Chris Martin is almost giddy at the thought of picking up one of the most coveted prizes in music. “The first time we saw a Godlike Genius was when we won Best New Band [at the NME Awards in 2001]. I think U2 were getting their Godlike award and I remember thinking, ‘How the f*** do you get to that?'”
The NME Godlike Genius award is given out yearly to the absolute best and biggest artists in the world. Back in 2001, Chris and Coldplay were seated at the back of the room during the ceremony itself, keenly watching in awe as, right next to them, their heroes milled about and sized each other up. At this point, they’d barely uttered a word to Noel Gallagher or Kylie Minogue, let alone collaborated with them. Skip forward 15 years, however, and it’s clear who’s the biggest name in the room. In 2016, Coldplay are undeniably the headline act.
No surprise, then, that when we meet a few weeks before the show, Chris Martin is feeling reflective. It’s early evening on the last Friday before Christmas – the messiest night of the year – and central London is alive with the hum of a million office parties.
Walking through the middle of it all is one of the most recognisable people on the planet, flitting between Regent’s Park, Marble Arch and Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. There’s no entourage, no security, nobody to step in and help out should Chris Martin suddenly get mobbed while waiting for the lights to change on Oxford Street.
Suddenly a car pulls up and practically mounts the pavement before screeching to a halt just inches away from him. It’s full of kids aged about 20, and the driver winds down the window. “Excuse me, mate…”
Here it comes, I think. “…can you park on the yellow lines round here?” “I’ve got this!” Martin nods, a massive smile spreading across his face.”It depends if it’s a single or a double and what time of day it is,” the Coldplay frontman bellows. “It’s a single white line now. What time is it? Half seven? Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in traffic, but…I’d go for it.”
At this point, it becomes clear that nobody in the car has realised that the man giving them parking advice is one of the most famous people in music – focal point of perhaps the world’s biggest band. On the contrary, they seem to be freaked out by Martin’s overly helpful response and are now looking at him as if he’s a bit weird. “Uh… OK… thanks?” the driver says suspiciously, already winding up her window.
This is the double life that Martin is, remarkably, still able to lead. On the one hand, he and his bandmates Guy Berryman (bass), Will Champion (drums) and Jonny Buckland (guitar) can play to hundreds of millions of people at the Super Bowl, hobnob with actual royalty and look forward to headlining Wembley Stadium not once, but four times this summer. And on the other? Martin can literally be that guy you accidentally bump into outside Prêt because you’re both too busy looking at your phone to concentrate on where you’re going.
We’d met four miles away two hours earlier, straight from a session at his local gym in Primrose Hill, where he seems to be on first name terms with all the staff. This is the only time Chris can spare ahead of the Super Bowl and awards ceremony “madness” that will engulf the first quarter of 2016.
He’s in a cheerful mood, whether it’s talking about friends such as Bruce Springsteen (“A f***ing dude. He’s a wise and generous legend to me”), Noel Gallagher (“The Oscar Wilde of our time”), Kylie Minogue, Michael Stipe, Jay-Z and Beyoncé – or, more seriously, about what it means to be world famous in 2016, the future of Coldplay, his family life and his hopes and fears for the world in general.
Hilariously, at one point during the walk – by a busy Green Park tube station, no less – he even does a fantastically loud, lippy impression of Mick Jagger, blurting out, “But Marianne, your legs are beautiful!” at full volume. Nobody even notices. Chris may be an unlikely A-list rock’n’roll star, but he has to be one of the most ambitious too. He’s made no secret of the band’s desire to be massive ever since the release of their debut ‘Parachutes’ 16 years ago.
Their latest album, 2015’s ‘A Head Full Of Dreams’, with its Beyoncé and Noel Gallagher cameos, trap influences (‘X Marks The Spot’) and Cure-meets-Strokes throwbacks (‘Birds’) – is their best yet, he reckons. “It’s what we’ve always dreamed of making. It’s the first time we’ve felt, ‘Yeah, this is who we are as a band; this is us; we’re comfortable.'”
That feeling – being comfortable – includes accepting a self-deprecating view of how Coldplay are viewed in the wider world. Martin appears almost at pains to show he doesn’t think their music is remotely important in the grand scheme of things. “I don’t know if we’ve delivered one masterpiece album, ever,” he says matter-of-factly. He basically recognises he’s not cool… but at the same time he couldn’t care less.
“One thing that’s quite liberating about being in a band is when you realise a lot of the world really doesn’t give a f*** about music and they definitely don’t give a f*** about what’s cool and what’s not cool,” he says. “They just hear a song they like and then carry on with their day.”
Try telling 100,000 people in a field at Glastonbury that Coldplay don’t mean much, I reply. Coldplay will headline the festival for the fourth time since 2002 this June and Martin calls it “the closest thing to a homecoming gig” they’ve got.
“There are certain moments along the way – the most recent one being the Super Bowl – that are ‘wow’ moments,” he says. “Other ones were that first little NME mention we got [back in January 1999, when we called them “already masters of both the epic chorus and the insular weep-out”]; the first time headlining Glastonbury; the Paralympics.” And headlining Worthy Farm more times than any other act since it started back in 1970? “Man,” he splutters, “I’d play there every day if we were allowed to.”
