From Spin; January 2004

Band of the Year: Coldplay

Endless touring, a high-profile romance, and those inescapable songs. Tracey Pepper explains how four mild-mannered British lads became 2003’s unlikeliest superstars.

On a cloudless October afternoon, Chris Martin stands on the Skydeck of Chicago’s Sears Tower, the tallest building in North America, eyeing the 1,450-foot drop to the street. “I love things like this,” he exclaims. Then he’s off, peeling away from the window and pinballing across the blue-and-yellow observation area. Martin is often photographed looking serious and morose, but this exuberant display is standard for the 26-year-old Coldplay frontman. His energy, tightly packed into a rangy 6’1″ frame, is electric. He doesn’t walk — he bounds. In a rare moment of stillness, Martin stares out another window overlooking the John Hancock Tower and Wrigley Field and notices the Muzak-like version of “Moon River” wafting over the P.A. system. “This music is doing my head in,” he moans. “I hate it when they take classic songs and ruin them. The people who work here must go bananas.” He laughs. “That’s probably how our road crew feels.”

Today is election day in California, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s orange face is all over the news. But this being sports-crazed Chicago, reports that the Terminator allegedly groped 15 women are bumped off the front page in favor of the Cubs’ unlikely playoff victory over the Atlanta Braves. “The mood here is great right now,” Martin says. “Chicago is the best place in the world.” He and guitarist Jonny Buckland, also 26, are in town for a few weeks laying down tracks for Coldplay’s third album. Though it isn’t due until fall 2004 (fans will have to settle for a just-released live DVD/CD package, which includes one new song, “Moses,” and two unreleased rarities), Martin and Buckland already have 54 songs (yes, 54; Martin writes every day). And, after spending 15 months on the road promoting their second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, they’re eager to record.

Martin is quite pleased that Spin has named Coldplay Band of the Year. “Thanks very much,” he tells me. Pause. “So is this going to be a story about how you’ve named us Band of the Year but take it back because we don’t really deserve it?”

Actually, no. Since releasing A Rush of Blood in August 2002, the band — Martin, Buckland, drummer Will Champion, 25, and bassist Guy Berryman, 25 — have had a career-galvanizing year during which nearly every goal they set was exceeded. The album has sold 9 million copies worldwide — 3 million in the U.S. alone. And as the lukewarm success of fellow Brits Blur, Travis, and Stereophonics has proved, breaking America can be a struggle. To ensure that they wouldn’t go the way of their compatriots, Coldplay crisscrossed the continent six times from May 2002 to August 2003, performing 155 shows — in small towns like Bend, Oregon — and glad-handing endlessly. “We whored ourselves around,” Martin admits. But the prostitution paid off. By the time they played sold-out shows at the prestigious Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden in June 2003, Coldplay had transformed themselves from Radiohead obsessives into a critically respected, celebrity-props-receiving mainstream sensation.

A Rush of Blood, which debuted on the Billboard album chart at No. 5, hovered in or near the top 30 for close to a year. Its three hit singles — the plaintive ballad “In My Place,” the bittersweet breakup weepie “The Scientist,” and the dreamy piano-driven rocker “Clocks” — have been inescapable: background music to weekend shopping at upscale boutiques and Pottery Barns everywhere. “Clocks” alone has popped up on The Sopranos, E.R., and Third Watch. R&B singer Brandy even wrote a song about Coldplay for her upcoming album. All the exposure helped A Rush of Blood handily outsell albums by established superstars like Madonna and Jennifer Lopez. Along the way, the band picked up two Grammys and three MTV Video Music Awards — including Best Group Video for “The Scientist,” which they performed live, after being introduced by Justin Timberlake as “the greatest band in the world.”

“We were shit on the VMAs,” Martin says. “We figured, ‘This’ll be easy.’ Then I looked out at the crowd, and Eminem was looking at me, and I thought, ‘God, he’s going to hate this.’ I lost all my confidence.”

Coldplay have achieved a level of fame the band members only could dream of when they got together in 1996, as students at University College London. Martin and Buckland both worked as janitors in the residence halls to support themselves. (“I’d never experienced anything like it,” says Buckland, “the smell of adolescence.”) In 1999, they released their first EP, finished college, signed to Parlophone, and watched their debut, Parachutes, soar to the top of the U.K. charts in July 2000. The album, which spawned the unapologetically romantic guitar anthem “Yellow,” has since sold more than 1.8 million in the U.S.

