BY DAVID WEISS, PHOTOS BY NEIL ZLOZOWER
For all the thousands of drummers pushing ahead in a tireless quest for rhythm fame, there will always be one or two like Will Champion who just kind of wind up with it. That’s not to say that, as the drummer for the artistically gifted songwriters known as Coldplay, Champion hasn’t worked hard for his career, but with only five years experience holding a pair of sticks, he’s landed comfortably on the fastest of fast tracks.
Although he’s been playing piano and guitar for 18 of his 24 years on the planet, Champion never really thought about pounding out a beat until his sophomore year at the University of London. That’s when three friends of his, guitarist Jon Buckland, bassist Guy Berryman, and guitarist Chris Martin, who had gone and started Coldplay without him, knocked on his door and demanded his drumming services – no experience necessary. “Coldplay and drumming arrived simultaneously for me,” Champion explains in that kind of quiet Brit accent that just charms the pants off everybody. “Chris, Johnny, and Guy did three tracks on a four-track EP, and they needed drums.
“They came to my house, because I lived with a guy with a drum kit. He was a good drummer, but he didn’t turn up – he was at the pub or something – so I just said I’d give it a go. They recorded it, and it kind of went from there. I played on one song on that EP, and in the beginning of the next year they said, ’Do you want to be in the band?’ I said, ’Absolutely.’ I was desperate to be in a band. I would have played kazoo.”
Good thing Champion answered the door the day of that surprise recording session, because that was opportunity knockin’. Founded on a platform committed solely to genuine, meticulously crafted songs while rejecting profit motives and notoriety, Coldplay quickly became (what else?) a high-profile moneymaker in the world of pop. But don’t blame the guys in the group for busting it wide open: take it out on the five million people who bought copies of their 2000 debut album, Parachutes, or the Academy, which awarded them a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. A dark and dreamy collection that astonished jaded listeners with its unfiltered honesty, Parachutes gave many music lovers new hope that there were still great pop songs left to be written for the 21st Century.
If that sounds like a lot of pressure to put on a band for their follow-up, you’d be right. Coldplay came off of their intense promotion in 2001 for Parachutes proclaiming themselves officially out of ideas. But apparently, happily, fortunately, they were wrong: The band dug deep, and came out of the studio with their gorgeously crafted second album, the recently released A Rush of Blood to the Head. Matching raw emotional strength with quiet subtlety and aching beauty, Rush maintains Coldplay’s reputation for songwriting mastery, boosted by a rise in their technical skill and confidence.
Champion’s lifelong status as an extremely gifted musician set the stage for his relatively short, but surprisingly successful, stint as a drummer. He was born into a musical family in the English port town of Southhampton, where he quickly found a way around the most distasteful parts of his early music education. “I started doing lessons on various instruments, but I didn’t enjoy doing them because I couldn’t read the music,” he recalls. “Instead, I would play songs from memory. I watched my teacher’s hands on the piano, memorized it, and ended up doing it myself.”
Although reading music wasn’t Champion’s forte, playing it proved to be quite another matter. “I think music first clicked as a creative pursuit when my mom taught me how to play three chords on guitar,” he says. “At the time I had the ability to listen to a song and work out how to play it instantly. I think the guitar is a really easy thing to do that on. That’s when I realized most songs revolve around three chords anyway.”
Champion clearly had talent early on. What he didn’t have was someone outside of Mom and Pop to share it with. “I was never really in bands; my friends were always playing football instead,” says Champion. “I used to play music by myself, really. I’d never been in a band before I joined Coldplay.”
Going from Southhampton to the cultural explosion of London as a college freshman, Champion wasn’t so much a starving artist as an artist starving for some actual interaction. With so much ability and so few chances to display it, joining Coldplay must have felt great. So what if he barely knew a crash from a ride? His lengthy musical training and total sensitivity to a song’s melodic elements made him the perfect drummer to back Martin and Buckland’s subtly stirring compositions, with their guitar-driven influences that ranged from Radiohead, Jeff Buckley and Oasis to Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Besides, things started to happen so fast for the band, there was no time to notice that one member was just beginning to learn his instrument.
“When I did my first rehearsal with the band in January, 1998, I had a card in my wallet from a promoter who I’d met a few nights before,” Champion remembers. “I had gotten the card for the guys, because he said he’d help us. I phoned, said ’Can I have a gig?’ and he said yeah. We had a gig on February 17, so it was right in. We had six songs, and we had to learn to play them in six weeks. When we played our first gig, we invited all of our friends, and it was quite a small little place. Only a hundred people could fit, and there ended up being a long line outside. It was very exciting to be the drummer in that band, doing original music instead of other people’s music – actually writing parts instead of copying them.”
While things started to move fast for Coldplay, Champion modestly denies that his own drumming abilities took off at the same pace. “I wouldn’t say that. I still would maintain I’m not a great drummer. I was definitely improving then, and I still am. But all of that piano did help, because it gave me coordination for my hands and feet, and a different perspective from other drummers. There’s hundreds of other drummers who are technically brilliant, but my favorite drummers are people who played in great bands and complemented a great singer. Dave Grohl, Ginger Baker, and John Bonham are perfect examples: They’re people who are original with their own style, but perfect for the band they played in.
“When we first started writing songs, Chris would come in with an idea for a song – a vocal melody, a verse part – and then we would just kind of work on it for a structure, finding the main feel of the song. I’ve never done anything complicated even up until now, except providing the actual rhythm, or building on the rhythm of the acoustic guitar or whatever it was that was leading the song.
