Coldplay is a band you carry like an umbrella through the inclement weather of the soul, which may be why lead singer Chris Martin spent Coldplay's first video (for a song called "Yellow") on a gray beach in a rain jacket, singing high and low of the stars that shine and the blood he bleeds for love.
"Yellow" shot like a fist of steam from Parachutes, Coldplay's debut album, a kettle on the burner of musical talent shared by Martin, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion, and Guy Berryman.
The lads were barely a year out of University College of London when the CD went on to sell over five million copies worldwide, earning them a soft landing in the front yard of popular culture where the Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences waited to greet them in 2002 with a Grammy for best alternative album. And the media -- titillated by the attendance of luminaries like Elijah Wood, Oasis, and Gwyneth Paltrow at Coldplay shows -- waited in the bushes for the followup.
A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay's latest release,is edgier than Parachutes, the guitar heavier and the bass drum a bit more assertive. To what does Martin ascribe the shift? For one thing, he says, there was artistic support from Echo & the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch during the recording. Most important, though, was the band's attitude.
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"Confidence, really," the singer tells New Times over the phone. "Confidence in the face of fear. The whole success of Parachutes made us think, 'Well, that was great, but we need[ed] to do something where we weren't holding back.' At the same time, we were petrified about releasing the second album. It's hard to pretend that you don't give a shit about what anyone else thinks, but we try to pretend as much as possible."
Not that hearing what others think is a bad thing.
"Press is the Achilles' heel of success," Martin explains further. "It's the one thing that stops you from getting an enormous ego."
It can also interrupt your vacation. On hiatus somewhere Down Under, Martin speaks with a subdued, dewy calm, and he is apologetic when he feels he's said something out of turn or potentially offensive.
"All press is bollocks and propaganda," he complains. "I'm sorry. I'm not trying to demean you or what you do. But we have stuff written about us that's not true, both positive and negative."
Yet, Martin concedes, the band appreciates the attention. Now that Coldplay has earned its laurels, the band still sounds eager to be heard. Buckland, Champion, and Berryman play with young, urgent energy that is balanced by mature instrumental poise, making the nonvocal moments of their albums as beautiful and emotive as the lyrical ones. That's one of Coldplay's finest qualities -- the ability to make the bridge as expressive as the verse.
Martin plays the piano tucked into himself. But when he sings, it sounds as if he's laying down his legacy as a musician who, he recognizes, will probably fall out of fame at some point in the future. As if he's trying to send his voice out to the farthest reaches of the universe, a place he hints at in the opening of "Politik," the first track on A Rush of Blood to the Head: "Look at Earth from outer space/Everyone must find a place/Give time and give me space/Give me real/Don't give me fake."
As the song revs up on pistons of guitar and drums, Coldplay lunges headlong into the disillusions of life on a political planet -- and in the process picking up another two Grammy nominations for 2003: best alternative music album for Rush of Blood and best rock performance by a duo or group with a vocal for "In My Place."
"Sometimes I think, 'I'm peaking at 25. What am I going to do for the next 40 years?'" wonders the polite young man from Devon, England, who is trying very, very hard to do the right thing by his celebrity. Thus far the band has refused to allow its music to be used in advertisements or film soundtracks. Also, in the last year the band has become one of the biggest names to champion fair trade in the global market.
While recording A Rush of Blood, Martin received a letter from Oxfam, a multinational organization dedicated to making trade fair for farmers in lesser-developed countries, asking the band for help. Coldplay dedicated a page of the album's liner notes to the fair trade "politik" -- including a list of Websites relevant to the campaign as well as a small manifesto: "For countries to develop or even survive they need to be able to trade fairly. At the moment poorer countries are strangled by international trade laws and ruthless Western businesses, keeping millions trapped in poverty and widening the gap between rich and poor."
To talk about Oxfam is to get Chris Martin going. And to get him to perform at benefit concerts. To show up at the MTV Europe awards in a "Make Trade Fair" T-shirt. It's even gotten him to Haiti, where Martin met with farmers whose chance at financial survival has been undermined by fluctuations in the world coffee market and cheap U.S. rice imports.
Martin maintains that the band has always wanted to be vocal about good causes, but felt that people would not have welcomed the band members' personal politics at the onset of their careers. "For the first album, they want to know how you met and where you learned to play guitar," Martin says good-naturedly. "But by the second album, they're tired of all that. So, you can talk about something else."
On the Oxfam Website (www.maketradefair.org), Martin anticipates the criticism and cynicism some may level against him for being yet another celebrity traveling to yet another lesser-developed country hoping to make a difference: "I felt like a fourth-rate Bono," he writes. "Then, later on, I felt like a third-rate Bono. Hopefully, it will escalate until I feel like a full-on Bono."
Martin does not gloss over his naivete on his trip to Haiti, either: "When I went to Haiti, I thought it was all going to be fun and beautiful places and witch doctors here and there, but it's not. It's a country that could be this jewel of the Caribbean ... but it's being fucked by various people and trade laws. They get all their rice dumped on them by America. And then people wonder why they try to escape the country and go to someplace that's a little more affluent."
Coldplay's work toward fair trade makes the band's trip to Miami -- where so many have fled the conditions in Haiti -- especially pertinent. The band will also break new ground here by being the first to perform at the University of Miami's Convocation Center, a 7000-seat multipurpose entertainment facility located on the Coral Gables campus. In addition to concerts, the facility will host family shows, trade shows, lecture series, sporting events, and the University of Miami men's and women's basketball teams.
It's a great concert to kick off the new college venue. When playing live, Martin crosses the stage at a run, and has been known to travel up balconies, risers -- anywhere there is stable footing -- to get in touch with distant audience members. When Martin stands still to sing, he pulls his body of Dickensian leanness toward the microphone stand as if the metal tube, or the audience beyond, were a woman he loved.
When asked if his fame has changed the way women relate to him, Martin starts off shy, then reveals: "I still look at myself and think, 'What a loser.' But then, some days -- some days -- I look at myself and think 'Yeah! Let's go!'"
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