New York Times JUNE 2, 2008 - by Alan Light


With its frescoed walls and waiters in white jackets, the Café Carlyle is like a Hollywood version of old-school New York sophistication.

It's not usually a place to go looking for rock stars, but on Monday nights Woody Allen is often there, playing the clarinet with his New Orleans jazz band, and Chris Martin, the singer of the British rock band Coldplay, catches his sets when he can. At a small table just inside the door, between bites of salmon and sips of a Bellini, Martin recalled why he was initially drawn to Allen's films. "Everyone else was either too optimistic or too pessimistic," he said. "He seemed to have it just right."

It makes perfect sense that Chris Martin, thirty-one, is a Woody Allen fan. He is possibly the most self-deprecating lead singer in pop history, constantly saying things like "I don't listen to our records because it makes me break out in tears and sweat," and "We have a rule that only the four of us can ever be onstage because we don't want to be upstaged by someone more attractive." ("He's always been like that, really," said Guy Berryman, the band's bassist.) On June 17, however, Coldplay will release its fourth album, Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends, and even Martin is having a hard time retaining his modesty about it. The release, which was co-produced by Brian Eno, marks a leap forward for the group, adding experimental textures, arrangements and structures to its music while retaining the sweeping melodies and soaring hooks at the heart of its enormous appeal.

"When you get to a fourth record, you have to be really careful about how much you sing, because people aren't surprised by your voice anymore," Martin said. "So you have to think of new things."

But this is an especially charged time for Coldplay to try reinventing itself. Since the release of its previous album, X&Y, in 2005, the band's record company, EMI, has been sold to Terra Firma, a private equity firm; thousands of employees have been laid off; and rumors of crisis are nonstop.

Recently it was reported that Terra Firma would be fighting to meet financial targets set by the bank that helped finance the purchase of EMI. The Times of London wrote that the performance of the new album from the label's top-selling act would be "critical to any recovery" for the company, whose United States market share has been the lowest it has seen in years.

"Given the changes that have been made in the company, it's important that we deliver the same service to the band that we always have," said Miles Leonard, president for A&R labels for Parlophone Records, who signed Coldplay in 1999 and is helping oversee the new record's global rollout. The band is doing its best to ignore the monstrous commercial pressure. ("What are we supposed to do?" Berryman asked in mock frustration. "Write poppier songs?") But it is trying to innovate with its marketing plan.

Violet Hill, the dark, thumping first single from Viva La Vida, was offered free on the band's Web site for a week and was downloaded more than two million times, according to the band's representatives. The band is playing three free shows this month - one at Brixton Academy in London on June 16, one at the Espacio Movistar in Barcelona on June 17 and one at Madison Square Garden on June 23 - with tickets being given away in lotteries. (Coldplay's first high-profile appearance for the album will take place on Sunday, when it plays Violet Hill at the MTV Movie Awards.)

These ideas were generated by the band; to help execute the release, Coldplay's manager, Dave Holmes, has augmented the EMI team with a hand-picked group of consultants and advisers.

"We didn't really know what changes were going to take place," Holmes said, "so we needed to make sure that the team would stay consistent."

It is unclear what constitutes commercial success in a world of vanishing CD sales. X&Y sold three million copies in the United States and ten million worldwide. Even in an ideal situation what is a realistic expectation for Viva La Vida?

"I went into this campaign with the feeling that if we did half the sales of the last record, that would be great," Holmes said. "I'm very confident we can get to that, but beyond that it's very hard to say."

The biggest accomplishment of Vida is the sense it gives of Coldplay as a genuine band. In addition to being the frontman and primary songwriter, Martin is a tabloid fixture thanks to his marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow (they have two children: a daughter, Apple, four, and a son, Moses, two), which has only amplified the sense that the group's other three, less visible members (Jonny Buckland is the guitarist and Will Champion is the drummer) are little more than sidemen.

