During a break from recording, an assistant has tracked down Chris Martin at the Notting Hill studio where Coldplay are wrapping up their third album. There are some things to go over. ”The queen has invited you to a tea at Bucky Palace,” she cheerfully informs him.
Martin is intrigued, momentarily. ”We do live in the neighborhood,” he figures — ”we” meaning him and ”G.P.,” as his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow, is known among at least some of the support staff. But…nah. ”I don’t think we should go,” he quickly decides, ”as much as I like the queen. We’ve got three more years of rebellion in us. What was the other stuff?” Next on the agenda is approving a lighting rig for an upcoming promotional tour of clubs and theaters. Martin frets that the setup is too outlandish. ”We’re gonna play small venues with this giant thing that’s like something out of Waterworld? Then we’ll half-sell all the tickets and be in the debtors’ jail!”
And there you have Coldplay’s dreamy, neurotic frontman in a nutshell: one minute, too cocky to share a few lumps of sugar with the royals, and the next, worried that his little rock combo won’t sell enough tickets to cover the electric bill. Hubris and panic seem to go hand in hand for the devilishly above-average Martin. Although he keeps tongue close to cheek through these alternately self-effacing and self-aggrandizing pronouncements — more so than you’d expect for someone whose lyrics and social causes are so famously earnest — some of the insecurities may be real. Coldplay have been in the studio on and off (mostly on) for 16 months, retreating from the finish line as often as they have neared it.
Producers have been changed. Multiple variations on the same songs have been recorded. The tone has gone from initially ”sounding like we were driving a Bland Rover” to something that was too experimental and electronic, before settling in on a formula that just sounds like good old Coldplay, albeit with more exciting dynamics. Tunes have been jettisoned at the last minute because they made the album sound too overtly commercial, only to be sensibly re-added at the last minute. ”We could have Hotel California on our hands, but we could have the bargain bin within three weeks,” says Martin. ”We have no perspective left.”
On a January day spent cooped up in London’s Sarm West studio, the labor pains aren’t over. For all the legends about the sophomore jinx, it’s more often album 3 that’s make-or-break — at least if it was the second one that perfected a signature sound, as 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head did. ”Yeah, you can’t win on your third album,” says Martin. ”You’re f—ed. I knew we should have stopped. Or someone should have shot me. I think that’s the best thing that could happen to us, if someone shot me in the head. Death is guaranteed to make your last work seem good, you know?”
This being England, there are few guns around, and so it’s back to work. Martin returns to the control booth, where the quartet have set up bass, guitar, and electric piano in an attempt to finally work through the project’s most problematic song, ”Talk.” They’re on their fourth arrangement of the tune, based on a riff nicked from an old Kraftwerk track, and something still isn’t working. After a half hour of jamming and suggestions about what to add or subtract, the talk begins to turn more blunt. ”It just doesn’t feel good, listening to it or playing it,” murmurs bassist Guy Berryman. ”It doesn’t sound inspiring,” agrees drummer Will Champion. ”Is it the song, though?” asks Martin. ”What is it?” Everyone looks at their feet. Crickets.
Now would be an excellent time for a lunch break. The band strolls a few blocks over to an Asian vegetarian restaurant. While the others return to the studio, Martin sits on a stone bench in a park otherwise populated by a homeless contingent. He clutches his take-out tub, shirtsleeves pulled over his hands as protection from the cold. “There are still some songs that are missing the right energy,” he says, genuinely anxious. “Some of what you’ve heard sounds a bit soft to me, a bit smooth and timid. It sounds like we’re trying to do something new, but halfheartedly.”
It’s pointed out that Martin was quoted in NME recently, boldly declaring the new album the best thing Coldplay have ever done. “I didn’t actually say that,” he insists. “What I said was that I think it’ll be hard to beat, for us.” Yeah, so… “Maybe that’s saying it’s great, and maybe that’s saying we’re a spent force now! You can only mine the Alaskan oil reserves for so long before they run out. You see what I mean? But I think it’s as good as we can do at this point in time. We haven’t slacked off and bought yachts and done it all over the Internet with each person in a different country, and I don’t think we could be working much harder or be stressed out much more about it. It’s been the cause of many, many arguments and sleepless nights. I’m confident in what we’re doing, and I think we’re the greatest band in the history of man, but I’m well aware that there’s billions of people that don’t, or don’t care, and that sometimes affects me more than my own personal belief.”
Getting a handle on the personality of X&Y hasn’t been easy. But, says guitarist Jonny Buckland, “there’s probably darker material on this than on previous albums.” That might come as a surprise for anyone who was expecting 13 odes to the joys of fatherhood. Not the way it works, says Martin: “The best thing in the world is to have a baby, but it also puts other things into starker relief. You have to then worry about the next 150 years, as opposed to just the next 60. And because my life over the last two years has changed drastically in some respects — but also not at all in others — I’ve met a lot more horrible people. The whole thing that comes with certain things” — Martin never gets any less euphemistic in referring to Gwyneth and their 1-year-old daughter, Apple — “means that you spend your time surrounded by paparazzi. It’s a bad energy, and you feel hated, which you are. It’s made me a lot more cynical about the world.”
Since it’s clear that home life is off-limits for conversation, what are the things that haven’t been changed by marriage, fatherhood, constant pursuit by celebrity photographers, and a sophomore effort that scanned 3.7 million units in America alone?
