Siobhán Kane spoke to Martin Phillips of New Zealand’s The Chills, ahead of their Button Factory gig this Thursday
Over thirty years ago, the “Dunedin Sound” had a reach that went far beyond its geographical terrain in the south of New Zealand. Bands like The Verlaines and The Clean made ripples internationally, as well as the much-loved The Chills, led by Martin Phillips, which evolved out of Phillips’ previous band The Same.
Initially signing to the brilliant cult label, Flying Nun Records, the band (which had a steady stream of members, with Phillips as the only constant) released Kaleidoscope World (1986) (a collection of previously released singles), Brave Words (1987), Submarine Bells (1990), Soft Bomb (1992), and Sunburnt (1996) with singular highlights, such as the songs “Pink Frost”, “I Love My Leather Jacket”, and “Heavenly Pop Hit”.
The nineties were a difficult period for Phillips, who struggled with drug addiction, and the band had a fractured recorded output, but he has remained a prolific songwriter, and his talent has remained potent. In the last decade, a box set of Chills rarities appeared, a mini-album Stand By came out, and the most recent release, the single “Molten Gold” was a triumph, recorded in 2009, ahead of Phillips’ fiftieth birthday. Ahead of the release of a new record and European tour, and in the midst of watching old Star Trek episodes at home, Martin Phillips – who has been referred to as the “Brian Wilson of the post-punk world” talks to Siobhán Kane.
I have caught you in the midst of watching some old Star Trek episodes… William Shatner seems to be a very interesting person. For a start he’s well-underrated as an actor – he can overact sometimes, but you can tell he’s having a great time, and when you see him interviewed about breeding horses and his private life, his exuberance is quite inspiring. I was born in 1963, so I have great memories of watching TV, and you never realised at that time that that you would not be able to watch that programme again for maybe 15 years, so it’s great to watch things like that now. But at the same time I look back at the intimidation of those that had different beliefs in that period, and I think that in some ways we are living in the best of times now, even though there is such violence still, we are probably living in the least violent time.
Time seems very much on your mind at the moment, particularly with this European tour. It’s all very touching. I have got mixed emotions about the whole thing, because it has been 20 years since we have really toured anywhere in Europe. You know, I just called up on my computer the old list of gigs we had years ago, and we rehearsed at Kelly’s in Portrush. We spent about two or three weeks there – a friend of a friend had a contact, and we had access to this wonderful old rambling wooden building, and this huge barn-like bar downstairs. Occasionally we had to get out for a function, when they put sawdust on the floor, and every few nights we’d hear music pumping away in this building, which was quite ghostly, but we’d wander round and find another bar! And I think by the time we left Kelly’s we had found five bars. On a Friday or a Saturday night, busloads of kids would come in, copulate, then have a fried breakfast in the morning and leave, it was wonderful!
I didn’t think we had played Dublin, but we had, we played The Baggot Inn on that stretch. The fact that I don’t remember means we probably had a very good night. According to my records we played Kelly’s twice to rehearse on 16th and 17th February in 1990, and then on the 18th played The Baggot Inn, and then went on to Derry, in a place called The Venue on 21st February, so that’s the last time we were in Ireland.
It’s strange to think it has been almost 25 years. I have mixed feelings about it, because we made some great friends in Ireland, and time and differences and getting older weigh heavily – there are people that I want to see there again, but the sheer weight of emotion and times gone past is also there.
Yet, it is clear that you are excited about this tour. I would not be coming back overseas if my band couldn’t live up to The Chills reputation. The bassist, James Dickson, and drummer Todd Knudson, have been playing with me for around 15/16 years, and Erica Stichbury, who was something of a child prodigy on violin, among other things, has been working with me for around 8 years, and then Oli Wilson on keyboards has been with me around 5/6 years, so we have got by well, but in the last couple of years, because there has been something to aim for, the band has become really, really good. It won’t be like The Chills when I was in my twenties – that post-punk thing, that urgency, wanting to lose a pint of sweat on stage, but I still have the need to deliver and feel that no-one leaves the venue dissatisfied, and I think we have the band to do that.
You released the song Molten Gold in 2009, it suggested that there was perhaps a lot more material just waiting in the wings. That’s been the big problem – because I recorded on cassette players and DAT tapes and reel-to-reel, there’s a huge backlog, and hundreds of songs. Lots are rubbish, but some are gems, and Molten Gold was the result of working with three or four sound engineers who helped me digitise the whole lot, and then put them together on the computer and sort through things – pop, children’s songs, Christmas songs, punk, and folk. Molten Gold was a mixture of things that had been tried for 15 years, but then the real writing only took about two weeks to get finished. It’s the same thing with the album we just finished recording a few weeks ago, Some songs are from years ago, and some are two months old, but I would challenge anyone to tell the difference – as it all sounds like The Chills, but The Chills now.
