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Interview: Debs Wild on discovering Coldplay

Debs Wild played a key role in discovering Coldplay when she spotted them playing at the In The City conference in Manchester in 1998. She remains part of the band’s team to this day, and has just released a book looking back at her two decades with them. We called her up to hear more about that first encounter.

So, you’re famed for being the person who discovered Coldplay. Why were you there that night?
Well, in 1998 I was a scout for Universal Records. I’d been there less than a year and I was quite diligent. I really was keen to know about every new band.

Your job was literally going to see new bands and saying what you thought of them?
Yeah. I was based in London at the time and I was the national scout. So I was literally going everywhere from Aberdeen to Devon and everywhere in between.

And why were your ears considered good enough for that role?
When I was living in Manchester, I was booking bands at a venue called the Roundhouse. That left me really well placed to see all the new bands coming through and it led to a job as a regional scout for Epic records. Then one of the guys from Epic was poached to go and work at Universal and he asked me to work for them.

So you ended up in Manchester for In The City.
Yes, which was a big music convention across 4 or 5 venues in Manchester. Coldplay were added quite late to the bill, and I’d never heard of them at that point. They were probably one of about 4 or 5 on the list of 54 that I wasn’t aware of. That’s probably why they were top of my list to see. There was always a lot of rushing around to see the acts you wanted to at In The City. I remember Coldplay – or The Coldplay as they were then – were on at 8.15pm and I know I’d rushed straight from a dinner thing in the rain. They’d already started so I think I walked in on the first song.

Presumably the fact they’d been booked means someone thought they had something?
Well, Chris knew about In The City and submitted an application to play there. But also my friend Charlotte, who was In The City’s A&R coordinator, went to Oxford and had a mutual friend with Phil. And a copy of the band’s demo trickled through to her, which she sent to her dad who was running In The City and asked him to put this band on. So it was a bit of a two-pronged attack. But Charlotte Saxe – who is now a music lawyer – got them to the top of the pile.

OK, so you rushed in to the show. Would your expectations have been high?
For me, I was still only a couple of years into scouting, and I still had that passion and excitement every time I put on a CD or cassette. But nothing quite prepared me for actually walking in and thinking, “Wow, this could be it!”. And it really was that instant.

How many people were there?
Well, legend has it that there were only 10 people there. But there were definitely more than that! It’s a small place, and it wasn’t full, but certainly around the stage there was quite a substantial little gathering. And I did spot two other scouts there.

Ah, your competition?

Do we know what they made of it?
Well, they left! Hahaha!

But you immediately felt this was outstandingly good?
Yeah. I just knew it was special. Part of my job was always having to think about whether other people would like things too. I had a little mental ticklist. What do they look like? Are they cohesive? Does this fit into the current music scene? And it was probably thumbs down for all of those for Coldplay! They certainly didn’t look great. But it was making the hairs on my arms stand on end. It was just Chris’s vocal and the atmosphere of it all which completely grabbed me.

How early was this in their career?
They’d just done a handful of shows. They’d only played their first show in January that year, but they’d already got some good bookings. Some people called The Talent Scout had already put a gig on for them in London, which was an industry showcase thing. But to my knowledge nobody picked up on that.

And did the Manchester show go down well with the whole room?
Yeah, I remember it being received well. The finesse maybe wasn’t there then. A lot of the subsequent gigs that I went to, Chris would miss the microphone for the first line. It wasn’t shambolic, but it certainly needed fine-tuning performance wise. But Chris certainly always had the charisma and the patter.

So you decided immediately this act was worth pursuing?
Absolutely. They were definitely my surprise gem of that year’s In The City – and it was a really strong year, with Muse and Elbow both playing too. I definitely came away thinking they were the only band I needed to get on the phone about.

What happened next?
When the band had finished and I had to run off to the next venue, there were some business cards left by the door by Phil Harvey, so I just grabbed one of those, and then called him a couple of days later when I got back to the office in London.

What did you say?
I said I came to the gig and I thought they were amazing and asked if there was any music I could listen to, which was The Safety EP. We had a brief chat and Phil was telling me what they were up to. He seemed really happy that I’d called and I was really excited that I’d be getting some music, particularly as I had an A&R meeting coming up.

What did you make of the EP?
Well, it arrived a day or two later in the post with a note from Phil with a couple of upcoming dates on, and I just couldn’t stop listening to it. I loved it that much that I asked if I could come and meet the band for a chat.