“Well, I’m still going to die, and I’m still in the same band.” He laughs. “Those are two things I think about: Coldplay and death. Which might explain some of our music.”
[pagebreak]Two months later, in L.A., the plan was to meet Martin for lunch, but that’s been nixed. He’s finding public dining not much fun right now: Back home, Britain’s Sun tabloid has been running stories about supposed trouble in the Martin-Paltrow marriage, and if there’s anything worse than being snapped together right now, it’s being photographed separately for one of those “Chris and Gwynnie spend their days apart” spreads. So in order to avoid the paparazzi, he’ll be chauffeured to tonight’s concert in the rattiest old sedan in EW’s automotive arsenal.
Coldplay’s first proper gig in more than two years is at the 500-capacity Troubadour — quite a (deliberate) comedown from the Hollywood Bowl, where they last played locally — and as Martin emerges from his rental house, two cups of coffee in hand, he skeptically eyes the appropriately unfabulous vehicle that will ferry him to the kickoff of Coldplay’s back-to-basics mini-tour. “Actually, this is our back-to-the-future tour,” he corrects, full of characteristic mock-pessimism.
X&Y is now nearly done — give or take some more obsessive fine-tuning of the song sequence — and things finally seem to have come together. What happened with the troublesome “Talk,” anyway? “After all that work we were doing where we’d pulled it apart so much that we had no idea what it was anymore, we actually just went back to an early version,” he says. Well, as long as it didn’t end in fisticuffs or daggers. Though that and some other tracks deal with frustration and lack of communication, the group has elected the album’s most gloriously upbeat track, “Speed of Sound,” as the first single. It recently debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 8 — the first top 10 bow for a Brit band’s single since the Beatles.
Given Martin’s penchant for privacy, you might reasonably wonder whether he censored himself when it came to X&Y‘s lyrics, some of which will inevitably be seen as confessional. “It was only yesterday that I was like, Oh, f—, people are gonna read into this,” he says. “But I think it would have been a stupid thing to edit out all that personal stuff. All the emotions on our records are about a whole range of people. But then, I know that some John Lennon songs were about Yoko Ono, and it doesn’t bother me. So if Lennon sang about his life, then I’m gonna keep on, because whenever I try and not sing about things that I really feel and think, it comes out as crap.”
Martin is a good deal more clever in person than you’d expect from the albums — which isn’t the damning with very faint praise that it sounds like, but an acknowledgment that the sometimes singsongy simplicity of his lyrics is quite purposeful. “There’s songs on the album that I know aren’t gonna light any critical bonfires but that I know will sound great when you’re breaking up with your girlfriend. And the one is much more important than the other. There’s quite a few songs that are midtempo and make quite basic chord changes and have basic lyrics. But they’re the ones that are the truest, I think. Even though they’re the ones where you always worry, ‘Oh, it doesn’t sound like Kid A — is that a bad thing?’ But 98 percent of the people who buy our records don’t give a f— if it’s using some new Moog sound that’s never been heard. They don’t care about that more than they care if the chorus makes them feel something.”
The oldest song on the album is “‘Til Kingdom Come,” which Martin wrote in the hopes that Johnny Cash would cut it, even going so far as to demo it with Rick Rubin. “Johnny Cash never recorded it — either because it was s— or because he died, depending on whether you like Coldplay or not,” jokes the singer. Another tune, the unusually jangly “The Hardest Part,” is “kind of a tribute to R.E.M. In fact, our whole record is basically a tribute album to certain people.” Indeed, there’s one track that’s a little Beatlesque, and one or two others that vaguely recall Lennon, the solo years. “Good, you haven’t mentioned anybody s— yet.” And one that’s a little bit Echo & the Bunnymen, which seems a bit… “Passé is the word you’re looking for,” he interrupts. “We’ve stolen from them already. That’s a hangover from the last record. We also have allowed influences to come through from Kraftwerk, of course, and Bowie — even the Cult. I wish we had time to rip off that song by the Killers, but it’s too late.”
As our car circles the Troubadour in search of a drop-off spot, the line snaking around the corner represents a pretty nonthreatening bunch, mostly black-clad high school and college students who’ve ditched afternoon calc to queue up for a semisecret show by their favorite band. They’re a cuddly-looking lot, really; collectively, these kids might be able to harm a fly. But to the visibly tensing man in the passenger seat, they’re a terrifying sight. “I’m actually incredibly nervous,” he says. “This makes me much more nervous than the Hollywood Bowl, I suppose because it’s new.”
Scaling down for clubs may require adjustments. The band performed a few songs for friends and associates in London the previous week, and “it’s funny — I did find myself singing to this corner of the room that no one was in; there was just paint. It’s a physical movement that had just come from playing big amphitheaters, and I was projecting about 500 meters too far.”
By the time the show starts, Martin seems to have gotten the club thing down again. Only during the encores does he resort to redirecting his gaze up toward the balcony, and then just because he’s finally noticed the missus rocking out up in the rafters.
The crowd response is so rapturous that Martin can’t help but offer a typically heartfelt and unoptimistic show of thanks: “Hopefully, in 20 years, when we’re even balder and even fatter and even s—tier, you’ll still be here for us at the Troubadour!” If, of course, the band can bust out of debtors’ jail for the reunion.