Promoting ‘Silver Bullets’, The Chills’ first full album in nearly two decades British indie label Fire Records described it as bursting with chiming Dunedin-pop anthems, the idiosyncratic underlying melancholy offset by signature catchy melodies and Martin Phillipps’ playful punk-rock tendencies. Talking about the 2015 album himself Phillipps expressed the sense that it was tying up loose ends, and so somehow managed to convey that it was perhaps his last. Good news Chills’ fans. It wasn’t! Indeed talking with him for NZ Musician, Amanda Mills found Martin Phillipps has a new Chills’ album and a very positive five-year plan for his legendary band. This is the second part of the article – part one is here.
The notion of punk and what it means plays strongly on his mind.
“One of the things I’ve really noticed, is all of the values I had from being punk [or] post-punk, people don’t even recognise them anymore… the work ethic and the kind of do-it-yourself ethos.
“Here’s me staying true to these ethics of kind of ‘a raw performance is a good performance’, and just finding more and more that people don’t know why you’d think like that.”
The realisation made him aim higher.
“We’re going to take on recording and it’s possibilities now, and still find our way to sound like The Chills within that, with a really good quality record.”
He’s been refining his own guitar sound too, which has pushed him out of his comfort zone and allowed him to try new things. A recent acquisition of two guitar pedals (a Big Sky reverb and Carbon Copy delay) has given more scope for his sound.
“These are two crucial elements in terms of lifting the game… I’m learning to be much more confident in my guitar playing, and stop having these wonderful little lines hidden away in the noise… I’m really starting to think – where is my guitar sound? It’s starting to come through.”
Not just grown up, the new album is one of the Chills’ most cohesive (he consciously tried to select songs that had a more uniform feel), and in tandem, strongest.
“The problem with our [previous] records is that they leap all over the place. You end up with good songs in those areas, and what do you do? You can’t just omit them.”
This album tackles culture, politics, personal experience and social indifference, all wrapped up in hook-heavy, catchy melodies and intricate arrangements, a constant in Phillipps’ writing.
“‘Snow Bound’ is people stuck, thinking, ‘Hell, what do I do?’” he muses. “It’s about reassessment, consolidation, people deciding if they do wanna keep participating. All of that is very relevant to the urgency of the need for action!”
The themes are plentiful: mindless indoctrination and religion (Bad Sugar); the loss of mentors and heroes (The Greatest Guide); the over-simplification of complicated gender, social, and cultural issues (Complex); mortality (Deep Belief); and being caught up in dark times (Lord Of All I Survey). When you add in songs about life crises (Snow Bound) and New Zealand’s high suicide rates (Easy Peasy), the album starts looking pretty dark, however, there is a light.
The closing track In Harmony examines Phillipps’ belief in the harmony of human nature, and the fight against what he calls “big evil powers.” There are themes he feels strongly about, especially on Complex.
“That’s about how you try to speak up, and you find you’re just torn apart. You know, to even mention there may be a problem with some logic… all of a sudden you’re labeled all these other things which you’re not.”
Scarred deals with similar themes, and emerged when Phillipps toured with Aldous Harding in 2017, a reaction to interacting with his audiences.
“When you do try and engage them and talk, they can just glaze over. It’s not what they want. They wanted to tell you what such and such a gig meant to them, and they want something signed and they’re off…. so, Scarred is about learning to put up barriers.”
The Greatest Guide has had an interesting response with many wondering if it is about Phillipps’ friend, the late Dunedin music writer and guru, Roy Colbert. It’s not.
“It’s Bowie, Lou Reed, Prince… and sort of the pioneers and stuff. I guess I did say to one of the interviewers that the local equivalents could be Chris Knox and Roy Colbert, the people who are there in your mind, in terms of standards and pushing you.”
Personal experiences colour the record from start to finish. Deep Belief, about confronting mortality and having strong spiritual beliefs is, he thinks, one of the best songs he’s written. A continuation of the familiar oceanic and maritime themes are present too, within the imagery of Lord Of All I Survey tied into the ocean representing emotion and journeys. It’s also a highlight of the live set.
Any darkness-before-the-dawn sentiment comes from the track listing.
“I can’t help but be optimistic sometimes, no matter how hard I try,” he laughs. “The track order became really crucial… I could play you certain sequences that [were] quite sombre. It’s just like, ‘Okay, it may have seemed good for a while there, but Martin’s reality is true, we’re fucked’” he laughs.
The final track listing came after putting everybody’s ideas together.
“All of a sudden, the flow was there… it deals with some dark stuff, but it does come out saying at the end of the day, ‘humans do tend to come through.’”
Rich in imagery, the cover art by Blair Sayer is an integral part of the whole album package. The snow globe obviously speaks to the title, but what of the house inside it?
“One [image] that’s always been in my mind of security… if you’ve been away on a family holiday or something, and you’re driving back, and you see that little lone farmhouse with the lights and you think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be pulling in there.’ You’re all welcomed into the house and it’s all black outside, but you’re all safe in the light,” Phillipps explains. The song’s peeling wallpaper also reveals pertinent historical events, but that is for the listener to decipher.
If there’s one thing to take away from the release of ‘Snow Bound’, it’s that The Chills are here to stay. 2015’s ‘Silver Bullets’ was not a final recording.
“When I did interviews for ‘Silver Bullets’ I hadn’t realised I was really giving the impression of like tying up loose ends and doing one last record.”
Indeed Phillipps happily reveals he’s already written four or five songs for the next album, and he talks about doing something different too.
“I was hoping to really start to explore more sound-based things without thinking ‘band’ at all. Get the band into that kind of mode where we’re just really thinking outside the box.”
His five-year plan for The Chills definitely includes more international shows.
“What I want to achieve is us gone for four months of the year, doing the festival circuit, so the band can actually live off that for the rest of the year, with a couple of well-paid private gigs here and there. It’s become crucial to me… they’re working so hard and they have to do the band stuff as well. It would be so good if we can find a way that it pays off.”
He’s clear-eyed about the situation.
“I think we’re at a point where if things are thought through and go well, with a bit of fortune we could be in a better position, finally. Not this constant clawing that’s been going on. I really should touch wood saying that kind of stuff, but it would be good.”
The band (drummer Todd Knudson, James Dickson on bass, violinist Erica Scally and Oli Wilson playing keys) are clearly very important to Phillipps. All of this combined interest and momentum for the band has made him realise their position, and he doesn’t take it for granted.
“You know, a really good self-inventory of what had gone wrong with communication in the past has led to a very good situation now,” he smiles. “We’ve become very close, and we’ve been there through some tough times. We’re starting to wake up to the fact that what we’ve got with The Chills is unique. There’s no other band we can point to and say, ‘They’re like us.’
“We’re establishing ourselves as a world-class historical act! Bloody hell, it’s taken a while, but that’s a really unique story to come from New Zealand… to find myself at 55… with genuine interest in the music The Chills are making, and the history of the band… I’m very privileged, very fortunate to be in that situation.”