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 first part of the article – the second one can be found here.
After a number of years under the radar, Martin Phillipps is a man happy to not rest on his laurels. He’s barely had a break since the Chills last album, ‘Silver Bullets’ in 2015 – touring, co-curating an exhibition of his personal collections in Dunedin, writing his band’s brand new album, ‘Snow Bound’, as well as working with Notable Pictures on a new documentary, provisionally called ‘Martin Phillipps and The Chills.’
Then there’s the small matter of his well-documented health problems, as he has been fighting Hepatitis C since the 1990s. His treatment is ongoing, and he’s positive.
“I couldn’t have stood up to this pace even two or three years back… but, my health is in a better place overall. We’ve still got to keep an eye on it. It’s not a finished story, but I’ve got more energy than I did.”
Health and energy have come at the right time, with the new album’s NZ promotional tour kicking off in September and tentative plans for American and European tours next year. Not to mention future promotional work for the documentary. The forthcoming Chills’ documentary had its genesis in a solo show in London, released as ‘Martin Phillipps Live at the Moth Club’. “Fire [Records] had decided to do a kind of documentary about The Chills, based on the stories behind the songs… that was only meant to be a blueprint,” he explains.
The enlarged vision for the documentary means they tracked down some intriguing, and original, archival band footage.
“I knew that when we recorded at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, doing the Van Dyke Parks string section, that someone had been there filming. We managed to find that footage.”
Also tracked down was video footage of an early European show at the Melkweg in Amsterdam, a show broadcast live on the local FM station that same evening.
The recent exhibition of Phillipps’ collected materials called ‘Things Change: Martin Phillipps and The Chills’ held at Otago Museum’s Skinner Annexe seems to link in, were the two actually tied together?
“It was a very weird, convoluted story… they possibly thought I was going to be dying during the making of the documentary,” Phillipps admits as a matter of fact, saying that two versions of the documentary were storyboarded.
“There was the A one with the happy ending, and the B one which they didn’t really want me to see. But, I had to, to sign off on it… The whole problem of what to do with all the stuff became a really good link to where I’d ended up in my life. Why was I collecting on behalf of the New Zealand indie music scene?”
He discovered that he had to step outside himself to experience the exhibition.
“In some ways I had to pretend that it was somebody else who had a collection that was remarkably like my own… it’s about the sharing of the experience, and seeing the faces light up,” he smiles. “It was a fun place to be for a while. It was kind of like a rock’n’roll Willy Wonka factory, not quite sure what was around the corner.”
The exhibition was a huge success and has since been nominated for two awards, one each at the NZ Best Design Awards and the 2018 International Design Communication Awards.
But these events are a backdrop to the main event for Phillipps and The Chills – the release of their new album ‘Snow Bound’. The band went into Revolver Studios in Waiuku, with Greg Haver producing, for 10 days before heading into Port Chalmers Recording Services (formerly Chicks Hotel) in Dunedin for another week of recording. A final day of work at Roundhead’s A Studio followed. The decision to use a producer was not taken lightly.
“I was a bit nervous about it, I was nervous about [who] our budget could afford. Luckily Oli Wilson was much more in touch with who was available. It came down to two people, and Greg had a reputation for being a terrible ogre in the studio and making people cry.” He laughs.
“I quickly realised that he genuinely respected me, that he wasn’t just like looking for another job.”
Phillipps seems particularly happy with the Haver’s work, praising his approach especially when it comes to giving a new direction to the music.
“Scarred became much better for his direction. It was like a bad kind of Rolling Stones ballad for a while.”
He thinks Haver was surprised by the band dynamic, the supportive Dunedin framework.
“We’d all turn up for each other’s crucial takes, and kind of support each other, and actually clap after good ones. He said he’d never seen that before,” Phillipps laughs.
‘Snow Bound’ is the most ‘grown-up’ of The Chills’ albums, tackling themes pertinent to what Phillipps sees around him. He calls it a kind of ‘Tapestry’ for ageing punks (in reference to Carole King’s watershed 1971 album), laughing that he’s “…succeeded in coming up with a quotable line that the media responded to so well!”
He considered the cultural revolutions King was responding to and saw something similar in his own age-group.
“I just suddenly realised what’s going on now, us punks, post-punks, in our own weird way… did very much the same thing. At the heart of it there was some really good questioning, some really good ethical behaviour.”
He thinks he’s succeeded in his aim but admits he has yet to see how people relate.