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.”