Chris Martin’s Quiet Riot
Coldplay's new album is a fantasia about star-crossed revolutionaries taking on the man. But for a lot of music fans, Chris Martin is the man. He knows. He's trying to figure it all out.
On the morning of Saturday, October 15, Chris Martin went for a jog.
He left the West Village apartment where he lives part-time (between his native London) with his wife of nearly eight years, Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and their two children, Apple, 7, and Moses, 5, and headed downtown. He ran past Wall Street, then up Broadway to Zuccotti Park, the epicenter of the Occupy Wall Street movement. There, as rallies against corporate greed raged in more than 900 cities, from Auckland to São Paulo to Berlin, he watched as thousands of protesters marched past police in riot gear toward Times Square. Some played drums or waved flags or signs reading, “We are the 99 percent.” When police intervened to make arrests, they chanted, “The whole world is watching.”
“I thought, ‘If I’m seen, am I considered one of the bad guys?'” Martin, 34, says six days later, lounging on a squishy white couch in a ritzy suite at the Trump Soho Hotel, 30 floors above and some 20 blocks from Zuccotti Park. “I see the logic in the movement. But it should be more focused with a pinpoint message. There are a few different agendas. I pay fucking shit loads of tax and I’m happy to, especially in Britain because we have healthcare and schools.”
Martin didn’t linger for long. “I was worried about being recognized because I was in running shorts,” he says, smiling, “and I didn’t look that good.” But despite their differences, political or otherwise, the leader of one of the world’s biggest — and one of its most profitable — bands believes he has quite a lot in common with the protesters and their ethos. Coldplay’s fifth album, Mylo Xyloto, which is projected to top the Billboard charts next week, is a concept album based on two rebellious young lovers, Mylo and Xyloto, fighting for freedom in an authoritarian dystopia. Sound familiar? It could be the idealized story arc of more than a few residents of Zuccotti.
“This album is about standing up for what you believe in,” Martin says. “It’s about trying to make the best out of any bad situation that life throws your way.”
It’s also indicative of Martin’s catch-22: He’s one of the world’s biggest, richest rock stars, married to one of the world’s biggest, richest movie stars. By definition he’s a member of the one percent. But he identifies with the other 99.****
In 2008 Coldplay appeared to be riding high. Their fourth album, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, debuted at No. 1 in 36 countries and scored Coldplay their first No. 1 single in the U.S. with the title track. So Martin watched from protected ground when, in June ’08, as Viva was unleashed, the global recession took hold. By October, during the band’s supporting U.S. tour, the financial crisis was at its worst. “The recession had something to do with it,” Martin explains of the inspiration behind Mylo Xyloto. “And the feeling of being mad at the people who did sub-prime mortgages and got everyone in such a heap of trouble.”
Coldplay soon experienced their own setbacks with a barrage of court cases: Five different musicians, from a little-known U.S. band called Creaky Boards to guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani, all sued Coldplay for plagiarism, claiming that Martin copied sections of their songs for “Viva La Vida.” Martin’s tone sharpens and his playful, friendly mood disappears. “We were sued by all five people at once for the same two bars of music, all wrongly,” Martin explains of the cases, which were all eventually settled out of court. “It gave us a bit of anger.”
There was more bad news for Martin and Coldplay guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman, and drummer Will Champion: Brian Eno, the studio guru to U2, David Bowie, and Talking Heads, among many others, who produced and essentially joined Coldplay for Viva, sent the band a letter just as their album became a global sensation. It said he thought Viva was decent, but that Coldplay could do much better: “Get back to the studio soon.”
“That letter came right when we got sued,” says Martin. “So the combination of those two things was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got to write some better songs.’ The band had already stockpiled 50 or more tracks they hoped to use on Viva’s follow-up, but Martin scrapped them and insisted on penning new material. “We always have two albums worth of songs, but sometimes they’re even worse than the ones we release [laughs], so we don’t let them out.” He adds, “There were so many bad things going on then. But there was still such beauty around. I wanted to fit that all onto one album.”****
Martin found inspiration in 1970s graffiti in New York City and the Nazi-resistance movement known as the White Rose, which both shaped Mylo Xyloto. As he stares out the window at the cloudy Manhattan skyline and the Hudson River, he suddenly bursts to life. Martin turns and stares with his cornflower-blue eyes and inches closer. “I came up with the name Mylo Xyloto for the band when I was looking at other people’s tag names,” he says. “A lot of other names are like ‘Fube’ or ‘Ghost’ or ‘Zarba’ or ‘Tacky183′ — they don’t mean anything. They’re just tag names. It’s a beautiful, powerful thing when [graffiti is] done in a place that’s not beautiful, like the Berlin Wall or the Palestinian Wall.” He pauses, placing his hand on his chin. “It’s interesting. Even this morning on the news, when I saw pictures of Gaddafi, people were already writing on the walls around Libya just to be heard.”
