Still The Chills

The Chills at the Resound concert at the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, in 2007, with an image from the...
The Chills at the Resound concert at the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, in 2007, with an image from the Pink Frost video behind him. Albums covers from top: The Chills section of the Dunedin Double EP of 1982, the Pink Frost single of 1984, Submarine Bells from 1990. Left and right below: Earlier Chills line-ups with Phillipps on the left and second from left respectively. Photos by Craig baxter/ODT files/Supplied. Graphic by Hayden Smith.
"This first one is called Motels and Cars, and we are probably going to call ourselves The Chills."

So said Martin Phillipps, then a 17-year-old Logan Park High School pupil, when announcing his fledgling band in November 1980 at Coronation Hall in Maori Hill, Dunedin.

Little did he know the vehicle for his musical endeavours would cruise, race, splutter, stall and restart time and again until, now, 30 years on, the latest incarnation of The Chills, line-up number 33, prepares to share a stage with version No 1.

Next Saturday, Phillipps will return to Coronation Hall (where his parents used to play badminton while he and teenage friends watched television in a room next door) to play an afternoon show and also celebrate the release of a live album.

He will joined by friends old and new; the group's latest lineup (James Dickson, Todd Knudson, Erica Stichbury and Oli Wilson) playing songs both recent and well-honed, while the original band members, Phillipps' sister Rachel Devereux, Peter Gutteridge, Jane Dodd and Alan Haig, will perform early offerings Motels and Cars and I Saw Your Silhouette.

"I'm really proud that all four of the others are prepared to do this," Phillips says during a phone conversation earlier this week. "I think they are being very brave."

Phillipps recalls The Chills weren't scheduled to play that November gig in 1980. However, the members of another couple of well-known Dunedin bands, The Clean and Bored Games, knowing Phillipps had assembled a new act following the demise of earlier band The Same, invited him to play.

"Unfortunately, we didn't have keyboards for Rachel so we played as a four-piece that night and did two songs," says Phillipps, whose recollections include a sonic intermittence caused by a faulty guitar lead.

It is an apt memory, given the career malfunctions that have dogged The Chills, specifically Phillipps, for the good part of three decades. As the songwriter, singer, bandleader and battler concedes, " it was an indicator of things to come, I guess".

It is put to Phillipps that next weekend's gig could be regarded more as a tribute to his staying power than a celebration of 30 years of consistent music-making; the point being that since the release of the album Sunburnt in 1996, there has been little new material of significance from The Chills.

His reply is honest enough: "In terms of output, what the public sees, it has been very minimal. Although I understand that some people assume that there hasn't been much going on in the last 10 or 15 years, there has been, but it has just been behind the scenes.

"You can't play too often in New Zealand now because without new product you are just sort of seen as, 'oh well, we'll catch them next time'. It's very hard to get people to get excited about seeing The Chills again, particularly down here anyway."

For the record, The Chills' manager, Scott Muir, estimates the band has played more than 75 gigs in the past nine years; that equates to just over eight performances per year (though bands typically tend to operate in bursts). The Chills' most recent performances have been offshore, the group playing shows in Melbourne and Sydney a few months ago.

"To me, at least, there is no way it is over," the 47-year-old Phillipps says.

"It has been a very frustrating period, a series of setbacks ... depression came to stay, unfortunately. It comes and goes, actually, which is the nature of it. I think it is also part of the creative mindset, but you learn to live with it and do more with the highs and more mundane work with the lows."

Other aspects of Phillipps' health prevent him from operating at full capacity, too: "I still have hepatitis [he contracted the disease in the mid-'90s through his use of opiates] and that has been a real problem. If I didn't drink at all it would be a lot better but I still do a bit."

That downward spiral was precipitated by a combination of factors. After a decade and a-half of incessant line-up changes, tours here and offshore, of artistic ambitions realised - and critically acclaimed - on 1990 album Submarine Bells, the lack of reaction to 1992 follow-up Soft Bomb, the turmoil of a mid-tour band break-up in the United States and being dropped by US label Slash Records, meant Phillipps returned to New Zealand with little else but his own bruised self-belief.

Graham Reid, an award-winning music commentator, writer and freelance journalist, had the "unhappy task" of interviewing Phillipps in 1992 for the New Zealand Herald.

"The Herald had done a big story on The Chills going off to the States and when Martin came back to town, he and I went and had a beer and a chat about it," Reid recalls in a phone interview earlier this week. "It was a very sad thing in lots of ways because he had come back and was going to be broke.

"It always struck me that Martin was so single-minded about what he wanted to do. It was admirable, because to be successful you have to be; people who get to the top don't do so by being indifferent to their careers," Reid says.

"But I just think he was an incredibly poor communicator on a personal level. I can only say that as an outsider, but that is what band members and others have told me down the years."

Still, the history of The Chills doesn't detract from Reid's assessment of their music.

"When I first heard The Chills, I thought they were very different. At that time [the early 1980s] there was a lot of very polished pop around and, really, not a lot going on in many ways. It had something going for it in terms of memorable melodies and tunes, but it always struck me as darker; there was always something melancholy at the heart of those songs that made you think, `well, this is pop, but it's done by very mature people'.

