Mylo Xyloto: The Billboard Cover Story (20110812)
As Coldplay finishes the new Mylo Xyloto, a candid and detailed conversation with Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland and manager Dave Holmes about harvesting the best songs, executing a bold global plan-and choosing to create without fear.
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He offers a Perrier. In his dressing room, prior to a gig at UCLA's Los Angeles Tennis Center, Coldplay's Chris Martin is polite and engaging, showing no signs that he and his bandmates are neck-deep and under the gun in the painstaking process of completing the next Coldplay album.
Titled "Mylo Xyloto" and due Oct. 24 worldwide (except for North America, where it will debut Oct. 25) on Capitol Records, the album will be Coldplay's fifth, and comes at a critical juncture for a band entering its second decade. This will be its first record in three years, and not only does the band's loyal fans crave new music, but the industry at large is looking for more evidence that Coldplay is indeed still on an upward trajectory as an international mega-band with decades of staying power. "Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends" (2008) debuted at No. 1 and has sold 2.8 million units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and the tour in support of it grossed more than $126 million and moved more than 1.7 million tickets to 94 shows, according to Billboard Boxscore.
Embarking on a new cycle, spirits, like expectations, are high. "We've been together long enough that I know how everyone else is feeling, and it makes me excited when I feel the others are excited," Martin says. "They seem pretty fired up. I think we have a lot to prove to ourselves. There's no point in not going for it." This is global go-time for Martin and Jonny Buckland (guitar), Guy Berryman (bass) and Will Champion (drums), as the band and its team transition from showcasing choice songs at festivals to teeing up the launch of the record in earnest. Of course, they have to finish it first.
This gorgeous evening in Los Angeles, the members of Coldplay are completely immersed in this still-evolving project-to the point of mixing the romantic ballad "Us Against the World" that very day. That one is "a keeper," Martin says. But the fate of other songs that the band has written and recorded since "Viva la Vida," including the eight heard by Billboard prior to the show, is very much in play.
"Because we haven't sequenced it yet, the goal is to leave it in a peaceful place when we finish it," Martin says. "The hope is for the record to be free from any musical kind of box. It very much comes from the Brian Eno professorship of, 'Go anywhere. As long as it's you guys, you can go anywhere.'"
It's an album destined to be filled with emotive, ambitious soundscapes that while true to the band's sound also furiously pushes limits and strives to convey big themes-all this in a marketplace dominated by singles. "Mylo Xyloto" is a concept album at its core. "A story... loosely a kind of romance in an oppressive environment," Martin explains, adding that (as of now) the "love story" will have a happy ending-depending on sequencing.
What this record will ultimately be is a fluid thing today, but Buckland, reclining in a stadium seat shortly after sound check, believes-"hopes" might be a better word-that the record is 90% done. How will he know it's finished? "We stop worrying," Buckland says. "I'm still worrying about what songs are going to get on. We're not worrying about whether we've got enough-more that we've got slightly too many, and which ones we should put on."
The band has already narrowed the field of songs in contention, or versions of those songs. "These are the edits of edits of edits," Buckland says of the album's current status. "It's a brutal process of writing lots of songs, recording lots of songs, and all of those songs having different ideas on them. That's why it takes us so long. We write 70 songs to get 10."
Some songs are already familiar to fans from festival appearances and aural previews, including the relentlessly effervescent first track, "Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall"; the shimmering, syncopated "Charlie Brown"; and "Major Minus," an ominous, thundering beast of a song with rattling guitars, potent (and rare) Buckland solos and restless, shifting musical patterns. Those three songs, along with others like the bold anthem "Paradise" (the first "proper" single from the record, due Sept. 12); the broad, bass-heavy "Up in Flames"; and the textured romance of "Us Against the World" seem destined to appear on Mylo Xyloto. But another uptempo track, "Hurts Like Heaven," and particularly the "Major Tom"-meets-Sinatra exercise of "Moving to Mars" could potentially (tragically?) end up on the scrap heap.
Of "Mars," Buckland says, "I like it," before quickly adding, "It probably won't make it. It was just one of those ones. There was a period where it all worked, then it sat for a bit, we threw [out] lots of ideas, brought them together, pulled them apart, put them back on. We always like the beginning... that intimate sound. And we thought, 'Where can we take it? What can we do?'"
Such is the Coldplay way, where the life expectancy of sonic gems is tenuous at best. "It's a process of throwing as many ideas as we can at things until you finally get one or maybe two that you like-and even then it's a process of editing," Buckland says. "You keep trying new things until you get to the one that lasts. We're more thorough with it now than we've ever been, more brutal with each other's ideas."
So "Mars," a B-side on "Every Teardrop," will likely be collateral damage. "At the moment, there's about four different incarnations in the track listing," Martin says. "I'm a little bit lost today on what to leave off." "Major Minus," on the other hand, seems solid as an integral part of the album's concept. "I don't think we'll leave that one off, because it's supposed to be a sort of villainous, dark piece," Martin says. "The baddie. The Bond villain, an Orwellian thing. It came from reading 'The Road' from Cormac McCarthy."
Longtime band manager Dave Holmes says there's a lot of "internal discussions" these days on what to include on the record, complicated by the fact that "they don't want to have long albums. After "X&Y" [in 2005], which I think they felt was probably, in retrospect, a few songs too many, they're adamant about keeping the albums short," Holmes says, adding that the record will probably include 10 songs. "That presents a problem for us in the inner circle, because we all have our favorites." All agree the record will clock in at less than 50 minutes, and Martin says they'll finish 13 songs.
Expectations are huge. "This album could be career defining," says Holmes, a man not given to hyperbole. "Laurels have not been rested upon. They took it up a notch, they challenged themselves, and the music I've heard has been nothing short of spectacular and next-level. They've made a record they're proud of. This band is never cocky. But there is a quiet confidence."
Then Buckland adds: "We're as good as we've ever been, at least."
The fact that the band has road-tested many of these songs-a strategic move by Holmes that's supported by the label-seems to be aiding the creation process. In fact, in addition to "Every Teardrop," and an EP, 'Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,' that added "Major Minus" and "Mars," several songs have trickled out through live performances at major festivals like Glastonbury in the United Kingdom, Fuji Rocks in Japan, Splendor in the Grass in Australia and Lollapalooza in the United States.
"I watch a lot of other records and how they're being set up," Holmes says, "particularly rock records, and I keep seeing people do the same thing: one single six weeks before the album, then launch the album. That model's dead. For rock albums in particular, you have to take a longer approach, invite people to the party, bring them in. Because media is so fragmented, and there are so many places you have to touch people. Historically you only had a few outlets."
The setup for "Mylo Xyloto" began in June for an October release. Very unusual. "It's riskier when you go out with one song and throw all your chips down on that one song," Holmes says. He likens the current plan to a Japanese music model. "You have three singles, and then the album is almost the end of the campaign. You work up to the album." Holmes sees that trend happening in the West, particularly in hip-hop, "Kanye [West] being the best example last year with his record. There were three or four songs out leading into that album. That builds the excitement level up... there's this anticipation."
The "launch of the launch" began at the Rock Im Park festival in Nuremberg, Germany, in early June: Coldplay played six new songs. "That was something the band didn't really want to do at first," Holmes says. "But I said, 'The worst thing we could do is go out and play the hits. Let's do a global festival run, and look at them as giant buzz gigs. Let's just go out and make a great performance... let the music do the talking, play new songs and get people talking about the fact you're playing new music. Even if it's polarizing.'"
The band has played new music this summer, including two songs this night, at a benefit for the Grammy in the Schools program, that were beamed out Aug. 3 on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," but the members haven't talked about it-until now. "We're literally only talking about the album now, and it's August," Holmes says. "We haven't been talking about the street date, what kind of album it is. And it's doing exactly what my hope was. There's a tremendous buzz. The full-court press is really going to start happening now, with this event and [Billboard's] cover."
The rather quiet release of songs, paired with the band's "aggressive, almost promotional touring," as EMI executive VP of marketing and promotion Greg Thompson puts it, was intentional. But rather than simply release these songs into the ether, "you maximize that impact by calling attention to the availability of that music, by really taking advantage of it virally around the world," Thompson says.
Though it seems a risky business, as the new songs are prolific on YouTube and elsewhere, the payoff is global. "There are pros and cons to things in life, and one of the pros of the world we live in with the Internet is it has become a very small world, so if the band chooses to play a new song on a stage in Japan or Germany, it can go around the world very fast," Thompson says.