Both the graffiti and White Rose movements were all about young people embracing art in troubling times. “The things happening in the world, even in the band, made you feel like your true feelings or voice weren’t being heard,” says Martin. “I responded twofold to the graffiti: It’s about having your voice heard regardless of what anyone says. And that’s what the White Rose movement was about too. It’s also about turning gray, drab, ugly surfaces into pieces of art.”
He adds, “It’s about transforming the darker stuff in life into something more colorful.”
With Mylo Xyloto, Coldplay responded to the bleak with a sonic Crayola set. It’s by far their most colorful album to date, pushing their shoot-for-stars arena anthems into lush, vibrant electronic territory. It’s also their first concept album and, surprisingly, the storyline flows instead of rambles, a feat considering that Coldplay have banked on the vague and archetypal for their decade-plus career.
Mylo follows its titular protagonists as they “struggle with the feeling that my life isn’t mine” (“Hurts Like Heaven”), dream of escaping to a better world (“Paradise”), revolt and riot in the city (“Charlie Brown”), fear they’re being watched by the authorities (“Major Minus”), and sing a rebel’s call to revolution (“Every Tear Drop is a Waterfall”). The third-person narrative is a product of listening to storytellers like Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, and Bruce Springsteen, says Martin. “You can sometimes get your own feelings across more strongly if you pretend that you’re singing it from someone else’s angle. But it’s always from me. It’s just a new way of framing it. That’s definitely from listening to so much Springsteen.”
Musically, an eclectic collection of artists including Mozart, Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, PJ Harvey, Michael Jackson, and “a lot of old gospel and Motown stuff that Brian made us listen to,” inspired Coldplay to craft an album that’s simultaneously their most poppy and experimental (yes, Rihanna, swelling choruses, and layers of trippy synths and ambient washes all on one song, “Princess of China”). To record Mylo, Coldplay returned to the former bakery-turned-studio that functions as the band’s HQ in Primrose Hill, North London, in 2009 with their usual team of Markus Dravs (who produced one of Coldplay’s favorite new albums and inspirations, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs), Daniel Green, Rik Simpson, and Eno, who is credited with “enoxification and additional composition.” Martin had plenty motivation in the studio: “I’m competitive with anyone who writes a good song — I don’t care if it’s a band or solo artist or whoever. If ‘Someone Like You’ comes up by Adele, part of my brain loves it and another part is like, ‘Shit. I’ve got to come up with something better than that.’ Even with Rihanna’s new song ‘We Found Love,’ I thought, ‘Well, why the fuck didn’t I think of that?’ It really drives you” (Coldplay even covered the Rihanna single recently). But for Viva’s follow-up, Eno had an entirely new approach to writing and recording: ban Martin from the studio.
Eno wanted Martin gone so he could encourage Buckland, Berryman, and Champion to play without the direction or cues of their frontman. He pushed them to master their instruments and respond to each other’s chemistry. “Eno pushed us to not just rely on the song,” says Martin. “We wanted to make the songs as colorful and as interesting as we’re capable of, while not just settling on old tricks. Johnny pushed us very hard, and Markus pushed us even harder. Markus spent two weeks with Jonny just making new guitar sounds and electronic noises.”
Jay-Z, one of Martin’s close friends, was also a major influence on Mylo. He taught Martin an important lesson about moving forward, past your enemies, something Martin has struggled with since Coldplay’s beginnings at University College London. After signing a five-album deal with Parlophone in 1999 on the strength of a handful of EPs, Coldplay released their proper debut full-length, Parachutes, in 2000. Its first single, the painfully-romantic ballad “Yellow,” charted in the Top 5 in the U.K. and peaked in the Top 50 stateside. It also signaled the beginning of Coldplay’s touchy relationship with the music-listening public. Lyrics like, “Look at the stars / Look how they shine for you,” invite a certain degree of backlash. For every hardcore fan, there was seemingly someone to decry the band’s disingenuousness as a Radiohead-lite soft-rock act born in a record exec’s high-rise office.