After this very quick tour of Europe, the rest of the band will go back to New Zealand, but I will stay in London to mix the record. We were hoping for the end of this year, but complications with artwork has meant we are not quite sure, but it will most likely be released early next year.
How did your own relationship with music begin? You and I talked before about the Irish propensity towards music, whereas New Zealand had this notorious reputation for being a bit shy about things, musically, but my parents and certainly their parents, grew up singing around pianos, and everyone would know the songs. There are still times where my parents will still hear a song, know the tune, and sing it, and my sisters and I grew up with the radio on at home all the time – my mother would have it tuned to a popular station, and my father would have it tuned to the classical. I don’t think they ever got the punk-rock thing – that you could play rudimentary music and it could mean something to somebody.
But when we were starting off, we had a couple of glowing reports, one from a show called Radio with Pictures on New Zealand television, and that changed things for my parents, as I was being acknowledged for making good music, and it always stood behind me. And things were so difficult over the last 15 or 20 years, as I have been in some very dark spaces, with drugs and things, but my parents have always believed in my ability, and I guess that belief has been bolstered by people from all over the world also believing in what I do.
You have talked about the very dark periods in your life, but you seem to have emerged from them, into a much better space. Certainly. I think it’s a long story – any addiction stays with you forever, and you can’t untrain your brain, there is no easy solution, but at the same time, having something to aim at, like this tour, is helpful. It’s not the first tour to have been discussed – previous ones that were talked of had fallen through for various reasons, and you can have a certain amount of despondency, and we were wondering if we’d ever get overseas, and see the new interest in The Chills.
Hopefully this new interest, mingled with older fans has really provided a sense of renewed purpose? You know, even in New Zealand, some of the audiences are older, yet some are obviously in their late teens, people are discovering us and realising that we are trying to deliver the energy they deserve, so it’s really exciting to still be here.
That new interest is also among a younger generation of musicians, such as Panda Bear, who cite you as a reference. It is touching, but in my ignorance I haven’t kept up with music as I should have – and some of the people that have said we were an influence I have not heard of. I think that there are black patches that have affected me, a legacy from the worst time in the early nineties, where things fell apart. I had been part of The Same, and around 1978, we gained some interest, but were really playing Chills songs by the time we fell apart, and in the eighties, there was real rising interest, and we were establishing ourselves as a quality act you could trust, but then things fell apart in the nineties, and we became quite unpopular, as when anyone is popular for too long, people find fault with them, so there were some dark years after that, trying to maintain interest. But then we got a new wave of interest, and I can say with pride that maybe it is because we have covered a lot of ground with our music, from orchestral to folk to punk rock and pop, so that is what people like – we were honest about our music and weren’t following any trends, and we went out of our way not to be a trendy band, and have tried to stay true to the vision, so to speak.
Do you feel that New Zealand as a culture and landscape framed that vision? Graeme Downes of The Verlaines said that it took two years for Joy Divisions Unknown Pleasures to appear in New Zealand, after Ian Curtis had died, and that illustrated a certain sense of isolation, and perhaps incubation. I think it helped in a number of ways, because very few bands came through, and things were really second-hand, so a lot of the worst things were already filtered out by the time they got here, like the New Romantic thing, for example, thank God!
Yet we were the country that had The Fall’s Totally Wired and Joy Divisions Atmosphere at number one in the charts. So some things got through, and our small population meant that maybe 200 people bought those things in the right stores at the right time, but it was a fairly accurate representation of awareness here of what was happening overseas.
We missed out on seeing most bands live, but weirdly some bands would use New Zealand as a testing ground to start their tours, so one of the best things I saw was Talking Heads at The Regent in Dunedin, it was the very first gig of their world tour for Fear of Music, they were so nervous, maybe they thought we were going to be a bunch of hicks! And we saw early Cure, and for a while some extraordinary acts were coming through, and each of them had a huge impact.
Record labels tested New Zealand too, so some obscure, and strange records were released, as New Zealand was seen as a microcosm of western culture. The West Coast Experimental Pop Band from the ’60’s had three of their albums on Reprise/Warners, which were released here, and odd things like that, so it wasn’t quite as isolated as it could have been. The people who read NME and Sounds got them 3 months late, but when Spoon Records decided to release the Can catalogue here, it had a huge impact on Dunedin music and everyone started buying Can, and then Faust, and Neu! and swapping music, and in a lot of ways the sharing of music made Dunedin special, as there wasn’t competition about special influences or copying someone’s style.