"The band has a great following and loyal fan base, and feeding that fan base through viral opportunities, as well as traditional partners like radio and video channels, the press, and creating a couple of videos to bring these songs to life, all of that adds up to giving people a lot of exposure to a band who could easily take [its audience] for granted. But they've chosen to go the other direction and make sure they over-serve their core with lots of music-so they know what they're getting."
Miles Leonard, president of Coldplay's London-based label home Parlophone (he was instrumental in signing Coldplay in 1999 as the label's then-head of A&R), thinks the approach suits the band. "Some artists or labels shy away from allowing their artists to play unreleased music live... we saw it as a brilliant way of building excitement," Leonard says. "It will be to our advantage come October that [fans are] familiar with the songs because they've been at the shows or listened to them online. We're excited about people hearing more than just one single before they have to want to purchase an album."
One wild card: Are the band members ready to play these songs in front of millions? Leonard believes, and videos from the shows confirm, they are. "Even though we're still mixing some of those songs... they've rehearsed them up and obviously they've been recording them," he says. "They wanted to say, 'Look, here's what we've been up to... we hope you like it.' You have to embrace these situations, not shy away from them."
In the end, the band seems to have benefited. "That's been brilliant; the best thing we could have done," Buckland says. "In this age of YouTube and instantaneous availability, it's kind of terrifying, because... whatever mistakes you make or whatever bad ideas you have are stuck. But it's... also made us make decisions, and made us feel different about certain songs." So, in a way, fan response, along with a song's viability onstage, have affected the very course of the record: "How we mix it," Buckland says, "how we feel about what tracks should go where and which tracks should be on the record."
Working without a net, though, does have its challenges, as at the band's monumental performance at Glastonbury when a first run at "Us Against the World" faltered in front of the Glasto masses and millions more through BBC and VH1 TV watchers. The group good-naturedly gave it another go, making for a special moment in a performance full of them. "We have a rule," Martin says, laughing and shaking his head, "that one fuck-up is charming, but any more than that is unprofessional."
If the ultimate makeup of "Mylo Xyloto" is in flux at the moment, the plan is solid at the macro level. "This is my favorite part," Holmes says. "The setup and looking at opportunities, gauging which ones we'll do, and how we should do them, and when."
"Paradise" will be the Sept. 12 iTunes preorder "instant grat" track. The Oct. 24 release date will be followed by tickets for a world tour tentatively set to begin next April (the band will first play a brief U.K./Euro arena run in December) to go on sale shortly thereafter.
"Historically, I would have the tour start roughly four weeks after the album," Holmes says. "This time it's more of a promo-based campaign... this whole fall is dedicated to television and promotion. It's a different approach for us." A broad range of TV appearances are in the works, many first-timers for Coldplay that'll not only surprise longtime fans but also likely create new ones.
Putting tickets on sale around the album release is a tactic Holmes has employed successfully. "It's a risk I took early on because... we're not one of those bands that has to have two singles out before we put the tour up," he says. "The guy who bought the record is probably going to buy the ticket, so make it all happen in roughly the same time frame." Holmes adds that he has "never taken great risks" on the touring side, tending to be conservative on the size of venues and ticket prices, particularly the latter. "If other people were potentially representing [Coldplay], they would have pushed this band into much higher ticket prices," Holmes says. "We've never crossed $100. The highest ticket price is usually around $90 for the P1s. Our average ticket price is about $65."
Coldplay won't top the $100 mark this time, either. "We could easily go $125 a ticket and I don't think our fans would be too offended by it," Holmes says. "But there's something that happens when you go into that place. You become one of 'those acts.' And I won't. It's not about the money, it's about [wanting] to be around in 20 years still doing this."
As such, though he'll likely work with them, Holmes won't be accepting a global tour offer from Live Nation or AEG Live. "I've never felt the need to do a deal with a touring company, because I'm not looking for the big check," he says. "I'm not going to them and saying, 'I want $200 million to make it work,' because... the ticket prices are going to be in the stratosphere... that's how you make it work."
If all goes as planned, global touring will take place from next spring until late summer 2013. The band will jump back and forth between North American and European legs first and play Latin America and Australia later. New for the band will be a deeper run into Eastern Europe, playing new markets like Finland and Russia. Two October 2011 stadium shows in Johannesburg are already sold out.
