- 16 Jul 19
19 years ago today, Coldplay were at the top of the UK Album Chart with their debut, Parachutes. The album spawned several hits, and won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, as well as the Best British Album award at the 2001 Brit Awards. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Chris Martin and co.'s 2005 interview with Hot Press.
"I live right over there,” says Chris Martin, pointing to the far side of Hyde Park. We’re standing at the window of the Metropolitan Hotel in Kensington, taking in the view during a brief lull between interviews.
Martin’s got about a foot on me, so the scene feels like a re-enactment of the Holy Grail skit where the feudal father looks out the tower with his idiot offspring and gestures around him, saying, “Someday my son, all this will be yours,” to which the dim-witted youth responds, “Wot – the curtains?”
Crop-headed and unshaven, Martin’s maturing well, having fully outgrown the wide-eyed gawkiness of the Parachutes era, so much so that numerous female members of the Irish press contingent go hormonal in his presence. When the singer pops into the hotel room that serves as a holding pen for waiting interviewers and suggests re-enacting the infamous Paula Yates/Michael Hutchence Big Breakfast encounter, the oestrogen starts to sizzle.
We’re gathered to get the skinny on Coldplay’s forthcoming third album X&Y, a confident and substantial piece of work, even to this writer, whose tent is pitched somewhere between casually interested and impartial.
Coldplay are not the kind of band I would necessarily quit my job to follow around the globe, although it must be said, after a few drinks in the privacy of my kitchen, I have been known to fumble out tunes like ‘Don’t Panic’ and ‘Clocks’ and tipsily wax respectful about the band’s blessed melodic sense. And if you’re one of the gazillion people who bought either of the first two albums, you’ll find plenty of eating and drinking substance in this one.
X&Y is a complex and densely layered piece of work, boasting a dynamic production job and a slew of very carefully crafted tunes. It sounds like a million dollars, and will probably make its creators several times that, although the band’s perfectionism delayed its release by months, a decision that had no little impact on EMI stocks and shares for the last quarter. Bean counters and abacus jockeys twitched while the band tinkered, tweaked and fixed the mix. Which was no great cause for alarm on the musicians’ part – they did exactly the same thing last time on A Rush Of Blood, and U2 do it every album – but one imagines the pressure was formidable.
“We didn’t consider it,” asserts drummer Will Champion when we meet in the suite he’s sharing with bassist Guy Berryman. Both men are soft-spoken, articulate, and possess the affable air of shaggy-headed border collies, all tousled hair and three-day beards.
“It never really entered the radar really,” Will continues. “And to be fair to EMI, they ended up saying, ‘Just take as long as you need, it doesn’t matter.’”
“I think we spent a lot of time getting this album wrong for the first year,” adds Guy, “and the way we recorded, we were working very independently of each other, and I think it was coming to the point where we just said, ‘Fuck it, this isn’t working, it’s no good, let’s just put it out as a shit album or go our separate ways.’ The four of us together had to analyse what was going wrong. We weren’t working together as a unit anymore. We realised that we’d recorded 12 songs that we’d never actually played together in a room. We really had to sort of turn it about on its head, and I think it’s testament to the strength of our friendships that we managed to pull back together and kind of cram for the last few months to get it right.”
So the four members had to be there to act as each other’s sounding boards, regardless of whether they were recording or not?
“Yeah, it’s almost like you need someone to show off to or impress, whether it’s your best friend or someone else. You listen to a song in a completely different way. You start getting more excited about it – or you hear it for the turd that it is!”
Two doors up the hall, Chris Martin, paired with guitarist Jonny Buckland for the day, credits veteran producer and X&Y mixer Michael Brauer with bringing perspective to the proceedings.
