Coming in from the cold

(SUPPLIED)

Somewhere in north London – where Camden ends and Primrose Hill begins, at the neck of an anonymous alleyway, across the road from a council estate – there's an old bakery. It hasn't been used for years, not for baking bread anyway. It's not the kind of location you'd expect to be the place of conception for one of music's most high-profile comebacks of the year.

Yet, to the building's new tenants – singer Chris Martin, guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion – The Bakery serves that very purpose. Its whitewashed walls provide a sort of refuge; a place to create and take stock before the wheels of the London band as a public entity begin to turn once more.

"I used to walk past it every day and think, 'What an ugly place'," says Martin. "Then one day a 'to let' sign appeared outside. I thought, 'Hmm, that place is so ugly, I bet no-one would bother us if we move in there'."

Buckland, who's also available to talk to us, loves his band's new base too: "It's the first time we've had a proper band home since we were rehearsing in my student bedroom in 1999," he glows. "It's made a big difference."

We've been invited into The Bakery to hear and talk about Coldplay's forthcoming fourth album, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, to be released in the UAE this week.

As widely reported, these are troubled times for Coldplay's record label EMI and, commercially speaking, much is expected of their charges' new work. And the label has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect the release from leaking ahead of schedule.

But even away from the glare of expectation emanating from their paymasters, it's a record that also raises an arsenal of questions about their relevance in pop music circa now.

For a start, there hasn't been any new Coldplay music since 2005 and the musical landscape into which Viva La Vida arrives is almost unrecognisable from the one in which they reigned supreme last time round. Secondly, the record's June 2008 release has been fraught with delays.

Martin says: "We spent an awful lot of time in the studio, then pretty much recorded everything in 20 minutes at the end", but that still doesn't shed any light on why March 2007 saw him telling GQ magazine they would be working with Timbaland on the release, a collaboration that never came to fruition. Nor why last October the band announced on their website they had finished two new songs, Famous Old Painters and Glass Of Water, songs which ultimately failed to make the final cut.

Then, thirdly, they've decided, with hindsight, they didn't much care for their last work X&Y after all. Which perhaps poses the ultimate question of the band's return: who and what exactly are Coldplay in 2008?

"It's fair to say that record [X&Y] was… problematic," says Buckland.

Martin adds: "I feel like we've got everything to prove and everyone to prove it to this time round. It's an interesting time to be in a band right now. Nobody sells records, everyone's very doom and gloom all the time… in a way we feel quite freed by that."

Chris Martin is what psychologists would describe as a 'multifaceted personality', veering from assured to vulnerable like a fresh-on-the-road learner driver. He's kind, though (he insists upon booking us a cab home), and frequently charming. But there are moments when he borders on being infuriating too; evasive about the new songs, prone to veering off on tangents (a proportion of our conversation is spent musing how the navy destroys dead whales) and, from time to time, spouting insufferable nonsense.

"Each song is our attempt to do a different colour," he says. "It doesn't matter whether the record is good or bad. It matters that it's colourful. The songs are supposed to be flavours, things we haven't tasted before."

Above all, though, the principal facet of Chris Martin's psychological make-up remains his unwavering belief. You know those people who plough through life with their hearts on their sleeves? Chris Martin's heart is prone to slipping off his sleeve and slopping on the floor. "There's a line on the record that says, 'Just because I'm losing/Doesn't mean I'm lost'," he says. "That means that whatever slings and arrows come your way, you've gotta just keep going. That's my motto. It's quite a long motto and it's not in Latin, but it is quite a good motto."

It might be the motto of the band's singer but it's almost a modus operandi for the band itself. Confused by X&Y, a record they'd lost faith in, yet which sold and sold and sold (the third fastest-selling record in UK chart history, fact fans), Coldplay needed to rediscover what they were here for. On Viva La Vida they decided to believe in themselves.