In 2012, Coldplay will play arenas, festivals and stadiums, and will venture into stadium waters in North America more than ever in the past, according to Holmes. The manager is playing it close to the vest now in terms of promoters. "I've done a lot of work with Live Nation, and I like AEG, and Simon Moran [SJM] will always be our guy in the U.K.," he says. "Simon is someone who I consider a partner for me in the U.K. with Coldplay. I trust his instincts. He's much more than a promoter to us."
FROM COLDPLAY TO THE WORLD
The launch of "Mylo Xyloto" is reflective of both the band's global popularity and today's marketplace. "We live in a world where people are going to want the new Coldplay record the same moment anybody else in the world has is it," EMI's Thompson says. "There's that 'immediate gratification' factor. You've got to serve everybody at the same time."
But the rollout has its challenges; the biggest of which is, "You can't physically be everywhere on street date, so that's why this advance promotion is so key in igniting the fan base," Thompson says. "[Coldplay have] chosen to do that work upfront."
The album will be released in digital, CD and vinyl formats. The 25,000 vinyl editions will include a 12-inch-by-36-inch poster. A limited-edition pop-up version will also be available-in that: a book with graffiti pop-up art designed by David A. Carter, vinyl and CD, as well as photographs and journals.
With nearly three months until street dates, Thompson says retail aspects are still being locked in. "I can't talk about it except to say we're trying to create a great partnership with every vendor we do business with," he says. "We did the iTunes Festival in London as part of our whole buildup to street date with iTunes and the iTunes customer. You'll see similar things done with physical retailers around the world in different ways."
Thompson says the album will be issued in one physical and one digital format for all partners, and there are discussions on some sort of deluxe edition. At this point, no retail exclusives confirmed. "We're trying to avoid that," Thompson says. "Because this is a global band and that's sort of a Pandora's box." When Coldplay played the iTunes Festival in July, the band was placed prominently on the iTunes storefronts around the globe. That led to significant increases for the single and EP at iTunes, the latest win in what has been a fruitful partnership for both.
"When the new-media departments started at the labels back in the early 2000s and the new-media guy was the geek in the corner that no one really listened to in the marketing meetings, I got to know that guy really well, and I started to build my relationships with companies like iTunes," Holmes says. "I knew this was where it was going. I got the band in early with iTunes. We've built a truly unique partnership with the retailer, and I'd say we have the same type of relationships with Walmart, Starbucks and Amazon as well. With iTunes in particular, because we've been so successful for them . . . they tend to go above and beyond."
Emphasis track "Every Teardrop" is making noise at formats including triple A, modern rock and adult top 40. "There has been some great support on the top 40 side, and this track is already on big radio stations in the top 40 world like [WHTZ] Z100 in New York and [KIIS] Kiss-FM in L.A.," Thompson says. "That's a huge testament to the mass-appeal nature of the song and the band and the event that radio feels about a Coldplay release."
While the ultimate shape of the album is still being determined, "there is a cohesiveness to it," Holmes says. "People will find it all makes sense, but it goes all over the place, as they always do."
The artful, graffiti-themed video for "Every Teardrop" tips how the visual aspects of "Mylo Xyloto" will take shape. "For Coldplay, it's as indie-looking as they'll probably ever be at this stage," Holmes says. "It wasn't a big-budget . . . video; it suited the song and where we're at in the campaign. And you'll see the graffiti in that as a tease to what's about to come with the artwork and everything."
Unlike many managers, Holmes does have input on the artistic side. "I don't want to get involved at the demo stage or the preproduction stage; where I weigh in is when we're closer to mixing... that's when they want my feedback as well," he says. "That's when I'll say, 'That lyric, I don't know, Chris.' We have that kind of relationship... I know I can be brutally honest. He knows I'm not a manager that's living in fear of getting fired if I say the wrong thing. I'm just going to tell him."
The album was produced by Markus Dravs, Daniel Green and Rik Simpson, with Eno providing "enoxification" (the band's term for his role in the studio) and additional composition. It was recorded at the band's London studios the Beehive and the Bakery. If conceptually Mylo is about romance in a post-apocalyptic society, in terms of sonics, "I suppose the theme would be letting loose musically," Buckland says. "Louder drums, louder guitars, more contrast. Then we wanted to go down to the most intimate moments, then back to the biggest we've ever been."
