November , 2012
By David Huff
Clocks' Ticked Away At 'Speed Of Sound'
JAM Interviews Percussionist Will Champion
Every once in a while, it's interesting to look back into the past at taped interviews I've done with an artist or group, and wonder whatever happened to them. In this instance, the band is Coldplay. At the time, they had sold over two million albums around the globe, but had barely made a dent in the U.S. market. The song "Yellow" wasn't even a blip on the radar screen when it was sent to radio in this country, yet the rest of the world was heaping accolades on it. America can be a tough nut to crack for English bands, and it appeared Coldplay would suffer the same fate as other "can't miss" British acts that came before them, most notably Oasis and Blur. They too thought they could conquer this country because of the impressive musical credentials they had established back home. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Both acts failed to gain any real foothold here in the '90s. Would Coldplay suffer a similar fate?
In 2001, two relatively unknown bands, Coldplay and A Perfect Circle, caught my attention. I interviewed both before their first albums had a chance to gain any traction. A Perfect Circle was a hunch. Coldplay on the other hand, was a curiosity. As I mentioned beforehand, Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Benjamin and Will Champion had already conquered several major music territories outside this country with their debut, Parachutes, but were receiving at most a lukewarm response in the States. I wanted to know if the members of Coldplay understood the finicky nature of music fans in this country.
On February 2 of 2001, Coldplay was appearing at a music festival in Perth, Australia. For some reason, the band's distribution arm in the States, Nettwerk, thought this was the perfect time to do a phone interview with a call from Down Under. I had specifically asked the publicist to speak with Will Champion. Now drummers are usually the unheralded players in a group, but in this instance, Champion's role in Coldplay was quite significant. Without a doubt, he was the most accomplished musician in the group. He had learned to play drums just so he could become a member of the band. Champion, it turned out, was one of those rare individuals that could take any instrument placed in his hands, and with little or no experience, play it quite well. This incredible talent made him an invaluable asset to lean on, especially when musical decisions had to be made.
Coldplay's success in the U.S. was unsure at best, despite the accolades being heaped on them in England and other parts of the world. Also, with the band's European label, Parlophone, opting to use an independent record label in North America to distribute and promote the band, instead of its Capitol Records subsidiary, well, something seemed out of sorts with the hype that was following Coldplay. Time would indeed prove this English import was the real deal, but ten years ago, they were just another group from London, formed in college, hoping to catch a break with their music in the biggest market in the world.
JAM: For many years, decades really, when new music emerged out of England and was introduced in this country, it was a stamp of coolness. Today, being labeled British doesn't mean anything. Has that fact forced Coldplay, and your management team, to really look hard at the U.S. in terms of how to introduce the band here? Has the band, has your manager, done its homework on how English bands have been received in this country the past few years?
Will Champion - Yes, our manager is well on the case. He's done a lot of research and we know what the score is there.
JAM: You may be treated as conquering heroes in England, Europe, and other parts of the world, but this country is a whole different ballgame. Ask the Corrs or talk to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds. They'll tell you how selective this market is. Do you have any idea what you're up against?
We're coming to your country with the attitude that although we've gotten positive airplay in the United States, we are not huge there. Actually, we're prepared for the fact that Coldplay is not huge there. Then again, we don't feel huge in the U.K. either. In that respect, there are no problems with egos being bruised here. People in your country know our songs they just don't know our faces.
JAM: For as long as I can remember, and I've been interviewing bands for years, the American music public looked to England for revolutionary ideas, but that all stopped when your country unleashed the Spice Girls. Fortunately that fad ended, but I'm telling you, for a very long time, as a journalist, I dreaded any music coming out of England. Did you notice a void in the quality music in and around London when you four got together?
There really wasn't a void. I would say the example you gave really spurred people on to create an alternative to the rubbish we were hearing on the radio. In this case, it was all this manufactured, commercial pop stuff. I really do believe that all that nonsense spurred people, in an underground sort of way, to create a musical environment that was real. In the last year, the charts in England have started to change. All those boy and girl bands, the pop stuff that dominated before, are finally going away. Music you hear coming from our country today isn't that crappy, dance performance art type of thing. Now you hear Radiohead, The Verve, Richard Ashcroft, Coldplay and others taking it all back. Valid songwriting, and not a pretty face that can dance, is finally coming to the forefront.
JAM: How many songs did you write for the Coldplay debut album?
