What is Chris Martin's problem?
Published 22/06/2008 | 00:00
Chris Martin is nervous. I'm not sure why. Coldplay are riding high: their comeback single Violet Hill was downloaded 2 million times in the week it was available for free on the band's website. Heated excitement has attended the band's announcement of three free concerts, in London, Barcelona and New York.
Before its release earlier this month, Guy Hands, much-maligned financier boss of the band's embattled record label EMI, described their new album, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, as "right across the world . . . the most anticipated album of the year". For once in the music world, boardroom and shopfloor might be in agreement. When Coldplay's serial perfectionism resulted in a delay in the release of their last album, 2005's X&Y, it was blamed for a drop in EMI's share price. When it was finally released, it sold 150,000 copies in one day in the UK. That week it topped the charts in 32 countries. In America, lead single Speed of Sound immediately walloped into the Top 10; the last British band to do that were the Beatles, with Hey Jude.
But the reviews were increasingly sniffy: X&Y was the sound of a stadium rock band more concerned with its very bigness than with meaning something. And the lyrics were trite. It would go on to sell 10 million copies. The commercial adoration and the critical vilification got to the band, and Martin in particular. Collecting two Brit Awards in 2006, the singer said: "Thank you. That's it. We won't see you for a very long time . . . We've got a lot of work to do."
Actually, I know why Martin is nervous. Having spent time with the band over the years, on tour abroad and at home in London, I'm aware he's always -- well, very often -- like that. "We're about to be fed to the lions again!' is how he opens our conversation, all jumpy and gangly. "For the fourth time!"
After all this time, and all those achievements, hasn't he developed a tougher skin?
"No!" he exclaims. "What makes us a bit nervous is, in this instant age, to release something that might take more than one listen. Where everything is instantly judged on YouTube or something! It's a bit like releasing a horse and cart on a racetrack."
Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, is a record that requires patience and persistence. There are barely any of the stadium-sized choruses that both lofted and bedevilled X&Y; few of the falsetto piano ballad anthems that seemed, to some, to be Coldplay's ruthlessly efficient and crashingly dull trademark.
Instead there are ambient-flavoured quasi-instrumentals, tabla, crashing chords, strings that flutter and twang, peg-leg rhythms, multi-part songs, group singing influenced by Donna Summer's State of Independence, and a twitchy but lovely song, Strawberry Swing, that might be an ode for his children, Apple, four, and Moses, two ("It's definitely a kids kinda song"). They offer subtle, nagging pleasures. And for a band known for their simplistic, or sappy, love songs, they've pushed the lyrical boat out a bit: Martin sings of death, salvation, defiance (in the track Lost! he sings, "Just because I'm losing doesn't mean I'm lost", and in Violet Hill of a wearied soldier crying out to his loved one). Martin still won't print his words on the album sleeve -- "because nobody wants to read our lyrics written down".
But they're better this time. "I'm sure most English teachers would still put a red line through them."
What's the meaning behind the title? "Well, it's called one or the other. Depending on whether you find it uplifting or depressing. It's kinda like a colouring book." Martin stops and shakes his curly head. "No, it's not like a colouring book at all. We thought it was funny that some people would listen to a song of ours and find it really warm and embracing. And other people would listen to the same song and find it really miserable. So we thought, this time, let's not tell anyone what they're supposed to think. If you find it depressing you can call it Death and All His Friends. And if you find it uplifting, Viva La Vida. And if you're into mining, you call it Or[e]."
Like many of Martin's jokes, and like much about this likeable rock star, this comes across best if you are there.
"He takes things to heart," says drummer Will Champion. "It's amazing -- when you're experiencing the up side, it's an incredible energy to be around. But equally when it's down it's quite hard to . . . He requires a lot of reassurance."
Indeed. Martin's pinballing moods are such that soon, barely halfway through our scheduled appointment, he will be very angry indeed.
Buenos Aires, February 2007. Martin is treading water in the swimming pool of the finest hotel in the Argentine capital.
Coldplay are midway through a short South American tour, one of the few places in the world they haven't performed. The band are massive here nonetheless. Last night, they attended a reception in their honour hosted by the British Ambassador at the Embassy. All day, fans hover on the pavement opposite the band's hotel. Guitarist Jonny Buckland, seated by the pool with his nose stuck in a James Bond novel, tries to ignore the screams drifting over the perimeter wall. Bass player Guy Berryman, once the band's most enthusiastic party-er, hides out in the hotel gym.
Right now, as he signs the occasional soggy autograph from the edge of the pool, the singer is talking about hip-hop -- Martin may be seen as "just" an earnest balladeer, but he has wide-ranging musical interests. He collaborated with Kanye West on a track on his last album, Graduation, and he's good friends with rapper-tycoon Jay-Z. "Chris is a musician and he's the real deal. He's not like a boy band or nothing," Jay-Z had told me a couple of months previously. The unlikely kinship saw them collaborate on Beach Chair and Most Kings, two tracks for Jay-Z's 2006 album Kingdom Come. "The only thing that's difficult," says Martin, "is that, when a business person sees who's on the track, they wanna market it much more. Regardless of whether it's brilliant or not. That's what I find frustrating, the fact that it has to say, 'featuring Coldplay' or 'Chris Martin'. That stuff makes me wanna gag."
