The Chills :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Since their emergence out of Dunedin in in the early 1980s, the Chills have been one of New Zealand’s best pop bands, the authors of wistful, dreamy “Pink Frost,” the jaunty elegy “I Love My Leather Jacket” and exuberant “Heavenly Pop Hit.” Along with the Clean, the Bats, the Verlaines and others, The Chills put New Zealand on the map musically. However, unlike those bands, the Chills always seemed on the verge of a big commercial breakthrough that would establish them as global superstars. But interpersonal difficulties, drug addiction and the general difficulties of the mainstream music industry always got in the way.

There was a long hiatus after 1996’s Sunburnt, during which Martin Phillips contracted hepatitis C in the and became seriously ill. The 2020 documentary The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillips recounts his long struggle back to health, requiring two rounds of experimental therapy. The second one worked, though, and Phillips has made a complete recovery. Since Phillips regained his health, the Chills have made three excellent albums, Silver Bullets in 2015, Snowbound in 2018 and this year’s Scatterbrain. “There have been a lot of wasted years, being down and out, and, you know, drug addicted,” says Phillips. “This time for the first time, I feel that we’re back where we should be and we’re able to move forward. I’m excited about it.” | j kelly


Aquarium Drunkard: You’re doing a tour now. I haven’t talked to a musician on tour in forever, it seems like.

Martin Phillips: Well, we’ve one more show to go. It it’s in our hometown, Dunedin. It’s been a while.

AD: I can’t wait to get back to going to shows again. I guess you have not had the pandemic as badly as we have in New Zealand, and maybe never stopped there?

Martin Phillips: Oh, it shut down for quite some time. I think we have some understanding of what it was like. The Chills were four days out from finishing the record when things shut down, so we had months of not knowing what was going to happen. And, then for some months, we were sending files back and forth to complete the album. These shows have been a bit of a celebration, I guess.

AD: Your band has always had a pretty close relationship with mortality. You lost a band member very early on, and you yourself almost died. I’m hearing some of that in the new album, but you seem to have come to terms with the idea of death. You seem almost comfortable with it. Do you think that’s the case?

Martin Phillips: Well, not comfortable with it. Have you seen the Chills documentary?

AD: Yes, I watched it a couple of weeks ago.

Martin Phillips: What happened was, leading into the album, I’d been writing all sorts of things. Someone once told me that what is most important to your audience is what comes from within me. So, I’ve been having a completely different outlook. I’d been working on an exploratory, sound-based album, which I’ve been trying to do for some time, but then three months out from starting the record, I started writing songs. What came out ended up being about what happened since making the documentary, the death of my mother, the death of friends. It seemed like every week on Facebook I’d see someone saying, my parent has died or I have cancer or something like that. So, it became just a time of awareness, I guess. I’ve had people say that the best stuff I do is from my own experiences and that’s what came out.

Traditionally, especially with the old Chills albums, Soft Bomb and Submarine Bells, there were just reams of material. I just wrote a lot of stuff. And this time, I really stripped it back. I wrote the initial batch of lyrics and stripped it back to what seemed more relatable for people in the same situation. And, you know, all week, people have been saying, thank you. My mother or father died a couple of months ago and I was able to hear in your songs something that related.

AD: Your last album Snowbound was a big rock album, and this one seems more fragile and bare. I’m thinking particularly of “Hourglass” and “Caught in My Eye,” that has that beautiful octave lift in the chorus. They seem more introspective and vulnerable than the stuff you were writing last time. Is that something you were sensing as well?

Martin Phillips: Yeah. It’s funny, because I didn’t realize we were writing a rock album for the last one, but apparently, this has been picked up. There’s been a real process in writing the last three albums. For Silver Bullets I decided I didn’t want some producer taking credit for us coming back. And, so we worked really closely with a producer/engineer on that one to see how we worked as a band in the studio, to see how we worked together. And then with Snowbound, we were working with Greg Haver, it was the first time with this band and a proper studio engineer and producer, and there were a whole lot of different issues, but it worked out well in the long run. This time I was trying to really step back and let the band step forward. It was time for me to trust the band. It’s been quite the process.

Oli Wilson is on keyboards, who actually teaches music at university, and he does full arrangements, and so does Erica (Scalley) on keyboards and guitar, and the two others, Hampton, our new guy, I didn’t realize that he played horns and could do horn arrangements. So, we have this influx of really good additional ideas and abilities. I finally was able to sit back and see what happened. Also, because other people were involved in arranging the album and recording it, I was able to keep writing and come back to the studio and see what other people had done with it. It was the first time I was able to do that, and it was exciting.

AD: Was that hard for you? It seems like you’ve always been very much in charge of what happens with the Chills.

