A few long articles have surfaced from various sources this weekend as the Coldplay juggernaut goes into overdrive, ready for the release of Mylo Xyloto. This from the Sunday Herald Sun (Australian), discusses Coldplay's approach to Rihanna for Princess Of China (nothing we didn't already know), Brian Eno (again, not new) and also the development of one of Coldplay's most popular new tracks - Charlie Brown. That part at least (around the middle of the article), makes interesting reading... [Full discussion on this article is at the Coldplay forum now.]
He is a rock star millionaire, fronts arguably the biggest band of his generation and is married to an Oscar-winning actor, but a beautiful woman can still turn Chris Martin to jelly. On its fifth album, Mylo Xyloto, which is released on Friday, Coldplay has brought in a guest singer for the first time and front man Martin says that the prospect of asking R&B goddess Rihanna to do the honours reduced him to an awkward, bumbling mess.
Martin had originally written the song in question, Princess of China, with the Barbadian beauty in mind, thinking he would offer a song to her as he had done for artists such as Jamelia and his former girlfriend, Natalie Imbruglia. But after showing it to his band mate Guy Berryman, they decided it would be better done as a duo for the album they were working on...
So at a star-studded New Year's Eve bash in Las Vegas last year, Martin plucked up the courage, which was, as the self-deprecating Englishman acknowledges, not unlike asking the hot girl to the school dance. "That was exactly how it felt," Martin says with a chuckle, sharing a couch with guitarist Jonny Buckland in a New York studio. "It was like in Four Weddings and a Funeral when Hugh Grant chases after the girl and goes 'do you think, um possibly if I didn't say, er, how would you feel about not not singing on this?' I was like a bumbling mess."
It might have taken him a while to get there but Martin says the inclusion of the duet, the embracing of new sounds from dance to hip-hop to R&B, and the decision to make Mylo Xyloto a concept album are all good indicators of where Coldplay is as a band in 2011. Having arrived with a bang more than a decade ago with the album Parachutes - and its monster hit Yellow - and following it up with the even bigger, multiple Grammy-winning A Rush Of Blood To the Head in 2002, Coldplay was having something of an identity crisis after the release of 2005 album X&Y.
It was around that time The New York Times labelled the British foursome "the most insufferable band of the decade" and as a band whose ascent coincided with that of social media and the blogosphere, the level of vitriol seemed far out of proportion to their achievements or perceived crimes. But from that baptism of fire came a revelation. "I think once you accept that hatred then you can focus on entertaining the people who like you or want to like you," says Martin. "But definitely for a period, probably around X&Y, when we hadn't yet learned how to switch off Google and you could put in Coldplay and see all the results. But I think everybody for a while was a bit overwhelmed by the mass of opinion."
The band emerged stronger from the experience, enlisting the help of sonic guru Brian Eno for Viva La Vida Or Death and All His Friends, which became the world's highest-selling album of 2008, with more than nine million copies sold. Buckland says the new album is very much a development from its predecessor and builds on the confidence and focus that Eno brought to bear. The band coined a term for the input of the man who first found fame with 1970s act Roxy Music and went on to produce seven albums for U2: "Enoxification."
"It's a description of how he fits into the process," says Martin. "It isn't producing - it's his own weird thing. He plays in the room as a band member - but it's so hard to explain what he does."
Buckland has a stab: "He allows us to feel free and to feel like it's OK to look stupid and to do things that maybe don't work. The main thing he brings is just an enjoyment of discovering new things."
Indeed, the seeds for Mylo Xyloto were sown just a week after the release of Viva La Vida, when Eno wrote the band a letter telling them they were on the right track - but could do even better. "I think if it was from anyone else you would tell them to f--- off," says Martin. "But because it's him - and he has done his body of work ... If he says 'I'd like to keep working with you because I think you can improve' then you would be a fool not to take him up on that."
Such was the band's ambition that the initial plan was to make two albums - one a more subdued, mostly acoustic affair, possibly as a soundtrack to an animated film, and the other a more upbeat, dance-influenced effort. The problem was that one kept intruding on the other and the band realised that creating some kind of false distinction between the projects was in fact holding them back.
"We have a song called Charlie Brown, which was the centrepiece of this other record we started first," says Martin. "We were playing the riff on an accordion and Guy came in one morning and said 'I'm afraid I have to put my foot down. I don't want to speak out of turn, but I will not allow this song to be played on an accordion - that has to go in with the Mylo bunch'. So then we thought - let's just make one album."
The solution to reconciling all of the disparate styles and sounds they had been working on came slowly. Elements of the soundtrack idea lent themselves to a concept album, which Martin initially described as "a love story with a happy ending". He is, however, quick to point out that it's a loose term without the "dragons and mountains" that can turn a concept into caricature and have given the format such a bad name over the years.
"It's a concept in as much as it is trying to make a small, tangible story out of the mass of confusion that is everyone's daily life," says Martin. "On the surface it is supposed to be two characters in a big, oppressive, urban atmosphere who are both a bit lost and find each other and take on the enemy so to speak. But really it's just a collection of personal feelings presented in that shell."
The added bonus was to write something that was to be listened to in its entirety, a rarity in the age of digital downloads and custom-made playlists. Despite having had a string of hit singles from Yellow to Clocks to Viva La Vida, Martin is adamant Coldplay is best suited to the longer album format and arguing he could never write a single as good at Lady Gaga's Bad Romance. "People barely listen to whole songs any more, never mind whole albums, so we thought let's go the other way and make the best album we possibly can," observes Buckland. "We wanted to make the most meaningful and coherent 45 minutes of music that we could."
Five albums in, Coldplay remains a strange mix of self-assuredness and insecurity. During this interview, which took place weeks after the band had delivered the finished album to the label but a month before its release, both Martin and Buckland admit to being nervous about how it will be received. "If you really care about something and you put everything into it - whether it's an album or a cake - you are a bit nervous when people are about to taste it," says Martin. "It actually gets harder because you hope things will be assessed for themselves and not too much because of your history or the way you are perceived."
That said, Martin and his band mates also seem more comfortable with where they fit into the music pantheon. Just a few years ago, as the band was entering its second decade, Martin said he felt acutely the pressure of producing something truly great and hinted the band could split sooner rather than later. The band to which they are most often compared, U2, was viewed as a yardstick both internally and externally, with Martin mostly admitting that Coldplay came up short. But their newfound sense of experimentation - and their enduring success - has also brought liberation and acceptance.
"I think if there is one thing that we have tried to avoid on our fifth record it's that feeling of trying to be somebody else," Martin says. "There are a couple of moments on the new record where you can't really hear what the influences are, which is possibly a good thing. I think that once you accept that you can never outdo The Beatles then you can relax a bit. No matter what happens you can never be the biggest band ever."
October 2011: Your One-Stop-Shop for Coldplay Info! [thanks ApproximatelyInfinite]
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