Chris Martin: The Jesus of Uncool
(The Rolling Stone Interview) In his most in-depth interview ever, the Coldplay leader opens about his childhood traumas, being married to a “powerful” woman and why one of the world’s biggest bands had to tear its sound apart to survive
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 blonde 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-practising, 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 mould – simultaneously melodic and gigantic – has fuelled 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 band?
He goes, “Your songs are too long. And you’re too repetitive, and you use 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 realised 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.
In your own efforts to do something for the world, you’ve taken shit for doing things like writing a symbol for fair trade on your hands.
One of our big conversations that we always have in this band is, we don’t see rock & roll as being about coke-taking, leather-trouser-wearing rebellion, because that to us is not rebellion anymore. The spirit of rock & roll is freedom. It’s about following what you believe in and not caring what anyone else says. And if that means writing something on your hand, then you’ve got to write something on your hand. It doesn’t matter if you don’t look as cool as the Ramones – you’re never going to, anyway. So I know that we’ll be ridiculed for this and look stupid for that. But as long as we believe in what we’re doing, we can’t apologise for it.
You grew up in a rural part of southwest England, in a pretty religious environment. How did that affect you?
I grew up with the prospect of heaven and hell looming ever large. What I grew up with was, if you even think about boobs, you’re going to hell. It was drilled in: These things are wrong. It was black and white, the way it still is for millions of right-wing Christians in the middle of America. I spent a year thinking I would be punished if I sang ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ by the Rolling Stones.
Punished as in go to hell?
Yeah. When I was about 14, the first band I was in wanted to play ‘Black Magic Woman.’ And I was like, “I can’t sing that, because I will get bad karma.” As a kid, you don’t know any better. But then as you go on, the cracks begin to appear and you’re like, “I’m not sure about this hell thing. And I’m not sure whether it’s really wrong to be gay, and I’m not sure whether we’re right and they’re wrong.”
Did you ever think you might be gay?
It was more like, “Oh, shit, what if?” Because I was brought up to think that was really wrong. But then it struck me: Who gives a shit? And then it wasn’t a problem. It sounds silly to say it now, but when you’re a kid you think, “I’m going to burn in hell for eternity if I like other guys or if I marry someone Jewish.”
I guess something convinced you finally that you were, in fact, straight.
Well, I was swayed by boobs. Let’s face it. They’re fantastic.
What was the first music you responded to as a kid?
Probably Bad, by Michael Jackson, and ‘Take on Me,’ by A-ha. And then we’d always be in church, so the thing I heard most was hymns. That’s probably where all the life-and-death stuff in our music comes from.
When did you start singing?
The first time I ever sang in public was in a school concert when I was 11. I sang a song I had written about newspapers. Some people really dug it. And others didn’t. I remember these two girls came up to me afterward and said, “We heard you singing,” and then they both giggled and ran off, as if to say, “It was shit.” And my whole life has been that day repeating ever since.
Then why did you continue?
I forgot about singing for a while, then some friends wanted to play ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ in a concert at school. I said, “Wow, let me sing it.” At the end, this guy Tom said to me, “Chris, could you sing it a little less like Tina Turner?” And I was like, “I wasn’t! I was trying to sound like Axl Rose!”
There’s not that much difference, come to think of it.
But it was too much for those guys. So I said, “I’ve got this song I wrote, we could do that instead.” I think a lot of musicians who write their own stuff, it comes from the fact that they’re not very good at doing covers. From that point on, I was in a bunch of bands. Identity Crisis, another one called Floating Insomnia. And then I was in a band called the Rocking Honkies, which was like a white blues band.
Being in that blues band was the best educator. Often the best songs have, like, one chord in them. So I got to be the piano player for ‘Mustang Sally’ and songs like that.
In Coldplay’s early music, there was a lot of soul singing in your voice.
That was probably soul, but through Jeff Buckley’s filter, to be ruthlessly honest. Before that, I spent three years trying to sound like Eddie Vedder.
When you were 13, your parents sent you to boarding school. What was that like?
I don’t think being 13 to 15 is an easy time for any boy. It’s like a big puberty race, and if you’re coming in last, it’s not such a great race to be in. I was a hyper-religious, quite naive and very judgmental kid. I was unpopular for three years, and then it all kind of switched when I was 16. But I had already been marked with the “I’m going to fucking get out of here and show you bastards what’s what” tag. So I’m very grateful for that period of challenge between 13 and 16, facing the blinkeredness of that kind of schoolboy mentality of, like, “You’re gay, you’re bad at sports, you’re this, you’re that.”
