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Full Chicago Tribune Interview (for non-subscribers)


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Chicago Tribune, May 15th by Greg Kot


"Coldplay Isn't the World's Biggest Rock Band. Yet."


It is the afternoon of Coldplay's feverishly anticipated concert at Metro last weekend, and singer Chris Martin is for the first time hearing a blow-by-blow description of the ticket sale that preceded it.


Hundreds of fans waited in line at the club's box office for hours the previous weekend, only to be shut out of tickets when the show sold out in mere seconds. Within hours, the $23 tickets were being auctioned by scalpers for $700 or more on eBay.


Martin tilts back on a footstool in his hotel suite and sighs.


"We screwed up royally, and we should be assassinated for it." It's intended at least partly as a joke, but Martin's grim expression says otherwise. In a few hours he will lead Coldplay into a club packed with adoring fans, including his wife, actress Gwyneth Paltrow. The idea is to prime audiences for Coldplay's forthcoming album, "X&Y" (Capitol), due out June 6, the follow-up to two of the most successful rock albums of the decade, "Parachutes" (2000) and "A Rush of Blood to the Head" (2002), which have sold nearly 6 million copies in America, according to Scoundscan, and 20 million worldwide.


The British quartet is poised for an even bigger year. "In terms of the tension and anticipation [surrounding its concerts and forthcoming album], I feel this could be the biggest band in the world," says Andy Cirzan, vice president with Jam Productions. The band is poised for a major national tour that will bring it to the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wis., on Aug. 13, a venue 40 times the size of Metro. "They're worth 35,000 to 50,000 tickets in this market," says Cirzan, which explains why demand for the Metro tickets was so over the top.


But at the moment Martin isn't feeling much like celebrating. He's a rock star finding himself confronted with the realities of rock stardom, of being in a band with three college friends that has turned into a big-time, money-churning machine from which millions of people, from record company executives and radio programmers to journalists and everyday fans, want a piece.


Martin tries to continue with the interview, but he's obviously distracted. "I can't go on with this until I do something," he says, and jumps up to summon his tour manager, Dave Holmes.


"Let's do a free show!" Martin suggests. "A free show at sound check. We'll do seven songs for anybody who wants to drop in. Announce it on the radio this afternoon and just invite everybody."


Holmes gets on it. After agitated phone calls are placed to a local promoter, the idea is shelved because there's a Cubs game at Wrigley Field down the street from Metro that afternoon, and an open invitation from a band as big as Coldplay could turn Clark Street into a riot zone. Martin shifts to Plan B. He authorizes that every available ticket in the band's possession be handed out to ticketless fans milling around in front of Metro before the show, instead of returning them to the box office for sale. At the last minute, about 50 additional fans are ushered into the concert as Coldplay's guests. Some find Martin in the basement Smart Bar after the show to personally thank him.


"There were a few people who got in who were almost crying because they got handed these free tickets," said Cirzan, a vice president of Jam Productions who promoted the concert. "A lot of bands would've wanted a press release -- `Look what we did!' These guys just wanted to make a gesture in a difficult situation. When you play in a much smaller place like this, there are bound to be some disappointed people who aren't going to get in."


Viewing the world


Martin's a worrier, the kind of a rock star who says he tries not to take his wealth and fame for granted. For several years, he's traveled to Third World countries and campaigned for fair-trade policies to ease pressure on impoverished economies. He draws attention to the cause by brightly taping his fingers and inking an "equal" sign on his left hand, which he says encourages questions. "I'd be a bastard if I were interviewed every day and didn't at least mention a few things once or twice that didn't have to do with my band," he says.


At the same time, he acknowledges his band is on a mission to be the "biggest" in the world. "Maybe it's because we're raised on reading U2 books," he says, "but there is no shame in joining the mainstream, of wanting the biggest possible platform for your views. I'm not saying we'll be as successful as U2, because I don't mean `big' in terms of size. I mean `big' in terms of the weight of what we can do."


As Martin finds with the Chicago ticket controversy, it also means the band must be more diligent about the potential for its music and audience to be abused. "We signed the recording contract with a big corporation to help us accomplish our goal of being a big band," Martin says. "Everything in the world is coming down to a few corporations owning everything. We need to deal with that, or not be part of it. The one thing I'm totally comfortable with is that the record we've made is artistically exactly as we wished it. It's going to be packaged and used by a corporation to sell things, and it will be torn apart by certain people. But I'm at peace because we put everything we could into it as a band."


Biggest band in the world? It's a dubious aspiration, especially for a singer whose persona resembles an idealistic schoolteacher more than it does a ruthless climber. The affable, apple-cheeked 28-year-old son of an accountant and a teacher, he is the antithesis of the disheveled rock 'n' roll bad boy.


"We were never very cool," says Martin, who met his future bandmates Will Champion, Jon Buckland and Guy Berryman in 1996 when they were attending University College in London. Middle-class, earnest and smitten by the music of Radiohead and Jeff Buckley, they set out to write folk-rock songs that would measure up to the work of their heroes. When the single "Yellow" became a huge hit in Europe and then later in North America, it catapulted them to a level of fame that invited a backlash in the U.K. Alan McGee, founder of one of England's cutting-edge labels, Creation, infamously dubbed Coldplay "bed-wetters" for their lack of properly edgy Oasis-like "attitude."


But if Coldplay never did quite develop a sneer, it did get better and bolder. The quartet's songs were always exquisite, its best melodies rapturous.


