35+ years into their career and The Chills are on a roll. Long-time leader Martin Phillipps has a clean bill of health and the band has a new album (Snow Bound) ready to release, along with a nationwide tour and a career-spanning film about to screen.
Radio 13's Marty Duda spoke with Martin Phillipps about all three projects and the renaissance The Chills seem to be experiencing.
MD: The last time I saw you was at the King’s Arms. I think it was about a year ago in May, when you were doing your show there. It seemed to be almost like a milestone of some sort. Did you feel like it was at that show?
MP: That was certainly an important show to prove to people that I was back in action. It was a shame that that tour was done as a 4 piece, not the full band, but it still packed quite a punch. It was good! The right people came along and saw… what was important to me was not being seen as kind of a nostalgia act, just playing the old hits when in fact there was the new material. And as we heard numerous people say afterwards, the new stuff fit so well alongside the old. It was really good.
I’ve really opened up and I think it’s quite a moving picture, actually.
MD: Excellent! I know that you are the subject of a documentary that’s being made and I think they were in the process of doing that then, what is the status of that at this point?
MP: The documentary’s been going on for about 2 years now, we basically have to complete it by later this year, in time to finalise for film festivals that’s going on internationally. And there is a lot of interest in that, which is good. We get here, around this time next year, for our international film festivals. What I’ve seen of it looks quite extraordinary and it’s been quite a ride. It’s not just looking at The Chills’ history but it’s been following me through a very tumultuous couple of years as well, which is not what they sort of had anticipated by any means. They’ve been very sensitive to what’s going on and when I realised the degree of trust on both sides I’ve really opened up and I think it’s quite a moving picture, actually.
MD: Well, it seems like the best kind of documentaries are the ones that allow themselves to let the events unfold rather than go in with some preconceived notion of what’s going to happen anyway, so perhaps...
It’s not just the Chills stuff, I collected basically the rise of independent music from late 70’s.
MP: That’s true, but you get the dilemma then of what the filmmakers would like to do, as you say follow the events, but then you’ve got various investors wanting a more structured approach right from the start, so that they can be ticking off the boxes and seeing that it is actually happening. So it’s been a bit of a juggling act to make sure that everyone is kept informed as to how things are developing, what’s been happening. My understanding is everyone who’s been shown parts of it are excited, a few from overseas, so it’s really good.
MD: And what’s been your involvement as far as the content? Do they check in with you, do you O.K. things, how involved are you?
It’s not just a desperate band getting back together now that royalties have dried up, it’s an ongoing creative process.
MP: It’s fortuitous to say the least that my manager Scott Muir and I over the last 10 years in particular put a lot of work in to the Chills’ archive. And that’s something I’ve always naturally done anyway, to keep track of what videos we did and when, that sort of stuff, what footage I knew existed from the early days when you can actually spot a whopping great video camera in the crowd. So luckily there was access to a good chunk of archives but even more remarkable just for turning up after word’s been put out. I’ve been very involved with the visual aspect, with historical accuracy, providing huge chunks of my photograph and poster collection and clippings and so on, but it’s not just the Chills stuff, I collected basically the kind of rise of independent music from late 70’s right through until I guess it sort of tails off around the early 90’s when other people were well in control of keeping track of that. So I’ve got quite a unique collection in that sense.
MD: And a lot of that stuff is going to be included as well? It covers more than The Chills?
MP: It covers the history, the background, the environment that spawned us and the international interest, the wave we caught from what we rode, what happened. While you think it is just another band’s story, the more it was pointed out to me, it’s actually very unique on a lot of levels, especially these new chapters. It’s not just a desperate band getting back together now that royalties have dried up, it’s an ongoing creative process and coming from this part of the world, where you’re already up against huge financial hurdles to take it further afield, and you get the unique weirdness of my own personality which has proven to be worthy of following around with a camera for a while.
MD: Very good, and does it feel like a renaissance time for The Chills in the last couple of years? It feels like that from my point of view. I’m wondering if it does and when that feeling started to come to you?
I wanted to make it clear that if that record worked, that was not me being saved by someone stepping in and wringing in the last few drops of creativity out of me.
