Chris Martin Interviewed: “The people who hate us will always hate us.”

Coldplay’s frontman on fearlessness, songwriting and why Brian Eno is his “Gandalf”

Coldplay's Chris Martin on stage, Milan 2023

by Danny Eccleston |
Updated on

Ahead of Coldplay’s headlining slot at this year’s Glastonbury, MOJO revisits one of our most revealing interviews with frontman Chris Martin. On the agenda: fearlessness, songwriting, Dylan, A-Ha and why Brian Eno is his “Gandalf”…

Teetering on a bookshelf in the common room of Coldplay’s scrappy north London studio, amid the debris of kiddie art, “raw kale chips” and a complete DVD set of Jeremy Brett’s definitive Sherlock Holmes, is a scale cardboard model of Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. Inside, various elements of the group’s live show – the podia, some keynote back projections – are laid out in miniature, while four tiny white plastic men deliver a silent mini-simulacrum of the set that, in the recent words of Noel Gallagher, “absolutely ripped the arse out” of Glastonbury 2011.

The ringmaster of that particular high-water mark of combined humility and bravado bounces into the room, baby blue eyes a-glitter. Life-size, Chris Martin is burlier than you remember. In shorty shorts and with woolly chest exposed, he’s Tigger to Thom Yorke’s Eeyore, full of catholic praise for PJ Harvey (“who else has her balls?”) and Lady GaGa (“Telephone just does something to my brain”) but quick to self-flagellate. Since Y2K’s Parachutes introduced Coldplay’s neat take on expansive, post-Radiohead alt rock, he has proved a font of aw-shucks pop genius. But massiveness has come at a cost: Coldplay haters are savage and vocal, and sometimes you feel that Martin would swop it all to be somehow cooler, whatever that might mean.

Meanwhile, the seemingly stately sweep of Coldplay’s progress has disguised their wobbles, upgraded to outright panic around their 2005 album X&Y, a crisis of confidence that led them to Brian Eno’s door and a bid to “revolutionise” the group that begat ’08’s non-linear Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends. Their latest, Mylo Xyloto, is a more streamlined v2.0 of the post-Eno model, a meld of atmospheric rock and cutting-edge pop (Rihanna duets on Princess Of Chinese) engineered to silky perfection by Markus Dravs. But Martin’s prevailing optimism comes with familiar caveats…

“The whole record is a chewing up of everything we love,” he says, “and I love Rihanna as much as I love Nick Drake. And it’s not like we have anything to lose. The people who hate us will always hate us.”

After MOJO’s visit, Martin will race to his therapist, someone he sees once an album to prep for the onslaught of questions about his wife. Further boosting stress levels hereabouts, the group are in the middle of last-minute faffing on an album they have just 12 hours to finish and deliver…

What can change on a record at this late stage?

Sequence. What to do with those little incidental bits. The challenge is to edit it so there’s no fat but retain the atmospheres and sonics we really like.

For want of a better phrase, there’s a marked modern pop influence on this album.

Everything is everything. There’s no boundaries, so let’s be free and go with what we think sounds great. That’s what the pop people have been doing for ages. They’re way ahead. They don’t give a shit if you’re a goth or a Mod. They just think, “What’s the best hook?” The gold standard with all music is whether it gets you, whether it makes you feel something, makes you jump out of your seat. Maybe it’s to do with getting a bit older, maybe it’s to do with the internet, but I find that my old internal snobbery has completely disappeared. I feel at ease with it.

Is this a different Chris Martin from 2001-2, the one who could never decide if he was any good?

Oh no, I still feel that way. ’Course, yes. But I’m pretty sure that the rest of the band have got better (laughs) so that gives me a bit more confidence.

When did music first make an impact on you?

I was on a cross-country team, when I was nine, and there was a competition in South Wales we had to drive to from Exeter. I had a tape of Michael Jackson’s Bad and A-Ha’s Hunting High And Low. And that was the first time that I felt that emotional connection to music, where it really meant something to me. That was my falling-in-love moment.

You felt it viscerally?

Yes! It felt rich, it felt like a meal. It felt that something was filling me up in a way I couldn’t explain. And then, I guess, when Radiohead came around, that was the first time I thought, “Oh, people like me can make music also.” ’Til then I felt too white and too middle class, all these things that are true, of course.

