The former singer for The Red Rooster Boogie Band isn't shocked by what's happened to him and his band in the two short years since they released their debut album. No, as he's said before, it's been like a surprise birthday party. He didn't necessarily expect a party, of course, but it was his birthday, after all, so why not? Yeah, he's confident, cocky even. He knows he can write a song that makes the whole world sing, knows he's good and knows plenty of other people know. Millions of them, in fact. He only wonders why it took some of them longer to catch on, and why others still haven't.
The former singer for Fat Hamster and The Rockin' Honkies, on the other hand, is a little more taken aback by what he's been through in those same two years: the platinum plaques and critical curtsies, countless cover shoots and Q&As, adoration of fans and fellow bands alike, fame and infamy, all of it and more. He worries about dying and losing his hair and doesn't understand why anyone cares about him and his little student band, the group he formed with a few of his mates from college not that long ago. He keeps waiting for the punch line to the joke his life has become.
Both of these musicians are, technically, the same person: Chris Martin of Coldplay. (The Red Rooster Boogie Band and Fat Hamster and The Rockin' Honkies, along with Time Out and many others, were once names Martin and the band--guitarist Jon Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion--played under in their native England.) May sound strange, but it's not. Not the way Martin sees it.
"I mean, every band, I think, is a mixture of enormous arrogance and terrible self-doubt," Martin explains. He's "in a dressing gown in a hotel" somewhere in Washington, D.C., a couple of days before Coldplay will perform at D.C.'s 9:30 Club, a couple of weeks before the group's second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, arrives in stores. He's speaking so softly into the phone that every word sounds like a secret. "However big or small we are, we always think that more people should like us, but we can't believe how many people do like us."
The latter number should only increase with the release of A Rush of Blood to the Head, which hits stores August 27. Just like Coldplay--and more to the point, Martin--A Rush of Blood is a mixture of enormous arrogance and tremendous self-doubt, all grand gestures and faltering feelings; think of it as watching someone's video diary blown up on an IMAX screen. And like the group's debut, 2000's Parachutes, A Rush of Blood is the kind of album that reaches through your ears and grabs hold of your heart. Martin's voice hits a blue note everyone has sung before ("The truth is," he moans on "Warning Sign," "that I miss you"), while Buckland's guitar, strong and delicate as piano wire, wipes a tear from his eyes.
Though the blueprint is the same, the building materials are different: There are echoes of the Bunnymen all over (Martin became friendly with the group's singer, Ian McCulloch, during recording), nods to New Order (Berryman spells Peter Hook admirably on "Clocks"), even a little C&W ("Green Eyes" would sound right at home on Music Row). The arrival of A Rush of Blood is a bit like the homecoming of a beauty queen who's spent the summer backpacking through Europe, a newfound worldliness making her all the more attractive. In a way, it's a scrapbook of everything Coldplay has seen and heard since the band released Parachutes two years ago. "It was all just being sucked in, you know?" Martin says, explaining the inspiration the band drew from Joy Division and The Cure, as well as newer bands such as Muse and Sparta. "And it just came out like it did."
Two years ago, everyone involved had modest goals; they figured if the album could sell 40,000 copies or so, it would be a good start, a nice number to build on when the next record was ready. A Rush of Blood will stand on an even stronger foundation: Parachutes sold 5 million copies, a million of those in America. Martin doesn't care much about the fame that has come with being The Voice and The Face for a band with a record on the charts. If pressed, he'll admit that, yeah, it's not too bad, man. He can land a date with, say, singer Natalie Imbruglia simply by telling his manager that he fancies her, and his manager will tell her manager that Chris Martin from Coldplay fancies her, and it's just that easy. Soon enough, she's on his arm backstage after Coldplay opens for U2 in Dublin. (True story.) That's a sweet deal. No denying it. But that kind of access is important to Martin for other reasons.
"One of the great things about selling some records is that we've started meeting lots of people that we really respected and admired," Martin says. "Everyone from Bono to Ian [McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen] to, you know, people like my age, Tim [Wheeler] out of Ash and At the Drive-In and PJ Harvey and all these people. And that's fucking cool. Especially when the press sometimes is giving you a hard time. It's really nice to know that people you admire don't think you're that bad. You know what I mean?"
Not really. But there is one thing everyone knows, Martin included: There's no more sneaking up on listeners, not after "Yellow," Parachutes' stand-out single, crossed over onto the American pop charts and set up camp there, tent-hopping among the unlikely likes of Britney Spears and 'N Sync. "Yellow" was bigger than the band that recorded it, at least at first, the kind of formula that usually produces "one-hit wonder" for an answer, especially when a British band is plugged into the equation. (As in: Blur + "Song 2" = one-hit wonder. Try it at home with anyone you've seen on the cover of NME or Q.) Yet, as more people picked up Parachutes for "Yellow," they heard that there was much more to Coldplay than that one gloriously undeniable song. Parachutes didn't have another hit as big as "Yellow"--at least in the States--but they didn't need one. No need to separate one song from the pack when there's an entire album that's every bit as good.
A Rush of Blood takes the idea even further: With its fists-in-the-air chorus, lead single "In My Place" has the potential to become another "Yellow," but it might not even be the best of the album's 11 tracks, each song better than the one before it. Martin knows it would have been easy to simply coast on their success, rush out a new album loaded with cut-rate rehashes, take the money and run to Ibiza or wherever rich rock stars are supposed to go. He could've gone crazy trying to write another "Yellow." But the overwhelming response to Parachutes made the group even more resolved to record the best possible album it could, not just another hit sandwiched between 10 slices of white bread.
"Absolutely I feel a responsibility," Martin says, his voice rising as he warms to the topic. "Because, in this world where people are ripped off on a daily basis and exploited...Even when you're just watching Frasier and you have to sit through 10 minutes of advertisements, you know? We're so exploited and ripped off all the time that I absolutely dread the idea that someone would spend their $10 on our record and go home and be disappointed. So, in that sense, I feel absolutely like, 'Well, we better fucking do it.' We won't ever release anything unless we've put absolutely everything we possibly can into it. Because, you know, at the end of the day, it's people's pocket money.
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"The same thing happened on the first one," he continues. "The same thing happens on everything...There was a time when we thought we'd finished the record, and then we came back to it a week later and just thought, 'No, no, no, we can do a lot better than this.' And then, basically, dumped half of it."
It wasn't Coldplay's first career crisis. Long after Parachutes hit like a kiss in England, they weren't sure if they were a successful band or a successful media creation, a disposable group the overzealous British press had bullied onto the charts. They enjoyed it, sure, but they questioned it even more. And then they came to America. "It suddenly dawned on us that people were turning up because they liked us and not because of anything else, you know?" Martin says, referring to the turning point, a show in Atlanta last summer. "And that they weren't joking when they were clapping. And, really, it was touring America that just gave us loads of confidence. We could try new stuff out and not worry about anything."
The American fans' belief in the band got them through the first half of A Rush of Blood, and after ditching the almost-finished record, their belief in themselves got them through to the end. But they still worry about a few things.
"The weird thing is, in terms of interviews and what I say, I wish I did think more about that, 'cause I always say things that come back to haunt me about two days later," Martin says. "Or someone comes up to me and goes, 'You wanker! I can't believe you said that.' And I'm like, 'What?'" He laughs. "The problem is that you forget when--you know, like me and you are just talking now--you forget that anyone's going to read it. And I'll tell you something about the time I, you know, skinned my neighbor's dogs or whatever, and I forget that you might print that.