By Brian Ives
“I could speak about Rocky IV all day,” Coldplay frontman Chris Martin tells Radio.com. It’s an odd choice from the Rocky franchise; most people would choose the original, or II, III or Creed. But this is a guy who cites a-ha as a major influence (in fact, after our interview, he spoke about a-ha at length with Fresh 102.7‘s Trey and Ghia at length about the ’80s pop group), and doesn’t even tell drummer jokes. Quite the contrary, he says “Often, drummers are more sensible than singers” (clarifying that “I don’t know if it’s proven [by] science”).
He’s also an anomaly in that he’s instantly recognizable frontman for a stadium headlining band, yet he’s still almost unbelievably humble. While most artists of his stature have an entourage that seems to walk on eggshells, he seems to have a calming effect on everyone around him.
During our interview we spoke about a number of his collaborations, including the band’s later single, “Hymn for the Weekend,” which features Beyonce. But Martin is also now the curator for Global Citizen Festival, and he was also glad to talk about that. And, of course, there’s the question on every Coldplay fan’s mind: is he seriously that their latest album, Headful of Dreams, may be their last?
You recently spoke at Peter Gabriel’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Like him, you use music as a platform to advocate for activist organizations. He did a lot for Amnesty International, and he founded Witness. You’ve championed Oxfam‘s Make Trade Fair and the annual Global Citizen Festival.
Well, I think that the reason why we champion the things that we champion is twofold. One: we just feel, as humans, that we have the right to say we believe in, just as anyone does. Also, so many of the people we grew up listening to were telling us about causes that they were interested in. Nine times out of ten, I’d then be interested in that [cause] too. The way I heard about the rain forrest issue was through the Police and Sting. The way I heard about Amnesty International was through U2. That worked for me: my favorite bands saying, “If you’re interested: we care about this [issue].”
But there’s a fine line between just telling people that you’re interested in something, and beating them over the head with it. And we always want to try and stay away from that.
In the case of Global Citizen, it’s something that we really believe in. I love being a part of it. We don’t expect people who listen to us to want to be a part of it, but it’s cool to say, “Hey, this is what we’re up to.”
[Global Citizen Festival in 2015] was the first time I’ve ever been involved in putting a lineup together for a show. Now my job is going to be more about the ones that we’re going to do abroad.
I imagine Peter Gabriel would be more than willing to play the Global Citizen Festival.
I’ve got to become more aggressive with my rolodex! But it was such a thrill to sing with Peter Gabriel at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I feel so lucky, I’ve done that with a few of my favorite singers over the years, and some younger ones. If I can speak for myself, you get some extra joy sometimes, musically hooking up with someone else. And it could make a concert feel extra special if you have that moment.
Who would your dream booking for the Global Citizen Festival be?
At some point, it would be amazing to see if Bruce Springsteen would do Global Citizen.
You also had a great concert moment with Richard Ashcroft when he performed “Bittersweet Symphony” with you at Live 8.
That was a giant moment for us. That’s probably my favorite song of all time. He’s a lovely and reclusive guy; I don’t think I’ve seen him since. It was an amazing moment, I’m so happy we made that happen.
You had another moment like that when you performed with Michael Stipe at the 12.12.12. concert. I think that was his first performance since R.E.M. broke up.
He was one of my biggest, biggest, biggest heroes as a kid, and still is. I just love that man so much. After Hurricane Sandy, there was the 12.12.12 concert at Madison Square Garden. Somehow, we managed to convince Michael Stipe to come out of retirement. I love R.E.M. so much. Everything they stood for as a band, as far as the sum being greater than its parts, and that you’ve got to follow your heart. They set the template for what we try to do.
They were clearly a left-field band with arena ambitions, and you guys have always seemed like that also.
It’s a funny one, the battle between ambition and taste. I think we’re so lucky because we’re a group that was together before we had anything. And we got together based on our tastes and our shared musical values. And I think that any time we’ve had to choose between those two things, we always will choose the taste side. If it doesn’t resonate with us emotionally, we won’t do it. But, we still all love playing stadiums, and we love big shows and sing-a-longs. But only if we believe what we’re singing.
I’m sure there’s a “Larry Mullen” in the band who keeps the ambitions in check and says, “We would never have done this when we were in our twenties!”
We have to say no to things all the time. Some of which would be beneficial financially, or exposure-wise. But if the drummer or bass player – in our case, Will [Champion] and Guy [Berryman] – really don’t want to do something, they’re probably right.
I think that’s how it works in U2 as well.
But that’s the characteristics of those instrumentalists. Often, drummers are more sensible than singers. [laughs] I don’t know if it’s proven science, but I’d be prepared to give a small talk on it.
When that song was coming together, I just thought, “This is the one to ask Beyonce [to sing].” ‘Cause it has this kind of angelic character in the song, and she’s clearly that. So I just asked if she wanted to come and hear it. And if she was into it, maybe she’d want to sing on it. It was very casual. It was so much fun to do, it was such a treat. When you’re right up close to her, singing, it’s pretty phenomenal.