It was around 20.
JAM: How do you know what songs will be right for a debut album when you really have nothing to base your decisions on but your own gut instincts?
It all comes down to feeling. When we finish recording a song, we give the music a week and come back to listen to it. If the tune sounds like rubbish, we scrap it. Every single song on our album we were 100 percent behind, everything was okay. We all decided individually that the parts we played were great. That's how we judged the material. We all had total trust in one another that whatever decisions any of us made regarding a song, were right. We did not let ego get in the way of any hard decisions.
JAM: Did you have a tough time picking a producer for this band?
Not really. We wanted to co-produce our album because previously, we had an experience with a quote, "real producer," and it didn't go particularly well. He was more of a dictator who said you do this, you do that, and in the end, we didn't want to see our songs butchered. That's why we decided to co-produce the record so that we would have the final say in everything. We used a guy that was a brilliant engineer, who shared the same philosophy as us about music, how it should sound, and he happened to be a really nice guy who was easy to get along with.
JAM: Does Chris Martin write the lyrics to all the songs?
JAM: Does he write rough sketches of music to go with his songs and bring it to the band?
A lot of times he will. Chris will bring in something he wrote Guy, Jonny and myself and we'll play different versions of the tune he brought in. A lot of times there may be a particular guitar riff Jonny comes up with that sends the song in a different direction, or maybe it will be a drum beat. There is no specific rule on how to write a song. It's usually whatever sounds good to us. A lot of time it's a happy accident, things that come by chance.
JAM: Was "Yellow" one of those songs that came by chance?
"Yellow" was a song we wrote after just recording "Shiver" in the studio. We wrote it in a day or two. The problem with that song is it took a while to finalize. It started out being a slow country song, in a Neal Young kind of style. Then Jonny put a guitar riff over the top, and it sort of speeded the song up a bit, changing it to a more upbeat type of tune. From there, the original concept of "Yellow" was changed dramatically by all of us. All the parts from the original tune were totally changed.
JAM: Because of your musical versatility with various instruments, as a drummer, does that knowledge help you understand where songs are going when they are presented by Chris, or the musical direction that Jonny is trying to take with a song with the guitar.
Definitely, yes! I will be the first to admit that I'm not technically a very good drummer, but I look at myself as providing a backbone to a song. I bring something musical to our music, not just drumming as quickly as I can. What I do that I think is important to this band is this. I can define sections of a song and provide the chorus to make them different, to say what they need to say.
JAM: I read the reason "Yellow" was so difficult to record resulted from the different tempo changes that were used throughout the piece. Did you ultimately settle the tempo question to get that song right?
Yes I did. That was a weird progression, because we could have recorded that song in several ways and it would have sounded right. We just had to determine which right was the one we felt represented the song. It was quite painful trying to figure out how to record "Yellow," and we tore our hair out for quite a long time over it. We wrote it in two days, but it took a week to figure out how to record the basic tracks.
JAM: When did you sign to Parlophone?
We signed with them in April 1999, but didn't start recording until December of that year. The record was finished in May 2000, released in July, and over the course of the next six months, sales went crazy everywhere but the United States. Hopefully once we get over there and tour, that will change as well.
JAM: Musically Will, here's how I sum up the 23 years you've been alive. You were born during the punk movement spearheaded by the Sex Pistols and The Clash. When you stopped wearing diapers, electronic music, like Human League, Flock of Seagulls and Thompson Twins was in full swing. In the mid to late 80's, you're in grade school and New Order, The Cure, Depeche Mode and The Smiths are going strong. When you finally go to high school, the music of Blur, Suede, Oasis, Pulp and a one-time brilliant effort by the Stone Roses, are all the rage. When you go off to college, openly manufactured boy and girl groups are consuming the British market at an alarming rate. Now, it's the dawning of a new day. That's quite a musical ride to have lived through.
Definitely, and the funny thing is, you actually did sum up my life with what you said. Coldplay has been lucky, and a lot of good stuff has come out of us. I'm hoping it continues on into the future with us spearheading the charge.
JAM: Recently, I interviewed two interesting English bands called Gay Dad and Muse that the British press placed high expectations on after their debut records were released. Now those same accolades are being placed on Coldplay. I assume it's better to be noticed by the British press than totally ignored. Does that sort of hype bother you at all?
