It’s a slightly weird feeling talking to Martin Phillipps about The Chills in 2016. Given the group’s back-story, the fact that they are still very much going strong is as confounding as it is completely inevitable. Over the 34 years since Phillipps founded the group in Dunedin, New Zealand, there’s been a fair share of misfortune: trouble maintaining line-ups, numerous hiatuses and reformations, being on the brink of mainstream success, only for them to stumble over another hurdle that thwarted their chances, addiction, depression and the tragic, untimely death of drummer Martyn Bull in 1983. Despite all of this, one thing has remained constant: Martin Phillipps’ persistence – his admirable intent on keeping The Chills going even through the darkest of times.
Things seem less turbulent now, however. They have a fantastic new album, ‘Silver Bullets’, and a line-up that’s stronger than ever, but it wasn’t too long ago that it seemed unlikely the Chills would ever be back playing in Europe. Because of his illness, it was physically impossible for Phillipps to travel and commit to playing shows, not to mention the cost of getting them over here.
That all changed in 2014: The Chills were back playing in venues across the UK where they’d performed in 20 years ago, to fans who weren’t sure if they’d ever get to see them again, as well as those who weren’t there to see them the first time around. It was as poignant as it was timely, and the catalyst for the new life that’s been breathed into them.
The Chills return to the UK this summer, for the first time since the release of last year’s ‘Silver Bullets’ album. Ahead of the tour, Hayley Scott spoke to Martin Phillipps about how it feels to be back…
The Chills are back touring the UK again this summer, after a brief stint in 2014 – your first European shows since 1996. What did it mean to you being back here again playing gigs?
I was nervous about old memories of golden times intruding upon what was actually happening, but it turned out to be a time of great new experiences. I had been worried about people comparing the current line-up to the older Chills but they quickly realised how good this band is and it was a wonderful new chapter.
Do you have a particular favourite UK city, or venue, that you played at?
I have fond memories of Dingwalls because it was the first place we played back in 1985 and we didn’t realise that by playing for so long lots of people chose to miss their tubes or buses meaning they had to take long walks or expensive taxi rides home instead.
The Chills are increasingly cited as influences for a new generation of bands. Have you noticed an increase in younger people turning up to your shows since reforming?
Although it can vary from city to city, we have definitely noticed a lot of younger people turning up to see us and leaving looking very pleased. Some have learned of us through their parents’ music collections, some through new bands mentioning us.
I met you after the Leeds Brudenell show in 2014 and you signed my Doledrums 7”. You seemed quite surprised that I had it…
Those early 45’s have become sought-after. It’s always a pleasure to see one. I recently had Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle sign my Spiral Scratch 45 after an excellent Buzzcocks gig here in Dunedin so I know how exciting it can be.
Speaking of playing in Leeds – what was it like supporting Nico here in 1987, did you get to meet her?
We had to leave the Leeds gig before she even came on stage as we were in a hurry to catch our ferry in Dover, but I had met her briefly in Auckland after a wonderful gig she did. It felt like I was in the presence of some sort of vampire.
Last time you played here it was very much a “best-of” set because you hadn’t had an album out in 20 years. You’ve since released ‘Silver Bullets’ – will the bulk of your set on the upcoming tour comprise of mostly songs from that?
We try to do a balanced set of old and new material, although of course we are excited to show off the newer stuff – and we’ve had audiences who are now singing along to songs from ‘Silver Bullets’. There are so many songs people call out for and unfortunately we can’t do them all. Many fans are telling us that the new songs sit perfectly alongside the older stuff.
How do you feel about revisiting old songs so often? For example, do you ever get bored of playing ‘Pink Frost’? Personally, I could listen to that song forever.
“I believe there have only been two gigs where we’ve not played ‘Pink Frost’ as it’s always changing and evolving and it’s a great atmosphere to be a part of. Some other older songs can become a bit less exciting so we drop them from the set and may pick them up again later when they feel fresh again. I am thankful we are not a one-hit wonder band and we have the luxury of picking from a lot of good material.
