When Chris Martin emerges from a town car on a quiet West Village street one afternoon in May, he's dressed like a stagehand – black khakis, black hooded top. You'd never notice him, which is probably the idea. But then he starts singing Talking Heads' "Girlfriend Is Better" loud enough to be heard from across the street. The guy can't help it: He's a ham. The paparazzi siege that came with marrying Gwyneth Paltrow and having two angelic blond children with her has forced a certain public guardedness on him, but it seems he can't keep it up. As Martin sits down for what he calls "an epic interview" – seven hours over three sessions – his band is about to release its fourth studio album, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. "It feels terrifying," he says. Martin, 31, worships Woody Allen as much as he does Michael Stipe, and he has the quick wit of the picked-on kid he once was, equal parts self-deprecation and self-protection. Martin's image as a yoga-practicing, pescetarian ascetic is not inaccurate, but he does have a couple of drinks (a Guinness, a whiskey) over the course of two days, and is almost offended when I hesitate to order a hamburger in his presence. "I'm not a fascist about it," he says. "I'm not going to report you to Chrissie Hynde!"
In contrast to the soothing, warm-blanket vibe of Coldplay's music, Martin is almost unnervingly intense: He has an endearing, Hugh Grant-like stammer, but when he feels strongly about what he's saying, which is often, his eyes give off little sparks, like he's a mad scientist detailing plans for world domination. That drive, along with his band's facility for sincere, uplifting rock in the U2 mold – simultaneously melodic and gigantic – has fueled Coldplay's rise from a college band to one of the biggest rock acts of the decade. But despite it all, Martin can't stop feeling like an underdog. "You've got to be hungry," he says. "If your wife went out with Brad Pitt, you'd want to prove yourself, you know what I mean?"
What was the mood of the band going into your new record?
On our last album, we took a real beating from some people, and by the end we felt like no producer would really want to work with us, basically. We were bigger than we were good – we were very hungry to improve on a basic level. So I asked Brian Eno, "Do you know any producers who could help us to get better as a band?" And he said, "Well, I don't mean to blow my own trumpet, but I might be the man."
What was his assessment of the hand?
He goes, "Your songs are too long. And you're too repetitive, andyouuse the same tricks too much, and big things aren't necessarily good things, and you use the same sounds too much, and your lyrics are not good enough." He broke it down.
How did you respond?
You deal with it. You can either sit 'round, look at your platinum discs and say, "Fuck you, you're all wrong," or you can go, "OK, he's probably got a point." Brian and Markus [Dravs, the co-producer] broke us down in a sort of military boot-camp way. Within 20 minutes, we'd forgotten about any previous record sales.
X&Y got some mixed reviews, but the harshest was from the New York Times, which called Coldplay the most insufferable band of the decade. How did you handle that?
It was a big deal. It's the first real attack on your band, and from a publication we all respect. I agreed with a lot of the points. It was like, "Yeah, I do sometimes go for the obvious, and I do sometimes fall back on old tricks."So, in a way, it was liberating to see that someone else realized that also. And there is something glamorous to me in taking a bit of a beating and keeping on going. When you do something that some people don't like quite so much, then you are free again. Your whole canvas is open. You don't have to fall back on piano, we don't have to fall back on falsetto, you don't have to fall back on every song being a yearning love song.
There's a freedom in the new songs – it's not verse-chorus, verse-chorus anymore.
Well, I'm still a big believer in the chorus. But there was one day where Brian Eno came in and said, "I think prog-rock is vastly underestimated and will one day be fashionable again. And I think you should consider not necessarily doing the same song structures that you have done before." And anytime that he says he finds something exciting, you just kind of do it.
On the first single, "Violet Hill," you sing about a fox becoming a god and a "carnival of idiots on show." Was the song inspired by Fox News?
No one's got that before, no one in the band, no one. The first line in that song is the first line of any song we ever wrote. Years ago, when Guy [Berryman, bassist] heard that first line and that first little melody – "It was a long and dark December" – he said, "OK, I'll join the band." But we just didn't have the other 49 lines until last year. And then one day I was watching Bill O'Reilly, and I was like, "I know how to finish that song."
My best friend, Tim, he's a musician in a band called the High Wire, but he also has to work in a bar. He was having trouble with his boss, and it made me think that so many people spend their lives being told what to do by people that they just don't like. So it was that idea, and watching Bill O'Reilly, and all these words just came out.
On "Death and All His Friends," there's this great topical line: "I don't want a cycle of recycled revenge."
That's Brian Eno's line. I had this blank spot in the lyrics: "I don't want to battle from beginning to end. Something, something, something. I don't want to follow death and all of his friends." So we were all having a sandwich, and it's like. "I don't want to watch too many episodes of Friends? No, that won't do. I don't want to listen to Radiohead's The Bends? No. I don't want to eat any Jerry and Ben's? No." And then Brian came out with the line, and he was like, "I quite like that. You should use that."
It does speak to the state of the world.
And it's fucking true, man. You can see it everywhere. It's like, when are we going to learn? We're never going to learn, is the answer. It's an ultimate bummer, and the last humans on Earth will really kick themselves. You and I are living in the time when revenge is the most dangerous thing, because the stakes are so high and the weaponry is so advanced.
Do you see any reason for hope?
As soon as Barack Obama becomes president, people will be a bit more optimistic. If Obama was to be president, it would immediately change the whole outside world's opinion of America overnight. America's public image at the moment is really bad. And it's a bummer, because over half of Americans are the coolest people on the planet. But they've been so misrepresented.
Do you think he can win?
I do. But I think that, really, the fair thing would be, in electing the American president, to let everyone in the world vote, because it affects all of us. If there was a world vote, there's no question who would win. No question. Of course, Barack Obama is human like the rest of us. He's going to fuck up. But I'm just trying to look on the bright side. What's the point of being negative? Where does that get us? It gets you your own radio chat show, but it doesn't really do anything for the world.
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