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Chris Martin of Coldplay Asks: What Would Bruce Do?
By BEN SISARIO
Chris Martin, the lead singer of Coldplay, is one of the world’s biggest rock stars, a species for whom tardiness is all but a right. Yet he was full of apologies when he popped through the door of a Midtown Manhattan restaurant, no entourage in sight, for a recent interview.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he blurted, wearing a slightly stained “Don’t Mess With Texas” T-shirt and loudly colored sneakers, though he had no sunglasses, hat or any other means of celebrity disguise.
But Mr. Martin was actually five minutes early. And in a discussion about the band’s new album, “Mylo Xyloto” (Capitol), he focused on the “baggage,” as he put it, of being in Coldplay. For a man who has seen millions of faces and soft-rocked them all — his next appointment was flying to Brazil to perform at the enormous Rock in Rio festival — he seemed to know that rock superstardom is not what it used to be.
Having reached pop’s stratosphere just as the music industry was beginning its decadelong crash, Coldplay is perhaps the last in a line of great rock dinosaurs. Its uplifting, arena-filling hooks have helped it sell more than 40 million albums, a feat that scarcely seems repeatable today.
“They are one of the few bands of their generation able to transcend multiple radio formats: rock, alternative, Top 40,” said Tom Poleman, president of national programming platforms for the radio giant Clear Channel. “When you have that formula, it’s like striking gold.”
As baggage goes, that’s all good. But for almost its entire career, Coldplay has had to prove itself a worthy inheritor to the biggest-band title. Once that largely meant overcoming criticism that it was “Radiohead-lite.” Now, with the release of “Mylo Xyloto” on Oct. 24, Coldplay finds itself shouldering a strange burden as one of the only bands capable of sales to rival the juggernauts of pop — making the band’s success or failure freighted with symbolism about the commercial viability of rock.
And how do you make a great, old-fashioned rock album? If you are Mr. Martin — for whom the whole swaggering frontman thing has never come naturally — you start by watching Springsteen and Dylan videos.
“I was watching a lot about ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ and a lot about ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ and all these real albums,” said Mr. Martin, who at 34 still has the glow of a young man amazed by his good fortune. “And I realized that we had to make a decision. Even though the album is an endangered species, can we try and make a coherent and good one, even if it’s like making a horse and cart at a Nascar conference?”
In conversation, Mr. Martin is as cheerful as his songs are moody, though he hardly seems to finish a sentence without a self-deprecating remark. Joking about the paparazzi who chase his wife, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, he claims he is so uninteresting that he gets mistaken for actors from movies he wasn’t in: “I get more people approaching me about how good I was in ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ than being in Coldplay,” he said with a grin.
Coldplay is a 21st-century band with 20th-century ambitions, and for the most part it has achieved them. The band has remained consistently, monstrously popular even as rock has receded from the charts and shrunk as a radio format. Its last album, “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends,” nabbed three Grammy Awards and became the world’s best-selling album of 2008, once again setting up great expectations.
There is perhaps no greater 20th-century rock ambition than the midcareer concept album. “Mylo Xyloto” is Coldplay’s stab at it, loosely structured as a love story set in an Orwellian dystopia. But while “concept album” often implies “sales disaster,” “Mylo Xyloto” is filled with the soaring melodies, soft piano and twinkling guitar that Coldplay fans expect, along with some new territory for the band to explore. It even features Rihanna on an R&B-leaning track, “Princess of China.”
Kevin Weatherly, program director at the influential Los Angeles rock station KROQ-FM, said “Mylo Xyloto” is full of potential hits. But he also credited the band with keeping its focus on creating complete albums.
“We live in a singles world these days,” Mr. Weatherly said, “and there are very few artists who do what Coldplay does, which is deliver full records with quality songs from start to finish.”
“Mylo Xyloto” went through various twists and turns in the 18 months the band worked on it. Jonny Buckland, the guitarist, called it a distillation of two planned albums, one acoustic and the other electronic. The songs are also connected to an abandoned animated film project, which might explain cinematic touches like several atmospheric interludes.
For help the band turned again to Brian Eno, the revered producer of David Bowie and Talking Heads, who coached Coldplay in their big reinvention on “Viva la Vida.” Mr. Eno gets a mysterious “enoxification” credit on the new album, but it was produced by Markus Dravs, Daniel Green and Rik Simpson. (Mr. Dravs, a former assistant to Mr. Eno, also has producer credits on Arcade Fire’s album “The Suburbs” and “Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons.)
“Mylo Xyloto” brings some new colors to the Coldplay palette, like the compressed electronics that set an uptight tone in “Hurts Like Heaven.” But you barely have to wait 30 seconds in that track before the arrival of a burst of classic Coldplay: Mr. Martin’s optimistic falsetto “oohs” and a big, warm swelling of guitar. “Up in Flames” has a boomy, mechanical beat, as well as a melody as tender as any the band has ever played.