Martin, who wants to sell a lot of records but doesn't want to be sold, is forever wary of exploitation. Particularly when it comes to his private life: by dint of his December 2003 marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow, he finds himself part of the rarefied Hollywood and fashion worlds. Steven Spielberg is his Oscar-winning wife's godfather. But you'll never see him and Paltrow hanging out together on a red carpet. The only aspect of "celebrity" he finds comfortable is the artistic side. Hence his hook-ups with two of the world's greatest hip-hop singers.
"I don't think yet that any of those collaborations has quite worked," he says. "What it's trying for is something new, but we haven't quite got there yet. Which is basically trying to mix two extreme kinds of music . . ."
He gets something else from the relationships, too. Something that's almost equally alien to who Martin fundamentally is. "Those American guys, they believe in themselves so much. But never in a way that's unpalatable. I'm always just inspired by their confidence."
As he stares down the barrel of Coldplay's fourth album -- something of a make-or-break moment -- Chris Martin needs all the confidence he can muster.
London, November 2007. Coldplay's HQ is a hive of activity. They have, they say, almost finished recording the album. Downstairs in this converted bakery, Brian Eno is working in the studio. Upstairs, in the capacious lounge area (shoes must be removed before entering), ideas for album artwork are strewn everywhere. There are books by Frida Kahlo, Gaudi and da Vinci.
Martin collapses into a sofa. For a yoga nut, he's seriously jittery: the completion of the album is so near, yet so far. Coldplay have been to Barcelona, recording vocals in two churches and a monastery. They've had in a violinist and a "fantastic" keyboard player. And a hypnotist. Why?
"We wanted to see what happened," he says blithely. "Everything, over these past few months, has been about taking off any shackles. We feel like we have so much to prove, and so many ideas -- sometimes you need a hypnotist to give you the bravery to try. And we wrote some nice things, and it was fun and interesting."
He says that when they returned from South America, Coldplay found themselves in a difficult position: "We were extremely big but we didn't think we were very good."
London, May 2008, I return to the Bakery, it is a bright, sunny afternoon. Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland (father of a six-month- old baby) sit outside on a roof terrace, joined a short while later by Will Champion (father of a two-year-old and three-week-old twins) and Guy Berryman (father of a 20-month-old). The sounds from the adjacent school playground drift up, and a child waves to the multi-millionaire rock stars, who have just appeared on the Rich List, with wealth estimated at £25m each.
Martin asks if I am going to Glastonbury. Coldplay have a long relationship with the festival, and with its founder Michael Eavis. Their headline appearance in 2002, just before the release of A Rush of Blood to the Head, is one of the landmarks in the band's 10-year career. Martin is frustrated by the negative comments thrown at the event this year.
"People who Glastonbury-bash are just plain stupid. It's just a couple of people who don't really know what rap is."
Does Martin understand why people are upset by Jay-Z headlining?
"But they're not! It's about two people in a coffee shop, someone on the Isle of . . . Knob. It's like worrying about Mozart playing the Camden Falcon: OK, he doesn't normally play that kind of place, but I'm still gonna go . . . That's the whole spirit of Glastonbury -- trying new things."
Where Martin is skittish, Buckland is quiet and cheerful, and both Berryman and Champion are confident and loquacious. The guitarist talks up the importance of the acquisition and construction of the Bakery in 2006, and the return to the camp of their "fifth member", Phil Harvey. He's an old school-friend of Martin's, and was Coldplay's first manager. "He can tell us how bad we are without making us feel we have to split up," says Martin. But the vertiginous success of A Rush of Blood to the Head made Harvey go "a bit crackers," says the singer breezily, and he went off travelling after that album's release. But now he's back, helping out with creative decisions. Says Buckland: "Phil adds a layer of protection that we really didn't have on X&Y."
Champion announces himself chuffed with the comment from a German interviewer that the new album is the first time Coldplay have had any trace of "humour or light-heartedness in our music. Which is probably true", the drummer admits. "We were maybe a little earnest previously. South America gave us a sense of enjoyment, and the importance of colour and life in music."
This, adds Berryman, has fed into the band's "look" for the new album. Echoing the album sleeve -- which features a graffitied reproduction of Delacroix's 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People -- the band are dressing like 19th-century soldiers. They've made the costumes themselves, they say -- more output from the "cottage industry" they've established within the confines of the Bakery, "which stops us feeling like we're part of a corporate machine". Because some of the lyrics are "questioning authority", the bass player continues, "we had this idea of a group of revolutionaries breaking into a big palace and painting over the expensive artefacts. It all seemed to tie in." They've even taken to smearing dirt over their faces in photo-shoots, the better to look like real barricade-stormers.
