Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian, said that the Scottish emigrants to New Zealand did not find it southern enough on first arrival or rather the weather still too clement and decided to venture further south – to the almost southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, Dunedin.
Dunedin might ring another bell, though, as it is also the home of the famed Dunedin sound represented by legendary Flying Nun record label. And this is where The Chills come in!
The story of The Chills is one of contrasts. They have been in existence for the past 36 years and yet only released a couple of albums: Brave Words, Submarine Bells, Soft Bomb and Sunburnt. A hiatus of nine years was ended with the release of Stand By (EP) in 2004. Then another long nine years until their album Silver Bullets in 2015 which was their first full studio album in 19 years. Reasons for this were manyfold, ranging from infinitely many changes in line-up, the changing music scene, the changing record industry and lastly Martin Phillipps’ (head of the band) severe illness.
Martin Phillipps was always hoping that there might be a market for his so easy-sounding and yet so intricate songs, their melancholic lyrics, the wonderful harmonies, the quirky embellishments, the wistfulness. The fans on the other side hoped that Martin would not be able to do without music. Both sides were not disappointed. Thankfully Fire Records have recognised this buried treasure of a band and made it possible to realise the album Silver Bullets and to have The Chills touring outside New Zealand.
As I write they will have arrived for gigs in the UK after a tour of the US. You will be able to see them at Primavera festival in Barcelona and one gig in Germany on May 30th at Gebäude 9. Check out the tour dates on their web page, old and new fans alike.
The Chills nowadays have a consistent line-up that Martin Phillips is happy with, the new songs on Silver Bullets are divine and show off the undiminished songwriting talent of Martin Phillipps and the old songs have aged very well being very special in the first place and crafted so well.
This is the point in my blog where I need some chocolate and the point where I sincerely thank the wonderful Fire Records and especially their press officer Alice Gros and manager Scott Muir: I am so thrilled that Martin Phillipps took the time to talk to me. Thank you so much, Martin!
Please find below a chat with Offbeat music blog and for my two radio shows at www.novumfm.de and www.byte.fm. I will also list some soundbites of their music further down to show you what you are missing if not attending these opportunities of a lifetime to see one of the world’s finest and inspirational indie bands.
The Chills’ current and fabulous line-up is:
Martin Phillipps (Guitar/Vox), James Dickson (Bass/Backing Vocals), Todd Knudson (Drums/Backing Vocals), Erica Stichbury (Violin/Backing Vocals) and Oli Wilson (Keyboards/Backing Vocals)
Offbeat Music Blog: Hello Martin, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and how are you doing?
Martin Phillipps of The Chills: We are doing pretty well, getting over our jetlag because we flew first of all to New York which was a long flight and then from there to London so we are really not sure our bodies know what time it is at all. But we are feeling good and the two shows in New York went really really well.
We are excited. Every time we play at the moment, the band just gets a little bit better. We are on a rollercoaster!
OMB: I already read in a review that it is really tight touring band and that the gigs went really well so far. Without boring you too much, could you give us a short insight into the start of your music making more than thirty years ago?
Martin: In New Zealand where we came from, the punk scene happened a year or two later, I guess. Then there was a very strong post-punk movement with a lot of emphasis placed on songwriting being more important than putting on an outrageous show. The Chills came from that kind of era, inspired by local bands like The Clean and The Enemy from which came Chris Knox. I had been in a band since 1978 till 1980 called The Same, kind of a school punk band and they evolved into The Chills in late 1980.
We have been through many line-ups during the 80s and 90s but this line-up has been stable since …the drummer Todd Knudsen and the bass player James Dickson have been with me now since 1999, that’s a long time. Erica Scally who plays violin and guitar and keyboards at least eleven years, so it has been a very stable band ever since.
We were mainly well-known during the late eighties and early nineties through Europe and The United States. The late nineties and the 2000s did not do us so well. I hit health problems. There was just not so much interest in the band anymore except as a historical artefact and that was not a great place to be.
Then all of a sudden we got this opportunity to do a new album and start touring again. It’s like the doors have opened once again. It’s been an exciting time.
OMB: After enormous creative and substantial commercial success, all went up shit creak for The Chills and you cited a number of reasons for it: First up, you doubted that with Grunge coming along in the nineties, there would be space or demand for your intricate, poetic kind of music. I suppose, fans proved you wrong there. How do find the music scene nowadays?
Martin: First of all I’d like to say, it wasn’t just Grunge. People were looking for a new kind of music. Of course there was Hip Hop and Acid House and Britpop as well. We were in Britain at the time. They weren’t really fond of bands from New Zealand at that point.
I totally understand that people wanted to move on. I thought we had established ourselves as a quality act and that we would survive it but it was very difficult. Then of course the digital revolution – the record companies started dropping all the lesser selling bands like ourselves.
As for the music scene nowadays: In Dunedin, they never stopped making music in Dunedin but there is a very strong batch of new bands coming through now. Some of them acknowledge us as influence and some don’t care at all and I think that’s quite healthy.