MP: It most certainly does. It must be understood that even in the years that we appeared to be doing nothing, trying to look and list all the little side projects, my little contributions to other compilations or EPs or this and that, there’s actually quite a lot was done. But more importantly I’ve never stopped writing. There’s a huge mass of material there but the outlet wasn’t there for it. That was certainly a big problem and a lot of numerous other documentaries and other projects that started and fell by the way, so it all sort of came around in 2011 when we were invited to play at a private party which turned out to be somebody who was interested in the future of the band, set up their own record label in New Zealand to release the live recording of that party and that sort of started the whole thing going. The next thing we know, we were flying and recording at England. I think there’s been a big change with this new album Snow Bound, because the one that came out 3 years ago, whatever, Silver Bullets, I can understand that people would think, ‘oh Martin was bound to have a bit of material sitting around, that’s a good, strong album’ but the fact that we came back with another one piqued people’s interest a bit. It’s proof that we’ve kind of picked up the reigns again and are still heading forward.
MD: Do you feel like you do have to prove something to folks?
MP: I certainly did then with Silver Bullets. That was why I was insistent that we didn’t have a name producer, in fact we had an excellent recording engineer as a co-producer, with Brandon Davies. But I wanted to make it clear that if that record worked, that was not me being saved by someone stepping in and wringing in the last few drops of creativity out of me. That was establishing my vision of the band now and that was very worthwhile documenting the blueprint for the band, to then be able to move forward from. So there was a lot more band involvement in Snow Bound than there was in Silver Bullets, even though they were very involved in that but it’s become much easier to communicate about musical ideas in a more esoteric fashion to do it and I do talk about crashing of waves or we need a shower or spark there or something, I don’t know.
MD: And the band is notorious for having had quite a few members pass through its ranks over the years, have things kind of settled in now, to a steady personnel?
MP: The interesting thing is that this band’s essentially been together for nearly 20 years now. Todd Knudson the drummer and James Dickson who’s the bass player, started out on keyboards, they’ve been with me since 1999, and Erica who plays violin, guitar and keyboards, she joined only about 5 years after that, and Oli Wilson, who was also the head of the contemporary music school in Massey University, he’s been with us like 8 or 9 years now as well. It’s weird, people will obviously talk about The Chills revolving door policy.
MD: Part of the problem is that it seems like 1999 was just the other day too. So when you say 20 years ago and you’re right, it’s hard to believe.
I recently turned 55. How people like me are responding to a world that we did not anticipate going backwards like this.
MP: The point is we’re getting to the point very quickly where half the band’s history has been one band. I’ve learned a lot more about communication, that’s one of the things about the documentary, learning about past miscommunications, that’s been interesting. We have really good band meetings, and make sure we’re all in the loop and in agreement. It’s democratic with me as the figurehead guiding forth I guess.
MD: If you could tell me about the making of Snow Bound? Where it was recorded and when?
MP: We had recommended to us Greg Heyver who’s based in New Zealand, who’s a Welsh producer of note. That worked out really well. And he had his ideas and connections about the best path to go about. We were recording for about a week and a half at Revolver Studios in Waiuku, near Auckland. Then after only about a few week or another a week ago, we came down to Dunedin and did nearly another, nearly a week at Port Chalmers Recording Services which used to be the old venue, Chicks Hotel. And then there’s just one final day that I needed to go back up to Auckland, to Roundhead this time, to do some final overdubs and stuff. Meanwhile we had connections with Heath Connells’ team machinery so even while recording, things were being edited and tidied up overseas during the nights in London, or assembled in other parts of the world, by various people and mixes coming and going from England so a bit of Skyping, a few comments. It was a wee bit nerve racking for me because it was the first time I’ve done the idea of not actually being in the room being hands on but it actually worked out really well. We’ve done a trial mix to see if I was going to take to that alright, essentially it was the same process like in the old days where I’d stay out of the room while the engineer and the producer tidied up the tracks, then go in and start making comments. It was essentially exactly the same.
We still believe in the harmony of humanity, that it can work and acknowledging that there are seriously dark forces opposed to that harmony.
MD: And the songwriting itself, is there any kind of thread of anything that was driving you to write these songs that are only this album, the comprised Snow Bound?
