"So, are you going to fuck us over, then?"
Such is Coldplay singer Chris Martin's greeting, proffered with a warm smile and a clasp of the arm. Before assurances can be offered, he's sashayed into his Los Angeles hotel room, where clothes spew out of a suitcase and over the floor. "I mean, it's probably about time," he continues equably. "If that's what you want to do, man, I won't mind. I'm just surprised people are as positive as they've been. I always expect everyone to hate us."
Strange words from somebody who's enjoyed not just a number-one album in his native Britain, but unusual for a British band these days solid success in the States. Coldplay's sophomore album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, hit number five on Billboard's album chart and recently coined platinum.
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Formed at college in London by singer/songwriter Martin and the near invisible "other three" (guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion), Coldplay had a smash hit with its second single, the indelible "Yellow." The song became the sound of the British summer in 2000. Led by Martin, an alumnus of the exclusive Sherbourne private school, where he uncoolly ran the Sting fan club, this was nice, middle-class, middle-of-the-road music: Radiohead with the bitter emotions and twisted sonics markedly absent. The piano ballad "Trouble," a U.K. hit that also dented the U.S. charts, could have been "a Celine Dion song in the wrong hands," according to Martin, "but we made it sound cool."
"Cool" is something Coldplay was far from being in its early days. With the release of its debut album, Parachutes, the group was blasted by the Hives' record-company boss as a bunch of "bed-wetters." Maybe this is why, success notwithstanding, Martin still expects everyone to hate him.
Either through disingenuity or paranoia (you can never quite tell), Martin underestimates the band's creative and critical turnaround of the last eight months. Having shaved off his nerdy curls to become the thinking alterna-chick's crumpet after the first album's release, Martin then mutated into a one-man quote machine, memorably accusing Bono of having a weave, and confessing to having been a virgin until two years before and having once worried he was gay.
Unveiled at Britain's prestigious Glastonbury festival last June, A Rush of Blood to the Head revealed new ambition and a new edginess and angularity, not just nicely elocutionary emoting. Suddenly, Coldplay was possessed with, of all things, mystique. America wasn't slow to catch on: The single "Clocks" opened up new quiet space in rock-dominated U.S. radio, and a sellout tour last fall meant a raft of new dates for another go-around this year.
Behind all of this, you sense, is Martin, an English eccentric finally allowing himself his rope even if he does jerk it back at regular intervals. A born front man, on stage he alternates between eyes-closed spasmodic singing, like a better socially adjusted Thom Yorke, and scampering around trying to turn cameras onto his bandmates. "Let me introduce you to Jonny. He's 21 and taken!" he said recently to a crowd. Failing, he shrugged, "Oh, fuck it, let's have the camera on me, then."
The attention of the camera and the audience rarely strays very far from Martin. But in person, at first impression, Martin looks fried, unlikely as this is at 10 a.m. for a man who is an avowed abstainer. "I'm wired enough without adding anything else!" he says, chuckling and sipping a mineral water. But he looks fried in a way that's vulnerable rather than debauched, blue eyes piercing his pale face somewhere between flirtation and frankness. Undeniably handsome, Martin has a floppy, slightly fey quality that leaves women feeling divided between mauling and mothering him. Last year, prior to the blossoming of his romance with actress Gwyneth Paltrow, Martin complained about his lack of action. "I sleep alone every night and watch back episodes of Sex and the City. There's no such thing as casual sex," he said, then paused before asking: "Is there?"
Though he can be difficult to pin down, it's rare for Martin to refuse to answer a question. More often, he'll blurt out a response, only to backtrack moments later or use self-deprecation as a reply. Asked about his newfound sex-symbol status, Martin offers, "Well, obviously, I am devilishly handsome a spotty, receding sex symbol! The only people who've said I'm a sex symbol are male journalists!" Prodded for Ms. Paltrow's views on the subject, however, he's politely evasive. "Hey, that's off-limits, man. Ask another question."
Martin first fielded Paltrow queries last fall, before he'd even met the actress. Asked by the British press if the two were dating, he responded, "I mean, I wish!" Days later, he jokingly devoted "The Scientist" to "my girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow" at a show. When the two actually met last November at Wembley Arena, Paltrow's opening line was, "Apparently we're dating!" Thus does tabloid speculation become broadsheet fact.
So is Martin surprised that the sensitive music favored by his band has found a niche in the States? After all, some people here don't consider Coldplay to be very rock 'n' roll.
"It's really odd. We're trying to get passionate music into the mainstream. But it does feel like we're the only vegetarians at a meat-eating conference," he says. "And let me say once and for all that we're as rock 'n' roll as anyone. Rock 'n' roll isn't dressing up in leather and trashing hotel rooms or snorting coke off the back of a hooker with the guitarist from Spinecracker. Rock 'n' roll is doing what you want. Independence of mind and spirit."
At this point, Martin gets up from the floor, picks up the Dictaphone and proceeds to crouch atop the coffee table, holding the recording device in his hand for the remainder of the interview. With anybody else, it would be studied eccentricity, or even genuine madness ("Look, I'm a monkey!"). With Martin, it seems entirely normal. If this is manipulation, it's masterfully done, even when debating the future or the burdens of success.
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"All we have to deal with is the responsibility for the fate of middle-class white-boy music. And even that drives me a bit nuts," he says. "It's not like being George Bush and shouldering the responsibility of being so stupid you might destroy the whole world. As long as we realize [success] is all fundamentally bullshit, it's fine.
"We're working on some rockier numbers. I've started playing electric guitar onstage," he adds. "We've got to move on. Life is about being as un-Coldplay as possible."
Still, life as Coldplay hasn't gone so badly: Last year's wusses are now this year's winners. The band has been nominated for a Brit in the U.K. and a Grammy in America. And while the next few months will be packed with U.S. dates, Martin doesn't envision a time when the band will alter its aesthetic or its approach to better suit American sensibilities.
"We're a more English version of Incubus," he says, warming to a theme. "They come on in a tee shirt and then reveal their bare chests; we come on in jackets and then reveal our tee shirts. It is very English, because it was decreed in the Beatles book of law that thou shalt not take off thy tee shirt. The day we appear bare-topped is the day we've completely lost the plot."