How would you compare the musical culture of Dunedin of then, to the musical culture of Dunedin now? Obviously it’s very different. and I’d have to be 25 years younger to know, but because there is no waiting, people share influences more quickly, but the downside of that is that people will latch onto a new style or international trend way too quickly, but it’s still a good melting pot for strange ideas. In Dunedin we have around 120,000 people here, based around the university, so people who will always have strange ideas about things – so there are lots of wonderful bands, and many more than I have had a chance to get to see, but whether they will make as international an impact as previous bands remains to be seen – but the quality is so much better, as a number of us grew up with that post-punk idea that if you know more than a few chords then you are selling out. It’s kind of worked for me, but I regret it a little, as anything I have accomplished of complexity, has been through really hard grind work, I am recreating the wheel! I have shied away from learning the rules so that they don’t dictate my music, and luckily I have those people in my band that know about that stuff. But so many new bands are literally going through rock school, and they are coming out sounding too much like each other.
How influential do you think the New Zealand label Flying Nun was in terms of establishing a true musical community and identity? We didn’t realise how special it was at the time, we just thought it was run by this slightly eccentric man Roger Shepherd, who collected music, but then we heard that John Peel was playing Flying Nun Records, which is one of the reasons why we got to play in England in 1985, and we also played in East Berlin before the wall came down, because people had heard our music, and that’s because of Flying Nun.
At the moment we are really in a great position, as our back catalogue is with Flying Nun, but I am allowed to do any new stuff through any other label, and we are doing it with Fire Records in London, and the two of them are working together. It was pointed out that the most important element was The Chills, so Flying Nun and Fire are working together, and Captured Tracks in the States, who are doing the reissues. They are working on a special edition of Kaleidoscope World, and bonus tracks which weren’t on the original recording – so we are looking at that at the moment. And we are looking at how to do that sort of thing more, it’s exciting, but it’s difficult to keep your head on that, when working on the cover art and promotion of the new album as well, and even though the new album isn’t mixed yet, I already have my mind on the next record, so that’s a good place to be.
It’s really heartening, that perhaps you feel like some of your best work is still ahead of you. Frankly, because of my drug problem, there was nowhere for the music to go, and it can clutter up your mind and make it go black, but now it feels free, and I feel over the last 8 months I have written some of the best material in 20 years.
One of my favourite songs of yours is Song for Randy Newman, you detail some of the musicians you esteem, does that still stand? In that song, I list who I was discovering at the time, Nick Drake, Brian Wilson, Scott Walker, Syd Barrett, and that still stands, but David Bowie has also been a big influence. I was really impressed by The Next Day album, especially that no-one knew about it, what an achievement.
It went to show that there is still such a mystery present in the world, that there is still great art. Yes, I think that is a beautiful thing to say and it is true, and you wouldn’t really expect that these days. I like the first song, Where Are We Now? I love the fact that that song was the one he sang most like an old man, and I would like to think that was deliberate, because he knew that everyone expected him to be past dead, so he put out this dark song, which is beautiful, and then surprise everyone with the rest of the album that wasn’t as dark at all.
You know, I got to meet Randy Newman backstage in London some years ago, after a concert of his. It was very awkward, as I mentioned how the sound wasn’t very good, and “wasn’t it a pity that there weren’t any young people in the audience?”, and Alan Price from The Animals was there, and he walked by going “Hi Randy” – it was all very surreal, really.
You have mentioned many people you admire, is there anyone you would love to work with? Actually, last September we worked with the sound engineer, Brendan Davies, who was just fantastic, he came out to New Zealand to record, and the communication was just wonderful – it put us in a co-producer mode which was unusual. Over the years we have worked with some great producers, but I never found my George Martin so to speak, that I trusted to take me in a direction of my dreams, and I became very suspicious – but now I would like to continue to make my own music the way I hear it, with the expertise Brendan Davies had, he had visions that went way beyond my own, so to name a big name person or collaborator is probably going to encourage bad spirits.
You know, I am interested to see the kind of people who might approach us after this tour, because when they see the calibre of the band live, and hear the album, we might get offers for all kinds of strange things! So we’re going to have to be very careful about choosing what we do next.
In the past I have made some really bad decisions as a human being, but I have a great manager, Scott Muir, who acts as a polite deflector of crazy people. We’ve had about six documentary makers over the last 15 years start making films about us, they all looked solid but none of them have come to fruition, and even with the best instinct, you can’t see which way it might go, sometimes it goes down to applications for funding, so it’s good having people look out for me.
I tend to be too trusting, and sometimes scoundrels can worm their way in. Part of the drug years was my interest in down and out people, they were beautiful characters sucked into a horrible downward spiral, and I would try and help them, and find that they were stealing my records or something. I can be very naive, maybe other people learned earlier than I did.
The Chills play The Button Factory, Dublin on Thursday July 31st.