What was it like being part of the Flying Nun scene back in the 80s – does it feel like you were part of something special in retrospect?
The ramifications of the “Dunedin Sound” and the Flying Nun label continue to surprise me but I knew even back in the early 80s that something special was happening. It all occurred just one day at a time and it was a wonderful adventure that I feel privileged to have been a part of. I am thrilled that people are still discovering how much wonderful music was made in New Zealand at that time.
What’s the New Zealand music scene like at the moment, are there any bands you’d recommend?
Although there has been great original music made here continually since those early Flying Nun days there has been a new explosion of wonderful bands over the last decade and I recommend checking out new acts on Flying Nun and also the wonderful Fishrider label. They have compilations available.
What I like about ‘Silver Bullets’ is it’s not trying to experiment with a completely new sound. When you hear it, you know it’s The Chills. Was it important for you to keep to an aesthetic that you do well, rather than aiming for something completely different that might alienate fans?
I wanted ‘Silver Bullets’ to be the stepping stone between the sound of The Chills in the past (but using modern recording technology) and wherever we head to next. I do intend to push our musical boundaries a bit but this was not the right album to do that with.
Having said that, The Chills’ overall sound is quite hard to pin down – from indie pop to punk, folk, psych, and the odd orchestral moment – was this just a reflection of what you were influenced by at the time, and do you think the sheer breadth of material confused people a bit?
We have always covered a lot of ground musically and that has not always worked in our favour as it has definitely left people confused. You cannot play our albums at a party because the music will suddenly get maudlin, or orchestral. And you cannot relax to it because it will start rocking out. I agree with the many people who have said that ‘Silver Bullets’ is our most cohesive album and a much more rewarding listening experience.
You’re still very much revered by the indie-pop community, having played at festivals like Indietracks and being added to the NYC Popfest line-up this year. Do you think that people misunderstand The Chills whenever they refer to you as a “jangly indie pop band”?
The “jangly indie pop band” tag does surprise me these days because we have done so much more than that, but I understand the need for labels, in that people have to start somewhere when describing us. I tend to describe us as “melodic rock” because we play live like a rock band and I don’t like the connotations of most modern pop.
I’ve only recently got round to listening to ‘Secret Box’, a compilation of early unreleased/unheard demos, outtakes and rarities spanning from 1980-87. At first, I thought I was listening to The Clean! I can imagine it being a surprise to those who associate The Chills as being a lot softer, and more pop-orientated.
We were very inspired by the post-punk energy of local bands The Enemy and The Clean and there were standards of intensity to live up to. We never managed to capture more than small glimpses of that in our studio recordings – especially because our first full album was not recorded for nearly six years and the early members who understood that ethic had left the group.
Are you ever tempted to make new music that’s more of a reflection of the stuff on ‘Secret Box’, or do you like the quieter, more contemplative version of The Chills more?
There are some early songs we would like to record properly at some point but I do not intend to try to recapture the level of energy that we maintained through the 80s and early 90s. I was much younger and it would be false. We still play powerful live gigs but I won’t pretend to be an angst-ridden young man.
Is the way you approach song writing different now to when The Chills first started?
It’s always pretty much been the same: sometimes I hear music in my head, sometimes ideas come from playing an instrument. I write down ideas for lyrics or other projects and then it’s a matter of putting in the work to find interesting combinations. Sometimes my subconscious comes up with solutions when I am stuck trying to solve problems.
You’ve been The Chills’ sole constant – what’s the key to staying creative and motivated so long into your career as a musician/songwriter/artist, particularly through those difficult times when you were battling with addiction and depression?
When I discovered that I could write and perform music a whole world opened up to me and now I could never let that go. I have found music to be a great healing force – not just for me but for the many people who have thanked me for my songs helping them through some of their darker times. There’s not really a better reason to keep going.
The Chills play Primavera Sound, Barcelona in June.