CHRIS MARTIN was on the floor working out the knots. As his handlers hovered, the usually affable Coldplay singer stretched out on the carpet in a dim and airless room backstage at the Jimmy Kimmel show. It was hours before show-time and the singer's muscles were tight and his expression sour. Finally, he looked up with pleading eyes. "Can we escape? Let's go somewhere else. Maybe some place with trees? I have a car and a driver . . ."
A few minutes later, the lanky Brit ducked through an alleyway behind the talk show's Hollywood Boulevard studios and climbed into an ebony SUV that whisked him and his visitor up the hill to Griffith Park. "This looks good," he said, tapping the window. "Yes, let's stop here." As soon as his sneakers hit the grass, the black-clad Martin was as perky as the Labrador that trotted past him on a path. Hummingbirds and butterflies were in the air and Martin was at ease, enough so that he started making confessions and jokes which, for him, are hard to separate.
"Like millions of people in the world, I can't listen to Coldplay," Martin said with a daft wink. "But my reason is professional. You see, I'm always thinking about the next thing. I'm also always looking for something that will inspire the next thing. Look, we're the one band we can't plagiarize. So really there's no point in me listening to it. If I think, 'Well, that's good,' then I'll want to use it, which won't work. And if I think, 'Hey that's terrible,' then I'll be depressed over breakfast. It's a classic lose-lose situation."
If you listen to Coldplay -- and many people do, considering the 11.2 million albums they've sold in the U.S. alone -- then you already know that Martin is an earnest voice in an ironic age. That has opened the band up to savage insults (Noel Gallagher once sneered that they were "four Didos with willies") but instead of retreating, Martin decided to join in the sport. No one gives Chris Martin more grief these days than Martin himself. He makes fun of his hair, clothes, diet and famous falsetto. He even mocks himself for thinking, deep-down, that he's cool for not being cool: "We've never been about being cool and we never will be. And I think in a way that's quite cool. But I can't think about it too much -- because if you think about it then you automatically aren't cool. Wait, I've gone too far. I'm not cool. Again."
Coldplay has a new album, “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends,” which hit stores this past Tuesday and arrived with considerable heat. The lead single, "Viva la Vida," hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 a few days ago and, at iTunes, the pre-orders for the album were the largest in the history of the digital merchant. The band became famous for polished, piano-based songs of soaring pop exultation and rainy-day reflection, but with this new studio album, their fourth, they have made a bid at reinvention. The songs are still from the heart but maybe more from the gut.
No matter what, Coldplay won't be able to win over a certain constituency that, frankly, has detested them too much and for too long to start listening now. Jon Pareles of the New York Times once called them the "most insufferable band of the decade," which might say less about the band and more about how fashionable it has become to slag them. Martin said it's because he wears his heart on his sleeve when he sings. "If you allow yourself to be vulnerable in your music, people will feel it a lot more," Martin said. "But a lot more people will also hate it or mock it. It's almost like a deal with the devil, but I'm happy to take that deal. It doesn't feel right to me to sing about stuff I don't believe in."
Campus as catalyst
IN SEPTEMBER 1996, a shy freshman named Jonny Buckland, fresh from a Welsh town called Mold, arrived with his acoustic guitar at University College London. His plan was to look at the stars (he was studying astronomy) but his life took a different path when, during orientation week, he met Martin, a gangly kid from leafy Devon, who coaxed him into a music partnership.
They would be joined by bassist Guy Berryman, a handsome Scot who came to the university to study engineering. He had heard Martin's amateur attempts at songwriting and, after a few rounds at a pub, lurched across the room and demanded membership in the band. Will Champion, an anthropology student who knew more about tribes than he did drums, was brought in to keep the beat. They called themselves Starfish, but the name didn't stick. They pinched a better one from "Child's Reflections, Cold Play," a 1997 collection by American poet Philip Horky.
Their 2000 debut album, "Parachutes," yielded the yearning, breakthrough hit "Yellow" and the 2002 follow-up, "A Rush of Blood to the Head," came with a flurry of hit singles: "In My Place," "Clocks" and "The Scientist." That's when things got complicated. Relentless tour dates, the tug of their personal lives and the turbulence of success put Coldplay in a shaky place.
