15 August 2008 4:10 pm
An excerpt from a Coldplay roadie's book
Matt McGinn has been Jonny's guitar tech for eight years. He's recently written a book, Roadie, documenting his time with Coldplay. We thought you might like to read an entertaining excerpt explaining how Matt came to meet the band. (Oh, and for the record, Matt is not Roadie #42.)
A Roadie Meets A Band
As kids in the ‘70s, we all used to whisper the words "The Year 2000" as if when the new century arrived the sun would blow up and Earth’d change colour/go off course/wet its pants, etc. Once we all actually got there though, I’d been bald for nearly five years, so as far as I was concerned my big cosmic side-swipe had already happened and I was absolutely up for anything. Millennium bug? Pah! I’m a slaphead, bring it on!
Funny how things turn out, eh? One fateful night during that hyped-up, over-egged 12 months, my old roadie pal Jeff was driving me home after another filthy, poorly paid bog-based show when, out of nowhere, we had a little chat that went a bit like this:
"So, Matt, whatcha doing tomorrow?"
"Nothing man, it’s my day off. Why?"
"Fancy giving me a hand on a gig?"
"Er…dunno. I’m pretty tired. Who is it?"
"Eh? As in Lisa Stansfield?"
"No, you prat, that’s Cold-bloody-Cut."
"Oh yeah, sorry…anyway who are they?"
"Newish band, signed to Parlophone, supporting Embrace in Blackpool. Come on, it’ll be a nice earner. And besides, I’m going to be hungover so I want you to drive."
I didn’t want to do it. I was knackered from gigging, and had been dying for a rest. But still, it was Jeff who back in ’96 had got me my first roadie job with indie-pop girl group Kenickie. I sort of owed him.
"Alright, I give in," I sighed. "What time and where?"
It was one of those moments which is tiny at the time, but on looking back you realise that somewhere the Gods of Rock changed the points and sent your life off on a totally new track.
We met the next morning at Matt Snowball’s, which is a) his real name, and b) a North London rock ‘n’ roll storage and hire facility. I’d got there early, so had a cup of tea and chatted to the staff, a bit nervous like always when I’m about to meet new people, but about as unexpectant as you could get considering my world was about to be turned completely on its arse.
Jeff, true to his word, arrived in poor condition. He’d been up all night drinking with rural maniacs in the West Country and could barely talk, but there wasn’t much time to worry as halfway through loading the van this bunch of tall-ish scruffs showed up and introduced themselves as Coldplay.
"Bad hair and clothes," I thought.
One of them was sporting a debatable Paul Nicholas perm and seemed to be the leader so I thought carefully for a moment before asking him:
"So, what’s the band name all about, then?"
"Ah, well now," he replied, fixing me with the same disarming Alan Partridge half-smirk that’s since followed me all over the globe. "It’s the name of a special type of breeze that blows across the mountains!"
"What, like the word Keanu?" I said, before realising somebody was taking the mickey, and that the others were all having a little chortle at my expense.
Cheeky bastards. I liked ‘em.
A few things from that first journey up north have really stuck, particularly the picture of Chris horsing around and hoofing a ball about at a service station car park. He seemed like a big puppy, full of fun and sort of slapstick, with an immediately infectious aura that appeared to be turned up to eleven at all times. The lad made everyone on board the tiny bus laugh loads while staying noticeably courteous to the point of even thanking me for playing football with him. Guy, by contrast, gave a brooding first impression but quickly showed himself to be quite jovial and easy-going too. Will appeared solid and cool, while it soon emerged that he could swing from being quietly invisible to volubly engaging with little announcement. And Jonny, who had – and has – an even friendlier face than all the others put together, stood out for me by finding most things I said quite funny.
After a few happy hours on the motorway we finally arrived at Blackpool’s faded and gorgeous Empress Ballroom. The pretty chandeliers and glinting fixtures within its peeling, salty old structure set a sweet scene for our short, support band-length soundcheck; you couldn’t have wished for a better place to hear any group for the first time and even back then it was clear this little gang didn’t have it in them to disappoint. People always ask me whether I really like Coldplay’s music and I have to say that aside from a few tunes here and there I’ve always adored it, uncool or creepish as that may seem. But, as true as it is, I can’t be as objective as I was on that first day when I barely knew them and they were just this odd little handful of ex-students in crap trousers.
