Coldplay's Quiet Storm

Led by a man who's been proclaimed the world's sexiest vegetarian, Coldplay have become the biggest rock band of the year, if not the coolest.

By
Cold Play
Jonny Buckland, Chris Martin, Guy Berryman and Will Champion of Coldplay pose at a studio session to promote the band's new album 'X&Y' at the W Hotel in New York City, on May 17th, 2005. Dave Hogan/Getty

The morning after four bombs detonate in London, Chris Martin climbs aboard a Number Twenty-nine red double-decker bus and up its winding stairs. As we slowly putter south down Camden Road, Martin whips back the top of his hooded sweat shirt, smiles and says, "I haven't done this in so long." He's not talking about riding public transportation but rather about a visit to his old neighborhood, where he and Coldplay first started writing, rehearsing and performing the songs that would shape the group's rise to the top of the charts. Soon we are riding by the former Laurel Tree club, the site of Coldplay's very first gig – a sold-out affair under the awful name Starfish – and where they scored their first paycheck, for 80 pounds (about $130), and split it four ways. Further on, past the Lord Stanley pub, home to early band meetings and more than a few drunken nights, we hop off the bus and stroll up to a dingy three-story house at 268 Camden Road. Martin looks up to the second-story flat, once the headquarters of a Clash fan club. But in 1999. It was the apartment he shared with future Coldplay guitarist Jonny Buckland and two of their mates. "That's where we had our very first rehearsal," he says pointing to Buckland's room. "We had drules and everything and as long as we quit playing before midnight, no one complained. In no other house in London could you get away with that," For a moment be stands quietly as his brain floods with memories. "It's a dump, right" he says, breaking the silence. "But we used to love it. I still love it with a passion. That's where we wrote the songs that got us signed. Right in there."

Christopher Anthony John Martin was born 190 miles southwest of London. As a child growing up in the sheltered, white, Church of England fearing town of Exeter, "I just didn't know anything about the outside world," he says. His mother was a teacher and his father an accountant, and one of Martin's earliest memories is of his parents returning from holiday in Venice and presenting him with a child-size guitar. But soon it was gathering dust and Martin had developed an attraction to the family piano. His musical world was flipped upside down at age eleven, when a new music teacher, Steven Tanner, arrived at his school with keyboards. "Before that, our music teacher was very classically based," says Martin. "But Steven told us that music was for everybody, and just because you didn't have classical training doesn't mean you can't play. Which was incredible. No one ever told us that was possible." He quickly wrote his first instrumental piece, loosely based on the Beverly Hills Cop theme song, "Axel F," but he wasn't yet thinking of music as his calling. "When you're born into a middle-class white family in the county of Devon, there are things that you feel like you're not allowed to do," he says. "Like be a pop star or grow your hair long." But Martin was soon inching toward London on to a stuffy British prep school called Sherborne. "My eye-opening years were between thirteen and seventeen," he says. "I was so cushioned until that. But at [Sherborne], it was the first time I'd ever experienced somebody disliking me." He pauses. "Well, I used to walk funny, and, to be quite honest, I was a bit of a knobhead – I wouldn't have liked me either." (This is Martin's way – any self-revelation is instantly defused by a wisecrack. He spits out jokes all day, and he frequently worries that personal details are either "cheesy" or "irrelevant.") Martin spent a lot of late nights at prep school in rehearsal rooms, bashing away at the piano.