Martin Phillips: Yeah, well, not hard. I guess, I was a bit nervous. And, I thought I’d still have the final say. A lot went on in the mixes, what was to be included and what wasn’t. It was really rewarding. It was bringing us into the 21st century finally. It’s something I wanted to happen anyway. I feel we have started to catch up at this point. It’s to the point where I finally think we’re where the Chills ought to be be in this time. That was the major break, to acknowledge what I have, these people who have committed themselves. It’s an extraordinary thing.

AD: You’ve got this line in “Destiny” where you say you’re an “autarchic on the mend.” That’s about you being able to share and collaborate?

Martin Phillips: Well, I’ve gotten a lot better. I looked up dictatorships in a Thesaurus and found “autocrat.” It was partly about the movie and seeing myself, for the first time, as this kind of overbearing dictator, not worrying about people’s feelings. And the movie’s not quite fair, but at the same time, I realized that I might have caused hurt, and that was quite a revelation. It’s kind of tongue in cheek. And the cover art has in the corner an explanation about what “autarchic” means. It’s a bit of fun, but just realizing that over the years, a lot of people have been in the Chills, and I wasn’t aware of the personal cost to them. It’s quite a revelation. I’ve been to three premieres around the world now, and hearing people laugh at different bits or hearing them react, it’s a very strange situation.

AD: I bet. I was thinking that in “You’re Immortal,” you’ve got this line that says “Half the planet doesn’t sleep at night/working on the side that’s bathed in light.” And I was wondering if that was a reference to things being different where you were from the rest of the world during the pandemic?

Martin Phillips: There are some weird coincidences about the lyrics, where it sounds like it’s about the pandemic.

AD: Oh, right because you had written it before that!

Martin Phillips: It was already done before that. That line is more about just what was already coming out about Trump and so on, the general reluctance to acknowledge facts and science.

AD: I was really enjoying the arrangements of these songs. You were talking about letting member of your band build them out. And I was noticing that “You’re Immortal” reminds me a little bit of Love. I was wondering if you could tell me how that came into the songs. Did you imagine them fully fleshed out or did that happen later in the process?

Martin Phillips: Well, most of the songs, I do a home demo of some sort, to get the atmosphere, but for this album, it was more let’s go with it and see what happens. Laying the foundation. I’m not caught up with modern music, so it’s been almost a personal challenge to the other people in the band them go. There may be references to well-known music, that I should know, but I don’t. I think the results kind of spoke for themselves. Especially during this tour, these shows that the Chills have done have been for the first time ever, apart from the young Chills of very long ago, the way the band is now incorporating all this different knowledge of music and songs within the Chills, it’s really exciting.

AD: Are you playing all that stuff on tour, trumpet and strings and all that?

Martin Phillips: Yes, almost all of it. On “You’re Immortal” Callum plays trumpet with one hand and bass with the other. So that’s quite special. And strings, on some of the songs, Oni and Erica split up string parts among themselves. Erica can play violin with a pog pedal which makes her sound like a cello. So, she can play cello parts and violin parts. The string parts are an essential part of the live thing. And, people are responding, including the producer of the record who was almost in tears the other day when he saw us for the first time since recording and hearing what we’d done. Because I think there’s only one song on the record, “Walls Beyond Abandon,” that we’d played before we recorded. We’d played that a little bit live before, but that’s the only track, I think.

AD: I’m kind of intrigued by the imagery in “Monolith,” the ancient stones. Do you have that kind of thing in New Zealand or were you thinking about Stonehenge and similar ancient sites in Europe?

Martin Phillips: That is more European. While there have been discoveries of old stone carvings in New Zealand, the earliest human habitation is less than 1000 years. My father was a bit of a genealoigist and history and traced the male side of the family back to Cornwall in about 1500. Probably Wales before that. And I really reacted to it when I finally got to England. There’s part of me that resonates with that culture and with the ancient things, so that was a bit of an awakening. As you can see, I’ve got a bookshelf of arcane knowledge and horror stories and other things I’ve been interested in. But the beginning was the lyrics, there were lengthy lyrics for all those songs, and I had to strip it back to just being about, almost the perspective of the stones themselves. The underlying theme was, in this time with our cancel culture, don’t forget the ancient knowledge, don’t forget all the stuff that was coming out before. Ancestral knowledge, ancient wisdom, it’s still relevant. But it’s also a bit tongue in cheek as well.

AD: With this tour, are you primarily playing the new material or some of the old stuff, too?

Martin Phillips: We’re playing about five or six from the new album and the rest is a mix of the expected golden greats.