What would you have done otherwise?

Well, my uncle had a holiday park in Devon. I could have gone there and done Bad cover versions on a keyboard. That’s probably what I’d be without the rest of the band: (grins) John Shuttleworth.

So your epiphany was with commercial pop. That’s a fundamental part of your DNA…

For sure. And in return for that you sacrifice, to be quite honest, a lot of MOJO readers. It’s  a reason for a lot of people to not want to be associated with you. I totally accept that. It’s a bummer to be discredited, but I get it. Given a choice between the catchy thing and the non-catchy thing, I’ll always choose the catchy thing. I’m a commercial whore, is that what you’re trying to say? Well OK, I am.

What do you remember of the first songs you wrote?

I had a teacher at Exeter Cathedral School called Stephen Tanner, and he brought a bunch of keyboards into our music room one day and said, “OK, now everyone write something.” And we’re like, “We don’t know how to write music, we’re 10!” And he said, “You just press this button to get the auto bass and drum beat, pick a sound, play anything and you’ll have something.” About four months after that, someone was talking in the kitchen to my mum and they said something… (screws up face) something about somebody not having a home, and it was like my brain told me, “You should sing that.” I remember very clearly that I went straight to the piano and wrote a song, then took it to Mr Tanner and said, “I’ve got a song.” And he’s like, “Excuse me?”

Your best songs still sound like “arrivals”.

The best songs are arrivals: the Yellows and Viva La Vidas. You can craft them, that’s true, but there’s definitely an element that you can’t control. And that’s why I always say that I don’t know if we can do another album, because you never know when the fish are going to stop biting. And I will never release an album without some of those songs on it, the ones where I know, I got sent that, or at least, I knew how to catch it.

Have you always had this almost conversational style of singing?

No. I didn’t think I was allowed to sound like me for a long time. From about the age of 12 to 14 I tried to sound like [A-Ha’s] Morten Harket. And then Elton John, which was funny because my voice had still not broken. Then – and he will be embarrassed to hear this – I tried to sound like Paul Weller for a couple of months around the release of Stanley Road. And then I went through a big Eddie Vedder phase, which really didn’t work. Then I heard Thom Yorke and Jeff Buckley and I thought, “OK, that sounds do-able.” Then about midway through our first album I was happy to sound like me.

Coldplay were sort of discovered by Fierce Panda’s Simon Williams, who gave you £400 to record a single, which turned out to be Brothers And Sisters.

Fucking hell, that guy changed our lives. In the great tradition of successful British bands we were rejected by an awful lot of people. We didn’t have Yellow at that stage. We had nothing resembling a haircut. You had to have imagination to see how we would make it. Before that, we’d done some recording in Tottenham Hale [at Sync City, now Bally Studios] with this fantastic engineer called Nikki Rosetti. She was about 45 but her boobs were alarmingly high. She seemed older than the height of her boobs. And she had a very firm handshake.

Did you know how you wanted to sound?

That’s hard to remember. I always thought we would erode our way to greatness, rather than explode. I always felt that it would be a learning process – not like a Supergrass or a Lady GaGa, where it’s perfect straight out of the box. I don’t even know that there was a clear understanding that a recording studio could capture more than what you were doing on stage. It wasn’t until the beginning of Parachutes that we started working that out.

Did progress feel fast or slow? A whirlwind or a slog?

Both. It’s always felt like both. There’s part of me that always thinks we’re only just catching up with whatever label we’ve been given – the ‘this’ band or the ‘that’ band – and another part wonders, “Why aren’t we Led Zeppelin yet?” It’s a constant duel, an eternal battle.

Yellow was the key that unlocked everything for you. That was another of those “arrivals”?

Yeah, that was about three minutes. But I was thinking the other day… I still don’t understand what the “yellow” bit means. It bothers me, but I like it.

Did it bother you at the time?

What, when it was smashing up the charts? ’Course not!

No, I mean when you wrote it…

No, not even then. Perhaps that was a decision I’d already made, which was to always stick with what I thought sounded true and good and not to overthink the meaning. This is something that always comes back to bite us, but I think it accepts that language is sound as much as meaning. Like, sometimes the word ‘biscuits’ will sound better than the word that actually makes sense. I suppose Yellow is in the Vauxhall Conference of the same sport that Wonderwall is in the Premier League of. What is a Wonderwall? No idea, but I understand it… At the same time I am so fucking grateful for Yellow. And I knew it straight away. I knew it was the first song I’d written that was totally true to who I am and who we are. It wasn’t trying to be anyone else. It felt ‘original’.