Martin's spirituality also took a sharp turn. He was raised believing in a Christian God – not the same God, he's quick to point out, as "those crazy American fundamentalists" like George W. Bush – and at an early age he felt the collective power of singing in church. "Everybody singing together is the best feeling in the world," he says. At Sherborne, meeting kids of different colors and creeds, Martin found his beliefs had morphed into something more ecumenical. "I went through a weird patch, starting when I was about sixteen to twenty-two, of getting God and religion and superstition and judgment all confused," he says. "I think a lot of our music comes out of that. I definitely believe in God. How can you look at anything and not be over-whelmed by the miraculousness of it? Everything from that carpet to your nose to my balls is amazing. In fact, my balls are a particular miracle." (To set the record straight, there is no connection between my nose and Martin's testicles.) Martin could no longer wrap his head around the idea of hell, particularly when it was linked to sexual morality – though that was hardly the only reason he wasn't getting laid. "To be perfectly honest," he says, "I didn't know what I was doing. I wish somebody would have come to me when I was fourteen and explained how to give an orgasm. And it's very strange being the world's sexiest vegetarian" – as he was recently voted in an online poll by PETA, although it should be noted he does eat fish – "because eight years ago, if I'd invite someone over to my place for a tofu burger, they wouldn't be interested."

As we walk from his old flat back to the bus stop, Martin's mind turns to the London bombing. "Right now, forty families are grieving," he says. "It's fucked. I wish people would look further into the reason somebody would want to bomb London or New York rather than just how to catch them." The morning of the attacks, Martin was with family in France before playing a gig in the Netherlands that night. After the gig, when Coldplay's private jet landed in London, Martin briefly returned to his home in Belsize Park, only to go out to buy gas for his scooter. "What it must have looked like to see a guy in a hooded top walking along at two in the morning with a gas tank in his hand," he says. "Like if you're walking through the woods on your own at night and you're terrified. Then you think, 'God, if someone walks by and sees me, they're going to be terrified of me.' It's an X and Y thing – how you can be two things at once."

X&Y is the name of Coldplay's third album. The title conjures chromosomes and mathematical unknowns. "We're always looking for answers to our questions," says Buckland. "X and Y represents the answers that we can't find." Bassist Guy Berryman adds, "There's a running theme through the album, a sense of duality – the idea that you can't have light without dark, or yin without yang." As it relates to Coldplay, it goes deeper than that. It's what's in their control vs. what's out of their control. It's their over-whelming commercial success – their first two albums, 2000's Parachutes and 2002's A Rush of Blood to the Head, have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, and each won a Grammy for Best Alternative album – vs. the New York Times labeling them the "most insufferable band of the decade." For Chris Martin, it's being regarded as a serious songwriter vs. being referred to in tabloids as Gwyneth Paltrow's husband. According to drummer Will Champion, X&Y refers to Martin as well. "He's stunning and creative and incredible to be around," says Champion. "But the flip side of that is he can sink low and moody. There's not a lot of gray area in between the two."

In October 2003, after sixteen months on the road supporting Rush of Blood, Coldplay hurried back into the studio with a handful of quality songs. Bad idea. "We'd just done too much touring and we needed to see our families, our friends – just be normal," says Champion. "It's not like we hated each other – we just weren't talking much, and things started to fall apart a bit." Eight months into the process, they held a band-only meeting and decided to refocus on and rediscover the initial chemistry they felt playing as a foursome in a sweaty rehearsal room. "In some respects it was quite a quick record to make," says Berryman about the year-and-a-half-long process. "It just took us a long time to figure out how to do it."

Many of the songs on X&Y were inspired by the band's heroes. When I spoke with Martin earlier this summer, I was a little surprised when he told me that he considered Coldplay "incredibly good plagiarists." But that's not the whole story. As he did in childhood with his update on "Axel F," Martin has an incredible ability to ingest someone else's song, twirl it around in his brain and spit out a unique homage. (Strangely enough, Coldplay's first single from X&Y, "Speed of Sound," was topped on the British pop chart by a novelty song from Crazy Frog – a cover of "Axel F.")

"I remember an amazing article about Radiohead when I was first getting into them," says Martin. "Jonny Greenwood said that every song on OK Computer was an attempt to do someone else's song. And that's how it happens sometimes for us." In that tradition, "Talk" wouldn't have been possible without Kraftwerk, and "The Hardest Part" is an ode to R.E.M. (Martin is careful to pay tribute to Michael Stipe: "I've lost all respect for fame, but I haven't lost all respect for respect. So the one great thing about being famous is that I get to meet people who I respect. Our relationship is akin to a dog and its master. I'll always look up to him.")