But it wasn’t until after A Rush of Blood was released and Martin began dating Gwyneth Paltrow (he’s recording in Chicago because the actress is here filming the movie Proof) that Coldplay became a band your little sister, your mom, and even your grandma had heard. Suddenly, they were being name-checked by Timberlake, Renee Zellweger, Jake Gyllenhaal, even P. Diddy. In short order, the British tabloids staked out Martin’s London flat and were writing about his and Paltrow’s alleged engagement and impending wedding at Steven Spielberg’s Hamptons spread. She was compared to Yoko Ono after (false) rumors were spread that she would sing on Coldplay’s next album, that she doesn’t let Martin out of the house without a homemade macrobiotic lunch, and that she wanted him to take a year off to start a family. “My favorite,” says drummer Champion, “was Gwyneth banning us from drinking and smoking on our tour bus.”

Martin says he finds the rumors funny “as long they’re harmless, but I really don’t read this stuff, because it’s irrelevant, indulgent, boring, and unimportant.” Then, he adds, “Didn’t you read anything nice about us?” Paltrow may be accustomed to magazines publishing photos of her scurrying down the street with a yoga mat, but the attention was new to Martin. Which explains why he exploded when a paparazzo snapped him surfing in Byron Bay, Australia. Martin reportedly demanded that the photographer erase the digital shots, then bashed his car’s windshield with a rock and tried to let the air out of his tires.

“If someone was following you around all day, eventually you’d be like, ‘Please, will you fuck off and get on with your own life?'” Martin says. “It is great to let out aggression. Everyone wants to smash up a car. If I’d known how much trouble that tiny bit would get me in, I would’ve done more,” he says grinning. (Martin paid Aus$2,000 in damages, but the charge of “malicious damage” had not been dropped at press time.)”

At least no one is recognizing me up here,” Martin says as he surveys the tourists milling around the Skydeck. As if on cue, a young, spiky-haired guy in an orange sweatshirt approaches. “Are you Coldplay?” he asks. “Oh, man, I’m a huge fan,” he gushes. “My girlfriend and I had our first kiss to ‘Yellow.'”

“Yeah? How was it?” Martin asks playfully. After he signs an autograph, other fans stop to say hello, shake hands, and snap photos. He obliges them all, but by the third picture he pulls his gray hood over his head. A middle-aged blond woman poses by his side, turns to him, and asks, “Who are you?” Martin stares at her: “What?” She laughs, then says, “Just kidding!” Martin looks relieved, but skeptical. He knows people see his face in magazines and recognize him “because of who my girlfriend is.” And part of the reason the press are intrigued by Martin’s relationship is because they think he’s otherwise boring.

The singer doesn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, hurl TVs out windows, or dis other bands. His biggest vice seems to be working too hard. Some journalists have ridiculed him for not being enough of a rock star, but Martin, who has said he was a virgin until he was 22, shrugs it off. “Rock’n’roll is about freedom and being whomever you care to be,” he says. “If someone says you’re boring because you don’t do loads of coke or shag groupies—first of all, doing loads of coke makes you write shit music, and having sex with groupies is probably, (a) unfulfilling, and (b) I’m not sure how cool it is.”

Martin may be a boring rock star, but he’s not a boring person. Contrary to his mopey image, he’s constantly cracking jokes, often at his own expense. And though he says he cares what people think of him, he doesn’t care enough to behave like a member of Motley Crue.

“I am boring,” he says. “But I also wrote, ‘Clocks.’ So I’m not that unhappy. I’d rather have written ‘Clocks’ and be boring than not have written ‘Clocks’ and be in rehab. If I’d have written ‘Clocks’ and been in rehab, everyone would be happy!”

***

“‘Clocks’ is Coldplay’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name,’” says singer/songwriter and fan John Mayer. “Coldplay make everyone feel as if they are the stars of their own movie. A person can pretend that for those four minutes, this is the personal soundtrack to the triumph of their life.”

“That is very nice,” Chris Martin says after I relay Mayer’s compliment. “We need to send this guy some money. Usually, if another musician comes up and says, ‘Oh, I like your band,’ I assume, ‘No, you don’t.’ Because every artist believes they are a con waiting to be found out.” Hang out with Coldplay’s singer long enough and you get used to such comments. Although Martin is more relaxed than a year ago, when he obsessed over reviews and fretted about his hairline, he still says things like, “I’m expecting our next album to be unanimously slaughtered.”

Why?

“I just am.”

That makes no sense.

“It does,” he insists.

When asked why he’s like this, he replies, “Every frontman is a mixture of insecurity and confidence — of wanting to be private, but also to have thousands of people clapping every night. I’m constantly confused by it.”

Martin’s bandmates are accustomed to his self-criticism. “That’s who he is, I’m afraid,” Berryman says. “I think it stems from our British build-’em-up-’cut-’em-down mentality. Once you’re established in Britain, you become kind of uncool. But it’s not such a bad thing to think everyone hates you. It makes you work harder.”