You tend to write very direct “addresses”, fewer third-person scenarios…

Recently I’ve been trying to do both things. But this morning I was listening to Panic by The Smiths, and I felt really happy when he sang, “The music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life.” I thought, “OK, even Morrissey thinks you should speak plainly about life and feelings, even the greatest lyricist around wants to say [from Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others], ‘Send me the pillow, the one that you dream on.’” For all his crypticism, all the best people have a straight-to-the-heart moment.

Which Coldplay song are you’re proudest of? Maybe not even the best, or hardest to write?

I have a definite answer for you. I don’t think it’s the best, but for me, it’s Fix You. Because it’s so unlikely that that song would have come out of that period. The rest of that album [X&Y] I like, but I don’t think it’s great. Whereas that song… it’s the best one because it almost single-handedly got us through a really difficult two years. You could say it’s too soft or whatever, but… it does exactly what it says on the tin. Even when I’m singing it, by the time I get to the end, I’m thinking, “I like this.”

What got to Coldplay around X&Y? There was a point when EMI were leaning on you to deliver the record in time for the end of the financial year and you nearly did…

That period was pretty rough, pretty rubbish.

Shouldn’t you have just told them, “Fuck off, it’s not finished”?

Well our problem around that time, around 2004-5, was that [adviser-manager] Phil Harvey, our secret fifth member and kind of the captain of the band, had some problems. And he went to Australia to get as far away from us as he could. We had all kinds of problems within the band. All the old clichés. I’d just entered the world of paparazzi and all that crap. There was so much noise. Plus we’d just had A Rush Of Blood To The Head, which was our breakthrough around the world, and every band that happens to 
melts down on the next record. The band weren’t getting on; we’d lost [Parachutes and _A Rush Of Blood…_producer] Ken Nelson through some medical stuff, and we were driving him crazy anyway, because we didn’t know what we were supposed to do. All that and then, supposedly, being solely responsible for EMI’s share price. That didn’t seem at all real. And it was the fifth problem on the list after losing Phil, the guy we trusted to tell us which songs were good and not good. At the time it felt like the end.

After that didn’t kill you, you seemed to come out of it a bit tougher, less bothered about what people might think about you.

Well that stuff still gets to me. But it gets to me like Rocky getting punched in the Rocky films. I get up and think, “Right, now I’m gonna punch you back.” That’s the only thing you can do. The lowest point there was this thing in the New York Times [The Case Against Coldplay, June 2005] that just tore us to pieces, as a band, as a concept, just everything. And I remember being sent it, ’cos it was still the days when people might still say, “Hey check this article out, you’re in it!” But this time the person forgot to read it [sample quote: “it sounds like hokum to me”]. From there I just thought, “OK, let’s start again from scratch, and if they don’t like Mk I, maybe they’ll like Mk II.”

Before coming on board, Brian Eno offered you a critique. What did he pick up on?

Doing the same trick too many times, using the same kinds of sounds, not being deep enough lyrically. It wasn’t in a nasty way… he just had an idea of how we could go forward. Brian’s input gave me a lot of confidence, and Phil came back all better in the head. Everyone in the band got healthy… healthier. I learned to buy tops with hoods and keep myself hidden as much as possible. And we could focus on being a band again… and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last four years.

What did Eno teach you about being in a group?

Brian allows us to feel untrapped by anything we’ve done or by any box. You can listen to anything and you can draw inspiration from anything. It doesn’t all have to be U2 albums… Brian brought freedom. He’s more of a band member than a producer. He makes you all sit together in a circle, and he’s in the circle, and you all play together. Because we came up with the rise of Pro Tools, everyone was getting more and more separate in the studio. And Eno was like, “No, no, no, computers are there to work for you, and you are still a band, so get thee to thine instruments.” He’s like Gandalf. He comes in, weaves all his magic, causes chaos, then disappears. Then he comes back, and he’s just been to Kazakhstan to learn about horseback wrestling.

Like a lot of people on the net, I’ve followed your single Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall back to Peter Allen’s [1976 piano-pop banger] I Go To Rio. That song is insane...

