A quarter century past now, the much talked-over ‘Dunedin sound’ left the city with a number of resident musical heroes, surely none more enigmatic and reluctant than The Chills’ Martin Phillipps. A new, really new, album by his band, which has been hinted at for more than a decade now, has finally arrived. It comes courtesy of London-based label Fire Records who have backed several other Chills’ re-releases in recent years. Amanda Mills caught up with Phillipps as he prepped for the album’s international release.
Picture this: A cold winter’s night in Port Chalmers, less chill blue and more frost white. The Chills are playing to a packed audience who roar to every song, especially the new ones. Martin Phillipps looks both elated and relieved, like a weight has lifted off his shoulders.
Phillipps is one of Dunedin’s most recognisible musicians, along with his ‘Dunedin sound’ peers, many of whom still live in the city. His career as singer, guitarist, songwriter and band leader of The Chills is well documented – both the highs and the lows. Like his peers, Phillipps is well respected and admired locally and internationally, and numerous names enthusiastically cite his songs as favourites, especially the preternatural and eternally beautiful Pink Frost.
The Chills (Phillipps plus guitarist/violinist Erica Scally, keyboardist Oli Wilson, bassist James Dickson, and drummer Todd Knudson) have a new album out at the end of October on Fire Records/Flying Nun. ‘Silver Bullets’ is the first studio album of new material for the (current) quintet in 19 years – a generation or two away from the last Flying Nun album, 1996’s ‘Sunburnt’, when The Chills had an often changing line-up. This band has been an all-but stable one since the start of the century.
“Frankly, I don’t really think of it in those terms anymore,” Phillipps sighs. “It’s been 16 years now with Todd and James, and I think about 11 with Erica, and about eight with Oli… we’ve been through some really weird times, and it’s been great to see their response… seeing the album happen.”
Despite that gap between studio albums, The Chills have not been idle. They’ve performed locally and internationally, and in 2004 released an EP, ‘Stand By’ (re-issued late in 2014 by Fire Records). Since then, two live albums have appeared; ‘Somewhere Beautiful’ in 2013 (the original vinyl release with unique prints by artist Shane Cotton on Far South Records, and subsequent issues on Fire Records), and in 2014 ‘Live at the BBC’, again on Fire Records.
There was even a performance on Shortland Street at (fictional) Chills’ fan Chris Warner’s wedding. All this was happening while ‘Silver Bullets’ was germinating. The delay since ‘Stand By’ was not intentional – an album was to follow soon after the EP.
“Who could have forseen the endless kind of turmoil! Part of it has been… all sorts of contractual things going on, all sorts of things,” he shrugs.
To an extent, a lot rides on ‘Silver Bullets’, and Phillipps feels the weight of expectation for the album. However, he is confident they have delivered.
“Taking the songs into the band rehearsals, we realised we were onto something special… we were all of one mind that we really didn’t care what people thought.”
A substantial amount of material for ‘Silver Bullets’ has existed in some form for a long time, some pieces (like the guitar line for America Says Hello) dating back to the 90s. Warm Waveform began life as the track Warm (found on ‘Sketch Book’), and had a debuted at the Gluepot in the mid-1990s, when Phillipps played it with the JPS Experience.
Small parts of other songs were, as Phillipps says, “severely re-written”, but two thirds of ‘Silver Bullets’ is new, written since the band started the recording. The creation process opened floodgates to his subconscious.
“If there was a song structure problem I’d go to bed thinking about it, wake up inevitably around three or four o’clock in the morning, and ‘bing’, there’s the idea.”
He discarded pages of accumulated lyrics after realising he wanted the album to be topical.
“I just did not want to add more trivial pop-rock music to the huge amount that’s out there already, so had to walk that fine line of trying to do something [meaningful], without it being slogans, and easily dated.”
The ‘Silver Bullets’ name fitted with this too, itself an album title-in-waiting since the ’90s.
“I knew it was kind of a follow up to the concept of ‘Soft Bomb’, the Pacifist impact against the wrongs of the world… actively doing non-violent things. At the time ‘Silver Bullets’ was being written I knew very clearly what it meant. It meant physical blows against dark forces – silver bullets for vampires… – but it’s not encouraging violence, or revolution.”
The album’ was mostly recorded at Otago University’s Albany Street Studios, with one track, Pyramids/When the Poor Can Reach The Moon recorded at Karma Sound Studios in Thailand –– part of the same sessions that generated the Molten Gold/Pink Frost 13″ single. Pyramids/When the Poor Can Reach The Moon was intended for that single, but Phillipps had other ideas.
“I knew that it wasn’t going to be a b-side, I just didn’t tell the label. I just knew it was a perfect opportunity to try out my band in a recording situation… and it worked out really well.
The album was produced and mixed by Phillipps and Brendan Davies at The Strongroom in London, late in 2014.