"We thought, 'We can't possibly get any bigger, let's just get better'," reveals Martin. "We're actually a bit scared because we've taken the safety off this time. It's not like we've got any songs on the record where we think, 'Oh, it's OK because we know the big songs are on there' – we had some of those, but we took them off. We decided it was time to push what the band could do forward."

And in fitting with Martin's prior 'colours and flavours' allegory, Viva La Vida is certainly the most varied Coldplay offering to date. For a start, it opens with the instrumental, breezy tabla-drenched Life In Technicolor, before the band deposit themselves into the darkest territory their eternally optimistic souls have ever trod on the second song, the lurching Cemeteries Of London. It's goth in the way old Batman comics were, creepy in the manner of Cat Power's torch songs. Martin duly describes it as their attempt at a ghost march – a leap from gleam to gloom in only two tracks.

"If you listen, there are loads of things in there," agrees Martin, pleased we're getting the gist. "There's death and love and fear and travel and girls and illness. It's all in there."

Fittingly, the record hangs around a song that takes in all those themes, yet distributes them across three segments that make up the record's centrepiece, 42. First there's the sparse, reverb-soaked Trouble-esque piano intro, then there's the yearning chorus. And then? Then it transpires into something so unspeakably odd, it's almost no surprise to hear that the segment was inspired by German industrial metal loons Rammstein. It's also a song that fannishly doffs its cap to Radiohead's most esoteric work.

"In terms of who we're plagiarising on each song," says Martin, slightly sardonically, "then I'm sure the middle bit was inspired by them. It definitely comes from the prog camp – just not wanting to repeat a chorus, like Bohemian Rhapsody and Happiness Is A Warm Gun or something."

Other choice moments include the swaggering and woozy Viva La Vida, where Martin forsakes his regular falsetto style for something that might be pithily described as Bono fronting Soundgarden with stabbed John Cale strings. Or Yes, which sounds like the kind of quintessentially English protest song Billy Bragg used to write, only re-imagined on a multi-millionaire rock band's budget.

Then, depending on your internal cynicism barometer, Lost! is either the song that'll soundtrack African children flicking flies out of their eyes on TV appeals until the end of days or – and please distil the sincerity from hyperbole here – actually, the most optimistic, joyous, spiritual moment Coldplay have recorded to date.

It's a trick they deploy across the record, from the twangy slide guitar of Strawberry Swing to closer Death And All His Friends, more lullaby than pop song: taking the chest-swelling majesty of their back catalogue's mass singalongs, and tweaking their chromosomes – X&Y and Z, perhaps – to make songs with crooks and crevices to venture into, as opposed to out-and-out bombast.

"We tried not to write many straight anthems this time around," says Buckland. "There's a danger that if you put one straight after the other, the first doesn't sound as big."

"I think we were a bit anthemed out after X&Y," agrees Martin. "We've tried to do them a bit differently, this time."

They've put some thought into the presentation too. Scroll to tracks five (Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love) and six (the aforementioned Yes/Chinese Sleep Chant) and two songs share the same track, "so that it's cheaper on iTunes", explains Martin. "Two songs for the price of one. Buy one get one free – it comes from working in Kwik Save [a UK supermarket chain] I think. As I said before, nobody buys albums anymore, certainly nobody buys full albums and we've made an album that you have to have from start to finish. Not to sound pretentious, but the record is supposed to work like a film – a listen from start to finish."

Did you really used to work in Kwik Save, Chris? He smiles. "I did, yeah. But after a while, they said to me, 'Listen Chris, I know X&Y wasn't very good, but really, you don't have to keep coming to work here.'"

Martin and Buckland dissolve in fits of giggles. The sound echoes around their new home. Somewhere in north London, there's a bakery. It hasn't been used for years. Yet as Coldplay strive to reinvent themselves, it's still cooking inside.



Coldplay Live in concert. Radio broadcast on Monday on Dubai 92, live from Brixton Academy, London, 11.45pm. Viva La Vida is also available in stores on Monday, from Dh65

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