The only thing I’d say is this wonderful music being made but it has less of this special quality of isolation that we had back in the 70s and 80s because it was very hard to actually hear music from overseas – you had to import it – so you made your own.
So nowadays everything is in reach and that can be a wonderful thing because you can make combinations of music from anywhere in the world. But at the same time you are not drawing as much on the special qualities of your own location. In my case the environment itself, the beauty of Dunedin was a big part of the songwriting process.
OMB: Nowadays bands can promote themselves, not really needing a record label. You seem to be of a different opinion, that labels have their place for bands.
Martin: If a label is good and they have the expertise to get that music round and they have the contacts. It can also be good to have that sheer belief in your music from outside. It is a lot of work to do which comes out of your creative time. If you find the right people to work with and you can come to a good deal, it can work really well. At the moment we have a very good relationship with Fire Records in London. They just got the right spirit about it and have a lot of fun and also work really hard. We are really impressed.
OMB: You mentioned the enormous number of line-up changes. How hard is it for you to delegate to band members, how hard to communicate the atmosphere, the feeling, the meaning of a song?
Martin: I guess things have changed in that way because the musicians I have now are of an extremely good quality and I had to let go a wee bit and trust them more. I still guide them. They have come to understand the strange quality of The Chills’ music. But they are doing things with that strange quality that I could not have imagined. So it works. And if it goes wrong, I say “It’s not quite right, how about we try this?” and I throw in some ideas too. It is a much healthier way. In the past I used to do my own demo recordings to show the atmosphere I was looking for. It was a very good way of doing it rather than standing in the practice room with a guitar and talking about waves crashing on a beach. You’d end up with anything. But these days there is a lot of understanding between each other about what we are trying to achieve.
OMB: So you are happy with the line-up and introduced them already. As you said yourself, the state of your health was alarming, how are you feeling nowadays?
Martin: Well, I have liver damage which is not going to go away. I still have hepatitis C but I am on the waiting list now for some of these new drugs that are coming out which actually cure it with very little side effects. At least that means that the damage will stop. It has been about fifteen years that I had hepatitis C, maybe more, and it is like either being very tired or exhausted for all the time. The people I know who have done the new drugs say all of a sudden you get all this energy back and I hope that happens with me. It would be wonderful. I have so much that I want to achieve still and I am only 52. I am aware that people are dying at this age all the time now who treated their bodies badly when they were young. I am trying to make good use of my time.
OMB: Good news about the new drugs which come a little late for you but still just in time. Your earlier songs have aged remarkably well. What would you put that down too?
Martin: I always that it was because we were not trying to sound like everybody else at the time. It was a good mixture of influences from the 60s, particularly the songwriters and also the experimentation of the post-punk/industrial movement. All sorts of things were going on there. Discovering the classic songwriters like Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb and Scott Walker. This helped not all our material but some of it has really aged well because of it.
The interesting thing is that the old fans are coming along and hearing the new songs of the “Silver Bullets” album and they it sits perfectly alongside the old stuff.
OMB: Are there any songs in your backcatalogue that you don’t feel so happy with anymore, that you cannot relate to anymore?
Martin: Oh, there are many actually. There are some I don’t wish to go back to just because I feel we covered that ground at the time. I would feel phoney if I performed them live. But then there are other ones like “Kaleidoscope World” that we have been playing recently which is now so old that I have been enjoying it as a song itself. I am not trying to pretend I am seventeen years old and on drugs which was basically what the song was about.
The songs come and go and I see it: If we get sick of playing it then…we are playing “Doldrums” at the moment but we did not for many years because we just got sick of it. It’s a good song but not one you could deliver honestly again and again. But you can relax and just enjoy it as a bit of music. And watch the audience enjoy it too is an if not “the” most important thing, part of the reward, getting the energy back from people finally hearing a song that they wanted to hear live for maybe 25 years.
OMB: Your wonderful new album “Silver Bullets” seems to seamlessly continue The Chills sound with more technical possibilities. Outside Pink Frost and Molten Gold, were all the songs especially written for the album at a point in time or is it a collection from over the years?
Martin: It is a bit of a mixture with basic ideas from many years. The song “Warm Waveform” in fact was released as a very short instrumental demo on a collection of homerecordings that I did called “Sketchbook Vol. 1” in the late 1990s. It is probably one of the oldest ones. But some of the basic riffs have been kicking around in my head. There have been lyrics I have been writing down for some of the parts. But most of those lyrics actually got thrown out when it came to finally recording the album. I realised I had to say more important things in there. If it was worthwhile doing an album, it had to be worthy to go out there. There is so much music being released that is not necessary. I wanted to release something that was necessary. That made it harder, it was a real challenge, especially since I wanted to write about politics and the environment. It is hard to do that without sounding preachy for a start and not to date very badly and quickly. It was a bit of a challenge. Over half of the album was written within the year up to recording. Once we found out we were going to record, it was like something opened in my mind that I kept close on purpose because there was no point in letting these ideas out. There were not going anywhere and it would have been frustrating. But as soon as I found out it was going to happen, my mind decided, right, we are going to start solving these musical and lyrical problems. I could go to bed at night, just thinking about a problem with a song and wake up at three in the morning: “Got it!” And on a cold winter morning in Dunedin, making myself get out of bed to record was sometimes very difficult. Sometimes you think: “It is so obvious. I will deal with that in the morning.” You never do. You have got to get up and record it right now.
OMB: It is a bit weird, how Tomboy is the one song on the album where opinions are really contrasting. I for my part love the song, even wept a little tear because it reflects something in my life. Have you any experiences of how your songs have transformed and became a part of their own life for a listener?
Martin: It is funny you should mention that one too because I have never seen a song that splits people so much. Some think it is the worst thing on record, some think it is the best song and are really moved by it as you said personally. We as a band were surprised because we think it is one of the best things on the record as well. We haven’t started playing it live yet because there are still some technical things to work out to make that happen.
In terms of other songs as well: I get people saying, not only at gigs, saying to me all the time, such-and-such song helped with through a bad time or when I broke up with a partner or when my parents died. It is wonderful to know that our music has touched people to that level that they actually can hold on to and can become so special.
OMB: And a song gets a life of its own…doesn’t that make you very proud?
Martin: I tell you the best example: During the 80s four young guys used to travel round the country in New Zealand and show up at every gig. We didn’t notice it for a while, otherwise we would have put them on the guestlist. They turned up again and again and suddenly I noticed there was only three of them. After I while I learned that one of them had come down with – I think – leucemia which was a coincidence because our drummer Martyn Bull had died of leucemia a few years before. This young guy had slipped into a coma but not dying, hanging in there. It got to the point where his family was just hoping he would let go because he was not going to get better. They took a cassette recorder and played him the old song “Submarine Bells” which was one of his favourites and apparently he woke up and sat up in bed and smiled and lay down and died.
OMB: Oh wow! That is very intense!
Martin: I know…it’s like: The Chills, the band that helps you die. It can be almost overwhelming sometimes sometimes how deeply personal people will take the music and also they take it in different directions. They misunderstand the lyrics but it is not really up to me to tell them that it is wrong especially if it has become something very special in their lives.
OMB: Well, as long as it does not have dire consequences…We are very envious of New Zealanders of living in such a beautiful, friendly place. You focus a lot on environmental issues on the new album. How inspirational is New Zealand for you?
Martin: It will always be because it is part of who I am, part of what has made me but on a practical level I certainly don’t get out as much into nature as I should do and certainly not as much as I did when I was young. You know, you get older and start making excuses as to why you should stay inside and watch The Sopranos or something. Every time I do get out, it is always rewarding. I live in a city and it is literally an eight-minute drive from where I am to a beach that will probably may have two people on it. You get this entire beautiful white sand beach with seals and penguins quite often turning up. We are so close to nature and because a lot of New Zealand is coastal, you cannot be unaware of the impact of humans on the environment and how important the oceans are.
I think you would even find the more right-wing and people who focus on money above the environment would probably would even still fight for it compared to people in other countries who never really had any contact apart from a holiday in the Mediterranean.
OMB: What can we expect at your concerts, what is it going to be like?
Martin: I never wanted to be one of those bands who refuse to play their old songs, so as much as we play out of the new stuff, it is a very good mixture of the well-known songs, old songs, the less known but important old songs and the new material and a couple of surprises here and there. Certainly the audience has not been complaining. When they ask for other songs, they generally ask for songs that we simply can’t play anymore. A song like “Satin Doll” that requires an entirely different guitar to be carried around which has got an open tuning and a completely weird set of strings. I can’t see us doing that in a hurry! There are certain songs people are calling out for which we intend to do but that will take a little work. We seem to have to hit on a really good mixture of old and new. That’s what people should be looking forward to. Most importantly, the people who are coming along who haven’t seen us since our younger days, show signs of relief. They brought along a friend or their partner and their partner was looking grumpy “oh, drag me out to some old band…” but at the end of the first song it is all hugs and high-fives when they notice we are not going to ruin their memories. We are not going through motions. The old songs have grown. That’s the excitement of it and it is great.
OMB: You probably get the second generation of The Chills coming already?
Martin: It is strange how it varies from city to city. In some cities it will be mainly an older crowd, sometimes almost half and half, young people shaking it out. The shows in New York were quite spectacular. Young people who knew all the lyrics. We were moved that they came to be seeing us. They heard of us through friends or a lot of them – as they admitted – have discovered us through illegal downloads which actually led them to buy the real thing.
OMB: Thank you so much for your time, Martin.
Martin: It was a pleasure. We are off tomorrow down to Cardiff in Wales and then Brighton and then Cologne.
OMB: Fantastic and you are playing Primavera Festival in Barcelona as well. Looking forward to seeing any bands there yourself?
Martin: There is a number of them. I don’t want to get stuck on the old stuff but I do hope to see Brian Wilson doing Pet Sounds. We saw him do Smile in Christchurch and that was fantastic. He is playing about forty minutes after we finish.
OMB: So, it’s doable:-)
OMB: Thank you Martin, have a great time!