“This album was fuelled by a desire to move from black and white into colour,” says Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. “Or, if you like, we decided to let our garden grow a little more unkempt. The bloodhound was let off its leash.”
However you might describe it, there’s no mistaking the artistic leap which ‘Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends’ represents for the four friends collectively known as Coldplay. “I think it’s our boldest and most confident record,” says bassist Guy Berryman. “We were much more open to new ideas and influences and much less afraid to experiment.” “It can be easy to stop yourself from trying things because you’re scared of what people might say,” adds Martin, “but we forced ourselves not to do that.”
The result is a record where groovesome programmed beats jostle with grand swells of church organ (‘Lost!’), where the space between verse and chorus is filled with deliciously propulsive stabs of North African-styled strings and tablas (‘Yes’), where breezy Flamenco handclaps drive a tale of gloom and despair (‘Cemeteries Of London’), or where four-to-the-floor rhythms meld with weeping strings for an ode to lost glories (‘Viva La Vida’). It sounds like Coldplay, only different.
“The starting point for this album was listening to an amazing old Blur song called ‘Sing (To Me)’ while we were on the road with ‘X&Y’,” says Martin, referring to a pounding, hypnotic track from Blur’s first album. “I remember hearing it and thinking, ‘OK, we need to get better as a band’.” The first song for Coldplay’s new album was written the very next day.
“I’m driven by two things,” Martin continues. “One is trying to make sense of existence. The other is when I hear something brilliant, trying to write something as good as that. With this album, we were inspired by so much amazing music. We’d listen to Rammstein and Tinariwen next to each other and the result would be something like the middle bit of ‘42’. For another track, we’d listen to Marvin Gaye and Radiohead. Or Jay-Z and the Golden Gate Trio. Or My Bloody Valentine and Gerschwin. Or Delakota and Blonde Redhead. There were no limitations.”
“We’ve definitely stretched ourselves,” says guitarist Jonny Buckland. But those sonic stretches didn’t come at the expense of the diamond-tipped melodies which have helped make Coldplay one of the world’s favourite bands since they released their debut album, ‘Parachutes’, in 2000. ‘Viva…’ might find Coldplay in experimental mood, but its 10 songs still burst with big, life-affirming hooks and choruses. “I hope so,” says Buckland, “We’ve never been ashamed of tunes and we never will be.” “We’re still obsessed with making songs that can be sung to the rafters,” agrees Martin. “We just wanted to present them differently.”
In that spirit, the band decided at the very beginning of the recording process that ‘Viva…’ would be their shortest album. “We realised we hadn’t really listened to any albums all the way through for quite a long time,” explains Buckland, “the simple reason being that people put too many songs on them.” “So, although it meant leaving off some tracks that we love,” says Martin, “this album had to finish before an episode of CSI is over.” Sure enough, the band kept the album’s ten tracks within their target of 42 minutes (though additional hidden songs do bring the overall length to 46 minutes).
Another big change was that the band found themselves a permanent HQ; a former bakery tucked down an anonymous alley opposite a north London council estate. There, they could rehearse, write, work on artwork or just relax (the dartboard proved particularly popular). As Buckland says, “It’s the first time we’ve had a proper band home since we were rehearsing in my student bedroom in 1999. And it made a big difference.” “The Bakery has been an absolute godsend,” agrees drummer Will Champion. “We could come in every day, with no pressure on time, and just work on our music. Previously, we’d think: We’ve got a handful of songs, let’s go into a big, expensive studio and start recording. But then, we’d end up scrapping most of the stuff and having to start again, because we hadn’t spent enough time rehearsing or writing. With this record, we spent months in The Bakery before going into a studio. We just demoed and played and rehearsed and practiced, until things sounded great. We ended up much better prepared for the actual recording, a lot of which we actually did in The Bakery too.”
From the start, the band were joined in The Bakery by the album’s two producers, Brian Eno and Markus Dravs. “It was Brian’s idea to work with us,” says Martin. “I would often meet up with him for tea and start playing tabla machines and that just turned into a year’s worth of production. Then Markus came through Win from Arcade Fire, after he worked on ‘Neon Bible’. Win said, ‘You should work with this guy cos he’ll whip you into shape’.”
Eno and Dravs pooled their talents to form something of a production dream team in the studio. “They’re both very different characters,” explains Berryman, “they really balanced each other out.” As Win Butler had implied, Dravs was a harsh task master. “He worked us like dogs,” grins Buckland. “Everything had to be done to his exacting standards. He really pushed us as musicians, to get us to the point where we could record a lot of the album live.” And that’s exactly what they did. “I would say about 80 percent of what you hear was recorded with the four of us in a circle, playing together,” says Martin. “That’s a pretty unusual way to record these days, but it’s the ultimate fun of being in a band.”
Eno, meanwhile, provided the inspiration and confidence Coldplay needed to develop their sound. “He completely disrupted the formula,” says Champion. “He forced us to change everything about our usual way of working and then see where that would take us. Brian has this amazing ability to demystify wonderful music and make it seem very achievable. We weren’t afraid to try anything.”
And that means anything; be it relocating to Barcelona to record group vocals in ancient churches, or inviting a hypnotist into The Bakery. “That was a good day,” says Champion. “He talked us through this process of extreme self-relaxation and the possibilities of what you can do when you’re in a state where there are no constraints on your imagination. Then we went back downstairs and played some music. There was some hope that we’d be able to regress into some Tudor madrigal or something!” Sadly, that didn’t happen, nor did any of the resulting music make it onto the album, but the band still found it a worthwhile experience. “I was buzzing for weeks,” says Champion. “It just backed up what Brian always says about not being afraid to experiment and try things you haven’t done before.”
“Brian brought so much to this album,” agrees Martin. “For starters, he actually played on a lot of it. But he brought life, freedom, drive, distortion, excitement, oddness, madness, sexuality, geekiness and Roxyness. All of those things. He’s amazing.”
Another crucial presence in the studio for ‘Viva…’ was the band’s close friend and former manager, Phil Harvey. He’s the person you’ll see listed as Coldplay’s fifth member in the booklet accompanying both ‘Viva…’ and their multi-award winning second record, 2002’s ‘A Rush Of Blood To The Head’. Yet, when the band had made their third album, 2005’s ‘X&Y’, Harvey was absent, living in Australia.
“With our last album, we missed our editor and our fifth member, because he was a few thousand miles too far away,” says Martin. “Some of the songs on that record are great, but we needed someone to say, relax, take this out, don’t worry about this. Phil’s like an overlord figure for us.” “He was the biggest difference of all on this record, I think,” adds Buckland. “We missed him so much on the last one. He’s our wise man, sounding board, buffer zone, everything. It’s amazing how much easier things are when he’s around.” Which certainly isn’t to say that making ‘Viva…’ was trouble-free. Coldplay have always put themselves through the mill to make their records, and ‘Viva…’ was no exception. “It’s actually been more of a roller-coaster than ever,” says Martin. “I think if you want to make something good, you have to suffer for it. And we went through every emotion you can dream of. Except sloth. We haven’t really gone through that. But everything else. And I think you can hear that in the finished product.”
‘Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends’ takes its title from the extremes of emotions that fuel it. This is an album characterised by loss and uncertainty, travel and time, happiness and regrets. “I’m not sure if it’s bi-polar syndrome, but we definitely have something going on in our heads which is as much down as it is up,” says Martin. “Unfortunately it’s uncontrollable. I wrote these songs in both states; they’re up and down and all over the place. There was no lyrical plan, they just come out like that. But they’re rallying cries too. There’s always love, joy and excitement in our music.”
That much is obvious from the giddy rush of ‘Lovers In Japan’ or the sweet carnal bliss of ‘Strawberry Swing’. But it’s clear, too, from the insistent hope of a track like ‘42’ (“There must be something more”) or the spine-tingling group-sung climax to ‘Death And All His Friends’. “We’re never going to lose the desire to be optimistic,” says Martin.
What then, of Coldplay’s ambitions for ‘Viva…’? “I wanted this record to prove us worthy of the position we’ve been given,” says Martin. “And there’s no question that we’ve come out of this process a better band; whatever anyone makes of the record, when we play live, we’re gonna be on fire. But, ultimately, however cerebral you try to get about it, this album is there to entertain people; to provide 42 minutes of enjoyment, with ten great songs that will each be somebody’s favourite. I’m really hopeful that we’ve achieved that.”
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