Because it did make me think, “I don’t want to end up in some bank, where I’m going to have to take this kind of shit off these same people for the rest of my life. I need to get out of this fucking treadmill – public school, into university, into a bank, into a summer house in France.” It felt like there must be more to life than rugby and cheap cider on the weekends.
You’re on record as saying that you didn’t lose your virginity until you were 22.
Which record? I think I’m on all our records saying that [laughs].
But why the wait?
Well, there were religious issues and shit like that. Also confidence. I had a tricky time with girls until I was, like, 21. I’m sure it’s always tricky, but I didn’t quite have it down. I’ve always had a lot of female friends.
You got trapped in the friend zone.
I got trapped in the friendship tip many, many times. It was like, “I need to be a rock star, because this is no good: being the kind of guy that everybody likes but no one wants to have sex with.” I don’t want to be the person that makes everyone laugh before they go off and bang. I want to be the guy that everybody bangs. So all these little things accumulate to just give you little bits of drive.
You’re a big fan of Woody Allen’s movies. Was part of the attraction seeing that a neurotic guy can get impossibly beautiful women?
Yeah, and he was right. Even I am evidence of that.
Did you find you were more attractive to girls when you were onstage playing music?
Why the hell else would I waste my time doing it? [Laughs]
You don’t like talking about your marriage. Should I bother asking you about your first meeting with Gwyneth?
Make up the most interesting thing you can think of, and I’ll say that I said it. Or how about this: We met in Madame Tussauds, and it was only after half an hour it became apparent I was talking to a wax model. I had not actually met the real thing. But it was good practice [laughs]. That’s a funny idea for a film scene, I think.
Have you had a lot of serious girlfriends in your life?
I’ve only been in one serious relationship.
Besides this one?
No, this is the only one. Is that weird? I don’t think it’s that weird. It wouldn’t be weird 200 years ago.
No, it’s not weird that you would only have one serious relationship. But it is weird that your only relationship is in the context of a rock star dating a movie star.
Well, I know. But that’s love. Just go with it. Think of Romeo and Juliet, or people with really challenging marriages – cross borders, cross races, sometimes cousins. Many people have challenging situations.
Did you realise how intense the experience of being with a movie star would be?
Yeah, I did, but I always felt it would be great to be with a very powerful woman, because it would always keep you in your place and remind you that you still weren’t very good. So I knew that there would be negatives to it, which are all obvious to state, but the positives outweigh them. And being married to someone very successful and very powerful basically keeps you hungry to improve.
You keep using the word “powerful.”
But you know what I’m saying. However big you are as a musician, it’s never the same deal as big Hollywood actors.
Does it bother you to watch your wife with, say, Robert Downey Jr in a movie?
Oh, no, no, no. I’m not a jealous person. I think if you’re jealous in this business, you’re not gonna be very happy. Even if your girlfriend or wife is at home while you’re on tour, then you’d still just freak out all the time, ’cause jealousy’s so hard to control.
You’re young to have two kids. Did you always think you’d settle down so early?
You’ve got to let life happen. Otherwise, A, your life is dull, and B, your writing is dull because you’re not letting life happen.
But when you’re a rock star, you have the option of extending your adolescence indefinitely.
Yeah, but your music turns shit. Name one person who is perpetually adolescent who’s made a good album.
You’ve taken some aggressive action against paparazzi – there was an incident with a photographer’s car, and you wrestled a paparazzi to the ground this year.
The reason why we keep private as a family, and why I always have a hood and sneak in and out of places, is because I don’t want to encounter a certain type of person because it brings out a kind of physical rage that I can’t really control. You are allowed to spend taxpayers’ money on war and killing civilians, but you can’t go and smack someone who’s upset your bandmate or your baby or something.
Getting arrested is no fun. It’s terrifying. That’s why I don’t like to talk about that side of things, and I don’t like to go down red carpets because it invites a certain type of person into my life who I just don’t like. So I keep myself away from them, because you can’t go around being physically aggressive to people. There was a point where I thought, “OK, I’ve got to get away from being fingerprinted and held in a cell.” I thought, “This is no good. This is obviously not working as a tactic.”
You and Jonny Buckland were the first members of Coldplay. How did you meet?
