For a guy who writes achingly beautiful and passionate music, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin is a jumble of nervous energy.
During a recent acoustic radio recording session with guitarist Jon Buckland, Martin was noticeably tense between songs, and after the first verse of the band's new single, "In My Place" (see "Coldplay Play On, Thanks To New Single"), drummer Will Champion accidentally tipped over a guitar case, and Martin stopped abruptly. "What the f--- was that!" he snapped, shifting from confessional to agitated within seconds.
Many artists are their own harshest critics, but Martin is worse than most. Even after he sang a flawless, emotive version of "The Scientist," he scrunched up his face and exclaimed, "That sounded sh--e. Let's do it again."
Understanding Martin's work ethic is essential to grasping why Coldplay struggled through agonized songwriting and crushing self-doubt during the creation of their second record, A Rush of Blood to the Head. For Martin, perfection isn't just something to strive for. He'll accept no substitute.
"We wanted to make the most passionate, moving, melodic, uplifting and sad record of all time," he said. "There's no point in trying to do anything less, and if we get maybe one-tenth of the way there, that will be better than no part of the way there."
For Coldplay, crafting a great record meant writing from the heart and conveying those sentiments in a fresh and impassioned way. Many songs were scrapped in the process because they sounded like they could have been on Coldplay's first album, Parachutes.
"It's no good for anyone if we make Parachutes Mach II because it's not interesting for us," Martin emphasized. "It would have shown that we're happy to sit back on what we'd done, and we're not. For us it was important to progress and try to improve upon our abilities as musicians."
Reaching such lofty heights was no easy feat, and frustrations boiled to the point of explosion on numerous occasions. Sometimes practice sessions ended abruptly with one or more members of Coldplay threatening to quit.
"Being in this band is just like being in a relationship," Martin said. "Every time you have a big argument you walk out and slam the door. And then as soon as you slammed it you think, 'Oh, why did I do that?' Then you walk back in and have sex. Musically, that's what we do on a daily basis. As soon as you have 10 minutes or a day away, you wake up with the bug again."
A Rush of Blood to the Head, which comes out Tuesday (August 27), is full of plaintive strums, weary arpeggios and pained melodies that ring and ripple like a lake in a summer rain. The disc is also colored with textural washes that provide the songs added dimension. Overall, tracks like "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face" and "A Whisper" are far from nü-metal, but they're quite a bit more turbulent than Coldplay's earlier output.
"Maybe some of the songs on the last record were slightly more relaxed, because we were in a relaxed state of mind," Martin explained. "Perhaps there's a bit more urgency on some of these songs. And that's born from all the places we've been and the thing's we've experienced. Some of our friends have died or some of us have fallen in love. Some of us have fallen out of love and some of us have been to Haiti and some us been to Australia. Some of us have met Bono and some of us have met someone with nothing. It's like a massive culture gun fired at our heads. All this stuff has been happening to us, and now we have the opportunity to put it into some songs."
Some of the urgency that fed the album surfaced after 9/11 when Martin took a good look at his life and decided to take advantage of every opportunity while he still had time.
"The name of the album means doing something on impulse," he said. "I've realized that time is not infinite, and all my friends aren't going to be around forever and maybe I'm only going to get to do certain things once. My grandfather always used to tell me to do things right now because whatever you have, it's not gonna last forever."
Not that Coldplay are motivated to regain the type of exposure and popularity they experienced with the 2000 hit "Yellow." They'll gladly accept popularity if it falls in their lap again, but they're far more concerned about maintaining artistic credibility.
"I think Bono said it really well. 'Fame is something you should just have fun with but you should never take it too seriously because it is essentially nonsense,' " Martin explained. "People in their local town are famous, it's just that pop stars and movie stars just get seen by more people. Fame in itself isn't an achievement. Maybe the thing that got you famous might be, but whenever I start thinking 'Oh, I'm famous, this is marvelous. Can you please let me in [to some exclusive event],' about 10 minutes later I act like an idiot and feel stupid."
It's Martin's tendency to feel stupid, insecure and inadequate that drives Coldplay's best music. Without his heart-on-sleeve melodies and pain-stricken lyrics, Coldplay's songs would be pretty, but not nearly as potent.
"Not a single night goes past where I don't wake up sweating and thinking no one will like this record," Martin said, acknowledging his neurosis. "We poured every ounce of soul, emotion and love into it, and now we can only wait and see."