“I’m very glad that I played other instruments before the drums. Definitely. It allowed me to have a different perspective on drumming in music. It’s one thing to be a technically brilliant drummer, but knowing the difference between the major and minor key is very important too, and I was lucky to learn all that before I was playing drums. That has more to do with the feel of a song, knowing what’s right for the song, instead of knowing how to play powerfully for a second or two.”
It wasn’t long before the radio and record company geeks started hearing the buzz and throwing their own weight behind Coldplay, paving the way for a record contract that led directly to the critical and popular success of Parachutes. “We were lucky enough to have people at Radio One, the main radio station, get behind us,” Champion notes. “There a lot of people who stuck their necks out for the band. We always got people that gave us amazing amounts of respect. Without those people, we wouldn’t be here.
“With Parachutes, we worked incredibly hard, and we believed that it was the greatest record that we could ever make. But you have to approach every record like that – you’ve got to believe what you’re doing is the best, otherwise there’s no point in doing it. I just think it was a certain time in the music industry when there was a lot of preproduced, packaged stuff. Parachutes was very honest. There were no frills to it. It was quite raw. It was very kind of rich-sounding, but still very basic, and I think people appreciate honesty at the end of the day. It didn’t pretend to be anything it wasn’t.”
Blessed (cursed?) with 18 months of non-stop touring to support Parachutes, Champion took the opportunity to grow as a drummer. “I became more confident, as much as anything else, and I started to hit the drums harder as well,” he says. “I also went and had a few lessons with a teacher to help me with timing, because I had gotten to the point where I didn’t think I could learn any more without learning the basics. My natural ability got me as far as possible without help.”
Champion and his bandmates saw A Rush of Blood to the Head as a chance to move forward. “We just wanted to make certain that we recognized ourselves in a progression,” he says of the CD’s writing and recording strategy. “There are so many bands that say, ’The first album did well. Let’s do another one exactly the same.’ That’s not interesting. We wanted to progress in every way possible, and it just seemed to happen with hard work.”
Playing on a predictably basic Yamaha drumkit – one 24″ kick, 12″ rack, 18″ floor – with one ride, two crashes and hat, Champion seems to have a magic touch on Rush for providing exactly what’s needed, every time. He moves songs like “In My Place” forward with plenty of power but not a single stroke wasted, then gives “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” a spare, menacing pulse of straight snare hits in the verse, shined up with a flowing ride cymbal in the chorus. In “The Scientist,” Champion is perfectly content to let simple layers of piano, vocal, and guitar do their thing for a full 2:17 before joining in with a kick/snare pattern as patient and unassuming as any beat that ever was. Not until the shimmering imagery of “Clocks” does he make his rhythms part of the centerpiece, punctuating the phrases with an unvarying odd-time pattern that allows everything else to fall perfectly into place.
“I knew that I had to play stuff in keeping with the different types of songs that we were writing,” Champion says. “But the first album wasn’t really rhythmically that strong. It was just added dynamics, which I consider to be the most important thing in drumming – getting the flow of the song across. I wanted Rush to be a bit more driven and driving, and rely on the drums with a bit more feeling. Or maybe ’driving’ is not the word, but more solid. The first album is maybe a little pitty-patty, but I still think it’s good. However, you move around, you change things you like and change what kind of songs you listen to. Everything changes.”
Recorded in multiple locations across Jolly Olde England, including the famed Air Studios, Champion knew how he wanted his drums not to come across. “Sometimes I listen to drum sounds on records and I think they sound terrible,” he says. “I really don’t like close miking. It sucks all the life out of the drums. We had microphones everywhere around the room: in the corners, in the corridor, in echo chambers, putting them through distressors. We were trying to make interesting sounds, like recording onto a Dictaphone and then recording back into a computer. Overall, the goal was to make them sound live, big, and fat.”
While all four members would occasionally play together live in the studio, the more common scenario saw Champion and bassist Guy Berryman laying down the rhythm parts while playing to a click and scratch guitar track laid down by Chris Martin. “Guy and I worked very hard to make sure everything we did was solid and stable,” states Champion. “The majority of the drum patterns are based on the natural flow of the songs. They provide the backbone and feel, which is something I’m pleased with. What that means is that Chris and Jon don’t have to compromise any melodies. Whereas on the first album they may have had to create rhythm from a guitar or lead riff, this time the rhythm was sorted out, so they had more space to concentrate solely on melody.”
With each individual band member now able to focus more intently on their own instrument, the end result was an even stronger group effort that left no stone unturned. “The songs were always kind of evolving,” Champion says. “To an outside observer the process would be very mundane. There were very miniscule details, but to us they were hugely important, like where to put the open hi-hat, or whether to put in a third bass drum beat. Anal-retentive details, but they were crucial.”
Coldplay agonizes over the little things, but that’s probably the exact reason why this low-key foursome was able to squeeze through the huge blocks of rock that otherwise fill the airwaves. Recruiting the perfect person to be their drummer – a man who’d never tuned a tom in his life but is an expert at creating a good song – may have been the smartest move of all. “Everyone in the world who plays drums is probably better than me,” Will Champion shrugs. “I’m not technically amazing by any means, and I don’t think you have to be. It’s important to be with the right people, playing the right thing, because you don’t have to play incredibly quickly, and you don’t have to have 15 toms. It’s about being right for the music.”
Drums: Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute
1. 24″ x 16″ Bass Drum
2. 14″ x 5 1/2″ Manu Katche Signature Snare Drum
3. 12″ x 10″ Tom
4. 16″ x 16″ Floor Tom
A. 14″ A Custom Hi-Hats
B. 18″ A Custom Crash
C. 22″ K Custom Ride
D. 19″ A Custom Crash
Will Champion also uses Zildjian sticks, Aquarian and Remo heads, Pearl Powershift bass pedal, Yamaha hardware, and a Roc ’N Soc throne.