"The only way I can work out how to make an album is to just live it and breathe it every day until it's finished," says frontman Chris Martin. "For as long as it takes."
For their third album X&Y, the British quartet took 18 months before they were ready for the last-minute creative sprint to the finish line. But when you're passionate about your music, you do whatever it takes. "We pushed ourselves as hard as we could," explains guitarist Jonny Buckland. "We needed to feel excited, and we weren't willing to put out an album until it was right."
X&Y is worth the wait. It's a big album in every sense of the word, with huge songs that build to a massive, layered sound that breaks new ground for Coldplay. The lyrics deal with life and death, love and loss. They're about being fascinated by the world and accepting that some things can never be fully understood. "In mathematics X and Y were always the answers, but in life no one knows," Martin says. "To me, the album is about those unanswerable questions, and what you should do about not being able to explain all the unknown variables."
In 2003, after completing a lengthy sell-out world tour to promote their blockbuster second album A Rush of Blood to the Head, Martin and Buckland headed to Chicago to write, bringing back demos for everyone to work on in Liverpool with the band's longtime collaborator and producer Ken Nelson. Determined to avoid their usual punishing recording schedule, the band worked at leisurely pace, each member coming into the studio to add his own touches. It wasn't until the summer of 2004 that the guys began to realize something felt wrong. "It had just become quite.. easy," says drummer Will Champion. "And nothing good ever comes easy. It didn't have any passion to it, any energy." Adds Buckland: "It just wasn't good enough. It didn't sound like there was any interaction between us. We got too obsessed with making it perfect."
So that summer, for the first time in a year, the four, Martin, Buckland, Champion, and bassist Guy Berryman, who met in the mid-'90s during their first week at University College in London, began to spend time together again. They played soccer and baseball. They went out for dinner. They made silly videos and put them up on their website. They forgot about the distractions of being in a mega-famous band and remembered that they were friends first and foremost.
"The songs had no identity," says Martin. "So we decided to strip everything away, and go back into a crummy rehearsal room with beer on the floor and band names etched into the wood pillars, and just play together." There they broke down dynamics of the songs they'd just spent a year recording and made them work.
When Coldplay returned to the studio to work with Danton Supple, who mixed A Rush Of Blood to the Head, they re-recorded several of the old tracks. It happened quickly this time, with all the energy, and imperfections that give their songs soul. Then in January, 2005, they produced three more tracks, including the simple, moving love song "A Message," which Martin describes as a surprise gift. "I didn't write it as much as it got sent. I woke up in the middle of the night, ran downstairs, and this song arrived, like a late-night visitor. It was so exciting - like the last fish you catch before packing up, when everyone else has gone home."
X&Y is filled with the kind of raw, emotional music for which Coldplay is well-known. "Swallowed In The Sea" is about coming to terms with the death of people close to you. The achingly beautiful "What If" proves that Martin hasn't lost the neurotic tendencies that fuel his lyrics: "The happier you are," he sings, "the more you have to lose." Elsewhere, "Twisted Logic" shows a darker side to the band: "It's the angriest song we've ever done," says Martin. "It's not polite, which I'm happy about."
The band still deliver their trademark brand of pristine songwriting, but this album is the sound of musicians who have matured and are ready to try new things. "With any of our records, it has to be a great song," says Champion, "but the difference on this album is in what we've chosen to do with them. Some have a faster groove, some are a bit more 'rock,' some sound more electro."
So X&Y is another leap forward for this band that has earned four Grammys (including the prestigious Record of the Year award for "Clocks") and watched their 2000 debut Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head sell a combined 20 million copies worldwide. "It's the most raw statement of our band, the sound of us really being ourselves," Martin says. "No one could be replaced by anyone else. Jonny, Guy, and Will are all capable of doing things that I never would have thought of, and that means more than any Grammy. That stuff is nice, but it's not why we do it. We want to make something that moves us, because after all the hype and awards and whatever, that's all music is."