LONDON (Billboard) - The album that will put the new EMI under its greatest global scrutiny to date is also 2008's most eagerly awaited release. That's the official word from Coldplay's new boss.
The band's "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends" will be released June 12 internationally on Parlophone/EMI and on June 17 in North America on Capitol. EMI Group chairman Guy Hands, who led the buyout of the music company last summer through his private-equity firm Terra Firma, says, "Right across the world, this is the most anticipated album of the year."
As the follow-up to the British melodic rock band's "X&Y" album of summer 2005, which scaled global sales north of 10 million units, according to the label, it's a significant release for many reasons. Just as "Viva La Vida" is a bold musical statement by a group that Martin says had grown to feel "a little dirty" by the end of its last campaign, the importance of this album to the new EMI, in the midst of its management restructuring, is hard to overstate.
But Martin, sitting in the band's own studio, the Bakery in northwest London, offers a typically relaxed and realistic interpretation.
"Being on a major label at the moment is like living in your grandparents' house," he says. "Everyone knows they need to move out, and they will eventually, but we kind of like our grandmother.
"It's obviously an antiquated model, because of the Internet, but we really love the people we work with. If we knew what the solution was to everything, then we'd do it. We have absolute respect for the Radioheads and Raconteurs and people who can do what they like. We're in contract though, so we're just going to make the most of it and enjoy the people we get to work with."
In a bold move to reassert its close relationship with its fans, Coldplay made the album's first single, "Violet Hill" -- a track, with something of the flavor of 1967-68 era Beatles -- available as a free download April 29, shifting more than 2 million units in its week of being available for free, according to EMI. A cover-mounted 7-inch vinyl edition of the single was given away with the May 10 issue of British music weekly NME, which went on sale May 6 -- the only physical version of the single to be made available, although it also went on sale at digital outlets the same day.
"Of course we want to sell a lot of records," Martin says. "But we want to get right back to the root of everything, by saying, 'Here you go, have a song, have a concert.' All that other stuff we have to do because we're in contract, that's all going to happen, of course, but it's just starting from that place. It makes us feel good as a group of people."
Drummer Will Champion adds, "More than ever, you've got to give people a reason to be excited about music. With content being so available, you just want to give people as much as possible."
Coldplay will stage free gigs June 16 at London's Brixton Academy and June 23 at New York's Madison Square Garden. Another free show in Barcelona is expected to be confirmed soon.
The concerts will be unsponsored, and Martin points candidly to a similar stage of the band's previous campaign to explain why.
"We felt last time we f---ed up so royally in New York when we were setting up 'X&Y.' We did an AOL thing, which was fine to do, but we tried to mix it with a buzz gig and we just came across as a huge and very impersonal corporation.
"So this time we want to do the ultimate buzz gig and have it not attached to anything or anybody. We're all very nervous because no one's done it before and it's a bit risky. When we first got asked to close (the) Glastonbury (festival) in 2002, it was a similar feeling of something a bit bigger than we felt we could do. But we really like that challenge."
The free shows will be followed by extensive touring throughout 2008 and beyond. Roughly 50 shows are planned for North America, followed by Europe and the United Kingdom. Coldplay will also headline the Summersonic festival August 9-10 in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. More international touring is on tap for 2009.
On the new album, produced by Brian Eno and Markus Dravs, Coldplay sounds like a band quite certain of its creative course. The set was recorded during a deliberate period out of the limelight for the band, and in particular for Martin, who's ever keen to discourage media attention to his marriage to actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
For the record, the band acquired its own, self-contained studio facility, converting a former bakery in a northwest London backstreet.
"We took a long time to recharge," Martin says. "It's weird being in Coldplay, because we've taken onboard a lot of opinion, a lot of different experiences, and we had to hibernate for a while to feel like we had anything worth doing."
Reminded of his comment, when the band won two BRIT Awards for "X&Y" in February 2006, that it would go off the radar for an extended spell, he smiles and says, "Well, there we are. I laid out a business plan.
"The place we got to two years ago just felt a little dirty," he says. "We weren't really speaking to each other. We all had our corner office in a big tower block, but there was no vibe.
"I just felt, 'We have to get our own place, we have to call Brian Eno, get Phil back' (Phil Harvey, the band's former manager and creative consultant, described by Martin as "our fifth member that no one ever sees"), 'we have to play in a little room, burn all our awards and reviews, not go to swanky dinners, erase all that."'
According to Champion, "We always have the intention of giving ourselves time to decompress after albums and tours, (but) by the end of a recording session we're anxious to get on with it and tour. Then, by the end of the touring cycle, you're thinking, 'We've written some great songs, let's get back in the studio.'
"You never really feel like you have time to settle, but we did give ourselves some time this time, time to write (songs) off tour. We basically spent eight months in (the studio); we approached it as a rehearsal room and a recording facility. We were just here playing through songs all day, every day."
Eno's role was crucial, Martin says. "Whether or not the songs are good, you can hear that the band is hungry, just in terms of the playing. He'd say, 'You can do anything you like, fellas, but it's got to sound like there's life in it.' So there's probably some magnum opuses that we've left off that are very clever, but they don't sound like they're alive."
As to the changes at the label, Martin expresses regret that some friends are no longer with the company, but also stoicism. "A lot of our lives have been about people leaving or dying -- so much has changed for everybody -- so it is sad, but that's life."
Asked about the band's contract and whether it might consider forging a different path when it ends, he jokes, "Well, I think we're in contract until ... the end of the Space Age. On my deathbed, someone will come up and say, 'You still owe me three records."'