion, twenty-nine, calls "priapic", the producer disturbed their routines and threw out their old formulas. "Brian doesn't really like chords, clever progressions, trademarks associated with songwriters," says Berryman. "He's much more interested in rhythm and texture. And Chris being the songwriter he is, it was quite nice to marry those things."
But the album's ambition and experiments don't limit its accessibility. While writing, Martin says, "I always think about some regular sixteen-year-old called Dave who's on his bus trip to school: Is he going to want to listen to this? Last time we got so worried about who thinks this and who thinks that, and this time I've been really focused. On Dave. My sixteen-year-old imaginary friend. But not in any weird way."
In some respects, Coldplay remain unapologetically conventional. When Martin mentions the recent choice by Muse and Nine Inch Nails to release tracks and let listeners remix them, he shudders: "It's like letting somebody watch you in the bathroom." But despite their atavism (there's nary a BlackBerry among them; Martin has never seen the band's MySpace page and says he's only just discovered e-mail), they know that to maintain a market for their material product, they have to offer something new. They just don't know what it is yet.
Contractually, Martin says Coldplay are obligated to EMI for "about seventy-one more albums" ("We're in. We're owned."), so they can't try anything as radical as Radiohead's pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows. The company also recently made drastic cuts to its A&R department and slashed the label's overall workforce by a third. These changes follow EMI's purchase last year by Terra Firma, a private equity group led by Guy Hands, who has no music industry experience and is now the company's chairman.
Asked how Coldplay get on with Hands, Champion answers, "We don't know him." (Scanned as poetry, the line stresses we and know.)
Later, I ask Martin why he hasn't met Hands, and he bristles: "Should I? It's a bit like when the general manager comes around the grocery store where you work. I don't know what we'd talk about."
However, Hands, reached via e-mail, says he's looking forward to meeting the band "as a fan, and have indeed arranged to do so very soon." Of Coldplay's importance to the label at this critical time, he concedes, "No album or band, however brilliant, can be responsible for a corporate turnaround. That was the old industry model."
So, does Coldplay think Viva La Vida can save EMI?
"No, but it'll probably save the world," Martin deadpans. "I don't want to blow my own trumpet, but I'd be surprised if it didn't put an end to all violence and suffering."
After rehearsing for a couple of hours in the studio - a ten-sided room that Champion and Berryman have neatly graffitied with VIVA LA VIDA! and THE KING IS DEAD and decorated with wall-size photos of forests, an Alp, and the Earth as seen from the Moon - the guys go upstairs for a conference call with Dave Holmes, another of their managers, in Los Angeles. Some of Holmes' plans for launching the album stir, today, the kind of close-quartered frustration you might find on a submarine whose commander follows pre-sonar battle strategies.
Holmes breezily asks for the thirty-second promo for the video for Violet Hill that MTV expects tomorrow, and Martin looks as if the teacher just dropped a pop quiz on his desk. The guys exchange Oh, shit glances, and Buckland buys time with a joke: "MTV shows videos?"
"They do one video per day," Champion riffs, "in between episodes of Hogan Knows Best and My Super Sweet 16."
Martin, vamping: "I do love Hogan. If you could have Brooke Hogan watching it, then I think that would be a great idea."
Holmes, who does not sound amused, asks what's going on; Martin tells him the promo isn't ready, and after a moment's soft-shoe, speaks frankly: "It's not going to happen, and it sounds like a crap idea. Why do they need a promo? It's an advert for an advert."
Phil Harvey jumps in with diplomatic polish: "I think what Chris is saying... and we are terribly grateful for you work on this.. and so sorry to subject you to our spleen..."
This is just how things are done, Holmes explains: MTV needs a promo to broadcast for a week before it premieres the video. The guys worry this could steal thunder from a viral video they're preparing to put online, a mash-up of clips of dancing politicians - Boris Yeltsin, Tony Blair, George Bush - and they're not convinced the MTV premiere will do much to help the song's success.
Question's barrel on: Should they make an announcement for their tour - beginning with some free concerts (including the most extravagant loss leader imaginable, at Madison Square Garden) - to fans via their website or with a press release? Have they approved the new publicity photos? Then, next week's schedule: Fly to new York and cram in some interviews around the edges of a two-day shoot for a major (and, for the moment, top-secret) ad campaign, which the four are at once excited and sceptical and surprisingly confused about.
"How does the Apple thing work, anyway?" Champion asks.
"We just sing the song [Viva La Vida] in silhouette, and then colours happen, like animation," Martin says. "It's not an advert for Apple; it's for us, for our song. It's just our song playing, us dancing around, and then something like the word 'Apple' or 'iTunes', and 'Viva La Vida' at the end."
