An hour before showtime, Chris Martin lopes about the concrete backstage of Winnipeg's MTS Centre in cyan socks and baggy warm-up pants. All around him, roadies bark into headsets, and security guards clench their fists. He seems oblivious. A song is looping in his head – Nickelback's If Today Was Your Last Day – along with thoughts of Marco Polo, a recent obsession, writes The Globe And Mail.
A week earlier, Forbes magazine had named Martin and his bandmates the world's most powerful British celebrities. Here in the home of the Manitoba Moose, the rock star appears detached, and a little alone.
Martin has blue eyes like spotlights, a diffident smile and an unfailingly affable air, but his hands are most mesmeric of all. Staring at his long, gangly piano fingers, one can't help but think these genetic aberrations form the heart of the whole hit-making, Grammy-winning schmaltz factory that is Coldplay.
They play the brain-cleaving piano hooks responsible for the band's commercial appeal (over 50 million albums sold) and, sometimes anyway, one of them wears the wedding ring responsible for the band's tabloid allure. Today, there is no wedding ring, something the tabs have interpreted as a sign his marriage to actress Gwyneth Paltrow is crumbling. The accusations, baseless as they may be, clearly gall the otherwise unflappable 32-year-old, as he steps aboard a tour bus to speak with me this week before the first Western Canadian date on the band's wildly successful world tour.
“If it's me in the news, there has to be some negativity,” he says, crossing his legs and leaning back to reveal a hint of a belly about which, he reveals, Paltrow has been ribbing him lately. “The news. They have to say we're divorced, or make fun of our baby's name. You just can't have pure positive news. Why is that?”
His eyes are piercing. He smiles. He wants an answer. “Readers,” I say. “Maybe they can feel better about themselves if they feel worse about you and your wife. It's our daily tonic.”
“Well, that's fair enough,” he replies. “Daily tonic. I like that.” Giving people what they want is something Martin can understand. He is a pupil of pop music, studying closely the subliminal appeal of hit songs by the likes of Nickelback. “I know they're not the most cool band to reference,” he acknowledges, “but they do something better than other people do, you know what I mean? You learn about great pop hooks, power and presentation. And I take my hat off to them.”
He's well aware of the critics who say Coldplay's music focuses too much on a steady formula of vacuous lyrics, cloying hooks and overproduced melodrama. Sasha Frere-Jones, music critic for The New Yorker, termed the concoction “warm milk.” After a New York Times reviewer dubbed Coldplay the most “insufferable band of the decade” in 2005, Martin treated the dig as good advice, promising to “just write better music.”
In 2008, the band hired Brian Eno to produce Viva La Vida , an album with more variety, and less reliance on stirring love songs – but with the same stadium melodies. Martin himself has taken to calling his music “soft rock,” even though he realizes the term's Barry Manilow connotations. “I'm only using it lightheartedly,” he says. “I don't really believe in definitions of music by porousness or erodibility. I don't think the word ‘rock' is valid. I think it's kind of silly. It makes me giggle just to say the word ‘rock.'”
Aside from Nickelback, Martin has found inspiration hanging out with members of Kings of Leon recently. The bands met in Australia, and Martin says they had some “fun,” but wouldn't specify how he passed the time with the hard-drinking Tennessee rockers. “Just imagine it for yourself,” he explains, “a meeting of the soft rockers and the hard rockers. It made for an interesting juxtaposition. I think it will make it into a song.”
After 121 concert dates (each of which grossed about $1-million) over the last year, Martin has seen a lot to inspire, but nothing more so, he says, than the changes in the United States since Barack Obama's election. “Two years ago, touring America, you felt like it was on the downward,” he says. “In general, I feel that even though it's a recession, there's just a great mood and a great optimism. Even little subtle changes like going through customs feels a little friendlier now.” He pinches a slender index finger and thumb together. “Tiny little things.”
He hasn't seen much evidence of the sour economy altering the pop-music landscape, at least not in any way comparable to the Great Depression, when down times sparked a massive movement toward uptempo jazz and swing. “I don't really subscribe to the view that terribleness is essential for art,” he says. “There's always good stuff being made – good times or bad. In bad times, there's just more baggage to hang on it. Know what I mean?
“I'll give you a good example,” he continues. “Yesterday, I watched this film called RocknRolla . … If it wasn't by Guy Ritchie and there wasn't all that personal baggage associated with him at that moment, everyone would just be, like, ‘It's a great movie.' But because people always want to attach something to something else, it changes how they see the film.”
Indeed, aside from the trail of paparazzi that follows him, Martin doesn't seem to suffer enough for his art. He's obscenely rich. He's married to one of the world's most beautiful women. He has a fan base whose monetary devotion has made Viva La Vida the most downloaded album of all time. And he happens to be unfailingly friendly.
So where's the angst? “It's in everybody. It's not just musicians who are insecure and worried about whether their girlfriend likes them. It's everybody. And you know, I don't think it's fair to bang on about your own problems just because you're a musician.”
In fact, during our interview he seems more interested in my problems, showing great curiosity in the bleak future of newspapers and a keen interest in other articles I was working on. He also mentions his passion for the HBO series The Wire , a sure way to any journalist's heart.
But is it all an act? After the interview, I meet another reporter who says Martin had given him the same treatment, asked the same questions. Online, I find more suggestions that he's been buttering up interviewers in the same manner for the past year. Yes, Chris Martin knows how to give 'em what they want.
Source: Globe and Mail
More new pictures of Coldplay at GM Place, Vancouver (20th June 2009):
Pictures by '(photographic)memory' @ Flickr: