Martin Phillipps and
It's been five years since The Chills’ last studio album, the 1992 album ‘Soft Bomb’. October ’96 saw a welcome return to these shores for the band, here to promote the new album ‘Sunburnt’.
The Chills were formed in Auckland, New Zealand in 1980 by a fifteen year old Martin Phillipps. Phillipps could never have dreamt that the musical odyssey of The Chills would continue for another seventeen years, with fifteen different line‑up changes and, more tellingly, a repertoire of classic rock songs bursting with emotion and occasionally drawing heavily on the sixties psych/garage era. If you need a starting point, look no further than the 1995 “best of...” collection on Flying Nun entitled 'Heavenly Pop Hits'.
The Chills were instrumental in the post-punk musical renaissance of New Zealand and for the establishing the world-wide reputation of the Flying Nun label. The first Chills album to be released by Flying Nun was a compilation of early singles titled 'Kaleidoscope World'. It wasn't until 1987 that the debut studio album 'Brave Words' was released, an album which can only be described as a masterpiece. Two more studio albums followed, 'Submarine Bells' (1990) and 'Soft Bomb'(1992). Phillipps summed up what he's tried to obtain through his music with a memorable quote from 1985: ‑ “What I want to do is catch those feelings that you have which aren't named. They’re sort of not anger and they’re not sorrow. They’re those strange feelings. I want to make it universal so a person, in any country, could hear the bit of music and know what it meant”.
And so to an autumnal evening at Bath Moles Club where we caught up with Martin Phillipps to find out what the current activities of The Chills are.
PT: Are these dates in the UK part of a European / World tour?
MP: Yeah. We did New Zealand first. We’ve done Belgium and The Netherlands, there’s a few shows here, and then it’s onto the States for about two and a half to three weeks, so it’s pretty quick. The whole point of this is to keep the costs down, test the water to see if it’s worth maintaining a band on an international level. I needed for my own peace of mind to come back out and see whether there was much left of the old interest.
PT: What’s been the reaction like so far? Good?
MP: The band’s been performing well, the shows have been good, the numbers have been OK. Pretty good actually.
PT: What musicians played on ‘Sunburnt’ and are they in the current touring line-up?
MP: Dave Mattacks from Fairport Convention played drums and Dave Gregory from XTC played bass. Mattacks has also played in XTC so they’ve played as a rhythm section before, and even though they came in two days each separately, i.e. they didn’t play at the same time, it still felt like a rhythm section, which was good. It was a kind of nightmare for me as I didn’t want to end up as in the same situation as ‘Soft Bomb’ with these unknown factors, especially as having rehearsed a band ready to record and then losing them was pretty terrifying. But it worked out really well with Mattacks and Gregory as they took to the music really easily, and in hindsight it was a good thing as it made me stick to what I already had on home demo tapes. So it worked out really well. I’m really pleased. But no, there was never any talk of them touring.
PT: The opening track ‘As Far As I Can See’ seems to have a message in it - ‘The way ahead is free, as far as I can see’. What’s that about?
MP: It’s about bad rhyming at school! (laughs). People tend to think the future is written in stone and there’s nothing we can do to change things. I think every decision, every second of the day, alters the future. I think it’s also a really easy cop out to say that there’s nothing you can do to make things better.
PT: ‘Come Home’, the UK single off the album, is apparently a message to all New Zealanders around the world, like “Come Home! Your country needs you”. Is this true?
MP: Kind of. There’s a lot going on in New Zealand at the moment, for example the dealings of the Maori people over land rights are setting precedents in terms of dealing with indigenous people around the world, and on the other hand we’ve got a national government which is of the equivalent of a Tory government still using these Thatcherite monetary policies. ‘Come Home’ is more saying to the New Zealanders overseas that there’s things happening in New Zealand that are as relevant as anywhere else and that you should be taking part in some of these crossroads and so on, as some of things that are going to happen now won’t never be changed back again. They tend to forget what’s special about New Zealand as well, so not much of come home and stay there, I think it’s really good for people to get out and see what there is to the world, but not to lose sight and not get swallowed by the hype that other countries give.
PT: Over here in the UK so far we’ve only seen ‘Come Home’ released as a single. I understand in New Zealand there’s been another single release and also a single track radio promo as a third?
MP: ‘Surrounded’ was released as a single. Because we got the two Daves to record we couldn’t afford to do the b-sides with them, so when we got back to New Zealand we did the six b-sides with my proper band. Three came out on ‘Come Home’. If they do a second single here it’ll probably be ‘Dreams Are Free’ not ‘Surrounded’, and it’ll hopefully have the other three b-sides. It was ‘Dreams Are Free’ that was released as a single track radio promo in New Zealand.
PT: It’s been four years since ‘Soft Bomb’. Has it been a frustrating time since then in not getting any recorded output released until this year (apart from the ‘Pop Art Toasters’ 60’s covers EP)?