Martin makes for boisterous, convivial and supremely easy company. Wanna know what’s on his running playlist? OK: Drake, into Rammstein, into Joni Mitchell, into Selena Gomez. ‘Hells Bells’ by AC/DC, meanwhile, “will make me run twice as fast”. Wanna know how he celebrates his kids’ birthdays? By introducing them to the joys of Rage Against The Machine. “The other day we had this silent disco, where you have this transmitter and about 10 sets of headphones, and we were having the best time. I could see that my son was full of energy, so we did ‘Killing In The Name’. It was amazing to watch!”
Or how about his absolute BEST memory from the past 16 years of being a fully signed-up rock icon?
That, he says without even flinching, is easy. “Playing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ with Michael J. Fox. He has a Parkinson’s benefit every year and Back To The Future is my favourite film. He said, ‘Would you do some music at the event?’ So I said, ‘Yes, of course. I’d love to, but is there any way you could come on stage and we could re-create my favourite scene in film history?’ And he said yes! He said, ‘I’ll time my medication so I’m most able to play [guitar] at that time’. So we started playing ‘Earth Angel’, the ballad they’re playing in the film when he first joins the band and his pictures are disappearing, and then he came on and people went crazy and we played ‘Johnny B. Goode’. My life just felt complete…”
But there’s something unconventional about Martin too. He’s scatty and eccentric, as if his head is a chaos of ideas, all bubbling around at once and fighting to get out. He can flit from being frantic and intense to jovial and back again countless times.
He’s his own PR man too, someone who’s exceptionally talented – shrewd even – at saying just enough in an interview situation to make the conversation fly without ever really revealing his deepest, darkest secrets. Which, when you think about it, is probably how he’s managed to avoid any huge ‘my tabloid hell’ scenarios since breaking big with Coldplay.
When talk inevitably turns to his separation from Gwyneth Paltrow, which was made public in 2014, it’s Martin himself who raises the subject. “Of course, village gossip, we all like to know what everyone’s up to,” he says. “Me too. But once you start being in it you realise, well, this isn’t really based on any truth. Especially if you go through a big break-up, there’s no point reading about it. There’s just no good gonna come from it.”
Compared to the recent stories about Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton’s messy divorce or Madonna and Guy Ritchie’s well-publicised battle over son Rocco, Martin and Paltrow’s split seems expertly stage-managed. After waiting a full year to announce the news via a statement on Paltrow’s own Goop website, they made sure they were on holiday the day the story went live in an effort to minimise the impact on their two children, Moses, 9, and Apple, 11. “Because,” Chris says, “if you have kids and they start reading about their parents not liking each other, that’s not good.”
It worked too – aside from the much-mocked phrase “conscious uncoupling”. “It happened,” Martin shrugs when asked about the clunky term. He sounds upbeat and easy. “I don’t mind speaking about it,” he says. “We just spent a long time trying to maintain a friendship so there wouldn’t have to be any kind of battle.”
Martin now splits his time between the UK, where Berryman, Buckland and Champion live, and LA, where his kids live with Paltrow. “We share custody of the band,” he jokes. “We do two weeks here, then we do our own thing for two weeks. Which is a wonderful way to work – it’s how Brian [Eno, producer and long-time Yoda figure for Coldplay] wanted us to work. “The two weeks off aren’t really two weeks off – it just gives me time to get demos together or organise words and everyone else does their stuff.”
The other members of Coldplay, while not nearly as recognisable as their frontman, are as integral to the cause today as they were when they rehearsed in Jonny’s bedroom at 268 Camden Road before signing a record deal. At Coldplay’s north London HQ The Bakery a few weeks later, it’s clear there’s a gang-like mentality that keeps the four of them tight.
“I’ve never felt like fame is getting in the way of me living the way I want to, which in certain circumstances it really can for Chris,” Will tells me. “I don’t envy that at all, but he handles it with extreme grace, I think. He’s learned to deal with it.”
For his part, Martin says he’s never been happier, scoffing at rumours ‘A Head Full Of Dreams’ will be Coldplay’s final album together. In an offhand remark to DJ Zane Lowe last year he compared it to “the last Harry Potter book”, something Will raises his eyebrows about now.
“He does tend to say things that get misconstrued. But also, he does tend to say something like that after pretty much every album. He might say, ‘This might be our last one’ and I think he genuinely believes that. I always liken it to James Bond – as soon as they finish filming one someone’s like, ‘Are you gonna do another one?’ and he’s like, ‘No chance, f*** off!'”
Martin wants the band to tour the album properly over the next 18 months (they played just 20 shows for previous album ‘Ghost Stories’, compared to 85 for 2011’s ‘Mylo Xyloto’), and Berryman confirms the band already have a series of worldwide festivals and gigs mapped out, which will take them up to late 2017. Only then will they consider taking time off and he suspects it “could only be six months” before they’re “itching to get back into the studio”.
So Coldplay, as all four of them insist, are not going anywhere anytime soon. The bottom line, explains Martin just before he heads west towards Knightsbridge, is that he’s finally learned how to love being frontman for a massively popular global band. “It helps me through things,” he says. “And most of the time I walk around like a normal person, believe it or not.” Best keep your eyes peeled the next time you’re in town…