Are they prepared for the inevitable snarky album review with the headline "Les Miserables"?
"A hundred per cent!" fires back Martin. Then he says: "God, I hadn't thought of that. Why don't you write that and get it out of the way? What else can you put in?'
"Let Them Eat Tofu?"
"OK. It's got to be a pun, right?" he adds cheerfully. Now, as we sit on cushions on the roof terrace, he does some yoga stretches. He says that with their new look, which is the first instance of the previously studenty Coldplay "dressing up the way rock stars are meant to, It's hard to really validate it. We just think it looks cool."
Since Martin's earlier nerves seem to have dissipated in the sunshine, I decide to broach the tricky stuff. I ask if, these days, he's better at dealing with the media scrutiny of his private life.
Is he still as wound up by the paps? (Martin has tussled with photographers he feels have overstepped the mark.)
"Oh, I don't get wound up or anything, I just have a large collection of hoods. And secret pathways."
The misinformation that's written about him and Paltrow, about diet and health and alleged arguments in restaurants -- does it get to him?
He's fundamentalist about not being seen out in public with his wife, and won't even mention her name in interviews -- why is that? Martin puffs out his cheeks and exhales.
"For exactly this reason. You know, it's possible for two humans to be in a relationship without there needing to be some public reason for that relationship. Maybe, as it is with all our wives, maybe we just like each other, and it doesn't have anything to do with the outside world."
I have one final Paltrow-related query. In a magazine interview last month, she said of her husband: "I've been around a lot of talented people and a lot of people who work really hard and I've never seen anything like it . . . I've never seen anyone put every atom and molecule of themselves into something."
Does that mean that . . . "You know what," Martin interjects, "this is not important enough to me to have to talk about this stuff. We don't need to do this. I mean, it's like . . ." He stops, exasperated. "I don't care if we sell a million less records. This does me no good at all. It's fine it's fine it's fine," he says rapidly, and now he's standing up. "But it's like . . ."
Now, evidently boiling, he's climbing back in through the Bakery window. "You're not off are you?' I say.
"No, I just . . ." But he is off. I look at Buckland. He seems bemused rather than alarmed (which is what I am). I ask the guitarist if he thinks he's coming back. "Uh . . . I dunno."
But 10 minutes later, Martin is back. "Sorry, man. Just a breather. Rather than lose my temper I've got to think about how to deal with it. I just don't want to lose my temper on tape. But in answer to your question: I think that the fact that a relationship becomes public is a bit of a bummer. Because it can distract from the real reason why you're together, which is that you just like each other. And I have great respect for what she does. That's why I don't really like to talk about it. Because I don't. . . There's nothing to sell, you see what I mean? You know what I'm saying?"
Even though I'm not a talented and successful musician married to a talented and successful actor, I do know what he's saying. And I feel rotten. It's not like they "court" the publicity, is it? And no, wearing very high heels or dressing like a revolutionary soldier doesn't count.
Like Radiohead and Jack White's Raconteurs, Coldplay are working hard to bring their bigness down a peg or two, and shore up the intimacy of the fan-band relationship. Free downloads, free 7-inch singles (Violet Hill was also given away on the cover of NME), free gigs, free songs (two tracks on the album are spliced straight into two other tracks, which means you get two for the price of one on iTunes) . . .
"We're just trying little things," says Martin, adding that they have other ideas up their distressed revolutionary-era sleeves. "Most of them are lifted from supermarket policy."
Pleasingly, Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends is great. Coldplay have made an intriguing, fairly leftfield rock record. It's also, it seems, a more spiritual record, with references to heaven, Jerusalem, saints and a hymnal quality to some of the songs. Has Chris Martin, raised in a Christian household, rediscovered God?
"Have I rediscovered God?" he ponders. "Um. No. I'm always trying to work out what he or she or it is. I'm not sure who's right. I don't know if it's Allah or Jesus or Mohammed or Zeus." Pause. "I'd maybe go for Zeus," says this First Class Honours graduate in Ancient World Studies (University College London, class of 1999). "I lay claim to being the only person in the world who still believes in Zeus."
Buckland guffaws at this. But Martin becomes momentarily serious.
"It's to do with wonder, isn't it? The opposite of depression. Anything that we think is incredible and beautiful and wonderful, we ascribe to something that we don't know what it is. Because no one can explain to you where a rose bush or Jaffa Cakes really come from. And God is just a nice word to sing. But it isn't any specific god. It's more . . . orpheistic."
I Google orpheistic when I get home. Is it a reference to Orpheus, "the father of songs"? Or did he actually say "ortheistic"? There are two online references to this, but it turns out both are mistypings of "or theistic". I'm baffled.
That evening, Chris Martin texts me: "Thanks for interview today." Which is nice. And also I think -- I hope -- his way of saying: "No hard feelings." I text him back, and take the opportunity to ask him what ortheistic means.
At 12.54am, Martin texts back. "It's a word I made up. ALLTHEISTIC. Means you believe in everything."
Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends is out now