MP: It was really frustrating for a long time as I’ve written a lot of material, but first we needed to be sure that we were free from the Slash contract. Then there was shopping round for a new label and eventually signing with Flying Nun, that took a long time, and getting a new band together; so by the time it came to do ‘Sunburnt’ there was at least enough material finished for two albums and we kind of chose the lighter more sort of optimistic stuff to go on ‘Sunburnt’ and the darker more interesting material has been put aside as “shadow ballads”, which I would still like to do as a separate project some stage. So it was pretty frustrating trying to get music out.
PT: The releases are now credited as being by Martin Phillipps & The Chills. Why the inclusion of the Martin Phillipps name?
MP: I think it was time to acknowledge that it had already become a solo project, but at the same time the band is very important as separate entity, particularly live. After the band broke up in ’92 I did a number of solo shows, but it’s just not my forté. My forté is being in control of a band, so it was time to make that transition and realise that the Chills would never be that four way equal creative process and as much as some people say, “everybody knows it was Martin Phillipps”, a lot of people didn’t. The example I use is if Michael Stipe did a solo album, even if all of REM played on it, would sell a quarter of what an REM record would do. I realised so much work had been put into establishing the name The Chills that I didn’t just want to throw that away.
PT: Have there been any major influences on the album ‘Sunburnt’ or is Martin Phillipps being influenced by Martin Phillipps?
MP: I can’t really think of any major influences, I try not to let things creep in to make it so obvious. I know over the last few years I’ve paid a lot more attention to song writers, as opposed to overall band sounds, so that’s probably the main difference.
PT: What kind of thing are you listening to at the moment?
MP: The Silver Apples. I’ve just got that on CD finally. I’m also listening to a lot of Krautrock again at the moment. I’ve just picked up a compilation album of unknown Krautrock artists which is really good.
PT: What’s this ICE thing we’ve heard about?
MP: The International Chills Enthusiasts. I’ve just received a grant of ten thousand dollars to set up a proper computer composing programme, so I’m still doing a bit of homework on what to get, the idea being that I can set up the ICE club. When I’ve worked out with Flying Nun exactly how it’s going to work in theory I’ll be releasing a lot more of my own music, plus things like the rarities album, hopefully things like the Peel Sessions. As long as I make the main albums available to Flying Nun I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out. There will be an Internet home page, a mail order thing and maybe a magazine that comes out three or four times a year and has an hour long CD. I’m not sure, I’m still looking at ways of working it. In a sense the traditional industry approach is just not working for me because the bulk of the material I’ve written is just not out there, so I want to remedy that situation and this will be the best way of doing it. Hopefully it’ll be up and running early next year.
PT: I read in ‘Hayfever’ magazine that an old Coca Cola jingle you wrote over a decade ago has now led to that company wanting you to re-record it for a series of radio and possibly TV adverts! Did that evolve into anything?
MP: I got asked on student radio in Auckland if I’d done any jingles, and I said I’d done some for Auckland Student Radio BFM at one stage and that I had this Coca Cola one I’d had knocking around for years. A woman from Coca-Cola’s promotion company was driving to work at the time listening so she contacted us and we went and recorded them. It was an interesting experience working on that commercial side, I don’t know if I’d do it again actually. But luckily that money saved me from going bankrupt on the last New Zealand tour.
PT: So the jingles were used?
MP: Yeah, they were and all the stuff might crop up on the rarities album at some stage, probably Volume Two I think.
PT: You’re a big fan of 60’s/70’s film and TV. Have you got hold of anything interesting lately?
MP: I picked up the original ‘Nosferatu’ which I’d never seen and [I’m looking for] a movie called ‘Vampyr’ which, when I saw it at the film society years ago, had the film title ‘Vampyr: The Strange Case Of David Bray’. David Bray was the guy who went crazy with a gun in Dunedin and shot nineteen people in a small town which is why that song is called ‘Strange Case’ on ‘Soft Bomb’. So if I find the video it’ll be good. And also I’ve got the Banana Splits video as well and The Pogles in Pogles Wood.
PT: Finally, what are the plans for Martin Phillipps and The Chills when you return back home to New Zealand after this world tour?
MP: I think there’s been enough interest here already that we’ll come back and do the festivals in Europe next year. I’m just not prepared to get back on the touring treadmill any more. Flying Nun are doing their best, they’re starting up in the States at the moment so ‘Sunburnt’ will be the first release to coincide with the dates over there. There’s a limit to how much they can actually really do for the band with me in my thirties - no matter how good we are people want the music to be made by kids, so I’ll definitely give it my best shot with this album and then really see if it’s worth keeping on doing that. Otherwise I’ll keep focusing on the ICE club as a way of getting the music out.
Interview by Dave Battersby, Dickie Straker and Phil McMullen