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.”