“When we were supposed to first of all hand the album in, we sort of did, and then over Christmas we just said, ‘It doesn’t sound good enough,’” he recalls. “So we rang up Michael Brauer, who mixed our first record Parachutes, and said, ‘Could you possibly save our bacon please?’ And he said, (affects loud American accent), ‘I’d love to! Come on over, we’ll mix it, it’s gonna be fuckin’ amazing!’ And at that time we needed that crazy New York enthusiasm, ’cos we were all very confused about what we were making. Even the songs we thought we didn’t like anymore, he brought something out in them. He was a brilliant sonic-ician.”
The result is a record that frequently suggests what it would’ve been like if latter day U2 (Buckland’s concise but cinemascopic breaks get particularly close to The Edge) hooked up with Spector-era Lennon.
“No-one ever refers to the fact that John Lennon was an anal bastard in the studio,” Martin laughs. “Or that The Beatles really slaved over the construction of those records. I was listening to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ this morning. You can just tell the work that they put into that arrangement. Every time we do a ballad we ask our producer, whoever it might be, to make it sound like ‘Jealous Guy.’ And I listened to ‘Black And White Town’ by Doves this morning, and that is an amazing song, but it’s made doubly amazing by these details in it. The piano is put through a phaser or flanger or something like that. I think that’s their best song ever.”
X&Y is not the kind of record that’s going to visit road-to-Damascus epiphanies upon the unbelievers, but like all their records, it is a grower.
Initial hearings had me wondering if there was a sure-fire hit single among the album’s thirteen melodies, but clocking ‘Speed Of Sound’ on the radio, it all started to make sense. Coldplay write stealthy tunes that often take circuitous routes to the central nervous system.
And for all the classicist chimes of new songs like ‘Square One’, ‘What If’ and ‘White Shadows’, there are also a couple of curveballs on the record, most notably ‘Talk’, which transposes the sparkling synth line from Kraftwerk’s ‘Computer Love’ to strident guitar. Was that intentional or by osmosis?
Chris: “Directly lifted.”
Jonny: “They’ve got a half the publishing.”
Jesus, that’s a lot of shekels for one riff.
Chris: “No, no, it’s not, ’cos we took the riff and the chord sequence… some of the sounds, all of the integration. That song was a real struggle and went through so many different versions to then eventually coming back to the first one. Partly cos we’d never done that before, had someone else’s melody.”
Another thing Chris Martin had never done before was write to order. Scroll down to the end of the album and you’ll find the extra track ‘Til Kingdom Come’, a north of England folk-rock number reminiscent of Richard Thompson or Pentangle. As Will Champion explains, this little ditty was conceived with Johnny Cash in mind.
“He had planned for a fifth American Recordings, they started getting songs together. And we met Rick Rubin at a gig in Nashville, and Chris had written a song with that purpose in mind and played it to Rick, and they had actually gotten as far as recording Chris’s parts, playing the guitar and singing, waiting for a time when Johnny was feeling well enough to sing. Unfortunately that day never came.”
A Rush Of Blood To The Head began with a view of the earth from space. X&Y’s opening track ‘Square One’ switches to the reverse angle, stargazing from terra firma, trying to make sense of the big questions (the album title’s phonetic translation: “axin’ why”), its currency being recurring symbols of systems, patterns, the cosmological and the philosophical. For some reason it reminds me of a more earthed version of olde English eccentrics like Nick Drake, Syd Barrett…
Chris Martin bursts out laughing.
“Insane people who kill themselves and go crazy?”
Oops. Hadn’t thought of that.
“The reason why I wouldn’t commit suicide… well, the main reason now is ’cos I have a baby and I would never commit suicide because of her. But to me, committing suicide from a nihilistic point of view is pointless, because we’re all gonna die anyway, so why not just hang around and see what happens? D’you know what I mean? If something is inevitable, why board the plane early?”
To their credit, Coldplay don’t have a middle class hang-up about dying young and leaving an exquisitely sunglassed and leather-jeaned cadaver.