A highlight of Coldplay's show is "White Shadows," which was inspired by Tears for Fears' "Mad World." The title "White Shadows" was lifted from a Seventies TV series produced by Martin's late father-in-law, Bruce Paltrow. Even though Martin never met the man, X&Y is dedicated to him – the CD sleeve reads, "For BWP." "It's meant to be subtle," says Martin. "It just has a way of making sense of death."

What you won't find in X&Y's album sleeve are any of Martin's lyrics, a bit odd for someone whose visions of abandonment, apprehension, fragility and love have resonated with so many fans. "Because I'm not a great lyricist," says Martin with a laugh. "When you hear someone like Ian McCulloch or Bob Dylan... those are lyrics that should be printed. Mine are just a bunch of feelings." He writes constantly, though, to hone his craft. "That's my only way of making sense of the world," he says. Still, he says he's better at writing silly rhymes in birthday cards to his friends.

X&Y debuted at Number One in more than twenty countries. "When the numbers started rolling in, it was brilliant," says Champion. In the U.S., where it's the year's fastest-selling rock record, it notched more than 737,000 sales its first week, and in England it posted the second-highest sales figure in U.K. history, behind Oasis' Be Here Now. The success of X&Y has wiped the bad taste of negative reviews out of Martin's mouth. He has come to a realization – after admittedly being bummed out for a couple of weeks – that the polarity of opinion about Coldplay is totally healthy. "I find that exciting," he says. "Some people are into bondage, and some people are into cross-dressing, and some people are into Coldplay – I don't mind being a fetish. I don't mind not being cool. I've never been cool in my whole life. Being voted the world's sexiest vegetarian is about as cool as it gets."

Martin pauses, munching on a sourcream-and-onion Pringle. Then, under his breath, he invokes his wife's former fiancé. "It's not quite as cool as Brad Pitt, but I'll do," he says, breaking into his goofy grin. "Those have been the two biggest challenges of my life: trying to follow Radio-head, and trying to follow Brad Pitt."

Martin met Paltrow at a London Coldplay gig in October 2002, about two weeks after the death of her father, and the two were married in December 2003. "She's pretty fantastic," he says. "After four months of being with Gwyneth, I realized that everyone is human. We really build people up as if they're from Mars. I mean, Hollywood seems about as accessible as Mars, to most people. When I started meeting celebrities, in some ways it's depressing, because you can't believe in the mythology of people anymore. At the same time, it's very liberating, like, 'Hey, there's no reason why I can't make Sgt. Pepper.' "

Apple Blythe Alison Martin came soon after, to the music of Sigur Rós, in May 2004. "I love hanging out with my daughter, and I'm as proud as any father I know," says Martin. "We have an ambition to make her the biggest child star in the world – the next Macaulay Culkin!" He's kidding, of course, but Apple is walking and talking. Does she have a British accent? "That's a touchy question – I'm not really sure," her dad says. "Sometimes it sounds kinda French – maybe there's something I don't know." Given his utter hatred of paparazzi photos, I ask Martin if he didn't mind seeing his child's image – she looked adorable in her pink sneakers and headphones to match – being splayed across the TV during Live 8's global feed on July 2nd. "It would have pissed me off on any other occasion, but it was Live 8," he says. "And I was excited that my daughter's first concert experience" – outside of the Coldplay gigs she's witnessed – "was seeing U2 and Paul McCartney at the same time."