MP: The odd thing that happened is, I was actually setting out to write a completely different album and due to a number of factors that had gotten in the way between Silver Bullets and this album, that project never got eventuated. Fortunately I’ve been writing songs anyway, as I do, and suddenly realised there was a rather common theme to the material which was my age, I recently turned 55. How people like me are responding to a world that we did not anticipate going backwards like this. We hear the same thing from the 60’s activists and even the beatniks before them. They all thought they’d helped change the world for the good but they didn’t see it going backwards in their own lifetimes. We’re now the age group too, where punk, post-punk saw a lot of change, a lot of good change and are now being told that our entire pre-programming is irrelevant. So Snow Bound is basically saying, ‘here we are, kind of stuck’, and trying to reassess how we know our experiences are valid, so how do we deal with this world and get across worthwhile advice without getting overwhelmed by it.
MD: Right, the album ends with a song called In Harmony which I wanted to ask you about anyway. Is that kind of coming to terms with how things have turned out these days?
I think one of the worst slogans ever is ‘think global but act local’. I think that’s actually a real cop out.
MP: I guess it is. It’s kind of a… back to one of the more of the simplistic songs on the record. It is a strong statement saying that we still believe in the harmony of humanity, that it can work and acknowledging that there are seriously dark forces opposed to that harmony. This is unprecedented, the times we are heading into. People have been saying, ‘oh, there are all these empires rising and falling and people have always controlled information’, that’s true, but it’s never been like this, it’s never been such a small percentage of people controlling all the information and there’s been a backdrop of a world which is right on the edge of not being able to sustain us due to our actions. So it’s not like it has been before, it’s much more crucial and In Harmony is just kind of a, you know, having dug through issues on the rest of the album saying, ‘no, they’re still there’. There is still music, there is still life and people, where there’s life there’s hope.
MD: Yeah, it’s interesting because a lot of the people who came of age in the 60’s and 70’s who thought would have known better have now turned into the people who are kind of taking things backwards. It’s kind of a strange dichotomy that takes some getting used to, I guess.
Yeah, we’re just fired up and ready to go. It’s gonna be exciting.
MP: I’m one of these terrible people who look too much at Facebook and get depressed by the comments of liberal minded people. And you think, ‘can you not see the squabbling amongst yourselves over the use of words’, which is yes, important, but can you not see while you’re doing that, majorly evil people are getting their way, and these are the people you need to be fronting, not tearing apart your friends for using a phrase that was acceptable 20 years ago and no longer. I had not realised that about the left wing liberal, I’d always assumed basically, we are the brighter, more informed but equally stuck in their ways. You know, some of it’s just self protectionism I guess, I understand it if you get older people are skeptical. They get scared. Especially, I don’t have children so I don’t have that sort of fear of what’s going to happen to them and their children, but a lot of people do. It’s a really good incentive to quietly start alluring some of the bigger picture. I think one of the worst slogans ever is ‘think global but act local’. I think that’s actually a real cop out because people can say they think global all they like. If all you’re doing is acting locally and hoping that’s gonna have wonderful implications, you’re kidding yourself, really.
MD: Now the tour is kicking off on September 14th, you’ve got about 10 days or something. What kind of what can we expect from the shows that are going to be coming up?
MP: We just had a good weekend of band practice, looking at each other almost stunned by how much fun we’re having. And the realisation is that as we whittled down the list of say 40 songs down to about 25 or something, that we’re now in the position with the new album, of being able to put together an entire set of absolute A-grade material right back to the start and right up to, each night will be a handful of the new ones, pretty much every era is covered and it’s flowing so beautifully. We’re actually…I don’t mean to be this excited about going out and touring, I was nervous about the last tour since I don’t know how my voice would hold out after years over consecutive shows, and it turned out to be fine. We took it into consideration, no more than three gigs in a row without a day off, and that kind of stuff. Yeah, we’re just fired up and ready to go. It’s gonna be exciting. To answer your question more precisely, I was think anyone who’s going to want to hear some of the hits will be happy and anybody who wants to see that we’re in fact still ploughing ahead and creating new stuff is also going to be happy. It all fits together in one exciting package.