We were living in the same building at college in London. I’m not a very big sleeper. So I’d always be awake through the night anyway, working or writing stuff. Jonny was sitting at 3:00 in the morning playing some piece on guitar in a room nearby. And I was like, “I didn’t know you played guitar.” And he was like, “Well, I don’t really tell anybody.” And something in my brain was like, “OK, let’s meet tomorrow.” And we did. And then we spent every day together since.
And he still doesn’t like to tell people he plays guitar. Even on a stage, he tries to hide as much as possible. My entire life is spent trying to drag him out of the shadows, because I know that he’s a guitar hero – to me, anyway. He’s the only person that’s ever made anything I’ve written sound any good.
So when you started writing songs with him, how far away were they from the
Coldplay we came to know?
Probably not that far. When Guy joined, it got closer. Then when Will [Champion] joined, it got really close. We practised every night for two years. There was a long period where we had no drummer, because Will hadn’t joined the group yet – and there was no Stumpy Joe – no original drummer. So we didn’t have any gigs or anything. We were just writing and writing and writing. We were so into it that one member of the band – who shall remain nameless – pretended to have broken his ankle and got a month off sick. But when he went back to work, he had to keep a set of keys in his shoe to remember that he was supposed to limp. That’s how dedicated we were.
What was the breakthrough song for you? When did you become sure that this wasn’t just a college band?
Well, everybody is always living in fear of their trick being discovered. So there’s never a moment where I think, “Yep, that’s it. We’re a world-class band and no one can take it away from us.” But as soon as that song ‘Yellow’ appeared, I was like, “OK, this sounds like a big hit single to me. Let’s go.”
It’s funny that you say “appeared.” You wrote it.
The bad songs come from me and my knowledge of how to write songs, and the good ones come from somewhere – I have no idea where. And they tend to be sort of flying around at about 2:00 in the morning. You just have to be there to catch it. That’s how I feel about the good ones. So craft is really essential to me. And that’s why most good musicians know a lot about other people’s music – how it fits together and how arrangements work and what comes in at the second half of ‘Once in a Lifetime,’ by Talking Heads, to suddenly lift it.
But no one can tell me where the melody for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ comes from, because it would have just come. I bet John Lennon didn’t design it. But he knew once he’d got it. Still, you can hear the demo of it [on The Beatles Anthology]. It’s OK. It’s an acoustic thing. Then it turns into ‘Strawberry Fields’ somehow. That’s where hard work comes in.
What songs did you take apart to learn your craft?
I really got into the Black Crowes for a while – The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. And Dylan: Blood on the Tracks and Bringing It All Back Home. A-ha. Oasis. We broke down their first record. And OK Computer, obviously.
Do you ever write songs in any kind of altered state?
Well, yeah, I’m very sad to admit that I’ve got a bit of a sleeping-pill habit. I can’t sleep, so I have to take a lot of sleeping pills. I don’t really like saying it, but it does take the brain to a different place.
You mean you take a sleeping pill and then stay awake?
Yeah, which I love because it’s like a prescription high, I suppose. My problem is that I often take a sleeping pill in order to go to sleep, but then I get excited about a song, so I go and play music, and then it kind of kicks in halfway through. I have a little corner where nobody can hear me in the middle of the night, and that’s where I spend most of the nighttimes. I wake up the next morning and find these strange notes to myself. I don’t think it’s anything to be proud of. I’m a little bit ashamed about it.
‘Yellow’ is still your most famous song. How did you write it?
It’s nice to try and write without knowing what you’re doing. So I had this guitar tuned in some strange way to play another song actually called ‘Shiver,’ which was supposed to be our big hit single. And we were in Wales, recording it. And what sort of frightens me is, it was just a complete accident. I was waiting around, and our producer, Ken, was talking about how beautiful it was outside because of the stars. And then while I was waiting to do a take at the guitar, I was just messing around: [Sings] “Look at the stars/Look, they shine for you/They were all yellow.”
So you had just that line, that melody.
Yeah, then I ran – if I have a problem with a chorus, I like to go into the men’s room, ’cause the echo is nice. Doesn’t smell so great, so you need to write it quickly, get out of there. I wrote the chorus, then I showed it to Jonny. He started coming up with all this bendy guitar stuff – and then I thought, “OK, that’s that, then.”
The lyrics of that song express something that seems very central to you, a sort of
sense of awe about the beauty of the world.
Well, it is central to me, ’cause otherwise, without hope, what is there? Without wonder, without awe?