Live 8's global poverty-relief agenda is close to Martin's heart. His mother is from Zimbabwe, and he visited Africa as a child. And Coldplay have championed the cause of Make Trade Fair – loosening foreign trade barriers so that Third World countries have a level playing field in the global market – for more than four years, since meeting with the British relief organization Oxfam. The band has gotten more than 3 million fans to sign petitions for the cause, and many are getting further involved. "Some people confuse charity with stuff that's actually beneficial for everybody," says Martin. "We've been to places where it's really shitty. Come to Haiti with us next week and you'll see squalor. You'd say that this problem is going to come back to haunt us in a big way." I Catch up with Coldplay again two weeks later, during a trek to Japan. The four-day trip immediately precedes their amphitheater tour of the U.S. and Canada, which kicked off on August 2nd in Toronto and continues through September. In Tokyo, after a four-song acoustic performance at the local HQ of EMI, their record label, Coldplay are whisked off to a conference center for a live online chat with Yahoo! Japan, answering questions from fans. (FYI: When asked what animals' characteristics they reflect, Chris is a Tasmanian devil, Will a crocodile, Jonny an owl and Guy a little monkey.) The following night, they will travel by bullet train north to the Fuji Rock Festival, where Coldplay and the Foo Fighters will close the fest's opening night. It's my first real chance to hang hard with Martin's bandmates. The members of Coldplay met during their first week at University College in London, in September 1996, when they were thrown together into Ramsey Hall with about 450 other freshman boarders. "It soon became apparent that there were a lot of musicians, a lot of show-offs and a lot of people playing 'Redemption Song' on their acoustic guitars," says Champion. But Buckland, soft-spoken to this day, hid his acoustic behind his door. ("I didn't want to end up in some shit band," he says.) "When the door closed, you'd hear these amazing sounds coming from inside," says Champion. Martin sought him out. "When I first met Chris," says Buckland, "he had mad hair – like Robert Plant in 1972." By the start of 1997, the two were writing songs together. "There would be no Coldplay music without Jonny," says Martin. "They'd be Chris Martin songs, which would be a travesty."

After their frosh year, policy dictated that they move out of the hall, and on January 6th, 1998, the band was solidified after its first rehearsal at 268 Camden Road. "We weren't going to stop until we became successful." The first band name, Starfish, came out of desperation, when they'd booked a show at the Laurel Tree. "We had to print up fliers," says Champion. "The first gig, it cost three pounds with a flier and five without, and everyone at school showed up." With a line out the door, Starfish played all six songs they knew. When the audience clamored for more, they played one of their songs a second time.

Champion, 27, worships his Southampton football team, lives in a modest house with his wife of two years and shatters about a dozen drumsticks during each gig. But he was not supposed to be in Coldplay. "I really didn't play drums," he says. "My flatmate had a kit and was supposed to record a couple of tracks with them. After one song, he had to go." Before the recording of Parachutes, Champion was unexpectedly fired from the band for lack of technical proficiency, unequivocally the low point in the band's history. Martin came back to Champion a week later, apologizing. "We slept with a few other drummers," says Martin. "But we learned that you can't fuck with the chemistry of our band."

At the HFSival in Washington, D.C., in 2001, Champion finally felt vindicated – oddly enough, after Coldplay were roundly rejected by an audience thirsty for metal: "We got bottled," Martin remembers. "We got shit chucked at us. But after our set, Dave Grohl went up to Will and told him that he was a great drummer. And that changed Will's life." As we sit in the Oak Door whiskey bar at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo – the ridiculously extravagant sister hotel to the Park Hyatt, the Lost in Translation hotel – Champion sips a pint of beer, and Grohl, whose Foo Fighters would play after Coldplay at the fest, is across the bar. Soon he's at our table, sipping a triple shot of Jack Daniel's and talking drums with Champion. Grohl, whose recent Foo Fighters record, In Your Honor, was kept out of the Number One slot by X&Y, is effusive in his praise for Coldplay. "We were like, 'Oh, great, we're headlining Fujifest,'" Grohl says to Champion. "'So who plays before us? The biggest band in the world? Grrrrreat!' "

Berryman is Coldplay's toughest nut to crack. "We have very similar brains," says Martin. "But they come out in different personalities." During the countless hours of downtime that the bandmates spend together between commitments – which the group usually kills by joking around with members of its dedicated (and hilarious) crew – Berryman usually watches from the sidelines, laying low. That's not to say he's not involved. He's constantly making refinements to Coldplay's live show and is their technological guru in the studio. Berryman also enjoys spending his dough. He's obsessed with electrical gadgets, he's the band's fashion icon, he drives a Land Rover Discovery 3 ("One of the new ones," he says proudly) and he's building a "tasteful" new house in London. While on tour in America he'll stock up on 45s for his jukebox. "I basically know every secondhand vinyl shop in every major U.S. city," he says.