To represent a fresh start, Coldplay wanted an “un-Googleable” title, according to Mr. Buckland, 34. “When you’re on your fifth album, you are going to be judged against all your previous work and expectations,” he said by phone from London. “In a small way this is us trying to break free of those expectations.”
Pressed about the title, Mr. Martin described a kind of mythical character signifying the wonder of artistic inspiration.
“Music comes from a place we don’t know,” he said. “It sort of comes through the fingers and toes. So we came up with the idea of, what if you had musical digits, like xylo toes.” He shook his head, irritated that he gave up the secret so easily.
And what about “Mylo”?
“It’s just a great name,” he said. “For anything.”
From the beginning, the members of Coldplay — besides Mr. Martin and Mr. Buckland, they are the bassist Guy Berryman and the drummer Will Champion, both 33 — have struggled to balance their roles as world-conquering musical populists and four nice blokes who just can’t believe their luck. They met as schoolmates in London in the mid-1990s, and found worldwide fame in 2000 with “Yellow,” a haunting love song that showed the young band had absorbed the best commercial instincts of U2 and Radiohead.
In those days Mr. Martin was too shy onstage to venture very far from his piano, but he soon obtained the ancient knowledge of the great order of rock ’n’ roll showmen.
“I’m still learning it, but I have such great teachers: Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bono Vox,” he said. “The key thing I learned from them is to just go be yourself, no matter how ridiculous it looks. It makes the concert so much more fun when you flip that switch and say: ‘I don’t care how I look. This is just what I feel like doing.’ ”
The lunch meeting was a follow-up that Mr. Martin had arranged a day earlier, before another interview — at a TriBeCa hotel — had even begun. Fully engaged in the promotional cycle, he was eager to satisfy the access needs for “print media,” he said as he shook a reporter’s hand.
On both days Mr. Martin wore a pair of black and fire-engine-red sneakers, with pristine red laces and an oversize tongue flap, like a futuristic version of classic b-boy high-tops. His friend Jay-Z had just asked him about the shoes, Mr. Martin said, but he didn’t have any information — they had been picked out by a stylist.
He and Ms. Paltrow married in 2003, and the tabloids chronicle their every step, whether walks with their two children — Apple, 7, and Moses, 5 — or double dates with Jay-Z and Beyoncé. (With a smile and a few well-practiced words, Mr. Martin deflected questions about his marriage.)
With his bandmates overshadowed, tension inevitably grew, and Mr. Martin has said in the past that he considered going solo. Lately he has said that “Mylo Xyloto” could be the band’s last album. But he quickly backpedals on that question, and Mr. Buckland did not seem very concerned about Coldplay’s mortality either.
“We don’t think of impending gardening, or anything like that,” the guitarist said.
More than any other major band, Coldplay has had to contend with a large and vocal hater contingent, who, among other things, have mocked Mr. Martin as perhaps the least macho man in rock. (He doesn’t help himself in that regard, as he explains the hardships of his “woman’s workout.”)
But nothing quiets naysayers like survival. Having outsold and outlasted most of their contemporaries, Coldplay has gradually accrued a certain respect. One indication: once-popular Facebook groups like “I hate Coldplay so much it makes me want to cry” seem to have petered out.
“We are very grateful for our job,” Mr. Martin said. “Even in the time we’ve been around, half the bands we’ve seen come, we’ve seen go — even people who were massive on our first album. So the longer time goes by the more we’re like, ‘It’s amazing that we’re still together.’ ”
In the music business, there are a few things that can help sink any band, no matter how talented. One is not “playing the game” of making the promotional rounds at radio and television, a hustle that tends to grease all the important wheels.
This has never been Coldplay’s problem.
“A lot of artists who have sold a lot less aren’t willing to do the things Coldplay will still do,” Mr. Weatherly said. “It has to do with their work ethic and their commitment to their art.”
At Coldplay’s level, some of that hustling doesn’t sound so bad. On Oct. 26, American Express is sponsoring a live broadcast of a concert from Madrid on YouTube and Vevo, directed by Anton Corbijn, the filmmaker and photographer known for his work with U2.
All of that gives Coldplay an edge in the market, and the album’s first two singles, “Paradise” and “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” have already sold almost a million downloads.
The band seems likely to top the charts once again, but with all the numbers in the music industry diminished — the only unqualified blockbuster this year is Adele’s “21” (XL/Columbia), a dark horse in a world of Lady Gaga and Beyoncé — it’s no longer clear what a hit is. Industry estimates for the opening-week sales of “Mylo Xyloto” are in the 400,000 to 500,000 range — lower than the 700,000-plus the band has had for its last two records, but still enough for one of the biggest debuts of the year.
For Mr. Martin, the album is already a success. Thinking about the arduous process of recording, he cited a reward that plenty of bands dream of but few achieve.
“It’s challenging,” he said, “but only because you know the reward will be a field of people in Mexico singing along with you, which is such an adrenaline rush that it’s worth all the hours of, ‘Oh my God, this doesn’t work.’ If you get that bit, that the whole is bigger than its parts, then that’s your ticket all around the world.”