Despite being the adored, much analyzed and fantasized about lead singer of one of the planet’s biggest rock bands, Chris Martin of Coldplay is practical, even humble about his role. Sitting on the floor of a rented house in Los Angeles, enjoying the California sunshine and the taste of the strawberry he’s just finished, Martin is deliberately and charmingly low-key.
“It just comes from pure gratitude at being given this job, particularly in a period of time when music is hard to be employed by,” Martin says of the free CDs that Coldplay is giving to concert-goers on their U.S. tour, which kicked off Friday night in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“We wanted to give something to the people who have paid money to come see us or buy the album,” he adds, referring to “Viva La Vida,” the best-selling album in the world in 2008. “It’s like a reward system in a grocery store.”
Material sustenance is not what most fans think of when it comes to Coldplay’s music or its live shows, which are known for the passionate connection that Martin makes with audiences. The free CD, “LeftRightLeftRightLeft,” with nine live songs culled from the band’s last tour, is partly an attempt to capture that link.
“It is like a snapshot of where we’re at at the moment as a band,” Martin says. “Hopefully nine little morsels of where we are at the moment. It’s supposed to give an overview of how we sound now and mostly how our audience is with that.”
Given that Coldplay is returning to the United States so soon after finishing another North American tour last November, audiences seem to like whatever the band does. The combination of Martin’s charisma and emotionally introspective, obliquely poetic lyrics, and Coldplay’s darkly anthemic, lushly melodic music has proved to be potent. The group has grown steadily in stature and sales since debuting in 2000 with “Parachutes,” quickly shooting from indie darlings to the top of the U.S. and global charts. Their third album, 2005’s “X&Y,” sold eight million copies in the first year, while “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends” sold 6.7 million physical and downloaded copies — stellar figures in an age of free downloads and splintering audiences.
The press, however, has been divided on Coldplay and on Martin himself. The band’s music has been criticized as indulgent and repetitive, while Martin, who is married to actor Gwyneth Paltrow (the couple have two children, Apple, 5 and Moses, 3) is sometimes faulted for being arrogant, a vegetarian, righteously well-behaved, and generally avoiding the classically entertaining rock star behavior of excessive drugs, drinking and screwing around. (Although he has been known to wrestle with paparazzi and appear in comedies like the movie “Shaun of the Dead.”)
Martin is, in fact, unabashedly middle class. The oldest son of five children of an accountant father and a music-teacher mother, he met his Coldplay bandmates in 1996, while all were earning degrees at London University (they refused to tour or release their first record until they’d taken final exams, and vowed to kick out anyone who used hard drugs). He has campaigned on issues of fair trade and global poverty, and spoken out against the Iraq war. While social themes don’t inspire Coldplay’s songs, Martin says he feels a responsibility to try and affect the world in a positive way.
“It appeases the guilt I sometimes feel for being given such an incredible job,” he says. “I think when you are contributing to or talking about something that you know is important on an activist level, it somehow feels better than if you’re just sitting back taking coke.” As well as assuaging his own anxieties. “I don’t really like to stop and feel comfortable,” Martin says. “So I guess social activism is part of that.”
But he is realistic about how much effect he can have on the world, beyond making people feel better for the length of a song or a show. “If I’m a bit down and worried about something then if I listen to ‘I’m On Fire’ by Bruce Springsteen I feel better,” Martin says. “We can only influence our little world in our little bubble.”
Coldplay songs are generally attributed to the whole band: Martin, guitarist Jonny Buckland, drummer Will Champion and bassist Guy Berryman, plus close friend and former manager Phil Harvey, who’s listed as a fifth member on “Viva La Vida.” Though Martin writes most of the lyrics and, as singer (and husband of a movie star), tends to be the center of attention, he emphasizes that the music comes from all of them.
“If any one of the five of us was to leave or die or be kidnapped, the rest of us would be useless,” he says. “We’re always trying to give credit to the chemistry more than the individual ability. That’s what a band is, it’s bigger than the sum of its parts. That’s why people join bands — because they’re not good enough to be soloists.”
He is reticent about where those lyrics come from. “I find often songs come from thinking of a title. The other morning I woke up and thought I’d like to do a song called ‘Drunks and Guns.’ So I hung around the house all day waiting for it to come, and eventually it came to me.”
And how did he come up with the title? “No idea,” Martin says. “I think if you write a list of songs you feel like certain letters are missing, so maybe I had a list with no D’s on it.”
Aside from filling out an alphabet of titles, it seems the only downside for Martin these days is being away from his family months at a time. Martin insists it’s not a significant problem. “It’s not the same as being a soldier being sent away for six months with no contact,” he says. “It’s pretty manageable at this point.”
In fact, he jokes that separation can be a good thing. “I think their worst nightmare is having to be with me every day. You’ve only had 20 minutes.”