Not really. If you are hyped by the press and you don't play well, then you're going to get crucified. As long as we live up to our ability and potential, we know that we can bring a lot of good things out in our music. When you start worrying about living up to other people's expectations, you're in for trouble. This band is confident enough to know that people are going to like our music.
JAM: When you started working on your debut album, was there any one particular song you wrote that gave everyone the confidence that the musical direction you were headed in was the right one?
Here's the thing about this band. From the very first day we all rehearsed together, three to four years ago, we sort of knew from jamming that we were creating music that was better than all four individuals could make some place else. We knew that the whole was better than the sum of its parts. From that first rehearsal, it was quite evident to us that we had something special going on. So, to answer your question, we were quite confident in our abilities to create the right songs to represent us. We sort of looked at our debut as the foundation in which to build future projects upon. The music will obviously grow and change as we do, but their needs to be a musical platform for us to stand on in order for Coldplay to move forward.
JAM: What about the order of songs on Parachutes? How were those decisions made?
Well, the track listing was extremely important to us for different reasons. We weren't concerned that someone would dismiss the album if they didn't like the first song. We wouldn't want those people anyway if all they were looking for was one hit. I would never listen to an album, and if I didn't like the first song, ditch it. We gave some promotional copies of the album to journalists in France before we did interviews. It had a different track listing than the one we released. The first song was "We Never Change," which is kind of depressing. These journalists were constantly asking us why we were depressed or melancholy. We couldn't figure out why until we noticed that song was the first one on the album. That's when we rearranged the tracks. Parachutes to us, is an optimistic album, not melancholy. We wanted people listening to this record to understand that no matter how bad things look in the beginning, if you concentrate on the positive, things will turn out well. That's the message we wanted to get across on the album. That's why the track listing was very important.
JAM: Coldplay is a brand new band. No one knows what to expect out of you. Why are you worried about how people are going to perceive the group when in fact, no one has ever heard of you before?
Well, to date we have sold 2.5 million copies around the world.
JAM: Okay, let me rephrase that. Why were you worried about how the band would be perceived before you ever sold one copy of Parachutes?
The original track listing had this band coming off as rather bleak and unhappy. That's not who we were. We wanted people to understand what our outlook on life was all about.
JAM: Over the years, I've noticed that when it comes to composing rock and roll songs, the music comes first followed by the lyrics. Do you believe that?
It's an interesting question, but the thing is, we use Chris' voice as another instrument in the band. A lot of times, the lyrics he composes come to life because of his voice, not because of the way they're structured around the music we have created. A song without lyrics can be just as moving. I think the tune "Shiver" on our album is a good example of what I'm talking about. That instrumental riff Jonny came up with during the intro captures your attention. The phonetic range of Chris' voice draws you into the song. Throughout the tune, those two components, Jonny's guitar and Chris' voice, play off of one another while Guy and I provide the backbone. What I'm trying to say is there is no conventional wisdom as to how the four of us come up with the final product. We just do.
JAM: "Trouble" was remixed as a dance song. Was that sincere flattery or someone trying to make a quick buck off your sudden success?
I'm not quite sure really. We certainly didn't sanction it. I'm sure it wasn't flattery behind the move, just some opportunist trying to cash in on us.
JAM: During the video shoot for "Trouble," did you actually witness a mugging of an old man?
Yes, it was awful, terrible. It was a mentally handicapped man. This woman was posing as a prostitute, lured him into this alley where her boyfriend was waiting, and they beat him up and lifted his wallet.
JAM: Did you catch him?
When the old guy was getting beat up, he was sort of wailing. While he was trying to protect himself, he grabbed the girl and that made the guy even angrier. So, instead of mugging him, he started to beat him. They had already taken his wallet and they wouldn't stop beating him. Well, we heard the crying. There are a lot of people on a film shoot, plus we had a security person with us who was quite a big chap. We all ran over there, the security grabbed the bloke that was beating the old man, and threw him aside. The police were called and the guy and the girl were taken away to jail.
JAM: I was reading your manager's diary that he posted on the Internet and I started laughing at these two entries he put in. On Oct. 15, 2000 he says the band rejects a $100,000 pound offer to have the music of "Yellow" used for a TV ad then cites all these moral reasons for rejecting the money. Then, three weeks later, in his Nov. 7 entry, he says that he's hearing Coldplay music played everywhere from Eastenders, Cold Feet, Football Focus and then mentions "radio, MTV, Sunday paper cover mounts, and last but not least, TV advertising." Should I assume the ridiculous sums of money being thrown at the band finally led to you all consenting for your music to be used?
