Karma has a way of evening things out. Last year Coldplay was galloping up the British charts, spurred on by gobs of fawning press. The band might as well have printed up T-shirts that said, “We’re the new Travis—buy our record.” It was pretty much a forgone conclusion that Coldplay’s debut full-length, Parachutes (Nettwerk), was going to hit the top spot.
But when the group finally got the news that the album had reached the No. 1 slot, karma kicked Coldplay in the ass. “We were in Sicily when we got the news,” says guitarist Jon Buckland. “We were opening for this Italian heavy metal band. There were like a thousand people there. They had no clue who we were. And they all started throwing glow sticks at us.” Oh, how the Mafia has fallen.
Things have been a little less bruising here in the States. Coldplay’s Prozac pop has helped mellow out people pissed over high gas prices and dot-commers wallowing in their pink slips. In return, the quartet has been getting a big group hug from the masses—or at least cashing fat checks due to album sales. Parachutes has already gone gold and is cruising toward platinum. The band’s summer tour is almost a guaranteed sellout.
It’s a rare feat for a Brit-pop band these days. Unless you’re as esoteric as Radiohead or propped up by Eminem—yes, Dido, that’s you—British artists are currently relegated to the critical darlings section of the record store—see Travis, Manic Street Preachers and Supergrass. Once high-and-mighty guys like Richard Ashcroft can’t give away albums. Few even noticed when Placebo released a new disc last month. Hell, Oasis can’t even pull a crowd on its own anymore, resorting to touring with that other sibling slugfest, the Black Crowes.
It leaves Coldplay in a precarious position. While Radiohead is busy “saving” rock by turning it into electro-bleeps, Coldplay has the ominous job of somehow making Brit-pop relevant again. Not an easy task, especially considering the freshman group is doing it without ripping off English stalwarts like the Beatles, the Stones or even the Kinks.
Instead, the band has borrowed heavily from groups like the Smiths and the Sundays—masters of the melancholic melody. Buckland’s guitars sound like rain plunking against the window on a dreary country day. Singer Chris Martin’s voice can go from a haunting whisper, like a spirit moaning form beyond the grave, to a comfortable whine—one that makes you want to solve all his problems rather than tell him to just buck up. Example: In the delicate “Spies,” Martin hits notes Thom Yorke would be jealous of. He delivers it with all the emotion of a eulogy. Add that to rest of the band’s delicate drone and Coldplay has more anguish, melodrama and heartbreak than a thousand unrequited high school crushes. Buckland says it’s all a result of the group’s infatuation with the little things.
“We all like that big rock sound, but there’s just something about the subtle parts,” Buckland says. “We like those little bits.”
Blame Coldplay’s urge to look between the notes on the band’s bookish beginnings. The group formed while attending University College in London. (Buckland got his degree in math and astronomy; Martin sports one in ancient history.) Within a few months the band released its self-financed first disc, The Safety EP. While there were only 500 copies, the quartet built enough buzz to get London indie mainstay Fierce Panda to release the group’s second EP, Brothers & Sisters, the next year. Once out, Coldplay was subjected to the Melody Maker makeover, getting touted as the Next Big Whatever—Radiohead, The Verve, Travis, etc. By the time the group had signed to British major Parlophone Records and released its third EP, The Blue Room, in October 1999, Coldplay was in the midst of media overload. Parachutes was more anticipated than Prince William’s first public love affair. When it came out in 2000, it almost instantly scored a prestigious Mercury Music Prize nomination. Magazines started comparing other bands to Coldplay.
Things moved a little slower here. Coldplay’s record barely made it to the states. Despite the group’s success in Europe, Buckland says the band waited in limbo for months, the group’s management team searching desperately for a label. Everyone kept passing, claiming that a band channeling Jeff Buckley’s ghost wouldn’t go over well in a teen pop world. “We didn’t even think that the record was going to be released there,” Buckland says. “We’d given up hope. That was the last country in the world it got released. And when it did, we thought it would just be this low-key thing.”
Far from it. When the economy goes bad, people need solace. Coldplay is the perfect antidote to a crumbled tax shelter. Indie Nettwerk Records realized this. The label pushed the band’s first single, “Yellow,” until it became mandatory listening for anyone thinking about therapy. Suddenly Coldplay was a VH1 mainstay. It caught Buckland off-guard.
“We always believed in the music and ourselves, but we never believed this would happen” he says. “We’d never seen anyone do something like this before. It’s like being somewhere that doesn’t really exist, especially for you.”
Not that Buckland is complaining. He’s taking full advantage of his rock star status while he can. “There’s a lot of perks,” he admits. “The biggest is we always get to drink for free. Well, really, everything is free. It’s hard to really complain about that.”
Coldplay with Grandaddy @ Bricks, 579 W. 200 South (328-0255), Thursday June 14, 8 p.m.