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.”