Did you take it to the A&R meeting?
That CD arrived while we were in the meeting, actually. So I found it on my desk after I’d popped out for lunch and I put it on and Bigger Stronger started to play. I’m going goosebumpy just thinking about it now! It was the best feeling. Just amazing. Because it cemented everything. What I thought I’d seen in that room was coming out of the speakers, but even better. It stopped me in my tracks. I made a copy for the boss who said it was good and asked what I was going to do next. So I told him I was going to meet them.

How did that go?
I met them in a pub. We went for a few drinks and spoke about music and what they wanted to do. We just got on really well. And they walked me to the bus stop after like proper gents. I remember thinking, “I’ve got to do something with this band, they’re amazing”.

What happened next?
Phil sent me some more music, which was Ode To Deodorant and Brothers And Sisters. I remember he sent me the only copy and I made a tape of it which I used to be paranoid about leaving in my car. And I think the next thing that happened was that I saw Gavin Maude, who’s a music lawyer I knew. We were just having a chat and I told him about the band. Their lawyer at that point was just a friend of one of their dads’. I said to Gavin I thought he’d be perfect for them because he’s so laid-back and lovely. So I trotted them down to Russells Solicitors for them to meet him and then they came out and said they loved him.

And he’s still Coldplay’s lawyer to this day.
Exactly! And I played the songs to my friend Caroline Elleray who was working at BMG Publishing and she loved it as well. I sent it to her quite frankly because I couldn’t understand why the industry wasn’t going mad about this band. I thought maybe my ears needed syringing or something! We weren’t in direct competition with her being in publishing rather than at a label. I wrote on the envelope, “Open this and listen immediately”. She rang me before she’d even got through the first song, saying “Oh my God, this is amazing!”.

And, again, she’s still their publisher. 
Yep, she is indeed.

But the people you actually worked for weren’t sharing your enthusiasm?
They were, but unfortunately the thing with scouting is that it’s about keeping up with everyone rather than beating everybody. They’d be thinking, “Well if nobody else is talking about them, they can’t be that good”. If there’s no buzz around you, you can totally be missed and overlooked. But luckily the buzz started quite quickly. Once I’d told Caroline and Gavin, they didn’t keep quiet about it either. So Gavin told Simon Williams from Fierce Panda, who told Steve Lamacq from the BBC. And Caroline told Dan Keeling at Parlophone – who interestingly had already passed on them – but ended up signing them.

So your boss never went for it?
Well, my boss said he really liked it and I did get him to come to a gig at the Barfly, but he didn’t really like Chris’s chit chat with the crowd. A lot of people were put off by that back then. But I thought it was charming and different. And the music made up for everything. But, yeah, my boss essentially sat on the fence and passed.

Meaning your involvement with the band could have ended at that point?
Yeah, it could. But if I loved a band and wanted to sign them, that didn’t mean I’d stop being a fan if I couldn’t sign them. So I still went to Coldplay’s gigs. And so our friendship continued. And that was kind of the first step towards how I ended up being part of the team.

How did that happen?
Well, in about 2001 I went to live in Bath. Love took me there. I got a job for my old boss scouting remotely, but the short story is that things didn’t quite go to plan. I was thoroughly miserable and isolated and I had a bit of a meltdown. And my saviours, really, were the band. Phil said he was going to come and see me. He hopped on a train and took me out for lunch and said, “What can we do to help?”.

And they were successful by then.
Yeah, they’d just had the first taste of it with Parachutes. So Phil asked if I wanted to come and work for them. He said maybe I could run a fan club or something. They weren’t keen on taking extra cash from fans so they wanted to offer a free ezine newsletter. And Phil said I could come and do that. So I did, and it was lovely. I felt like I was in a really nice, safe place with people who cared. They got me out of a massive pickle.

So that role developed?
Yeah. There’s a lot of trust and love there and they’re really good at delegating and using people’s strengths, so it went from doing the newsletter to running the official website to eventually moving into what I do these days, where I call myself the fan liaison. I’m a bit of a gateway between the fans and the band. And because I’m such a big fan, it’s so lovely to see all of that love from the fans for them. I do love the role. It’s a real honour to do it.