The song they tested their gear with (and therefore the first song I ever heard them play) has almost passed into folklore now and is probably just about up to speed as an all-time classic, so familiar that like Brown Sugar or You Only Live Twice everyone in the place already knows it before the singer even opens their mouth. Still, I shan’t easily forget hearing Chris’s bittersweet, off-kilter acoustic intro for the first time, then the noisy bash-bash-bash cymbal/guitar bit followed by that girly, pretty verse and spaced-out "YawwwSKEEEN" chorus-y part. It was odd, immediate and somehow already perfect.
The song, and their performance of it (Chris was hard to look away from even then) stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought it, and they, were great, and seeing how they seemed like such nice chaps I decided to give them a little bit of roadie encouragement.
Ever the poet, I pulled the singer aside and quietly said:
"Here, that Yellow’s a catchy fucker, isn’t it?"
The resulting explosion of sheer glee sealed our relationship forever and set in motion a chain of impersonations that I am powerless to stop to this day. Wheeling round and grabbing the attention of anyone within a half mile radius, my new boss and friend set everything in stone in a trice, with:
"Hey, fellas, did you hear what Matt just said?" —cue Mitchell brothers accent and gestures— "OI, VAT YELLAW'S A CATCHY FACKER INNIT!"
This was greeted with hilarity and universal approval in equal measure and from thereon in there was no going back – whether I liked it or not, I was in the gang for good.
Not long after that first, fateful trip, Jeff called to say that the lads needed a hand on a short UK tour supporting Muse, which turned out to be the last tour we ever did in a van…well, so far! At the time, Coldplay’s only stage technician, sorry, roadie – a bequiffed skinny ginger geezer named Hoppy – was busy in America and could I possibly fill in? Of course I could. I already knew Hoppy - we’d met on a tour back in the old Kenickie days and got on well so he rightly trusted that there was no danger of me swiping his gig.
Muse rocked on that tour and were beginning to bite commercially as well so it was pretty exciting all round. Sold out, middle-sized gigs like Portsmouth’s glass and steel Pyramid or Manchester’s deep red, slightly hellish Apollo flew by in a whirl of newness and adrenaline, spaced out by some mad bus drives over hill, dale and misty moorland. The famous Snake Pass for instance is, on a clear day, a beauty-strewn rural shortcut through some quite delightful Pennine scenery where low stone walls, hairpin bends and random wild animals all add up to an experience James Herriott might have enjoyed. But hey, for Pete’s sake don’t try it in a tour van in the fog. It’ll take all day, everyone will poo their cords and you’ll doubtless miss the soundcheck as well!
Some fairly pivotal arguments took place in that vehicle, which, for the uninitiated, was what we call a "splitter", basically a modified goods van fitted with extra windows, old plane seats and a table behind the driver, plus room for the stage gear and luggage in a separate section at the rear. There’s not much scope for escape or personal space in these things, tempers can flare and people quickly find out what and who they can really put up with. (Good practice for that private plane, kids.) Chris and Guy, for example, will occasionally have a sharp difference of opinion which can easily mutate into compelling spectator sport once the pair of them get squeezed into the rear end of a cramped minibus/Learjet;
"Why do you want to call the album Parachutes?"
"Don’t you like it as a title or something?"
"I think it sounds shit."
"Fuck off! Why are you being so negative?"
And so on.
I remember it as a happy, focused period all round though, the only real source of angst being Jeff’s habit of trying to watch films on the TV screen behind his head while driving. You’d be in the back, vibing into Steve McQueen’s car chase from Bullit, when an alarming rumble would announce the fact that we were, once again, heading for the ditch. Vociferous calls of "JEFF! STOP LOOKIN’ AT THE BLOODY TELLY!" would usually do the trick, until next time of course. What a circus!
Anyway, Muse’s crew all treated us sweetly and the band themselves couldn’t have been nicer, which was a good job really. Lots of other headline acts might have had the hump at how well their support group was going down each night and to be fair, Jonny, Chris, Guy and Will went for the audience with the hunger and apparent confidence of James Bond or Errol Flynn, but with extra manners. Most nights, mid set, pumped up on a blend of self-belief and sheer cheek, Chris would address the crowd with a grin and say something like:
"You know, I’m not trying to be big-headed, but you really ought to make the most of this, because next year we’ll be playing Wembley."
Cocky as anything, but it rang true and somehow by simultaneously playing the clown and the bard he’d get away with it. People just warmed to him, and besides, he and the rest of Coldplay made such a big, impressive noise together that you could forgive them almost anything.
Even the hair and trousers!