“We had the chance to really fine tune it… from being 20 little adjustments down to eight, and then the final two or three, and then the luxury to just sit back… and find a couple more little things to fix. Nothing is ever what you expect it to be, or want it to be, sometimes it may even surpass that.
While Phillipps wrote all the material, he credits The Chills for many ideas.
“I ask the band a lot more than I ever used to… – and I take their advice very seriously…. This will be the first album that I’ve let the band have a lot more input than previous occasions… They knew what I was aiming at and can all suggest better ways of doing it.
“Oli Wilson has done some excellent arrangements. Most of his keyboard parts he would do six completely different sounds. Erica’s violin is becoming more and more a recognisible facet of The Chills. We didn’t get as much on the album as we hoped… and, her guitar playing is more powerful.”
‘Silver Bullets’ is instantly recognisible as a Chills album, vintage almost.
“I think it was intentional that I wanted to bring The Chills’ sound up to date, but only in the sense of recording us in the best possible way, utilising the studio technologies without breaking new ground. I think in terms of what makes it sound like us, I think not emphasising bass and drums as most people do. I’ve always viewed them as utilitarian…
“I love The Chills’ stuff to have things you’re discovering after a long time of listening to it. I’m not ashamed to say we flew parts round that people had played well on one place to another place… it was a priority to make the best possible album that will outlast the band.”
The album artwork is by Wellington-based artist Bruce Mahalski. While Phillipps, in continuing the aquatic theme, considered using an image of a great white shark, a thought occurred: barracuda are silver, and move incredibly fast, like bullets. Single America Says Hello features starfish and Warm Waveform will use two kissing seahorses, both also Mahalski’s work.
At the time of writing, Phillipps is in the UK, holidaying and doing some promotion, including a performance at the Incubate Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands.
“We didn’t have a huge turnout, about the same as the London show,” he smiles. “I think it’s certainly the best solo stuff I’ve done. I seem to be, at 52, finally getting good at it.”
A surprise performance was his cameo appearance singing Pink Frost at Neil and Liam Finn’s London show.
“I’d been in contact with Neil about just going to see the gig anyway, and he suggested I sing it. Luckily we had a soundcheck because there was a wee bit of tidying up to do! It worked out really well.”
Phillipps has been performing a fair amount in Dunedin lately, alone and with The Chills. Despite the time and effort invested in the recording process he expects Underwater Wasteland (his own favourite album track) will evolve live to surpass the recorded version.
“It will just become more dynamic as we explore it, and work out what each other is really doing, and trying to achieve.”
Tour dates are currently being booked for NZ and Australia, with negotiation for UK, Europe and US shows in 2016. Phillipps is personally keen to get back to the US to tour, as it was always his band’s biggest market and they haven’t played there since ’96. 2016 will also see another release, Flying Nun’s re-issue of ‘Kaleidoscope World’, a double LP with new additions.
“On vinyl, it was only ever the initial eight tracks, and then when it was on CD it was 18 tracks, which very inconveniently will only fill three sides of vinyl…! But, it was a good excuse to go through and find things…. We’ve found at least one rarity, Smile From A Dead Dead Face…, it’s been well recorded, and sitting there for years! Another potential re-issue is ‘Brave Words’, with a complete re-mix.
“I really want to see that done…. We just got lost in the use of ’80s reverbs.… I think there’s a really nice middle ground where we can bring out the power of that band, and have that atmosphere… and, it will finally give me a chance to bring ‘Brave Words’ in line with all the other ‘SB’ titles – then it can be ‘Spoken Bravely’: the remixed Brave Words’!
Ah, yes. Eagle-eyed readers may well have noticed a coincidence with The Chills’ album titles – since 1990 they have all been brought to you by the capital letters S and B – ‘Submarine Bells’, ‘Soft Bomb’, ‘Sunburnt’, ‘Sketch Book’, ‘Secret Box’, ‘Stand By’, ’Sweet Bites’, ‘Somewhere Beautiful’, and now ‘Silver Bullets.’ Was this all intentional?
“It started as a sheer coincidence with ‘Submarine Bells’ and ‘Soft Bomb’, Phillipps explains. “I just wasn’t even aware, and then it… seemed a fun thing to do after that! I even tried to persuade them to reissue the ‘Kaleidoscope World’ LP as ‘Spring Board: The Early Chills’, but no, they weren’t having that!”
So, the future. It’s certainly onwards from here, something Phillipps is more than happy about, though his health may dictate exactly what happens when.
“I can’t undo the liver damage, but I’m certainly taking better care of myself. I’m actually feeling pretty good… it’s really hard to know what the short term picture is going to be, but I’m certainly determined to make better use of my time than I was 10 years ago.
“The plan is to keep going… in some ways. The next album will be the first fresh one for decades… I’ve got some vague ideas how to take The Chills’ sound into completely new directions… It’s just become more exciting – more like the early days than it has been for a long time, in the sense of the world is my oyster – I can really start exploring my music again.”