Martin said the band sat down about two years ago, after a lengthy tour behind X&Y, and said, "If we carry on like this, it's going to appear like a one-man show, and it's going to get very boring very quickly." So, he explained, "everybody felt like they had to rip it up and start again."

The first step toward finding new, less predictable ways to make music was setting up shop in their own studio, a former bakery in London that Martin described as "a beaten-up little place, down a drunken alleyway."

Buckland agreed about the impact the space has had on their work. "We've got a clubhouse, a space to be ourselves and not worry about anyone hearing any terrible music we make or hearing us argue," he said. "We haven't had that since 1998, when we were in my bedroom."

Another crucial decision was to bring in Eno - who has helped steer breakthrough projects for the likes of U2, David Bowie and Talking Heads - to produce the album with Markus Dravs, who has worked with Arcade Fire and Björk. Eno's free-form approach opened up the members of Coldplay to ideas and sounds they never expected.

"Brian would get us all in a circle in a tiny room, and we'd just play and play and play," Martin said. "Then he'd go through and listen and start to find these little mine-able bits, and he'd hone in on those."

In an e-mail message Dravs said, "Brian made it a rule to start each day with improvising, with people using different instruments. We might think we had a direction for a particular song, but then the band would come up with something that we'd end up incorporating into the album."

Everyone around Coldplay speaks of the confidence that emerged as these sessions progressed over many months. Martin credited some of that attitude to what he learned from collaborating with Jay-Z and Kanye West on tracks for their albums.

"What I really appreciate about both of them is they are set on their path and nothing sways them from it," he said. "They're just doing their thing, and you're either with it or you're not. I really feed off of that, because that's not familiar to us; we come from the nation of pulling at your hair and apologizing all the time."

Martin attended both of Jay-Z's concerts at Madison Square Garden while he was in town filming an iTunes television commercial and described them as "blindingly brilliant." In an e-mail message Jay-Z returned the compliment. Martin is "an uncompromising artist with an incredible knowledge of music and melody," he said. "He's next in line for the biggest band in the world, period."

Later that week Martin stopped by a used-book store and café in SoHo. He certainly didn't carry himself like a celebrity, un-self-consciously bounding in and asking for the men's room. He devoured the store's racks of vinyl albums, scooping up an armful of LPs - including the Close Encounters Of The Third Kind soundtrack, works by Duke Ellington and Ray Charles, and a David Lee Roth 45. At the register he seemed excited by the basket of free condoms.

Martin's references to his wife (who was in London) and children are few and vague, though his conversation is littered with movie references; even the rather ungainly construction of the album's full title, he said, was inspired by the name of Stanley Kubrick's military satire, Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.

Over a chai latte he discussed one of the central tracks on Viva La Vida. The song 42 begins with the classic Coldplay sound - Martin at the piano, delivering a profound-sounding rhyme in his upper register at a slow tempo - but after about ninety seconds it spirals off into multiple sections.

"That song is kind of a microcosm" of the entire album, he said. "The lyrics in the beginning are very much big themes, but then we go into this kind of silly jam we wrote one day when we were all hypnotized, and then it ends with this big, up-tempo, positive thing. I don't know if it's any good, but it definitely captures everything in one place."

Dravs said that despite the album's use of strings, dissonant guitars and Eastern percussion instruments, the key to executing the more ambitious songs was capturing more of the band's onstage feel. "I was always impressed by the quality of their songwriting, but I thought it would be essential to retain the energy of their live performances," he said. The one thing Martin insists never came into the studio was any sense of commercial pressure. The band members got too wrapped up in the business side the last time out, he said, and now (especially in light of the trade press asking things like "Coldplay: Can They Save the Day for EMI?") they're trying to keep their heads down.

"I get embarrassed having to talk about it," he said, "because nobody cares outside of this tiny world. It's like when you complain about being famous. If you walk down the street and say to a plumber, 'Man, this paparazzi really upset me,' he'd be like, 'What are you talking about?'

"I mean, we would love to be the biggest band in the world," he continued, flashing a grin, "but we understand if you don't want us to be."