“The more we go on through life the more ‘cool’ seems such a stupid concept,” Martin says. “Yesterday I went and bought that first A-Ha record because I just wanted to hear those songs again, even though no one at the moment would say it’s cool to go and listen to A-Ha. I just thought, fuck it, I just want to hear ‘Take On Me’, and it did something to me.”
I put it to the singer that X&Y is probably Coldplay’s first adult record. Songs like ‘White Shadows’ have a lot to do with memory. The notion that we’re born wise, but our vision gets muddled.
“It’s just experience that dulls you, or enlightens you, or makes you know how to deal with things better,” he considers, “but your basic understanding and emotions are in place by the age of eight. Someone said to me about bringing up children, it’s the first eight years that everything gets formed in, and after that it’s just experience.”
Does looking at things from his daughter’s perspective spur flashbacks to what he was like at her age?
“It’s very strange when you go back to a place where you grew up and haven’t been since you were four or five,” says Jonny. “I have a friend who’s moved into Muswell Hill in North London where I grew up. I went back recently and I was walking down this street and thinking, ‘I recognise this street but it looks different.’ It’s just that I was looking from much higher up. I’d remembered the roads to be about 300 feet wide.”
Chris: “It’s true, I went back to my old school, everything seemed like toy town. Anyway we’re veering off the point. There are a lot of questions. I don’t know, we don’t see it as a man’s record or a boy’s record; it’s an us record. I suppose we are more men now, I’m 28.”
One feeling I get off the record is, to quote a line from The Book Of Judas: I know I’ve arrived, can you tell me why I’m here?
“Right… if you’d told us that two years ago we’d have just sung that once and then not had the album. You’ve managed to simplify it very eruditely.”
Not my line, unfortunately. But the point is, it’s the questions rather than the answers that are the most important element of any hunk of art.
“Well for a long time, there was a song that was going to be on the record called ‘42’, which, interestingly enough, someone told me is the answer that gets given in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as the meaning of life. And everywhere I go I find the number 42. I live at number 42 at the moment. I’m always coming into contact with that number. Why do you think Douglas Adams chose that number?”
Jonny: “Seven times six.”
Six being demonic and seven divine.
Chris: “That’s the juxtaposition! Good and bad, X and Y… it’s all falling perfectly into place!”
Which brings us to a tune called ‘What If’, a sort of ‘Imagine’ turned on its head, and a song that frets over the balance you have to strike when squaring your role as a husband and father with, for want of a better term, the life of an artist. In other words, how do you focus on your vocation without becoming the ogre in the attic?
Chris: “That’s interesting that you say that. This struck me a few weeks ago. It struck me how grateful I was to my family and friends for letting us immerse ourselves in making a record…”
Jonny: “It’s the most indulgent thing you can ever do I think. We can be very single-minded about what we’re doing. It’s a kind of monomania.”
Chris: “To finish this record, and the last two records, we had to shut ourselves off, and our friends and families don’t see us, and it is kind of ogre-like. It obsesses us; it’s all that’s in your head. When you finish it you realise how weird it must have been for people around you. How annoying basically. But it’s hard to make anything creative without doing it.”
But that romantic notion about the tortured Van Gogh type – nobody ever makes the film about the artist’s grandmother or wife or child.
“Or his old school-friends going, ‘Are you coming tonight Vincent?’ It’s interesting reading about Ian Curtis, or even Kurt Cobain cos it’s all romanticised, and then you read about their friends or their kids or whatever. Then when you have a baby or you have friends, you realise that they live real lives too, as well as the mythological ones that we all believe in.”
Which is why it makes me queasy when I read those magazine retrospectives painting death-or-glory pictures of someone like Kurt Cobain. They rarely see it from the perspective of the onlookers at the car crash, those who have to live with the fallout. Although having said that, a lot of people are wired for oblivion regardless of whether they’re talented or not.