"As a songwriter, Chris Martin is in the classic English tradition with people like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend," says U2's Bono. "Their tunes get under your skin, and there's an ecstatic quality to the music that becomes more apparent each time you listen."


What was lacking, until now, was the boldness that separates well-crafted songs from great rock. If they weren't exactly bed-wetters, Coldplay once tended to come off as overly modest, almost awkward in concert.


"There's a strange paradox because we think we're the best band in the world, but there's always a side of us that is quite surprised to have people agree with us," says Coldplay drummer Champion. "It took us a long time to accept that people are not paying to see us be weak and apologetic about our songs. We have to stand up and fire at them. We were playing all these radio festivals in America during our first tour [in 2001], and we were sandwiched between bands like System of a Down, Staind and Disturbed, and we were getting abused. The audience was throwing things at us. Then we played our own show in Atlanta soon after, and it was an amazing feeling. It freed us up. We thought if we're going to do something, we should show our passion because people will respond to it."


"X&Y" is the culmination of that learning curve. It's not only bigger and more aggressive than anything the band has ever attempted, it's also stranger and darker. Influences from '70s art-rock began filtering into Coldplay's performances, with Champion in particular adapting a style of trance-groove drumming from the work of German bands Neu and Kraftwerk, as well as Joy Division, New Order and David Bowie's Berlin-era albums with Brian Eno. Not for nothing is one of the best new songs named "Low," also the title of a classic 1977 Bowie-Eno collaboration.


One song on the new album incorporates a melodic idea from Kraftwerk's 1981 song "Computer Love," and is co-credited to the Dusseldorf combo that pioneered electronic pop music. Martin wrote a fan letter to Kraftwerk soliciting approval, and was given a thumb's up from the band's imperious and somewhat intimidating co-founder, Ralf Hutter. "If it wasn't a good song, I would have said no," Hutter says. "I had not heard their music before, but I liked their song. For this reason, we have decided to re-introduce `Computer Love' to our set list when we play live."


Martin is reduced to babbling fandom when he dwells on sharing a songwriting credit with Hutter. "Kraftwerk's music is not only really emotional, it's also alien to me -- I can't really understand how it was made," he says. It's a lesson that Martin applies to his own songwriting: "All our best songs come when we detune the guitar to something we don't know, or play some keyboard chord that can't be identified. I can't really take credit for writing songs. It's more like we harness accidents and things we don't understand."


It was such serendipity that led to the creation of the band's breakthrough song, "Yellow" (with its indelible chorus of "Look at the stars/Look how they shine for you/And everything you do/Yeah, they were all yellow"), while Coldplay was recording its first album on the coast of Wales.


"We would sit out and look at the sky a lot because it was always incredibly clear, quite a contrast from living in London," Martin recalls. "Ken [Nelson] our producer said, `Look at the stars, lads.' And then we went back inside to record another song, `Shiver.' But while I was waiting for the tape machine to turn on, this song spilled out. I was thinking about Neil Young, strumming the guitar and the words were there, except the most important one. The word `yellow' has all this meaning attached to it now, but here's where the mystery ends. It's not quite so romantic. The whole song makes lyrical sense except for that word. I needed a two-syllable word, there was a book next to me with the word `yellow' on it, and there it was . . . now the mystery is solved, or shattered. But it worked."


A similar spirit guided the most productive sessions for "X&Y." Martin was in Chicago with Paltrow while she was filming the forthcoming movie "Proof" in October 2003. He was enchanted with the fresh air blowing off Lake Michigan and the city's skyline, so he summoned Buckland from London to join him at Chicago Recording Company studios on Ohio Street. More than a dozen songs were written, including four that survived to become the core of the next album, but it took the band more than six months to find its footing again. The individual band members treated recording sessions back home like a day job, arriving at the studio individually to record their parts. The songs were starting to come together, but they sounded lifeless.


"We weren't operating like a band anymore," Champion says. "So we got rid of everything -- producers, assistants, the record company, the baggage that starts to attach itself to you when you get to be a more successful band -- and took our instruments into a rehearsal room with no windows and locked ourselves in there for three weeks and just played."


Modesty at the core


The band pushed its boundaries on expansive rock tracks such as "Square One" and "Low," and even ballads such as "What If" and "Fix You" acquired a majestic glow. At the same time, there's a modesty at the core of the music. Martin ponders big questions in the lyrics -- Why are we here? Where are we going? -- but he doesn't pretend to have the answers. He sounds lost in these songs, his falsetto conveying uneasiness as much as yearning. "Hundreds of years from now there could be computers looking for life on earth," he sings on "Twisted Logic." The closing track, "Till Kingdom Come," is also the album's simplest. Over a sparse countryish arrangement, it looks beyond this world to the afterlife.


"It may sound universal, but these songs are actually very personal," says Martin, with a wan smile. "Whenever I try to contrive something, it ends up sounding like [expletive]. The best ideas just arrive because we're already living them."


Which is why he and his bandmates have made a big, lush, stadium-ready album that embraces vulnerability, uncertainty, anxiety. Coldplay doesn't swagger. It frets. How rock 'n' roll is that?


"It's not about dressing like the Stooges, if that's what you mean," Martin responds. "The Stooges were rock 'n' roll, because dressing like they did was genuine to them. Coldplay is rock 'n' roll because, like the Stooges, we don't care what anyone thinks we should or shouldn't be. We want to be a big band, but on our terms."

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