Chris Martin is up for it. Half an hour after soundcheck and a few hours before showtime at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium, the Coldplay singer, flanked by guitarist Jonny Buckland, strides into the interview room in the underbelly of the arena. Big smile, big handshake, golden hair, a white badge on his chest. “LOVE”, it says in blue letters.
There’s a heart in the middle of the “O”, and the “V” is rendered as a whale’s tail, or maybe it’s a dove’s wings. It’s a sweltering late afternoon, and Coldplay have just gone through their paces on the outdoor stage, but on a day where most locals are complaining about the heat, Martin merely looks sun-kissed in a way few Londoners are. I wonder if he ever sweats.
Later, he addresses an ecstatic 50,000-strong crowd: “This is gonna be the best night of our lives, and we’re gonna give it all we’ve got, and all we ask in return is for you to do the same,” he shouts. “This is show number 70 on the tour, and as far as we’re concerned the first 69 were rehearsals for Brisbane, Australia!” (Which, presumably, makes Brisbane a rehearsal for Melbourne, which in turn is a rehearsal for Sydney, etc.)
What’s disarming is how easy it is to believe him.
Twenty years into Coldplay’s career – the band formed in 1996 at University College London – and things have never been better, as far as he and Buckland are concerned. Their seventh album, A Head Full Of Dreams, released a year ago, sees their enormous popularity undimmed, with worldwide sales around the 2 million mark and guest appearances from Beyoncé, Noel Gallagher and Martin’s former wife Gwyneth Paltrow, among others.
There’s no jadedness, no cynicism, no pining for the lost innocence that marks any young band’s early years. This is it; this is the golden age. “You’ve got to live in the moment!” Martin insists. (Exclamations become necessary when quoting him.)
A cursory glance at any tabloid headline will tell you that, no matter how extraordinary his life is, Martin has ordinary problems like the rest of us: his divorce from Paltrow, with whom he has two young children, was finalised this year. But while Coldplay albums work like a balm to their legions of fans – soothing, mellifluous, never, ever rocking – their leader has the energy of a faith healer.
Which is exactly why it works. After two decades, perhaps now more than ever, Coldplay, as earnest as ever, offer reassurance in troubled times. “I think playing big, big shows connects you to an idea of music in its old-fashioned sense of being something that is supposed to just be of service, you know what I mean?” Martin says.
Coldplay – Martin, Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion – emerged from the ashes of Britpop. Like their early Scottish contemporaries Travis, a band from whom they took early inspiration, they took the keening voice and sensitive lyrics of an American, Jeff Buckley, and paired them with the communal spirit of their forebears, Oasis.
But they rejected the excess and manic extroversion of the Gallagher brothers, dialling the music down into something more hymnal. “I see our stadium shows as a way to bring people together for a few hours and sing,” Martin says. “I think we’re all made alive by that feeling of singing with thousands of people at the same time, it’s what makes people feel connected to everyone.”
Later, concert-goers are handed LED wristbands, which glow yellow when the band play the breakthrough hit from their first album, Parachutes. “It’s not really about the band, it’s about everyone at the same time,” Martin says. “Since we got our wristbands that’s been easier and more enjoyable – you can see everyone literally light up! We just feel like we’re the house band, facilitating this big singalong.”
This is Coldplay’s brilliance, creating the illusion of intimacy in a stadium setting. It wins them few critical plaudits, but it’s harder than it looks, especially when the size of your fan base limits you to playing arenas. “A song arrives and you just follow it,” Martin says. “And of course we sometimes sit down and have discussions, can we do this song, can we do that song, and occasionally it doesn’t fit with the remit.”
What’s the remit? “Well sometimes you might get sent a reggae song that’s amazing, but if we did it as Coldplay, it would not serve the song and it would not serve us either, it would just look stupid.” (For proof, see YouTube footage of Martin dancing alongside Beyoncé and Bruno Mars at this year’s Super Bowl.) It’s not, he says, a matter of trying to give fans what they want, “but what we think might make people feel something. We never want to be wilfully obtuse.”
The word “sent” is important here. “When the song Yellow came through, something in my body was like – oh, there’s something different about this,” he says. “Occasionally you get a song where you think, oh, this is here for a reason, it’s not just crafted, it’s arrived. But that initial thing comes from a place you don’t really understand.
“It’s like if you’re running a hot springs and taking credit for the hot springs. You can’t. My point is music kind of gets sent through, from wherever it comes from, and sometimes you know when something is really going to connect.” So do the songs belong to you, or the fans? “That’s my point. They never belong to any of us. Only the shitty ones belong to us!”
Cynics will offer their own rejoinders to Martin’s cheerful self-deprecation. A quick straw-poll of friends – what would you like to ask Chris Martin? – presents the following: “Is it still all yellow? And have you seen a doctor about that?”; another suggests the terse, more existential “Why are you?” Among them, a meek voice: “I don’t mind Coldplay. I know that’s not cool, but they have some lovely songs.”
“Often the things people criticise us for are the same things other people like,” Martin says. “Everything in life is how you look at it, isn’t it? It’s about trying to see the value and beauty of everybody, and the joy of togetherness, but at the same time the accepting of differences of opinion. So I take it, if people are still able to say Coldplay are shit, well, there can’t be too big a problem going on in their lives.”
Buckland, who offers thoughtful rejoinders in between cracking up at his band mate’s woolly philosophising, doesn’t sweat the small stuff, either. “I think we just feel incredibly lucky for everything we’ve had. I mean, honestly, we’d be arseholes for wanting this to be even better.”
“You can’t go around the world playing stadiums and complain that something’s awful. It just doesn’t work,” Martin says. “You can’t say, it’s great we sold this many [records], and all these people seemed to have a nice time, but we didn’t make the end-of-year poll on that thing.
“It’s OK, we’re OK. And we stand for what we stand for and we’re true to ourselves and so we’re not pretending anything, that’s the key thing. It’s not like someone’s going to discover something about us that we’re trying to hide.”
Since their early days, Coldplay have been frequently compared to U2, and more and more – in their longevity; their staggering success (80 million records and counting: surely, as someone once said of Elvis, all those fans can’t be wrong); their unflagging belief in the ability of music to solve the world’s ills and their frequent forays into activism, it appears true.
I ask Martin and Buckland about the mood in post-Brexit Britain. (The band had vocally endorsed a vote to remain within the European Union.) “It’s very hard to not sound like a knob when you say that really, borders and all that stuff shouldn’t need to exist, should they, in an ideal world,” Martin says. “If you’re an alien and you landed on earth and you come from somewhere else in the galaxy and you saw the fractiousness of everything, I think you’d be surprised.”
“We imagine when we land on another planet that all the aliens there get along just great, do you see what I mean?” he expands, Buckland hooting with mirth beside him. “No one ever thinks about, like, the election on planet Cybertron, you know what I mean – ‘Oh, these guys hate those people and these people want to leave that bit…’ So I personally am all for…”
He doesn’t finish that bit, but rolls on. “And we in our job get to go around the world, seeing how people respond the same way to certain music. I don’t know. My personal feeling is that this is the storm before the calm.”
You really are an incurable optimist, aren’t you?
“Yeah, I really am. Otherwise I’d just go and jump off a bridge. But even then I’d have a parachute and make it great fun!”
And with the interview done – thinking, perhaps, I’m in need of some love – he plucks the badge off his shirt, and presses it into my palm.
First published in Spectrum (The Age/ Sydney Morning Herald), 7 December 2016