Intrigued by an enthusiastic review of their then current LP Submarine Bells, that I had read in a Greek music magazine, and delighted by the video-clip of their trademark Heavenly Pop Hit I had watched on MTV, I set out to buy the promising LP of a New Zealand band completely unknown to me, at the time: The Chills. It blew me away and still consider it to be one of the most well-crafted pop albums to have graced the vinyl format. In fact, due to repeated plays some 25 years ago, my first copy of it broke and had to replace it! In the ensuing years, I kept following the group’s musical adventures… and then, all of a sudden, there was long pause. I was, therefore, extremely thrilled and moved, when I was informed that they had released a fresh album, Silver Bullets, nearly 20 years after Sunburnt. On this occasion, I sought to communicate with Martin Phillipps, the “soul” of The Chills. What follows, is the “product” of this communication.
How and when did it all start- and why The Chills?
Although we didn't know it at the time, The Chills were part of the post-punk explosion of music around the world - some of which came from the most unlikely cities in the least likely countries. We were called The Chills, because co-founder Peter Gutteridge and I were big fans of The Cramps, so the name felt right and because Dunedin gets cold in winter. We formed late 1980, after my first band The Same (late 1978 - early 1980) had ended.
“Cozy in the North wing/ Taking turns at Swamp Thing/ Listening to the Byrds sing on/ the tape recorder”, you wrote back then in Don’t be- Memory. Were the Byrds among your main influences? How about Beach Boys? Listening to your work, I have the feeling that you “marry” Pet Sounds’ infectious sunshine pop melodies with punk rock sensibilities and a very distinctive melancholic aura. Is that true?
The music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys around the time of Pet Sounds and Smile and the many songs, which lead up to that, and the huge wealth of material that came out afterwards, some on solo albums, has always been important to me. I was also listening to '60's garage punk and psychedelia and British R&B and also folk rock like the Byrds, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin. Then, there was Ramones, Suicide, Swans, Napalm Death and so much more. There is a lot of music, which affects me deeply, but which I do not choose to emulate. Bowie was always a big influence.
You are an extremely talented composer and lyricist. Did you receive relevant education? Have you attempted to write a novel or short stories, as well? What do you aim to “catch” through your lyrics/ storytelling?
I had some very basic music lessons as a child, but I am largely self-taught. I sometimes wish I knew more about music structure, but I think that I have my own way of creating things and that maybe I should leave it like that. I have had articles and short stories published already and some poetry. I hope that my lyrics capture some beauty, because I work hard to make it so, and also to show some basic honesty.
“The uncaring power of memory/ so crippling in its clarity/ Those spiteful spikes of sentiment/ I’d love to make some sense of it”, you wrote in the same song- my favorite of yours. Why “uncaring”?
Memory will replay moments, which you may not want to re-live - it does not care.
“Where we could we dwell? / Within our past alive and well/ Escape from all that’s hard to bare/ To where the child that you were/ creeps near- without fear”. Do you still feel nostalgic about your childhood?
We have been working on a documentary about my life, which is based around the themes of my songs, and I have had to confront images from my childhood and younger years. It has not always been easy and sometimes it has been painful. But most of the time now I feel so separate from the person I was as a youth, that I cannot understand how he achieved what he did, yet I am very proud of the courage that it took.
During the 90s you battled with a few personal “demons”, including depression and heroin. Did music help you get over that dark period of your life?
Music is a great healer and I would not have survived without it. I never stopped making music, but it took me some years to recognize that, although the music I was generating was not advancing my career, it was a better shot in the arm than opiates and it was what was truly keeping me alive. That, and the love from my family and friends.
Silver Bullets sounds like the natural successor to Submarine Bells, with at least half of its songs nearly as brilliant as those of that album. How long did the completion of it take? Were the songs written over different periods of time, or in a condensed timeframe?
Some of the basic riffs are years old and some lyrics were written down years ago, but mostly it all came together over a year or so once we realized we were being given the opportunity to record a quality album, and not something that would sound like a bunch of cheap demo's. And many people have been discovering the best material on the Soft Bomb and Sunburnt albums, which became a bit lost when first released.
Though The Chills were never apolitical, in Silver Bullets you do seem to employ a more open political stance, especially in songs like the eponymous one or Underwater Wasteland. Did the economically, politically and socially-driven adverse circumstances dominating most parts of the world urge you to do that?
It felt to me that there was so much music being released, that it was pointless releasing an album that wasn't important. That was a problem for me, because I didn't want to do a political album in case it quickly dated. But those were the lyrics, which were pouring out, and so it became a challenge for me as a song-writer to see if I could craft those sentiments into something more beautiful and longer-lasting. There are huge issues to be talked about at the moment and I hoped we could help with the discussion.
Pyramids/ When the Poor can Reach the Moon is one of the most accomplished and uplifting compositions of yours, comparable to your trademark Heavenly Pop Hit. Can the “poor” actually reach “the moon”? Someone once wrote that your songs restore his faith in humanity. Do you feel hopeful for its future?
Humans often do wonderful things for each other - and for other creatures. So there is always hope. But often it is the most powerful people, who make the cruelest decisions. I do not know what will happen to us, or our planet. I am not a prophet.
You never managed to become as successful as you could have been, commercially-wise. Was that annoying- or even necessary, in fact? How do you personally “measure” success?
I am 52 years old, and many of my friends and colleagues can now afford good homes, restaurants, holidays and they have children, who are doing well. Sometimes I feel a sense of loss at what might have been. But then, when The Chills perform live, I experience that wonderful energy and connection with the audience, which only rock and roll can generate to that extreme - and which The Chills have our own unique formula of. And then I feel that this is good enough - this is what I am here for. I have changed lives for the better. Who could ask for more?
It’s been a truly long time since you last toured in Greece- that was probably back in 1987, when I was too little to be allowed to walk out on my own, let alone attend a gig. What do you recall form those series of gigs in Athens and Thessaloniki. Do you plan to play in Greece in the future?
I recall Greece being one of the most wonderful places we ever visited. We made great friends, who I would love to see again. The food and wine and the lifestyle were wonderful. The gigs were a bit chaotic, but magical. I hope very much that we can play there again.
[Photo credits: Jon Thom Moodie. Cover illustration: Bruce Mahalski].
More on The Chills can be found on the group’s official website http://www.softbomb.com/
I would like to warmly thank Scott Muir, the manager of The Chills, for making this conversation possible, Alice Gros from Fire Records for providing the photographic material enhancing this upload and, last but not least, Martin Phillipps for being a constant source of beautiful and meaningful pop music over the years.