The New York Times
Coldplay in its new London studio: from left to right are Jonny Buckland, Will Champion, Chris Martin and Guy Berryman
NYT / BRIJESH PATEL
NEW YORK — With its frescoed walls and waiters in white jackets, the Cafe Carlyle is like a Hollywood version of old-school New York sophistication.
It’s not usually a place to go looking for rock stars, but on Monday nights Woody Allen is often there, playing the clarinet with his New Orleans jazz band, and Chris Martin, the singer of the British rock band Coldplay, catches his sets when he can.
At a small table just inside the door, between bites of salmon and sips of a Bellini, Martin recalled why he was initially drawn to Allen’s films. “Everyone else was either too optimistic or too pessimistic,” he said. “He seemed to have it just right.”
It makes perfect sense that Chris Martin, 31, is a Woody Allen fan. He is possibly the most self-deprecating lead singer in pop history, saying things like, “I don’t listen to our records because it makes me break out in tears and sweat,” and, “We have a rule that only the four of us can ever be onstage because we don’t want to be upstaged by someone more attractive.” (“He’s always been like that, really,” said Guy Berryman, the band’s bassist.)
On June 17, however, Coldplay will release its fourth album, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (Capitol), and even Martin is having a hard time retaining his modesty about it. The release, co-produced by Brian Eno, marks a leap forward for the group, adding experimental textures, arrangements and structures to its music while retaining the sweeping melodies and soaring hooks at the heart of its enormous appeal.
“When you get to a fourth record, you have to be really careful about how much you sing, because people aren’t surprised by your voice anymore,” Martin said. “So you have to think of new things.”
But this is an especially charged time for Coldplay to try reinventing itself. Since the release of its previous album, X&Y, in 2005, the band’s record company, EMI, has been sold to Terra Firma, a private equity firm; thousands of employees have been laid off; and rumors of crisis are nonstop.
Recently it was reported that Terra Firma would be fighting to meet financial targets set by the bank that helped finance the purchase of EMI. The Times of London wrote that the performance of the new album from the label’s top-selling act would be “critical to any recovery” for the company.
The band is doing its best to ignore the monstrous commercial pressure. But it is trying to innovate with its marketing plan.
“Violet Hill,” the dark, thumping first single from Viva la Vida, was offered free on the band’s Web site (coldplay.com) for a week and was downloaded more than 2 million times, according to the band’s representatives.
The band is playing three free shows this month — in London on June 16, in Barcelona, Spain, on June 17 and at Madison Square Garden on June 23 — with tickets given away in lotteries. (Coldplay’s first high-profile appearance for the album will take place tonight, when it plays “Violet Hill” at the MTV Movie Awards.)
It is unclear what constitutes commercial success in a world of vanishing CD sales. X&Y sold 3 million copies in the United States and 10 million worldwide. Even in an ideal situation what is a realistic expectation for Viva la Vida?
“I went into this campaign with the feeling that if we did half the sales of the last record, that would be great,” Holmes said.
The biggest accomplishment of Vida is the sense it gives of Coldplay as a genuine band. In addition to being the front man and primary songwriter, Martin is a tabloid fixture thanks to his marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow (they have two children: a daughter, Apple, 4, and a son, Moses, 2), which has only amplified the sense that the group’s other three, less visible members (Jonny Buckland is the guitarist and Will Champion is the drummer) are little more than sidemen.
Martin said the band sat down about two years ago, after a lengthy tour behind X&Y, and said, “If we carry on like this, it’s going to appear like a one-man show, and it’s going to get very boring very quickly.” So, he explained, “everybody felt like they had to rip it up and start again.”
The first step toward finding new, less predictable ways to make music was setting up shop in their own studio, a former bakery in London that Martin described as “a beaten-up little place.”
Buckland agreed about the impact the space has had on their work. “We’ve got a clubhouse, a space to be ourselves and not worry about anyone hearing any terrible music we make or hearing us argue,” he said. “We haven’t had that since 1998, when we were in my bedroom.”
Another crucial decision was to bring in Eno — who has helped steer breakthrough projects for the likes of U2, David Bowie and Talking Heads — to produce the album with Markus Dravs, who has worked with Arcade Fire and Bjork. Eno’s free-form approach opened up the members of Coldplay to ideas and sounds they never expected.
“Brian would get us all in a circle in a tiny room, and we’d just play and play and play,” Martin said. “Then he’d go through and listen and start to find these little mine-able bits, and he’d hone in on those.”
In an e-mail message Dravs said, “Brian made it a rule to start each day with improvising, with people using different instruments. We might think we had a direction for a particular song, but then the band would come up with something that we’d end up incorporating into the album.”
Everyone around Coldplay speaks of the confidence that emerged as these sessions progressed over many months. Martin credited some of that attitude to what he learned from collaborating with Jay-Z and Kanye West on tracks for their albums.
“What I really appreciate about both of them is they are set on their path and nothing sways them from it,” he said. “They’re just doing their thing, and you’re either with it or you’re not. I really feed off of that, because that’s not familiar to us; we come from the nation of pulling at your hair and apologizing all the time.”
Martin attended both of Jay-Z’s concerts at Madison Square Garden and described them as “blindingly brilliant.”
Later that week Martin stopped by a used-book store and cafe in SoHo. He devoured the store’s racks of vinyl albums, scooping up an armful of LPs — including the Close Encounters of the Third Kind soundtrack, works by Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, and a David Lee Roth 45. Martin’s references to his wife (who was in London) and children are few and vague, though his conversation is littered with movie references; even the rather ungainly construction of the album’s full title, he said, was inspired by the name of Stanley Kubrick’s military satire, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Over a chai latte he discussed one of the central tracks on Viva la Vida. The song “42” begins with the classic Coldplay sound — Martin at the piano, delivering a profound-sounding rhyme in his upper register at a slow tempo — but after about 90 seconds it spirals off into multiple sections.
“That song is kind of a microcosm” of the entire album, he said. “The lyrics in the beginning are very much big themes, but then we go into this kind of silly jam we wrote one day when we were all hypnotized, and then it ends with this big, up-tempo, positive thing. I don’t know if it’s any good, but it definitely captures everything in one place.”
Dravs said that despite the album’s use of strings, dissonant guitars and Eastern percussion instruments, the key to executing the more ambitious songs was capturing more of the band’s onstage feel.