"How does the animation work?" Berryman asks.
"It's really complicated, but it's simple," Martin says, not very helpfully.
Finally, the call is over, and Martin pops up to head home to his two kids. (He estimates his commute time, by bicycle, at thirty-three seconds.)
"Bath time for Apple and Moses. And yes, I am going to wash my own posterior."
The other guys pile into a taxi for the ten-minute ride to the studio where they'll fil performance footage to be shown during their concerts. At first, it's stressfully quiet, and then they talk through the meeting just adjourned.
"There are only twenty-four hours in the day," Buckland says. "How much hype do we really need?" Nobody answers, and Buckland adds, quietly but firmly, "I'll do it all, for now. But on tour, I'm done. That's it, I'm not doing anything."
Berryman waits a few respectful beats. Gently, even comfortingly, he tells Buckland, "Well, that's not true."
Reviewing the current edit of the Violet Hill video, Martin declares a couple of scenes (one of him gazing profoundly into the distance, another of the whole group walking, in self-important slo-mo) too "pretentious". He uses that word a lot when criticising the visual presentation of the band. Yet this is the same guy who, over a vegetarian breakfast at a little café in is neighbourhood, addresses the album's original nine-word, bilingual title, which can only be printed in full according to the band's exacting specifications, with proper line breaks:
I know it sounds pretentious, but I couldn't give a flying fuck. That's just what it's called. You can call it Viva La Vida: snappy, easy. You can call it Death And All His Friends. Or you can call it the Coldplay album, or you can call it that piece of shit."
Viva La Vida is the title of a Frida Kahlo painting that Martin saw at Kahlo's house in Mexico last year. "What I really love about that painting, and her in general, is that her colours were always so bright and vibrant and alive, and yet if you look closely, she's really aware of all the darkness." Martin, whose mother is a devout christian, and who grew up in a church that was preoccupied with heaven and hell,cannot abide dualisms, "all this talk about happiness and sadness and darkness and light. Both things always exist concurrently. I am a happy guy, but I'm also a very sad guy. It just happens to be at the same time." (This is probably the place to note that Woody Allen is his hero.) He alludes to Kahlo's tortured life - "And then she painted this fruit bowl one day, and wrote on it: Viva La Vida," he says. "I just thought, Awesome" - and gives this look like he just caught a snowflake on his tongue.
Martin's lanky innocence, when he's relaxed, comes with a chaser of shrewd, dry wit. Asked what he'd say to people who call his activism on behalf of Make Trade Fair a standard-issue-pop-star God complex, he quips, "Well, I would say unto them..." Prodded, he adds, "I think this whole 'God complex' thing is people's way of making themselves feel good about being lazy. It's generally the people who don't do anything that criticise. I've never said, 'I just wanna save Africa, man.' We're talking about one specific thing that we've really researched." He does not add, but it's worth pointing out, that his interest in poor countries relates to his personal history: His mother grew up in Zimbabwe, his grandmother lives next door to that country's president, Robert Mugabe, and one of Martin's first summer jobs was working in a recording studio in Harare.
Martin, who splits his time between New York City and London, rarely mentions his domestic life. Though his wife stars in what will turn out to be one of the summer's biggest movies, Iron Man, which opens today, it doesn't come up in conversation. When we drift close to the topic of being one-half of one of the most glamourous couples in the world, Martin shifts from mellow engagement to almost grumpy wariness.
For celebrities of his magnitude, that's not unusual. Most are terrified to think about the destructive emotional bond that drives celebrity culture, in which stars and fans consent to believe the former are ontologically superior to he latter. Yet at one point, when Martin gets stressed out because our conversation strays to a dead end he can't escape without discussing the effect of fame on his personal life, he goes off the record. "Please, don't let this be a sabotage," he says - and the combination of his willingness to trust and the substance of what he says makes it clear that he avoids talking about his life as a celebrity not because he thinks he's special, but because he knows he's not.
On the record, he does say, "Politicians must be so happy about how crazily over-the-top celebrity society is at the moment, because it means they can get away with murder. Literally, murder. Because everyone's following around a twenty-six-year-old girl and obsessing about her life instead of what's really going on in the world." We've all heard famous people say this kind of thing, pretty much always sounding glib or sententious. Martin's tone is unexpectedly unsettling: soft, authoritative, furious, bleak.
We walk from breakfast to the Bakery, pick up the rest of the guys, and head to the studio where they're to film more stuff for the live show. On the way, we pass the ground-floor railroad flat that Berryman and Champion shared when they first formed the band. Its blue door, with a lion-head door-knocker, today, as ten years ago, is missing the knocker. They point out a new window that's been added, mention a murder that took place at the Queen's Head pub across the street, and laugh, remembering the four-foot-high shower - installed by the landlord's four-foot-high handyman. They paid one hundred pounds a week rent for the place; Martin and Buckland lived a couple of miles away in a flat that cost about half that.
