“You want to make people forget themselves for a second” (Mylo Xylotour programme 2011)
Phil Harvey is Coldplay’s fifth member, creative director and former manager. He teels us more about the creative process behind the new tour and recalls the band’s formative days.
Do you remember the first time you saw Coldplay play a gig?
I do. It was their first gig as Starfish, back in January 1998. I went as a friend. I was at Oxford University and it was on the same day as an exam. I walked out of it early to catch the bus to London, because I just wanted to see the gig.
Chris was a school friend of yours. So, you didn’t lose touch when you both went to universities in different towns?
No, Chris and I were still firm friends. I was a frequent guest at his flat in London, which he shared with Jonny and another friend, Tim Crompton.
Was there ever a chance of you being in Coldplay as a performer?
I don’t think so! I was in bands when we were at school, but I gradually got demoted through the ranks, until I was no longer allowed to perform on stage and I fell into a behind-the-scenes role.
When did it become apparent that you’d be more to Coldplay than just a friend popping down from university to watch?
Well, I was quite involved in promoting student club nights at university. So, I was developing some simple but useful experience with booking and renting venues. And, towards the start of 1998, Chris was saying, “Oh these promoters in Camden, they keep ripping us off, we bring 100 people and we get paid £10”. So, I decided we’d book a venue in Camden ourselves. I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing, but I remember ringing Dingwalls and asking what it cost to book the venue and it was £500. So I said, “OK, I’ll take it on May 25th”. Another promoter had actually booked the band to play there on May 24th, so my first job representing Coldplay was to ring him and say, “We’re not playing your gig on May 24th at Dingwalls because we’re putting our own night on the next night.”
Did he respond well to this news?
He responded extremely badly. I remember ending that call slightly jittery thinking, “Shit, I’m entering a different world.” But the show was a great success. I think we got 350 people in, in a 500 capacity room. And the money that we made paid for the Safety EP. A few months later, I decided to leave university to manage them full-time.
You left one of the world’s finest universities during your third year of a four year course to manage a band that didn’t even had a record deal?
Yes, it was a big decision, but at the time it felt like an easy one. I think I left uni in January 99 and Coldplay didn’t get a record deal until April of that year. When I left it certainly wasn’t cast in stone that we were going to have a long career. But I was getting quite a few calls from record companies, interrupting me in the library and lectures. I remember thinking I needed to focus on one thing. So, I had to make a choice. And it was quite an easy choice to make.
How old were you at this point?
20. I definitely felt quite young. But I think when you really believe in something – and I did really believe in the band – it gives you an extra confidence and stature. And we had the safety EP by then, which I’d invested in and made 1,500 copies of. I remember the night we came back from recording that saying to Jonny and some friends, : I feel like I can go into any record company and just ask for what I want.” It was complete bravado, though. I didn’t even have a phone number for a record company!
Was it clear by this stage that they were a really good live band?
Yes. They were always good live. Individually they’re four superb musicians but when they play together, they become world-beaters.
How did the live show start to change after the band were signed?
Well, we were always very obsessive about making it as good as we could, and putting a lot of effort into the setlist. But we didn’t know anything about production at that point. So, in all honesty, I think we just went on stage and did the best that we could.
You always had the lit-up globe on the piano.
Yep. That was our big production gimmick. Switching on the globe we bought from WH Smith.
It seemed quite cool at the time.
It did. And it was cool. Really cool.
How did they grow from that to the stadium-sized act of today?
Well, we got some brilliant crew people in. But a lot of the ideas for the shows still come from the band. You often see things - be it other bands or theatre shows or art exhibitions - and you think, “Oh that would look good.” It’s like a magpie collecting shiny things for his nest. But then we’ve also now got some amazing creative minds on our team, like Misty and Paul.
What do those guys do?
Paul is production designer and he collates all the ideas and actually designs the show. He programmes the lights and draws out the technical stage plan and does the computer renderings. And Misty is our stage and prop designer. She’s like the yin to Paul’s yang. She puts on the overalls and starts painting stuff. She’s done some amazing work with Take That and Glastonbury. She has that sort of feminine creativity, which obviously in a band of boys we don’t have a lot of.
When did you start planning this tour?
Probably about 18 months ago, as we started making the Mylo Xyloto album. We began collating ideas and thinking about what would go well with the music we were making.
Coldplay shows usually have some very memorable moments. What are you trying to achieve with things like the butterfly confetti during Lovers In Japan on the Viva tour?
You’re always looking for that moment of euphoria or – to use a big word - transcendence. You want to make people forget themselves for a second. The confetti was wonderful, because you always knew that as long as the bloody machines worked people would gasp and it would be a great moment.
As bands play bigger venues, it can become a less personal experience. How can you counter that?
I always try to imagine what it’s like for the person who’s at the furthest seat. And when we’re on tour I very often go up to the back to watch the show, just to see what experience people are getting. It can be hard to make that person feel like they’re close to the band, but that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do. For example, on the last tour, we always went out into the audience and played some songs out there on what we call the C stage. We feel extremely grateful to anyone who buys a ticket to one of our gigs and we do not take it for granted for a second. We want to make sure they feel appreciated and have a great experience.
Do you have a favourite Coldplay show?
I’ve probably got about 50 in my Top 3 now! But I particularly loved it when we played Parc des Princes in Paris in 2009. And on this tour so far, I really enjoyed when we played Optimus festival in Portugal. I think I was taking photos at the front at both, so I was right there in the focal point of all the energy and noise. And also those two crowds were particularly great.
Does the crowd make a big difference?
Oh, it’s a huge thing. But then the crowd is at the mercy of different factors as well: the temperature, the wind if you’re outside, the sound. Sometimes things go wrong with the production and it throws the band, and that can affect the general feeling of the show. Luckily, though, we’ve got some fantastic crew members who really know what they’re doing, so that doesn’t happen very often.
Do you still enjoy seeing the shows?
Oh, I absolutely love it.
But you actually had a few years of not being part of Coldplay.
Yes, I had four years of that. We released A Rush Of Blood To The Head and about a week later I went off traveling. And then I went back to university in Australia.
It’s a difficult question to answer, because it feels like such a long time ago, but I think I’d gone as dar as I wanted to go as a manager. I probably wasn’t mature enough at the time to realise it, but I think basically my talents - if you can call them that – lay less in the business side og things and more as a kind of creative co-conspirator with Chris. That’s much more what I do now. I came back to England just after the X&Y tour finished and just fell back into it. And I have to say I’ve enjoyed the second stint a lot more!
So, you’re happy leaving the managing side to Dave Holmes?
Oh yes. That works absolutely brilliantly. Dave is so important for the success of the band. He is the only person I could imagine being Coldplay’s manager.
And are you going to disappear off again?
No, I’m definitely not planning to. I feel very happy and lucky to be part of this.