Life at the top

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By Gary Graff  

Since 2000, Coldplay has remained one of the hottest bands on the planet. The British quartet sold more than 20 million copies worldwide of its first two albums, 2000's Parachutes and 2002's A Rush of Blood to the Head, both of which won Grammy awards. Singles such as "Yellow" and "Clocks" became hits on both the alternative and pop radio playlists, and the group was compared, favorably, to U2, Radiohead, and Echo & the Bunnymen.

Coldplay formed in 1998 at University College in London, where its members -- singer-keyboardist Chris Martin, guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion -- were studying astronomy, anthropology and Ancient World Studies. The quartet adopted an aesthetic of total control, trodding its own path and reaping quick rewards when its first EP, Safety, sold out quickly, as did the subsequent single, "Brothers and Sisters," which led to a deal with EMI Records.

Martin became the group's natural focal point, especially after wedding actress Gwyneth Paltrow in 2003 (they subsequently had a daughter, named Apple). Some of that unavoidably impacted the songs on X&Y, Coldplay's third album, though Martin insists that Coldplay is in many ways still the band of college friends that it has always been.

Q: What are the group's feelings about so much success?

Chris Martin: It's a weird mix, being in our band. One of half of us thinks were better than the Beatles. The other half thinks we don't deserve to have two people come to our shows, let alone two million. My head's a mixture of the two. One half of me thinks Paul McCartney should clean my boots, the other half thinks I should clean his. It's kind of a mind-fuck, really. (laughs) It just keeps you always trying to improve and live up to whatever it is you're supposed to be.

Q: Do you feel more creative pressure than commercial pressure?

Martin: Our mission always is just to write songs that we want to whistle and then present them in as interesting a way as possible. That's the goal, and it has been the goal for awhile. Nothing's really changed in terms of that.

Q: So what are the pressures that come with success?

Martin: Well, from the start we've always had a healthy -- sometimes too healthy -- backlash going on. There's a lot of people that really hate us, and I think that's always made sure that the inner circle -- i.e. the four of us and Phil (Harvey), who's our kind of silent fifth member, and a couple of other people around us -- have to impress each other first and foremost, and then we worry about everyone else after that. We've always felt like you can't just respond to outside opinion, otherwise you'll go crazy.

Q: How have the relationships between the four of you changed over the years?

Martin: I think about a year ago we were probably not as close as we had been, and then from that point on we've just been getting closer and closer. I think because we're in this thing together, we're becoming more and more connected and more and more gang-like, to the point of even starting to wear the same things. First of all, we're each other's family, really, 'cause we know each other really well. Secondly, we go through everything together -- every bad review, every good piece of news, every tough concert. To me, it's the most safe environment, within the band.

Q: Outside of that, however, you're clearly the star of the show.

Martin: Well, we all know that frontmen get the attention, especially if you're the loudest in the band and the most egotistical and the biggest idiot. (laughs) I was basically acting like a twat for awhile, and we had a week, while making A Rush of Blood to the Head, where one of us left. It was just nasty, and I swore it would never happen again. I'm amazed we still get on, but we do. And hopefully over time people will realize this is a four-way thing, not just me, the frontman, and the other guys. Without any one of us, it would all fall apart.

Q: Can you be frank and honest with each other, especially about the songs?

Martin: Oh, yeah. It's all about levels of perspective. Our drummer, Will, is normally the one that scraps things for us because he plays the drums and he gets to the song last, or sometimes first, but often he hears the song and has to decide if he wants to play on it. Sometimes he'll say "I just don't believe that song" or "I don't think the melody's very good." And it's terribly depressing when he says it, but it's that honesty that we rely on.

Q: Speaking of honesty, did the topsy-turvy of your private life -- marriage, having a child, all the media attention surrounding you -- impact what you wrote for X&Y?

Martin: To say "no," I think, would be a little stupid. Everything that happens to me, or us as a band, must affect what we do, because what we do is what we are. I think it brings up a whole new set of paranoias and fears. I was getting very paranoid. Everyone was writing loads of shit about Gwyneth and me and blah, blah, blah. I just didn't like that attention. So I said to Jonny, "Maybe we should just not sing this personal stuff anymore. Maybe we should just write about characters and things." He said, "Well, that would be really stupid. You can't edit away the personal stuff." We just made the decision not to, and so there's stuff in there from all our lives, really.

Q: What kind of influences have come into the band in recent years?

Martin: I think we've really embraced things like Kraftwerk and Brian Eno and the more electronic side of things. They came really from our bass player, Guy, who's like a technophile and really got us into all those crazy sounds and everything. And also, we started listening to a lot of Talking Heads and things, weird percussion and anything produced by Brian Eno.

Q: Do you feel a pull to do other things musically, either within or outside of Coldplay?

Martin: The only thing we'd like to do is work with Jay-Z or Timbaland and try to invent some new types of songs. I've got no idea what it would be. This is why I'm fascinated by it. Maybe there's some new type of music that's never been discovered. Who knows? It could be disastrous, but that could be fun, too.

Q: You talk a lot about U2, and generally put yourself in a league with them. Can that comparison be a bit of a set-up?

Martin: Well, first I think it's kind of an easy thing to write. We say something and it gets misquoted or mistaken. But as a band we can't ignore U2 because they're a towering presence who we really respect. It's like trying to ignore the Beatles. Of all the bands that we loved as kids, they're the only ones still going, and still going great. And to us they represent kind of the peak, and what's the point in climbing unless you're trying to climb to the peak?

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.