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"So, are you going to fuck us over, then?"
Such is Coldplay singer Chris Martin's greeting, proffered with a warm smile and a clasp of the arm. Before assurances can be offered, he's sashayed into his Los Angeles hotel room, where clothes spew out of a suitcase and over the floor. "I mean, it's probably about time," he continues equably, offering his interviewer the only chair. "If that's what you want to do, man, I won't mind. I'm just surprised people are as positive as they've been. I always expect everyone to hate us."
Strange words from somebody who's enjoyed not just a number-one album in his native Britain, but -- unusual for a British band these days -- solid success in the States. Coldplay's sophomore album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, hit number five on Billboard's album chart and recently coined platinum.
Formed at college in London by singer/songwriter Martin and the near invisible "other three" (guitarist Jonny Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman and drummer Will Champion), Coldplay had a smash hit with its second single, the indelible "Yellow." The song became the sound of the British summer in 2000. Led by Martin, an alumnus of the exclusive Sherbourne private school, where he uncoolly ran the Sting fan club, this was nice, middle-class, middle-of-the-road music: Radiohead with the bitter emotions and twisted sonics markedly absent. The piano ballad "Trouble," a UK hit that also dented the U.S. charts, could have been "a Celine Dion song in the wrong hands," according to Martin, "but we made it sound cool."
"Cool" is something Coldplay was far from being in its early days. With the release of its debut album, Parachutes, the group was blasted by the Hives' record-company boss as a bunch of "bed-wetters." Maybe this is why, success notwithstanding, Martin still expects everyone to hate him.
Either through disingenuity or paranoia (you can never quite tell), Martin underestimates the band's creative and critical turnaround of the last eight months. Having shaved his nerdy curls off to become the thinking alterna-chick's crumpet after the first album's release, Martin then mutated into a one-man quote machine, memorably accusing Bono of having a weave, and confessing to having been a virgin until two years before and having once worried he was gay.
Unveiled at Britain's prestigious Glastonbury festival last June, A Rush of Blood to the Headrevealed new ambition and a new edginess and angularity, not just nicely-elocuted emoting. Suddenly, Coldplay was possessed with, of all things, mystique. America wasn't slow to catch on: The single "Clocks" opened up new quiet space in rock- dominated U.S. radio, and a sellout tour last fall meant a raft of new dates for another go-around this year.
Behind all of this, you sense, is Martin, an English eccentric finally allowing himself his rope -- even if he does jerk it back at regular intervals. A born frontman, on stage he alternates between eyes-closed spasmodic singing, like a better socially adjusted Thom Yorke, and scampering around trying to turn cameras onto his bandmates. "Let me introduce you to Jonny. He's 21 and taken!" he said recently to a crowd. Failing, he shrugged, "Oh, fuck it, let's have the camera on me, then."
The attention of the camera -- and the audience -- rarely strays very far. But in person, at first impression, Martin looks fried, unlikely as this is at 10 a.m. for a man who is an avowed abstainer. "I'm wired enough without adding anything else!" he says, chuckling and sipping a mineral water. But he looks fried in a way that's vulnerable rather than debauched, blue eyes piercing his pale face somewhere between flirtation and disarming frankness. Undeniably handsome, Martin has a floppy, slightly fey quality that leaves women feeling divided between mauling and mothering him. Last year, prior to the blossoming of his romance with actress Gwyneth Paltrow, Martin complained to this interviewer about his lack of action. "I sleep alone every night and watch back episodes of Sex and The City. There's no such thing as casual sex," he said, then paused before asking: "Is there?"
Though he can be difficult to pin down, it's rare for Martin to refuse to answer a question. More often, he'll blurt out a response, only to backtrack moments later or use self-deprecation as a reply. Asked about his newfound sex-symbol status, Martin offers, "Well, obviously, I am devilishly handsome -- a spotty, receding sex symbol! The only people who've said I'm a sex symbol are male journalists!" Prodded for Ms. Paltrow's views on the subject, however, he's politely evasive. "Hey, that's off-limits, man. Ask another question."
(Martin first fielded Paltrow queries last fall, before he'd even met the actress. Asked by the British press if the two were dating, he responded, "I mean, I wish!" Days later, he jokingly devoted "The Scientist" to "my girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow" at a show. When the two actually met last November at Wembley's Arena, Paltrow's opening line was, "Apparently we're dating!" Thus does tabloid speculation become broadsheet fact.)
So is Martin surprised that the sensitive music favored by his band has found a niche in the States? After all, some people here don't consider Coldplay to be very rock-and-roll.