In the U.K., the BBC and ITV have a blanket agreement with all the major publishing companies where they are allowed to use any piece of music that they choose. They pay a large amount of money to publishing companies and that's just the way it is. The Eastenders is a soap opera and our music was on the radio when they were filming it, so that's not necessarily product placement. We have been providing our music for adverts with children in need and various charity things that we agree with.
JAM: Do you still press music on vinyl?
Yes, all of it. The very, very first EP we financed ourselves was called Safety. There are only 500 copies of it in existence, and I would probably say that 200 of them were thrown away by record companies when we mailed them to.
JAM: What was the Blue Room?
That was our next LP on Parolophone. There are about 4,000 copies of it pressed on 12" vinyl.
JAM: Are you going to play the entire album when you perform your first dates in America?
Not necessarily. We have new songs as well that we mix in. We've been playing some of these songs for like three years now, so we're going to mix in new songs with the album tracks.
JAM: Will "In My Place" and "Animals" be part of the new songs you play during your show?
Yes. They will be on the next album, absolutely. (Ed. Note - "Animals" was a live concert favorite of the band, but never made it on the next record. It would appear on the B side of the single "Clocks" that was put on A Rush of Blood to the Head at the very last minute. "In My Place" went on to win a Grammy for Coldplay).
JAM: Did you find it difficult to come up with the right mix of songs to put on this album?
Well, there was one song we were split on. The rest were easy. The songs that didn't make the album were the oldest of the one's that had made the final cut. A lot of the songs on the album were written in the studio. We knew that the stuff we were writing at the time was a lot better, more in the vein of the direction that we wanted to go in. There really was no contest between a new song, and one written three years earlier.
JAM: When I first started interviewing English bands in the mid '80s, they signed with Indies first and then graduated to the majors. Is that still going on in England?
We did single deals with an independent called Fierce Panda, then got picked up by a major label. That's still going on. There are Indies that will give a band a single's deal so that they will get noticed. These labels don't do it for the sake of money. They do it in hopes of breaking bands they really believe in. It's a great thing to do and the reason many bands in England are where they're at today. They were helped along the way by people who believed in them.
JAM: Who noticed you four?
A guy on Radio One called Steve Lamacq, who's sort of an institution on national radio in England, and this guy Simon Williams, who wrote for NME magazine and owned Fierce Panda. We released some singles on their label and that deal got us noticed by some majors. Then we did some tiny gig at a place called the Bull & Gate in London where 50 different record company people showed up.
JAM: Come on Will, you're telling me 50 different record companies showed up on the strength of what you had recorded with Fierce Panda?
Yes I am. There were 50 different representatives there.
JAM: What was the single you put out on Fierce Panda that got you noticed?
It was called "Brothers and Sisters."
JAM: It wasn't included on your major label debut.
We don't like recording things twice. When it has been recorded, then to us, that's the way it should be. Our recordings stand as they are because they were capturing a certain time in our lives. If we rerecorded and rereleased things from our past, then we would never progress. If we thought that way, we'd still be in the studio trying to perfect our debut album.
JAM: You've been living with the music on Parachutes close to a year, and in some instances, even longer than that. When you play the States later this year, it will be the first time people have witnessed Coldplay live. Is it difficult to stay recharged as you play the same music over and over again? Or, in your case, do you use the opportunity as a way to debut new songs your write and see how they are received?
Well, that's part of it. Even though we've performed 250 gigs playing the same exact song, more than likely most of the people attending the show have never seen us before. We want everyone who comes to a Coldplay concert to walk away feeling that we've played a special performance for them. We never get sloppy at a show, and every song we put 100 percent effort behind. The new songs add intrigue to our next album release.
JAM: Did you all meet in college?
Yes. The four of us came from different parts of England, and met at the University College of London, UCL. We were all friends before music, all mates hanging around, and decided to start a band. We didn't have a drummer, so I thought I'd give it a go.
JAM: Whose idea was it to use the Coldplay name from another band?
We needed a name before our first gig because the one we had come up with just didn't feel right. Our mate, Tim Crompton, originally had the name, but his group was going through like four band titles a week. Coldplay was one of the names they didn't want, so we took it.