Buckland, Martin's closest confidante in the band, was born on September 11th, 1977, and wasn't quite lucky enough to grow up in the Welsh town of Mold. "Yeah, not even in Mold," he says, laughing. "We lived in a village outside Mold." He's mild-mannered and laughs at everyone's jokes – it's no wonder that Martin routinely professes his love for Buckland onstage. "That was a little weird at first," says Buckland, "but I know what he means." His prized possession at the moment seems to be his black-and-white mesh hat, but sometimes, he says, "I'll have mad days where I spend loads of money on computers and studio shit I'll never use."

The last time the boys were in Tokyo, they were locked up like lab rats, spitting out sound bites behind closed doors for eight hours a day. Not this time. With barely four days in town, Coldplay are not content to loaf in their plush suites at the Hyatt. They climb the massive Tokyo Towe, Martin and Champion explore the Harajuku district, and the mates ride a minute-long earthquake (their first) with utter enthusiasm. I also have a chance to hoist a few with each member. Martin, who's better known for his love of chocolate over spirits, has no problem mixing plum wine, champagne and beer while devouring crab legs at a shabushabu restaurant. Buckland and Berryman, though, prove to be the heavy-weights at the bar. After hours of drinking at the Lexington Queen – a Tokyo venue legendary among Western performers – we climb out to greet the sunrise, then sing karaoke with some locals. Buckland left the karaoke bar at around 5 A.M. after a dismal rendition of "Blue Velvet" ("It was a little high for me," he demurs) and Berryman – whose Scottish brogue thickens with alcohol – left with me at eight. When Coldplay Arrive at the foot of Mount Fuji a few hours before showtime, they kick into their preshow routine. Here's a synopsis: They change into their stage gear – all black clothes, with white sneakers. (The nearly identical outfits are a homage to Kraftwerk.) While changing, Martin strips naked; tonight he wraps a Foo Fighters promo scarf around his waist, runs up to Grohl and complains about the size of their towels. They then absentmindedly sing along to a tape of voice exercises they recorded with their vocal coach. Each group member grabs a disposable camera – which they'll later throw into the audience – and reels off candid shots of bandmates. (This ritual is one of Berryman's ideas.) Martin issues his nightly complaint about going bald. Vicky Taylor, a charming assistant, wraps the middle and index fingers of Martin's left hand with four colored pieces of tape and draws an equal sign – the logo for Make Trade Fair – on the back of his hand with a black Sharpie. They sign a pile of autographs (they all can forge one another's signatures). They harmonize on "Fix You." Berryman and Buckland smoke a couple of Marlboro Lights. When the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" plays on the PA, it's show time. When they arrive at the side of the stage, the four often clasp thumbs and jump around in circles.

Through all the X's and Y's, Coldplay seem to have found their equilibrium. As they did with X&Y, they thrive on the pressure. Then they deliver. "I love to be challenged," says Martin. "I find that exciting – the idea that there's loads of people depending on me to write a song. I'll be honest: The couple of bad reviews for X&Y were really hard for a bit, but after that, I was like, 'Why? We're just writing some songs here. We've not invented some Nazi doctrine.'" So for the next eighteen months – guided by private planes and police escorts – they'll be on the road, sweeping through America three times. And despite Grohl's kind words, they're not the biggest band in the world. Not yet, at least.

"I think we're climbing into the top ten," says Martin. "The next record will hopefully validate us a bit more. We've taken the piano ballad and the falsetto as far as it can go, and that's very freeing for us. Now we can try some different things." Coldplay have the talent, and they have the ambition. "That's what we have to remember: We're only on our third record," says Martin. "Pokémon was huge for a while, but that hasn't really lasted. At this point, I feel like we're the new wazzzzup!

x