Cold Relief

British musicians have a charismatic swagger that Americans have been lusting after ever since the Beatles, the Stones and the rest of the British Invasion bands started showing up at U.S. press conferences in the 1960s. The mop tops entered the media fray fully armed with a deadpan sense of humor, bloody great hangovers and a penchant for playing down the significance of their extremely cool riffs and lyrics. These bands always straddled a fine line between snotty and sublime, but it could never be said that they took much guff from interviewers.

Nearly 40 years later, little has changed. Will Champion, drummer for Britpop sensation Coldplay, is on the phone just before a sound check for an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. In the background, there's a sense of urgency -- a floor director can be heard yelling, "Paul Shaffer to the floor for rehearsal!" But Champion is swaggeriffic, acting bewildered when asked what makes his band's music sound so fresh, and dissing other drummers and, of course, music writers. "Frankly, I couldn't give a shit about what [journalists] write about us. I mean, the way articles are written nowadays, everybody's got to find this little angle, like who is going out with who, or if you threw a fuckin' TV out the hotel window. Nobody wants to know how you write your music or how you play it. It's pretty fuckin' sad."

Damn that feisty Brit -- who, by the way, grew up in Southampton, drives a VW Golf and lives with his girlfriend, a nursery school teacher. Just when I was going to ask him whether poster-boy Coldplay singer Chris Martin has shagged Gwyneth Paltrow, he steals my thunder.

But he does have a point. Most of the band's press clips -- provided to those deemed fortunate enough to share a phone line for 15 minutes with a Coldplayer -- cover the same ground. They almost always underscore the fact that a certain former Creation Records exec described Parachutes, Coldplay's hugely successful 2000 debut album, as "bed wetters" music. All the articles also include a lengthy analysis of why Martin, who writes almost all of the band's music, is so (choose one or several) vulnerable/ honest/refreshing/boring/egotistical/not a wanker like Liam Gallagher. The egotism charge has more than a little merit. How on earth can Martin not be crowned the king of conceit when he makes statements (as he did in a recent issue of Spin) suggesting the group's six-month-old second CD, A Rush of Blood to the Head, was intended to be the greatest album of all time?

"What's wrong with that?" Champion shoots back. "Why would any musician not embark on a new record unless he wanted it to be the best ever? I don't think any musician would start to work on a record thinking he's going to make the most average record ever. Every band should have the confidence to want to make the best music ever, or there's really no point, is there?" (Apparently Champion has not yet heard Mick Jagger's recent solo release.)

Martin has also declared that the band's music will never be used in commercials, as if clinging to that ethical tenet puts Coldplay in a class by itself in the crass, commercialized musical milieu of the 21st century. That said, I sure hope he didn't tune in to the Steelers-Browns playoff game on January 5, when ABC ran 15 seconds of Coldplay's music as a "drop-in promo" for which the network pays the standard licensing fee to music publishers. With the punchy piano-bass riff from the latest single, "Clocks," churning in the background, announcer Brent Musberger extolled the virtues of Southwest Airlines and Ford trucks. Guess the band will call a press conference so they can rip up their royalty checks in unison. Or not.

Brashness aside, forests have been felled to provide enough paper for Coldplay's coronation as the latest best band ever from Britain because their music is indeed pretty damn good. The quartet's sound has often been compared to that of U2 as a matter of convenience. But there is some truth to the statement, if you delve deeper into the band's sound than most writers are wont to do. The real similarity: how bands such as U2 and Coldplay use -- rather than play -- their instruments.

Because The Edge didn't have a clue how to play guitar when he met Bono, he chose to create his own off-the-cuff chord fragments, and became an electronics geek to produce his distinctive sound. Although Coldplay's Champion had a musical background when the band was formed in the mid-1990s, he only took up the drums when he joined Martin and company in 1997. He uses his kit creatively, like a jazz drummer might. In "Clocks," for example, Champion isn't playing a steady 4/4 beat in the background while a melody line and guitars crisscross or play counterpoint. Instead, he plays a steady stream of staccato eighth-note beats in unison with the driving piano and bass lines, creating a sonic stream on which Martin can float his airy vocals.

There aren't many rock drummers Champion likes. He does enjoy the pounding of old-school cats like John Bonham and Ginger Baker, and makes an exception in the contemporary scene for Dave Grohl, but that's about it. "A lot of these drummers in these successful bands out there now are not any good at all; they just like to show how fast they are or they try to look cool," says Champion, sounding very much like Mick Jagger circa 1966 talking about Herman's Hermits or the Dave Clark Five. "It's all rubbish to me, just masturbation."

And for their part, most mainstream radio stations don't give Coldplay much love. Despite the accessibility of the group's piano-laden, melancholy sound, the Buzz is the only major radio station in Houston that plays the band regularly. Vince Richards, director of radio programming for Clear Channel Houston, says two songs from the latest album ("Clocks" and "In My Place") are in rotation, as is "Yellow," the hit single from Parachutes. Richards adds that the band's music crosses a lot of demographics (translation: chicks dig it), and it prevents the station from being pigeonholed. He's right -- it is rather startling to hear a moody Coldplay song stuck in between System of a Down or Disturbed or any of the 50 other bands that sound exactly like those two. Coldplay provides the Buzz with what Richards calls "relief records," songs that break up all the harder stuff that is their stock-in-trade.

In short, they are the Billy Wagner of today's rock scene, somebody on hand to get rock radio out of the bases-loaded, nobody-out morass it so often finds itself mired in. Apparently, swagger -- which once swept all before it -- will only get you a spot in the bullpen in 2003.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr