It's not quite an invasion, but British mood rockers Coldplay have dropped their parachutes into yank-dominated territory

By David Browne
Updated March 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

”Is that a lady?”

Slouched down in the back seat of a minivan, Chris Martin, the gangly, close-cropped lead singer of the British band Coldplay, bolts upright. Thanks to a slight throat ache and an abnormal blast of winter cold on this January day in San Francisco, Martin has been chilling out, his sweatjacket zipped up to his chin. But what’s suddenly caught his attention is the backside of what appears to be a statuesque beauty with tight pants and a snow-cone swirl of blond hair.

The Coldplay posse — which includes chunky, scruff-faced guitarist Jon Buckland and employees of the band’s label and management — chuckle at Martin’s comment, especially when the woman in question turns to reveal herself as…”No,” Martin deadpans, ”that is definitely not a female ass.”

”Welcome to San Francisco, guys,” someone cracks.

Transvestites aside, America has been surprisingly warm to Coldplay. Over the last decade, a steady stream of fish-and-chips bands has made it to the States, but few have actually made it. Modern-rock radio prefers its music extreme; the cascading melodies, starry-eyed falsettos, and cloudy-day lyrics of Parachutes, Coldplay’s debut album, are normally anathema. (If rap & roll personifies the universal fratboy, Parachutes is the shy, lonely college freshman.)

But against the odds, Coldplay may be the group to break the Brit embargo. Parachutes has sold nearly 300,000 copies in the U.S. since its November release, its success boosted by ABC’s use of the single ”Yellow” in a promotional spot (an ad the band claims it hasn’t yet seen) and most likely by a growing disenchantment with rap-metal and rapacious teen-popsters. ”We thought [Parachutes] would be a small release here,” says the soft-spoken Buckland, who, like his bandmates, more resembles a member of Coldplay’s backpack-sporting audience than a star. ”We don’t really fit in. But I suppose songs and melody will never go away. There’s always a place for that, no matter what’s on the radio.”

Radio, in fact, is the very reason they’re tooling around San Francisco. Every day on Coldplay’s maiden 11-city North American tour is jammed with interviews and station visits. ”We’re trying to break something that hasn’t been broken in a long time,” says Terry McBride, whose Nettwerk label first signed the band in America. ”And you know what? It’s not easy. Radio program directors still have a big question mark because every other English thing they’ve tried has failed.” Still, the backslapping greeting Martin and Buckland receive when they arrive at Live 105, the city’s leading alternative-rock station, speaks volumes. On the air, the two perform a short acoustic set (bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion are doing interviews elsewhere), after which the ebullient DJ dubs them ”geniuses!”

One employee approaches Buckland and proudly presents him with a printout of the station’s current playlist; at No. 1 is ”Yellow,” with 51 spins last week. ”It’s cool,” Buckland says afterward, a bit stunned. ”But 51 times? That’s, like, seven times a day. Even I’d get sick of it.”

“I just saw the Lizard King out in the desert!” cracks Martin, waving around lit incense in Coldplay’s dressing room at the famed Fillmore concert hall. He’s referring to the walls covered with concert posters of the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and other ’60s luminaries. Yet the thought of the band selling every ticket at San Francisco’s revered home of tie-dyed rock is no joke. “It’s amazing—we get to play here on our first gig,” Buckland says, quietly.

It is amazing, given that the band members are all between the ages of 22 and 23 and played their first gig ever three years ago. At the time, all four were students at University College London, where they lived in the same residence hall while majoring in subjects like math and ancient history. Buckland and Martin originated the band and named it after a British psychology book, Child’s Reflections, Cold Play. In 1999, Parlophone Records A&R manager Dan Keeling saw an early performance (“they weren’t very good,” he recalls), but by summer Coldplay had improved enough to sign with the label. “I’m not comparing them to the Beatles, but a band like this has a universal appeal,” says Keeling. “My mom likes them.” Recorded painstakingly over many months, Parachutes became an immediate U.K. sensation upon its release last summer. “We were in the right place at the right time,” says stout, average-bloke Champion. And what is their appeal? “We’re simple, straightforward people,” he says. “We don’t smash things up.”

Judging by Coldplay’s set at the Fillmore, Champion may be on to something. Martin has a bit of the outgoing Rupert Everett in him, but the twenty- and thirtysomethings stare reverently or bob their heads slowly to his floaty croon. The relief on the crowd’s collective face—the fact that a band equally reminiscent of the Smiths, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, and the Beatles even exists—is palpable. With a Bush back in the White House, perhaps it’s logical that Coldplay are at the forefront of kinder, gentler rock.

At 1 a.m. the musicians finally leave the venue and drag themselves onto their bus. “The Wu-Tang Clan and Dr. Dre had this bus before us, and they settle for nothing but the best,” comments Berryman on the marble countertops and black leather couches. Nearby is a poster signed by clearly young, female local fans: “You are the hottest British band! I want your body/accent,” reads one scrawl.

“It’s weird,” Martin says, taking a seat. “I know we’ve got talent and everything, but I still don’t understand everything.” He’s happier to discuss his current hero, Bob Dylan, or to clear up the rumor that “Shiver” was written for one-“Torn”-wonder Natalie Imbruglia (it wasn’t, but Martin says he imagined her when he sang it because he had to conjure up “a sexy woman”). He’s even grown to love Limp Bizkit’s “My Way” and Radiohead’s Kid A, both of which he initially disliked. “People are always talking about something new blowing everything else away,” he says politely. “But I think the way the world is at the moment, it’s a process of choosing what you like out of a lot of good things.”

In what will be an ominous sign, Martin has to cut short the conversation to rest his throat (he’s also grappling with tinnitus, which occasionally leads him to bend over in agony). Then the long, overnight drive to Los Angeles is delayed by a snowstorm. By the time the band arrives in New York City three days later, Martin can barely sing. Coldplay make it through an afternoon Conan O’Brien taping, but the damage is done: That night, their road manager informs the sold-out house that the show has been rescheduled. Coldplay do play two songs, or make that one: The second, “Yellow,” is warbled by a female concert-goer invited on stage. But the remaining four shows of the tour are canceled. “Chris was just really ill,” sighs manager Phil Harvey later. “New York was not our greatest 24 hours.”

Such is the cost of breaking big in America, and the news brings to mind a comment Champion made backstage at the Fillmore a few days before, when asked how the band was handling the pressure. “You can’t prepare for it,” he said. “We just go blindly into it and hopefully come out the other side intact.”