So she’s singing on your record: how do you “produce” Beyonce?
With someone as talented as Beyonce, you’ve got to let them do their thing, and then if you want something extra, you can gently ask at the end, “Is there any chance you can try one take in Japanese?” And they either say yes or no.
Will you guys return the favor? Will Coldplay be on the next Beyonce album?
I’d do anything she asked. I’m not sure she feels the same way [laughs].
I know there was a song that you asked her to play on, and apparently she didn’t like it. Press seemed to enjoy writing about that.
One thing I’m trying to become comfortable with is, it’s OK if people want to take pleasure in not being into what you do. That’s fine; if that helps your day, awesome. The truth of that story is: it was, like, half of one idea. It wasn’t really a full song… but saying that makes the story sound less impressive. It sounds like a better story if I said that we had a whole song, and she said it’s terrible, and then she hit me in the face and we never spoke again. So, if that’s what you want to believe, you can believe that!
I think that something that one has to accept is that if you’re a really popular band, you’re also going to be a really unpopular band. That’s just the way music is. Maybe it isn’t [that way] for younger kids, they just like songs. And I think most people in the world are just interested in songs. But to some people, music is still a tribal thing, and is still a way of showing who you are, and also who you are not. I think most big bands have been through that. It’s alright. I don’t mind.
To give too much attention to that side of things is to ignore the loads of people who show up and sing… those are the people I really want to focus on, you know? I’ve got affection for everybody. But I want to give my time to the people who are going to show up [to our concerts] and be into it.
I had a similar conversation with Phil Collins, actually.
This is where having a band is key. If you’re a solo artist, and you go through a wave of negativity for the first time, it can feel like, “Who on earth do I share this with?” Every album we do, someone says something weird [about it]. But you share it. These are my best friends. So we deal with it in our own way. As you get older you just learn, “Well, that’s life, you know?” We’re trying to encourage equality among all humans. So we’ve got accept that that means [equality] even among those who don’t like us.
In the case of Phil Collins, if and when he comes back, and I think he will come back, I think he’ll be so amazed with how many people love singing his songs.
Another big “get” on the album was President Obama. How did you get permission to use the sample of him singing “Amazing Grace?”
To me, that was a real powerful moment in history. It’s on an interlude [“Kaleidoscope”] with a poem that we love called “The Guesthouse” by Rumi. For me, it’s a very important piece, in terms of what it does to me. When I’m down, it “resets” me. So we just asked the White House.
Did you hear if he liked the track?
I think he gave us a “C” on Yelp. He gave us a “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.
You’ve said that Headful of Dreams is Coldplay’s last album. Have you retracted that statement?
I haven’t retracted that. I don’t know whether we’ll do another album. If you want the honest truth, I feel like we’ve done six and a half albums that I feel really proud of. Head Full of Dreams for me, is like a treasure map for how to get through the day. It’s taken a long time to get to, and I’m so happy we’ve gotten to it. And when I’m singing those songs, it makes me have more affection for the older songs. I feel that we’re… really good right now. I don’t feel the need to add to anything. I just want to enjoy what we’ve made already. And also, I don’t know how I feel about trying to make people buy more albums. I don’t know. We’ll see. But I don’t want us to break up.
So you want to stay in the band, but not add songs to the discography?
Right now, I can’t imagine doing that. But we’ll see.
You’ve mentioned Rocky IV in recent interviews. I think you told Rolling Stone, in regards to your diet, “If Rocky ate it, I’ll eat it.”
You have to remember, interviews are interviews. But I can speak about Rocky IV all day. Rocky IV, for me, and I’m sure there are other equivalents for other generations, that’s the movie that taught me about not giving up. If you want something, you have to go for it. You have the combination of your natural talent, and then you’ve got to work like crazy. And, if necessary, go to outer Siberia to do so. “You can do it man!”
One thing that always struck me about Coldplay is that you’re an indie band who has always, refreshingly, lacked snobbery. I was thinking about that when Ariana Grande joined you on stage at the Global Citizen Festival last year.
We never really fit into a box, which is sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse. For whatever reason, I and the rest of the band don’t have any specific kind of music that we prefer to any other. “I love salsa!” “I love heavy rock!” Then I realize, “Actually, I love all of it.” If there’s one thing I’m proud of with our band it’s that we don’t really have any barriers of what we feel like we’re allowed to do or not. To me, I’m just as happy to be singing with Ariana Grande as anyone else. I mean, if it’s Michael Stipe, that has a real childhood resonance for me. But Ariana Grande is an amazing singer. And so I just love the privilege of being around anyone who is good at what they do, even if it’s different to what we do, or if it’s not what someone thinks is cool.
Finally, if you seriously are not going to record any more new Coldplay songs or albums, are you considering doing a solo record?
I can go on record here and say that I will never do a solo album. And if I do, I’d like someone to play this back for me and say, “What the hell are you thinking?” Because the only reason I’m able to do what I’m doing is because of the rest of the band. But we’ll see, man. I’m just happy to be here today, who knows what’s gonna happen? The happiest people I know just live right in the moment and try not to worry about Thursday.