“Some people misconstrue our band to be just a commercial venture,” says Martin. “They question the soulfulness of Coldplay because we’ve done okay. Maybe it’s because I’m English, but in terms of how people perceive us I only pick up on the negative side of it. I always feel like the big bad outside world just fucking hates us.”
Jay-Z, who has certainly had his share of critics and rap beefs, told Martin to “just follow your passion and fuck everything and everyone else,” the frontman recalls. “And [Jay] embodies that to a T. He’s done it more successfully than anyone. He’s just following his path, and you either get on or you get off. His influence is as much philosophical as it is musical.”
Martin’s wife and her celebrity didn’t help that process, though. “It’s extra hard because I’m married to Gwyneth. I find it very hard to work out where Coldplay stand. There’s this other side of fame that we try to avoid, but you can’t always avoid it. So I never know why someone might be interested in me. Is it about the music? Or is it about this or that?”
“But, you know, in a way that’s a good thing,” Martin reconsiders, shifting on the couch. “Because it never makes me feel like a rock star. I’m not even the biggest star in our family [laughs]. It keeps your feet on the ground.”
Despite the quartet’s massive success — seven Grammys, more than 50 million albums sold, and Mylo projected to be the biggest-selling rock album since U2’s 2009 LP No Line On the Horizon — Martin refuses to accept that Coldplay are the biggest functioning band in the world. “You can’t be called the biggest band in the world when the Rolling Stones and U2 are still in it, and anyone can go buy a Beatles or Clash album. Just because some bands aren’t around doesn’t mean they’re not big.”
He chuckles and says, “I mean, we’re definitely the biggest soft-rock band from north London in the last 10 years.”
The competition at the top of the music food chain is slim. “There are definitely less bands around who are given two or three albums to get great, except maybe Kings of Leon,” he says of Coldplay’s main competition. “We were very lucky in that we managed to have a freak hit single with ‘Yellow,’ which got us to our second record. It’s more egalitarian on the Internet — anyone can put anything up. But in terms of the money it takes to allow a band to get good, there’s less of it to invest. Music is split up now into little pockets.” He turns to me, smiles, and asks, “So what do you think?”
But the bigger Coldplay get, the more of a challenge it is to maintain the intimate, one-of-us connection with the fans Martin seems to covet. “Everything has to be emotionally true,” says Martin. “Our music isn’t the most beautifully poetic or best-constructed music in the world. But it is honest and it tries to make sense of life.” I ask about their art-directed look, which, for Mylo, includes rainbow-colored graffiti and matching outfits. Is that honest? Wouldn’t performing in jeans and a T-shirt be more emotionally true and real?
“It’s fun to get dressed for work,” he explains. “It’s something that lets you get rid of your middle-class English-ness and become a musician. A policeman out of uniform is very different from a policeman in uniform. This is my job, and I’m very proud and happy to have it.” He reclines on the couch and opens his arms, motioning at his hoodie sweatshirt and tattered jeans. “I would never go on stage dressed like this. Now I’m dressed as the guy trying to hide. I’ve got the hoodie ready to go, which is great to just blend into the background. But… if we’re playing a song I want to feel the exact opposite of that. Yeah…”
He leans forward and looks me in the eye. “You’ve kind of got me,” he admits. “But I think people would leave if I came on stage dressed like I am every day. It’s just making zero effort. People have paid for parking and they’d be like, ‘You look like a mess! Go change, then give us a concert!’ “****
How many more concerts Coldplay will perform in their lifetime remains a big unknown. “We haven’t considered the future yet,” says Martin, who has bluntly questioned the band’s lifespan in the press before. “The Police did five albums and then quit. The Clash, six. But they’d all peaked. It’s something we’ve got to work out: Can we get better? Or are we too old?”
But for now, Martin seems content and at ease, despite any conflicted feelings about whether he’s an occupier or the occupied. He jokes about my messy, wind-blown hair and fiddles with his dog-eared autobiography of Andre Agassi (“I looked not dissimilar to Andre in 1986,” he cracks, pointing at photo of the gloriously mulletted former tennis pro). As he walks me to the elevator, Martin asks me if I write music (I do). “So, what’s the name of the last song you wrote?”
“Blue Cornflakes,” I say.
“Really. I like it. Can I use that?”
I pause. “Sure. And I promise I won’t sue you, either.”
“Well, how about Red Rice Crispies, then?”
He looks over to his publicist, who has his back: “He made it up last night, I swear. I have it recorded in my phone.”
“She does,” he says, a big smirk on his face. “It’s genius, right?”