“Yeah, to be fair, if we’re bad friends and bad parents for making records, I think there’s people who are businessmen who are just as bad, or shop managers. I’m sure some people who manage Boots get obsessive about stocktaking or whatever.
There’s a line in ‘Talk, “You and me floating together on a tidal wave”, which seems to encapsulate that turmoil of trying to balance the work and the life. It’s almost a serene image, set against a turbulent backdrop…
Chris: “It sounds nice until you actually think about it. I always thought of it as more romantic until the tsunami, then I thought, ‘It’s not romantic at all.’ We had to think about whether we should change that after the tsunami. And then we thought, well, no. There was that one guy who did ride the tidal wave, he surfed it, the first wave, and survived.”
Which is itself a workable metaphor for what goes on between lovers. At certain points it’s just blind faith getting you through. Stop believing and you sink.
“Yeah, of course, man… You look like the type of man who goes through ups and downs and extremes.”
I think everybody does.
“Not everybody does. Some people are more medium-paced. Which is a good thing and a bad thing.”
I like Beckett’s line: Fail better. The idea that if you stick at what you’re doing, eventually you’ll accumulate enough good stuff to…
“Release an album.”
See the way he did that? I didn’t cop it at the time, but playing back the tape, I realise Martin completely redirected this preliminary probing into his private life by turning the question around on his interrogator. Not that the man is conniving, just very adept at such acts of deflection, a skill I imagine one acquires very quickly if you’re a pop star married to an A-list actress. And he’s so scrupulously polite, you feel like a shitbird for asking. But it’s worth pointing out, not once does the word ‘wife’, much less ‘Gwyneth’, crop up in our conversation. Talk about the love whose name he dare not speak.
When I ask Martin if fatherhood exposed his nerves to the kind of global climate his daughter was born into, gave him the Martin Amis/Thom Yorke heebie-jeebies, he says this:
“One of the reasons why we throw ourselves into everything is because of the idea that it might go.”
“Yeah. It’s always there because it’s such a possibility now. There’s so many nutcases running around that it’s a genuine possibility that I might not see Jonny again one day, so to me, that’s like, ‘Fuckin’ hell,’ and it does expose your nerve endings, but that’s probably a good thing because it makes you appreciate everything as it’s happening.”
Well it’s interesting what happened to art after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Between the abstract expressionists and the jazz avant-garde and the Beats, it all got pretty twisted.
“But now with the media as it is at the moment, there’s always stuff going on, it’s not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s so overwhelming.”
Jonny: “I would argue that they’re probably isn’t anymore going on, it’s just that you see it. 150 years ago you’d have read about events five days after they happened and it would be through so many filters that you’d never see most of it.”
In other words, The Black Death never made it to CNN.
Chris. “Good point. What a great line for a song. (Starts rapping.) ‘The Black Death never made it to CNN/It happened once, could it happen again/All da fucked up shit and crazy men/Yin and yang/Zin and Zen’. It’s writing itself! (Laughs.)
“But it is strange, it’s only from travelling that you realise where you are, and then you start to wonder what the hell is going on. It always makes me half laugh and half cry – even in the last two weeks we’ve flown around the world from Point A back to Point A, and you think about all the shit that’s going on in that one space you’ve just flown around and you can’t make any sense of it. Why are we wasting time fighting Muslim people or whatever? It’s extraordinary. And then you remember back to how you felt before you’d travelled or met people of a different race or whatever and you realise, when I was growing up in Devon, Iraq seemed like another planet to me…”
So how does all this tie in with the general thrust of the album?
“The reason we called the album X&Y is because it’s about the opposites that we encounter in our lives everyday, not just on a world level, a thinking-about-the-big-picture level, but also in terms of just the ups and downs, the easiness and hardness of certain songs. Everything with us is extremely up or extremely down, extremely easy or extremely hard.”
And as Suzy Diamond might’ve said, everything in between is just parsley.
Stream Coldplay's debut below, and revisit our original 2000 review of the album here: