Chilling mortality and health

The Chills (from left) Erica Scally, Todd Knudson, Martin Phillipps, Oli Wilson and James Dickson...
The Chills (from left) Erica Scally, Todd Knudson, Martin Phillipps, Oli Wilson and James Dickson. Photo: Supplied
Chills frontman Martin Phillipps talks to Tony Nielsen about life, death and the group's new album, Snow Bound

In person, Martin Phillipps is quietly affable, has a prodigious memory, and seems rather chipper about life.

His backstory as the leader of The Chills is well documented - an extensive catalogue of quirky indie rock hits and international fame for singles such as Pink Frost, I Love My Leather Jacket, Heavenly Pop Hit, Soft Bomb, along with 1990's hugely popular album Submarine Bells.

But that was then, and this is now. First, a discreet question about his much reported-on health issues. Martin doesn't shirk the question, but qualifies what has been previously reported.

"The story that was in the news last year definitely didn't equate with what I had said. For the record, I would describe my current health situation as uncertain but positive."

Based on the new record - a documentary, the recent exhibition at the Otago Museum, and a busy touring schedule - you would have to believe he is in finer fettle than we might have been led to believe.

A few days before we met, I had the privilege of listening to Snow Bound, The Chills' new album and, if my enthusiasm is anything to go by, The Chills' star will rise once more.

There's no doubt that this is a Chills record: their distinctive sound is like no other. Snow Bound is released next month and is followed by a 14-gig New Zealand tour and then a documentary release in the new year and offshore concerts.

One notable aspect of this incarnation of The Chills is the fact that they've been together for quite a while.

"James [bass] and Todd [drums] came on board back in 1999, Erica [guitar, keyboards, violin] not long afterwards, and Oli Wilson now eight years ago. It's the longest serving line-up that I've worked with in The Chills, and Snow Bound sort of happened by accident, following on from Silver Bullets, our first LP in 20-odd years.

"I had been working on some other stuff, but somehow the songs kept coming. I use my phone a lot to get down ideas, which, eventually, we take into the studio. So, before I knew really, we had enough material to release our next album, without the 20-year wait this time."

Phillips believes Snow Bound is stronger than Silver Bullets.

"More cohesive is the best way I can describe it. I also compare the sound of Snow Bound with the post-punk era, but with some of the jingle jangle of the late '60s, the days of hippies and, even earlier, beatniks.

"I relate to all of that, especially with what's going on in the world right now. People my age look back on the so-called `street fighting days' and wonder where to from here. It's some of those sort of ideas that have influenced me."

With the initial questions dealt to, and an update on the band, Martin agreed to take me through Snow Bound track by track.

"Bad Sugar, the first track on the album, is about individuals clinging on to a religion, which some people will criticise. I reckon that these folk shouldn't be criticised as it's their right to take on whatever beliefs work for them. My father was a Methodist minister, but he wasn't the preaching sort. He focused on bringing together the outcasts. Those thoughts are part of my approach in this song.

"The next song, Time to Atone, is more light-hearted and looks at the mistakes we make in our lives, and then taking responsibility and atoning for them. Of course, in my case it was mainly the drugs that I need to answer to. Once you've atoned, give up apologising and leave it behind.

"In The Greatest Guide it's all about the people who you have looked up to, or who you looked on as a mentor. For me, musically, the list includes Bowie, Lou Reed, Prince ... some people have suggested that this track is about Roy Colbert ... while I respected Roy and was influenced by him, my local New Zealand `guide' has always been Chris Knox.

"I sort of see these guys sitting on my shoulder and guiding me, Chris, Bowie and so on. Continually asking me whether I am doing my best, `Are you really pushing yourself?'. I was never going to be a great instrumentalist, so I've learnt to focus on where my strengths are, and disciplined myself around that, with these guys guiding me.

"It also means that I have had to discard some projects and refocus on the music and the things that really matter to me. To see some of our heroes die has been a reality check for us and, of course, it's not going to stop. Thankfully, we still have two Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Carole King.

"Scarred is a much more personal song about, perhaps, making myself too available. [It's] about learning to be more selfish and to make myself say no more - that I'm not a 25-year-old any more and it's important that I pace myself. About saying no and establishing boundaries.

"The first single off Snow Bound is called Complex and it's my attempt to discuss communication problems. It's about people talking, but not listening. And a fear of saying the wrong thing and being embarrassed. Of course, our world is much busier now with social media and so on, but communication is being a good listener. We're in such an unprecedented situation in the world at present and too much time is spent on trivial matters. Liberal people need to take stock and keep it together.

"The first track on side two of the vinyl version is Deep Belief. It's a song about mortality, got a bit of a John Cale thing about it.

"A while ago, I had a relationship with a lovely woman in the UK. Unfortunately, the long distance thing meant it didn't work out. Lord Of All I Survey is about that experience, which I remember with a lot of fondness.

"The title track has a go at people who try and make themselves look good by doing charity work, trying to make out they're better than they really are. In reality, they're just ticking the boxes that they think are important and that doesn't do it for me.

"The oldest song on the record is Easy Peasy and we've been playing it live for a couple of years or so, but couldn't quite get it right until we finally nailed it in the studio. Interestingly, all of the songs have been written and created since Silver Bullets was made, so we didn't have to go back to any older stuff. It makes Snow Bound really fresh for us, too.

"This could be a depressing song as its about suicide and the fact that the choice that people make isn't easy at all. I've been pretty close to that darkness and the main thing I reckon is that you want to end that blackness. When people in this situation say that `they'll be better off without me'[it] is very real. Trouble is the damage that is caused is enormous.

"In Harmony is the most upbeat number on the record, reflecting my affinity with the ocean. The amazing thing is the feedback I'm getting from those who have heard the album, is that they think it's really upbeat. We played around with lots of different track orders. Having In Harmony as the final song made all the difference as there are some songs here that are confronting in their content, but we're really pleased with the end result.

"We're also really excited about what lies ahead with the release and the New Zealand tour, and then the documentary, the UK and European tour, and the States. It's exciting that The Chills' profile in the States through social media is at its highest ever level.

"To make sure I stay healthy, we're planning the tours so that we have days off, and commit to a minimum of other commitments. We've done a couple of UK and European tours over the past couple of years and learnt from that."

Get it

Snow Bound is released on September 14. The Chills play 50 Gorillas along with the Veils' Finn Andrews on September 21. 

 - Tony Nielsen

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