Obviously they’ve developed enormously since you first saw them, so how does it feel to be looking back at that two decades with the release of the documentary film?
Watching that film is a very emotional journey. For nearly two hours you just feel on the verge of tears and joy and every emotion in between. As much as it’s their story, it’s the story of my 20 years too. It brings back so many amazing memories. And also there’s an immense pride at how they’ve sustained that, and how they’ve grown as a band yet kept that friendship. It’s incredible, really.

If someone had asked you back in 1998 where you saw them going, what do you think you’d have said?
I did definitely think they could be a big band. But I didn’t think they’d grow so much musically and deviate so far from the pattern. I didn’t know they’d want to do that or be capable of it. To watch from close quarters how different they’ve become is so exciting. You realise they can do anything.

You came into this through a love of their music. Having been at plenty of gigs with you, it’s clear you love them as much now as you ever did.
I do. And sometimes it’s quite easy to love a band because you know them or you work with them, but that’s not the case with Coldplay. Maybe I’m evolving with them on the journey, but I just find I’m still surprised by them, and I think that’s a really good thing to have when you’re so close to something. But, yes, every tour, first night I see them, wherever that might be, a song will pop. It’s like the song picks me. And that will be my song for the rest of that tour.

Which was it for the A Head Full Of Dreams Tour?
Adventure Of A Lifetime. And when that song comes on, I’ll have a little indulgent moment where I don’t watch the band, I just watch the crowd and give myself a little pat on the back and a little smile and say, “Right the way back down the road, 20 years ago, something happened and you were a tiny little part of that”. At the last show I saw on this tour, at Stade de France in Paris, I actually took myself down onto the pitch for it and went a little bit crazy, doing the “get down” moment and dancing with fans and just having fun like everybody else.

It’s an amazing thing to have experienced for two decades.
I feel so incredibly lucky. Not just for being part of their story but to have been to some of the places and the experiences I would never have had if it hadn’t been for them.

Even down to having the role of firing the confetti cannons in Latin America.
Yes! I did take that role a bit too seriously. Everyone took the mickey out of me. I got that job because someone had fired the cannon at the wrong moment the day before and I happened to be on that tour, so it became my job! There have been so many fun random, things. It’s been a hoot. Even to have been in the pre-show huddle with them. That’s an incredible thing. I’ll never forget how lucky I am.

Debs’ new book and a page from it

And now you’ve written a book about your two decades with them. It’s gone down an absolute storm with the fans.
I’m honestly overwhelmed by the response of the fans to the book. Sometimes when you do something you’re so close to it that you don’t quite know any more. Which gave me a very, very tiny insight into what it must be like being a band making an album! But it’s been incredible that people seem to genuinely love it.

Was it fun to put together?
My favourite bit was interviewing people and hearing their stories. I spoke to the team, the collaborators, the crew, old friends. It was just incredible, like going down memory lane with about 30 different people and listening to their take on what happened. I loved that. But the hard thing was deciding what to put in and what to leave out. It’s an impossible task to put 20 years into 40,000 words. The book could’ve easily been double that length. But also, it’s a coffee table celebration book so we had to go to town on the pictures. I wanted the photographs to tell the story for anybody who couldn’t be bothered to read it.

What an amazing souvenir for you too.
It’s funny, I didn’t think of that when I was writing it. But when I had it in my hands, and looked at all those pictures, it’s like having a really high quality scrapbook of my life!

And so to the question we ask everyone: what is your favourite Coldplay song?
The one that always comes out as my favourite, for many reasons, is Politik. I think it’s a sensational song. But if my house was on fire and there was one thing I had to grab it would be the Safety EP, just because it was the first thing I heard.

And do you have a favourite Coldplay album?
Ooh. Parachutes is like a time capsule for me. It reminds me of such a massive part of my life that I think I’d have to pick that. But I do genuinely love all six of the subsequent albums too.

Finally, favourite show?
Crikey! There’s been so, so many brilliant shows. The intimate ones are always great. The Palladium one in 2016 was really fun. And South America was fantastic during Viva. But I think it would have to be a show from the most recent tour, because it was so incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever had my mind blown by a gig like that. It knocked Lovesexy by Prince to second place for me. So I think I’m going to say the Saturday night Wembley Stadium show. It was a really good one, that one.

A Life In Technicolor: A Celebration Of Coldplay is out now via Carlton Books. Signed copies are available here