"Pink Frost was an absolutely outstanding song from the early days, an exceptional piece of work that is very dark. The more you listened, the more you realised there was a real guiding intelligence behind the music. It was cleverly constructed, interesting music on lots of different levels and it became more and more so," Reid says.

"I loved the early stuff, don't get me wrong, but when I think about Submarine Bells and songs like Heavenly Pop Hit, it's just such a clever song; it's constantly ascending and descending.

"In terms of how I think about them now, they were a very significant New Zealand band. I lecture, part-time, in contemporary music at Auckland University and devote two hours to talking about Flying Nun and, of course, The Chills are a very significant aspect of that.

"As I recall, they were the first Flying Nun band to go overseas. They were the banner band for Flying Nun for a while, so they were very significant on lots of levels. People liked their music; that's the important thing to remember."

Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd, who this year bought back the label from Warner Music (with help from Neil Finn), says The Chills did "exceeding well" internationally.

"They were one of the first New Zealand acts to get overseas after Split Enz and were ambitious enough not to settle on Australia. They released material through the Flying Nun set-up in the UK and Europe and then signed a deal with Slash Records for the States and London Records for Europe.

"Submarine Bells and [the single] Heavenly Pop Hit were the high water mark - commercially and artistically - for the band. They were huge here," Shepherd says, in reference to the album reaching No 1 and the single No 2 on the New Zealand charts in 1990, the same year the band packed the Dunedin Town Hall.

"Heavenly Pop Hit very nearly broke them in the UK. Unfortunately, the pressures of being a band trying to make it - which, contrary to popular perception, are considerable and insanely immense - spun them apart at a crucial stage. But where the career faltered, the music remains monumental and everlasting."

Significantly, Phillipps is in the process of renegotiating a contract with Flying Nun, a move Shepherd confirmed this week.

"Yep, we are updating our contractual arrangements and plan to re-release and re-promote all existing as well as other historic Chills material," Shepherd enthuses. "We are rather excited about it all."

Phillipps says he didn't have a choice of career. "Music is what I'm designed for. That's what I do.

"I still come up with riffs and scribble down lyric ideas, all sorts of ideas, actually - stories and poems, visual ideas ... I've continued writing right the way through."

Asked to assess his own songbook, the correlation between his artistry and the life cycle of The Chills, Phillipps says the group started out as a post-punk band (encapsulated by such songs as 1984's Never Never Go and 1986 single Love My Leather Jacket), an outfit that "demanded a high level of energy".

By the time he was penning tracks for Soft Bomb, however, his writing had reached a sophistication "that kind of made it difficult for people to relate to in some degrees", Phillipps believes.

"They covered too much ground in many ways; you couldn't put them on at a party because some songs would slow down; you couldn't sit down and relax and listen to them because some songs would speed up. That was a bit of a problem.

"Unfortunately, with both Soft Bomb and then even more so with Sunburnt, I lost my bands just before I went into the studio. They were bands that I had taught how to play strongly and, particularly with Sunburnt, it really failed; a bunch of really good songs could have been played much more strongly."

Says Reid: "I think Martin was one of those people - like Andrew Brough of Straitjacket Fits - who had this pop sensibility; they could write songs that were no compromise to themselves but would work on radio. They had studied The Beatles, Brian Wilson, Buffalo Springfield, all of that.

"Martin really knew his stuff, and I suspect he still does. I'm not saying the time is right for a Chills revival but you only have to listen to that early stuff to realise how good it was. I remember thinking, 'this is a band that is going to go'. You could just hear it in them."

Russell Brown, a well-known New Zealand media commentator and founder of the blogsite Public Address, twice toured Europe with The Chills in the late 1980s. As a writer on assignment, he documented a band on the up.

"In 1987, I left my job working nights at the HMV Shop in Piccadilly and joined them on their tour of Europe. I was there as a journalist and a friend, as a hanger-on. I was writing about it for Rip It Up," Brown explains earlier this week.

"It was The Chills 'Mk 10'," Brown recalls, "The one with Justin Harwood, Caroline Esther and Andrew Todd, who all joined the band which had dissolved after the first English tour [in 1985]

"There were good nights and not-so-good nights. You never could quite tell how they were going to pan out but, certainly, with that line-up, there were nights that were just fabulous.

"There was very much a sense of onwards and upwards. There was a point there where it could really have happened in Britain: Heavenly Pop Hit had been made record of the week by some Radio One DJ; it was poised to happen. They certainly had a profile; they were getting played on the radio.

"I was thinking about this yesterday ... I'm really pleased for Martin that the internet age means he has a way of directly reaching out to his fans, because they are out there. I think it suits him really well to be able to do it that way. And he has good management now.

"I'm sure he'd be the first to say that relatively little has been achieved since the peak of the band ... but I still have a great deal of admiration for him."


The Chills' 30th anniversary show: Saturday, November 27 at Coronation Hall, Balmacewen Rd, Dunedin.

Doors open 2pm; band on stage 2.30pm (note: there is no support act).

Public: $25, students and unwaged $20. R18 (minors may attend if accompanied by a parent or legal guardian).

Presale tickets available from

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