You’ve covered ‘What a Wonderful World,’ which expresses a similar sentiment.
It’s not just thinking about the pyramids or the Amazon River. It’s also Beyoncé. Or that chocolate cake we had yesterday. It’s like that scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen is listing the things that make life so brilliant. And I have a long, long, long, long list of that. And you do as well, I’m sure.
Yeah, you got to hold on to that list.
Yeah, otherwise you would kill yourself.
How did you feel about the Coldplay joke in The 40-Year-Old Virgin? [“You know how I know you’re gay? You like Coldplay!”]
I was sitting on an airplane and I watched it. It’s something about being gay, right? Being gay because you like Coldplay? Yeah. Well, great, man. I would be worried if we only appealed to very straight right-wing white men.
You’ve never been the kind of band that would bludgeon people with brute guitar force or whatever.
Well, on a very basic level when you’re onstage on tour, the sound of all boys applauding and shouting is not as nice as the sound of lots of boys and lots of girls all at the same time. And when you’re looking out from the stage and there’s lots of girls there, that’s the greatest thing in the world.
Some rock bands find it difficult to get female fans.
Yeah. I think that’s why most people would say we don’t make rock music. I’m not so into that whole category. I suppose we probably fit into soft-rock music. I don’t know where you’d file us in record stores. There aren’t any record stores anymore, so we don’t have to worry about it.
But was it clear from the start that women were responding to this music?
This sounds like such a Spinal Tap question now.
They’re all Spinal Tap questions, man.
[Laughs] I think they were frightened by what we’ve got in our trousers. Armadillos. We’ve got armadillos in our trousers. No, we never consciously aimed it at one thing or another. We never felt like, “Oh, that’s too feminine to put in.”
Everyone picks up a certain emotional vulnerability in your music.
Yeah, but I don’t think that’s just a feminine thing. All men are soft and vulnerable, as well. All the women I hang out with are far less vulnerable and far stronger. Maybe that’s just the women I hang out with. I think we boys, we men, are actually much weaker and softer than we like to think.
Overall, do you like your job?
Are you joking? I fucking die for it. I just can’t believe I’ve got it. And so as long as I’ve got it, we’re going to try and be the best possible. For all the insecurity and everything, there’s an amazing amount of drive, you know? We just don’t want to stop until we’ve done something that’s really good. You’ve got to be driven. Otherwise, what’s the point of being alive?
When they make the Coldplay biopic, what should the opening scene be?
Probably the assassination and subsequent tribute concert.
What? We would open with Barbra Streisand singing ‘Yellow’ at Madison Square Garden and joined by Mariah Carey, with a great big picture of us in the background, and a big question mark of how that ferry we were on actually got sunk. That’s how I would open it.
How would you end it?
I would end it with a massive orgy, because I think audiences would dig that.
And what would your obituary say?
There’s an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where they get the text of an obituary wrong, and instead of saying “beloved aunt,” it says “beloved cunt.” And I always think that would kind of sum up the two sides of my life, the two sides of the coin. I’d like that.
Martin’s Musical Roots
How Bob Dylan’s wandering spirit and Jeff Buckley’s soulful mystique shaped Coldplay’s music
“Our relationship with Radiohead is a funny one – we were kids when they got huge, and we obviously stole a lot from them in our early music. Sometimes I feel like they cleared a path with a machete, and we came afterward and put up a strip mall. I would still give my left ball to write anything as good as OK Computer. I would become a eunuch just for ‘Paranoid Android.’ ”
“I tried to sing like him. He had just died when I discovered his music, so there’s this mystique: Who is this angelic dead person, playing these complicated songs and singing like a girl? If he had lived, he’d be a superstar by now.”
“We worship REM. I love how they always change, and how you can never tell what Michael Stipe is banging on about. We’ve broken down the songs on Automatic for the People, which we haven’t plagiarised yet, but we’re about to. ‘Nightswimming’ – it’s so sweet, and direct, and not trying to be cool. In the ingredients for every Coldplay song, there’s always a pinch of REM thrown in.”
“I’ve listened to more of Michael Jackson’s music than anybody else’s in the last year – mostly Off the Wall. There’s so much percussion going on in that one. You’ve got to study this stuff to try and get people’s feet tapping.”
“Where can I even start? He never gave a shit what people thought, whether he was changing his voice on Nashville Skyline or going super-Christian in the Eighties. To me, it’s all just radically cool.”