The members say they felt pressured by their label, EMI/Capitol Records, to create a followup with similar scope and sound. The album was delayed and EMI's stock dropped (literally) as a result, turning up the tension. The result was "X&Y," a 2005 album that sold well but, in the band's view, lacked clarity.
To steady themselves, Martin said, Coldplay looked for a place to "make it homemade again." They found it in a blind alley in London.
"We found this little bakery, and we bought it and turned it into a, well, it's like a youth club," Martin said. "Do you read the Harry Potter books? It's a bit like that train stop they use, the platform 9 3/4 , which you can't find unless you know where it is. If you drive by quickly, it doesn't look like anything is there. If you go in, it's like a little band heaven. Everything is hand-painted. There was a dartboard, but it's gone now. We banned some of the leisure activities. The last thing you need when you're trying to reinvent yourself is a pool table. Drummers tend to love pool more than they love drumming. It's a bigger stick."
The group also rang up Stella McCartney for some guidance in creating uniforms. Their vision was to create a look for themselves that was a mix of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and a rag-tag Salvation Army quintet. A Norwegian tailor made jackets and trousers, which they individualized with ribbons and piping.
"It's a little nerdy, but we turned into seamstresses for a few days," Martin said. "It's a nice feeling to wear clothes you really had a hand in. It's the closest we'll get to Roc-A-Wear I think. It's not an original idea, but it's a good one. The Clash did it and Green Day did it. Adam Ant. Lots of people. It makes you feel more like a performer."
There's also a brother-in-arms message: "I think with each band there comes a point where they have to find a place to be together otherwise they end up living in different countries and just meet on stage. When you get famous, there are two reactions to your other bandmates. You either think 'I could do this without you.' Or you think, 'I really couldn't do this without you.' You're luckier if you are in the second category. We've always been very grateful for each other."
Reconnecting the dots
"X&Y" WASN'T really an album, it was a collection of singles. The band now rues that decision, which they made in deference to the age of downloading songs. "Now we believe there are great albums to be made and that they should be made." For "Viva la Vida," the band brought in producer Brian Eno, famed for his work with U2. The result is a wild ride: Interstitial sounds, hidden tracks, a towering church organ here, North African tabla and flamenco hand claps there. "Viva la Vida" has Beatles-esque strings, a U2-style build and a grand old church bell that, if you listen closely, has bird chirps trailing its toll like the tail of a kite. In her review, Times music critic Ann Powers said Eno's presence has Coldplay making their "official leap toward greatness."
Keeping company with legendary names doesn't make Martin nervous.
"The way to motivate yourself is to look at people that have done a lot better," he said. "So I don't think of us in terms of history but I am always thinking about history in terms of what we should be doing. Like, what did the Beatles do here, what did the Police do at this point. Why did Stevie Wonder do that, what did Jay-Z do. If you're going to join the race, you may as well run with the best people ever. Even if you come in last, you'll go faster than you would on your own."
Martin said he feels time is moving faster these days. He's the father of two children with his wife, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, which has inspired him to cut away the distractions in his life. The day before the visit to Griffith Park, he and the band were at the MTV Movie Awards to perform "Viva la Vida" live, for the first time anywhere -- a precursor to their concerts July 14 and 15 at the Forum, which kick off a North American tour. At rehearsals, Martin was grim-faced -- everything seemed to be going wrong.
The band, befitting their uniforms, soldiered on through the rehearsals and broadcast, no easy feat considering the blank-faced fans in the venue. The band won them over halfway through the song when an intense cascade of confetti shot up from both sides of the stage. Not just any confetti either -- it was butterfly shaped, and appeared to flutter. It was the type of image that inspires a gag reflex in Coldplay detractors, but the band (and audience) loved it.
"Those butterflies are important to us because they make us feel very . . . happy," Martin recalled the next day at the park. "At a time when you could be insecure, whenever we fire those butterflies up we just can't help but smile. I love everything about what we do, we're very lucky and fortunate, but I do recoil a bit from the judgments. As long as some people are kind and supportive, that makes it easier. But even then you need your butterflies to remember to just enjoy the moment."