AD: I remember when you were touring the U.S. a couple of years ago, and you went to SXSW, and people were emailing me cell phone footage of “Pink Frost,” and it was really amazing and emotional for someone who had been a fan for a while. I imagine it would have been pretty incredible for you as well. Can you tell me a little about that tour and what it felt like to be here playing those songs again? That was after you were well enough to travel again.

Martin Phillips: It was a bit of test just to see about things like my singing, whether I could do four shows in a row. And it worked. We were really pleased, but the band is so much better now than it was when we toured through the States.

It’s an odd thing. I’ve never quite…even before, I’ve never understood the way the people would take photos of their favorite songs, “Pink Frost” and “Heavenly Pop Hits.” It can be a wee bit frustrating. But people will say, oh, I love the new stuff. It sits alongside the old stuff really well.

The States always was our most emotional kind of audience. I don’t know. Europe has always…I tell people that New Zealand is “I Love My Leather Jacket.” Europe is “Pink Frost,” and U.S. is “Heavenly Pop Hit.” That’s what has sort of clicked. And so, we finally got to go back there. It was extraordinarily emotional for me. I was quite nervous about it. Before, there had always been expectations. A friend of mine told me to create new memories, and I think it was one of the wisest things that anybody has ever said to me. And we did.

AD: What do you remember from that tour?

Martin Phillips: Four foot high piles of snow. Visiting the Motown Museum was actually pretty powerful. We went to Jack White’s studio Third Man. Everyone was excited about that. They’ve got one of those old recording booths, and I did the song “Soft Bomb” playing there. I haven’t listened to it yet. But yeah, just catching up with old friends who we hadn’t seen in 20 years. Jack Rabid from Big Takeover and his band Springhouse playing with us after all that tie. There was a reconnection and it worked. It was special. It was really good.

AD: Do you think you’ll be coming back when things stabilize a little bit?

Martin Phillips: Oh, of course, but…

AD: Who knows when that’s going to be?

Martin Phillips: Yeah. There’s already talk about June and July next year. But at the same time, there’s been talk of a bubble established between New Zealand and Australia, just recently, the talk about that has shut down. It has to happen, but we had a 30-day tour booked for last year in America and the whole thing got cancelled. We have to be careful, you know.

You kind of touched on this before, my own view of mortality. I can be a wee bit haphazard with it, I think. But we’ve got two people in the band with kids and families and they can’t afford to take risks. At the same time, I think the Chills are good for people. We need to get back.

AD: Are you working on more songs now, or are you taking a break from writing?

Martin Phillips: I am. I keep pen and paper ready. When I’m watching TV, I’ll always have a pad of paper. But the last album took quite a bit out of me. I’m thinking about what more I can say. Once you’ve thought you were dying and then you end up not dying, everything starts coming out of you. But I’ve had a serious talk with the whole team about how the next one has to be quite a jump for the Chills. I think we’ve established a good platform on which to do that. But, yeah, but it may be a longer gap. People keep saying, oh you’ve done three albums in six years. But I say, but that’s what we should be doing. We should have been doing that all this time.  

AD: Think how many records you’d have.

Martin Phillips: Yeah, exactly. There’s also been talk about rerecording some of the early songs, and one of the things we may do with this downtime is finally record all our early Chills album, even a song at a time. Everyone’s really keen on that. We’ve done a couple of them here and there. We’ve done “Lost in Space” recently. There are many others. There are certain years when we never released a proper album. It would be personally satisfying, and I think a lot of fans have heard the bootleg versions.

AD: What do you think makes a great song a great song?

Martin Phillips: It has to connect with people. Otherwise, it’s pointless. In our case, I think it’s just to be outside of the timeline. It has to be irrelevant to contemporary expectations and just really true to artistic expression. In my case, that has been almost accidental. I don’t know how to do anything else anyway. But if you draw from within yourself, it’s often something that other people relate to or connect with. It can be odd sometimes. “I Love My Leather Jacket” is one of our most popular songs, and here it is about my friend dying. People don’t really know that. They embrace the leather jacket as a staunch symbol of rebellion. It’s almost like a James Dean anthem. “Heavenly Pop Hit,” it just takes people a little bit higher than anything else. I realized early on that I’m not somebody like Paul McCartney or Prince who can anticipate what people feel or want to feel. It’s not my forte at all. So, the best I can do is draw on what’s really happening and hope for the best.

There has been a change with this last album. The reaction already is finally what I expect. The Chills band has been brought forward as a band that hit their peak in the 1980s and the early 1990s. But we’ve come back with three strong records, and we’ve been acknowledged as something that’s still going forward. That’s really important to me. There have been a lot of wasted years, being down and out, and, you know, drug addicted. This time for the first time, I feel that we’re back where we should be and we’re able to move forward. I’m excited about it. It’s such a good thing. It really is.

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