Martin believes the album is a representation of the band as a whole, not just the singer. "I feel like the limelight is very split, balanced out more than ever, which is a nice thing," he says. "Five albums in, everyone who likes Coldplay, or doesn't like Coldplay, is kind of used to the singer, so the challenge is to try and keep it interesting for the listener. When someone's on the first album, everyone is just excited by the sound of their voice, whether it's Amy Winehouse or Adele or Bono or whoever it is, when it's a fresh voice. When it's the fifth album, everyone takes that bit for granted."
The genesis of the record began with two separate musical visions, according to Buckland. "We had one idea that we'd make an intimate, acoustic record and then we'll make an electric, wild record," he says. "But we all just kind of wanted to make the electric, wild record. And then some of the acoustic things kind of bled in somehow. We still wanted those moments, where you can hear someone plucking the string, you can hear the breathing, you can hear the piano pedal being pressed."
The process of recording "Mylo Xyloto" was different from previous studio projects "only in that we've tried not to be scared," Martin says. "We accept now that anything we do will invite a certain degree of negativity, so instead of letting that constrain us, this time out, it's, 'Well, fuck it. We'll just go for it.'"
Martin points out that Coldplay's ascension occurred at the same time as that of the Internet, where opinions, often negative, proliferate. "At first it was like, 'What the hell is this? Thousands of people who hate you,'" he says. "But then you forget about the people who really like what you do. So the combination of getting over that worry, and working with Brian Eno and Markus Dravs, familiar people, made us feel like we'll just run with it this time and worry about what everyone says later."
Though not a "guitar record" by any stretch, the new album does feature Buckland in unique ways and his presence is felt on "Mylo Xyloto" probably more than any album. "He's a very shy person," Martin says of Buckland. "It makes me giggle to see how many moments he has [on the new record]. We've deliberately kept all of them."
Martin says when the band finished 'Viva la Vida,' "we were all feeling pretty pleased with ourselves when it was like No. 1 or whatever." But he says a letter from Eno put things in perspective. "It said, 'Dear Coldplay. I really think we've made a good record here. But I do think we can do a lot better, and I feel we all need to get back to work as soon as possible, because I feel like Jonny especially is on the route to something and he hasn't got there yet.' We're like, 'Ah, fucking hell, man.' This was like a week after the record came out. So we took the challenge and I feel very proud of [Buckland]. He's pushed himself a lot."
Buckland is characteristically understated about his fretwork. "I think I've gotten quite a bit more confident," he says. "A few years ago I had tendonitis in my wrist, so I stuck to playing simple things that I could keep going through. I had an operation, and I can play a bit more now."
Asked how he knows a record is done, Martin says, "When it's taken from our grasp, unwillingly. Every time, we think we'll be done in two weeks, and every time it's right up to the last minute. We know we want it to come out in October, so whenever the last moment that's possible, that will be when it has to be. I find it very hard to deliver an album."
That's not an exaggeration, Holmes says. "Our delivery date is Sept. 9, and they will be in the studio until midnight Sept. 8."
THE NEXT PHASE
"They have the ability to surpass the success they've had, and that's taking into consideration the decline in the market," Parlophone's Leonard says. "They've delivered a unique, special record indeed."
Martin will not forecast what the future might hold for Coldplay. "I always feel like each record is our last, but at the moment I'm in the stage where I really mean it," he says. "I just can't imagine how we would do another one, because we've thrown everything [into this one]. When it's finished, which hopefully should be pretty soon-it has to be pretty soon-we won't have been able to put more work into it, which I guess is the only thing we can really do."
Asked if in two years he'll feel like embarking on this entire process again, Martin says, "I don't know. But I never know. I think it would be bad if I was like, 'Yeah, we've got 15 songs up our sleeves.' I don't have anything left. I feel proud of our band at the moment. We're just so grateful, and very driven. How long that will last, I don't know. I don't know how long you can maintain that kind of focus."
And the pressures Martin feels in creating a new record aren't commercial, or even artistic. "The honest answer is, I want anyone who spends money on us to be really pleased with their purchase," he says. "If you want to speak purely? How I really feel is, we don't make it for us. We don't make it to sell millions, we don't make it to answer critics. We make it so that if you're in a store and you buy our record, or a ticket - like a good sandwich - you go, 'That's good!' That's all it is. And I look to my heroes on both record and live and I think that the people I like the most are the people that are really working for their audience. Bruce [Springsteen] being the No. 1 example. I don't really like the whole, 'We're just doing this and if you like it, great.' I don't subscribe to that."