Later, after production is finished for the day, Buckland walks me past Hampstead Heath to the pub where, before their second gig, they decided to call themselves Coldplay. (An allusion to a poetry book, Child Reflections, Cold Play, the name was handed down from a band that rejected it.) For their first gig, they'd been starfish, but "thankfully, there were a lot of other bands called Starfish," he wryly notes.
Scruffy, round-faced, and thoughtful in a way that savours challenge (on the last tour, Buckland says, after reading The Brothers Karamazov, "I thought I might turn Orthodox Christian"), he orders the first of two rounds of Guinness and tells the story of meeting Chris Martin during their first days at university. Buckland was in his dorm room with the door open, and Martin, "like a whirlwind, ran past with his long hair and said something like 'So you play guitar!' and ran off." One day soon after, they decided to play together; and Buckland, at first poking fun at his younger self, says, "I remember telling our friend from school, 'I met an amazing singer - we're gonna form a band, and it's gonna be great!' After, like, the first time. Before we got on as people, we got on playing music. It was like a first date, speaking through guitars. Like you have an inbuilt feeling for what someone else is going to do. Empathy toward them."
The anecdote describes one of several strokes of luck that brought the four together, and I wonder if their skill in navigating these breaks has something to do with the unusual stability of their upbringings. All four men's parents are still married, and each has at least one parent who is, or has been, a teacher. Buckland, like Martin and Champion, still lives within a few miles of the first apartments they had as university students. (Berryman commutes fromthe bucolic Cotswolds, west of London, in his black Aston Martin.) Even so, there's nothing smarmy about their steadiness. Fatherhood, Champion later points out, means, "You have to plan your benders," as Berryman chuckles his endorsement.
But don't they ever have the urge to cut loose in hotel-room-trashing rock star tantrums? "Of course, but I always see that energy as, like, wind farms," Martin says. "You've got to channel it to something more useful. There's this glamourised ideal of arrested development in music, particularly with Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and all the great fallen idols. There's this one side of you, and one side of musical culture, which tells you that you're not suppose to move on in your life at all. But if you look at the greatest artists, like Dylan, that's not true. The whole rock star myth, which is forty years old and basically nonsense, has nothing to do with being a rock star. Everybody gets trashed and break things. By that standard, plumbers and heating engineers are just as rock'n'roll as rock stars. Rock'n'roll is, you've gotta follow your own beliefs; it's all about freedom. And we're really lucky, because we, to a certain extent, have that."
Coldplay are using their freedom to try to plan their future - which includes obsolescence. Phil Harvey, who says the group came perilously close to burning out while making Viva La Vida, intimates they have already mapped out their career endgame - none of them find the proposition of playing Yellow for the next thirty years attractive.
For now, though, there still seem to be endless decisions to make. Back at the bakery, Martin grabs a macrobiotic smoothie from the fridge and sucks it down. He says, "I keep thinking about the Apple thing," meaning the ad they're going to shoot in New York, and he's agitated. It's bizarrely easy, at this moment, to forget that we are talking about a deal with the music industry's Godzilla, one that could be worth millions, comparable to its ad campaigns with U2 and Bob Dylan. The way Chris Martin talks about "this Apple thing"sounds more like he's hashing out a question that preoccupies anybody who wants to be a serious person and a big success: How can you be a good man, and top dog, both?
"This kind of thing is just what people do now. This is not something to worry about. This is just how things are. Isn't it?" he asks himself, as outside dusk falls on the empty school-yard framed by the Bakery's picture window.
Habitual anxiety contributes to Martin's chronic insomnia. "When things are good, I get too upset to sleep. The only easy sleep I get is on bland days, and I try not to let the days get bland," he explains. Pulling out of it, he asks me about my love life, wondering how long my longest relationship ran (But two years is like ten years in gay years, right?" he says), and eventually, we get to talking about female orgasms and whether they still happen after menopause. Somewhere I picked up the idea that they don't, and, theatrically fretful, Martin runs downstairs to the studio to ask the technicians if that's right. Nobody's sure. "Google it," he says to a guy in the production booth. "I don't want to Google it," the tech replies, bashful.
It's bath time for the kids again, so Martin goes home, and I head off to dinner with friends. About an hour later, my phone vibrates with a text from Martin. He's got news - women can have orgasms after menopause - and I laugh, realising who probably answered the question for him, and hoping that tonight, with one less thing to worry about, the guy will get some rest.