Isn’t it? Everything is unusual about that song. He’s a bit unusual. The video is a bit unusual. 
I heard a sample from that song in a track [Ritmo De La Noche, by Lorca] in the Javier Bardem film Biutiful [2010]; there’s a scene where he walks through a club, and I’m thinking, “This is the best chord sequence I’ve ever heard! I’ve got to find out what it is and make a song out of it!” So I traced it back… I used those two chords and got in touch with his people. It felt very fresh – we’d never sounded like that before.

You’re very zealous over the credit. I wondered if that was in light of the problem over the song Viva La Vida, when Joe Satriani sued you for plagiarism.

No. That situation was really… not very nice for us. Four or five different people [including, temporarily, Cat Stevens] said that we’d stolen the same two bars. Everyone who knows us knows that we don’t work like that. What was particularly upsetting about that was the level of vitriol… I find this topic hard to navigate because it makes me so emotional. All I will say in closing this is that I don’t steal people’s music, and I never will [the case was settled out of court in September ’09].

One of the perils of bigness is that your motives are always in question. Every musical decision is reinterpreted as a business decision.

Absolutely. Even Kings Of Leon, with their wonderful album Only By The Night, the reviews were like business reviews. Nothing about melody. But I get it. From the outside I can see how we appear careerist. But all we’re trying to do is make the best music we can, all the time. If your postman was voted World’s Best Postman, you would still want him to give a shit about delivering the post, and not just throw it in a hedge. But if that postman was in the music world, being voted World’s Best Postman would mean everyone setting their dogs on him. Fuck off, we don’t want your mail!

Is the emotional complexity of your songs underestimated? I think of a song like X&Y’s White Shadows, this cry for help from within the rock star cage…

That album is all about that. And I think there are some good lines on that album – all it missed was some honing. I had an English teacher once who wrote a report to my parents that said, “Your son’s brain is like a bran tub. You have to rummage around for a long time but you will find something good.” So that album is our bran tub album, and what I’ve tried to do ever since is to get rid of all the bran, but it takes fucking ages because he was right, I do come out with an awful lot of crap.

Mylo Xyloto: what does that mean?

Well first of all it doesn’t mean anything… yet. But neither did Google. Neither did Coldplay. It’s ridiculous, at the moment. But I wanted a title that sounded nothing like anybody else’s album, or washing machine, or anything. It had to be otherworldly and new and fresh. Because this feels like starting again. Like we’re going to prove ourselves from scratch. Because the song I felt was, up to that point, our best song, so many people tried to say I didn’t write. So I thought, “Back to square one,” and “I’ll show you who writes the songs around here.”

Can you still write about your life, now you’re under the microscope? Do you need a code?

Yes and yes. That’s why we call our records things like Mylo Xyloto – it’s a layer of crypticism to disguise the fact that it’s completely and utterly about the way I think, and my life. It’s just the shell of the Kinder Egg, just pass the parcel. At the centre, it’s completely and utterly from the heart about being a human, on Earth. But I’m also now enjoying the freedom to put it in another place, or another person. That’s the shaping of it, the framing of it. That’s the colouring-in.

And finally, and a bit randomly… what’s your favourite Bob Dylan song?

(Instantly) Buckets Of Rain. It was the moment I fell in love with Bob Dylan’s music. I was on a tour bus leaving Reading Festival, the first time we played it in 1999, and I woke up suddenly with that song playing in my ears. And I was suddenly there. Completely in it. Dylan keeps on writing, keeps on playing, because ultimately, that’s all there is… That’s the truth. That’s what you are. Doing this is not a ladder to anything else, if you love it. Often I’m asked, “What are you going to do next, what else do you have going on?” I have friends who do a lot of things, and sometimes I think to myself, “Oh man, should I, like, open a… hat shop as well?” But I need to write music, and sometimes I feel like a loser ’cos that’s all I want to do. But you know, there’s no Bob Dylan hat shop…

Coldplay headline Glastonbury Festival on Saturday June 30, stay tuned to MOJO4MUSIC.COM for our complete coverage of the weekend’s best music.

This article originally appeared in MOJO 217.

Picture: Chris Martin on stage at Stadio San Siro, Milan, June 25, 2023. Credit: Sergione Infuso/Corbis/Getty

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