Indeed, it was the band’s workaholism, fueled by Martin’s relentless self-doubt that enabled Coldplay to become the only U.K. act in recent years to make the leap from cult status to mainstream pop stardom in America. “Besides Radiohead,” Martin points out. But while Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief may have entered the charts at No. 3, it got little radio play and plummeted each week. Martin shakes his head. “I owe everything to Thom Yorke.”

Do you know that Yorke told a reporter that Coldplay is an example of how popular bands become ‘lifestyle music’?”

Martin looks pained. “What is lifestyle music?” he asks.

It’s music that loft dwellers listen to as they sip Chardonnay and eat risotto — stuff like Norah Jones or Dido.

“Oh, that’s the worst.”

Not to bum you out—

“No, it’s fine. Everyone hates us.”

Not when you’re selling nearly 60,000 records a week, they don’t. “For a band to cross over to different audiences, there has to be something about the songs that connects with people,” says Nic Harcourt, music director of influential Los Angeles radio station KCRW. “A lot of bands will come up with one record, be called ‘The Next Big Thing,’ then not deliver on the follow-up. These guys have actually delivered on the second record, which makes you believe they have the chops to do it again.”

Coldplay have also been labeled “the next U2,” because both bands not only traffic in the kind of earnest, dramatic music that’s as close to soulful as pasty men with accents can get, but because they’re fronted by men who are passionate about world affairs. Bono lobbies for African debt relief while Martin publicizes the plight of impoverished third-world farmers, frequently being photographed with “MAKE TRADE FAIR” written on his hand and piano.

“Chris is part of a new generation of pop star for whom it isn’t enough to dream up the future,” says Bono. “He wants to build it brick by brick. Coldplay have a prodigious talent. Great tunes, great face to sing them, great band to play them, and a sense that the world’s hardest of hearts can be thawed by a great melody.”

“U2 have been amazing to us, and we’ve stolen a lot from them,” Martin says. “But I don’t want to be the next U2 — I want to be something different. When we first started, we wanted to be bigger than the Beatles. It’s still our goal. My vision is like in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, where they go to the future and everyone is listening to their music and there is world peace. That’s what we’re aiming for. That’s only half a joke.”

***

It’s midnight and Jonny Buckland is knocking back Jameson’s and ginger ale with his guitar tech, Matt McGinn, at Chicago indie-rock club the Empty Bottle. Fifteen white-robed members of the Polyphonic Spree have just snaked through the crowd, hooting, smoking, and throwing peace signs on their way to the stage. After 20 minutes, McGinn remarks that every song “is beginning to sound like the outro to ‘Hey Jude,’” so we retire to an empty Polish bar down the street.

Buckland, a shaggy-haired, soft-spoken Welshman, prefers to let Martin take the spotlight, while he “mopes around in back in the dark” supplying Coldplay’s signature chiming melodies. But after seven or eight whiskeys and too many Marlboro Lights, Buckland’s shyness begins to evaporate. I tell him about John Mayer’s theory that Coldplay have succeeded where other U.K. bands haven’t because Coldplay don’t tout their Britishness. (“They’ve found a way, identity-wise, to be from nowhere,” Mayer says, “whereas most bands come to America with ‘British’ written all over them.”)

Buckland is astonished: “You don’t think we sound British?”

At 2 A.M., the elderly woman behind the bar shoos us out the door. The guitarist would happily go for another drink, but McGinn has had it. “Jonathan Buckland, you are a naughty boy,” he says. “You will thank me tomorrow.”

The next day at the studio, Buckland admits that he did persuade his friend to have one more cocktail, and after drunkenly stumbling around trying to find their hotel, they ended up taking a taxi just two blocks to get there. He doesn’t appear to be hungover as he kicks back on the couch listening to Martin record some vocals. During a break, Martin sits in the reception area watching CNN. A beaming, victorious Schwarzenegger clutches his wife, and shakes his fist in the air.

“God, that is unbelievable,” Martin says. The talk turns to news reports of Arnie’s roaming hands. “It’s smear tactics. Obviously, you can’t go around raping people, but someone’s personal life is private.” He sighs. “I’ve talked a lot of nonsense in this interview — like about paparazzi or fame. It’s not important.”

Do you think Coldplay’s tabloid profile helped or hurt the band?

“When it first started happening, I was worried that everyone would turn on us,” Martin says, “because it is cheesy to be in a relationship that people know about. But it didn’t ruin A Rush of Blood to the Head. At the end of the day, you don’t buy a record because the person who made it goes out with Jack Nicholson.”

No, you buy an album because it has great songs. And Martin is keeping that in mind as he aspires to make Coldplay the biggest band in the world. “It’s very seldom now that I want to write a tiny, little song,” he says. “I want it to have loudness and lots of melody and be a big sing-along. My dream is to write an album of sing-alongs. I want some 50-year-old guy in his Audi to be singing on his way to work, looking like a total nerd, but feeling really happy.”