Graham Reid | | 12 min read
Martin Phillipps takes the guitar off his knee so he can talk about, among many other things, the Chills' new album Snow Bound.
But he immediately admits that he can leave such instruments around gathering dust.
He can be “lazy” and “gave up on being a technically proficient musician a long time ago,” says the man who wrote sublime songs like Heavenly Pop Hit.
But Snow Bound -- reviewed here -- is another in a lineage of SB titles which includes Submarine Bells, Soft Bomb, Sunburnt and the excellent Silver Bullets in 2015, a career resurrection almost two decades after the last studio album Sunburnt.
Snow Bound – like Silver Bullets, the live album Somewhere Beautiful, a BBC sessions collection and Live at the MOTH Club – comes through Fire Records in Britain (distributed in New Zealand by Southbound) and forms yet another rung in what he rightly calls a Chills' “renaissance”.
With his much publicised health issues seemingly held in better check (“but it's on-going, it's never going away”), a very stable line-up of Chills for the past decade, international touring, positive reviews for Silver Bullets and a Chills exhibition of his memorabilia in his hometown of Dunedin, things certainly seem to be on more positive trajectory for Phillipps, one of this country's most consistent, interesting and recognisable songwriters.
But some early responses to the 10 songs on Snow Bound have been . . . interesting.
“I was initially was surprised when people said, 'What an upbeat kind of record',” he laughs. “And I thought, 'Wait until you read the lyrics'. There is that contrast between that upbeat sound and dealing with something more personal, going back to that Leather Jacket approach.”
He thought he was writing “dour” songs but acknowledges the power pop sound of many, and the fact the album ends on an optimistic note with In Harmony, does leave the listener with a sense of emotional elevation.
On the way through he sings “we makes mistakes and we cause heartache, we wake up and it's time to atone” (Time to Atone), the loss of pioneering musicians like Bowie, Reed, Prince and others (The Greatest Guide) and addresses the concerns of his generation, now in its Fifties and “who have been told our experiences are no longer relevant and we are redundant”.
Snow Bound is about coming to terms with many things – some personal, some universal – but as he sings on the opener, “even bad sugar makes bitter taste sweet”.
The album is another installment of the on-going story of the Chills which began almost four decades ago and has seen Phillipps endure the lowest of lows and sometimes enjoy real highs. [And that will be a bad reference if you know his former troubles.]
It seems the last five years or so everything seems to be running well for you, you have a high profile overseas again, Fire Records seem to be doing the business for you with the BBC Sessions and Silver Bullets . . . Let's talk about some of these things which have been going on. First of all the Chills exhibition in Dunedin, how did that go?
It went really well actually, there was very positive feedback. People were quite moved by it and I gave a couple of personal guided tours and the age group was from little kids to people older than me. So it was interesting. It was beautifully laid out by Craig Scott of the Otago Museum who designed the flow of it.
It was part nostalgia because it had some of my old toys, real New Zealand toys. I could say there was something for everybody, but there actually was. People were showing their kids what the Crazy Critter board game was like. So it was very much a mixture of the children's things and Chills history, and also focusing on my creative process and all the things that had gone into it.
There were lyric sheets, set lists, an old drum skin painted by Martyn Bull and 10 to 20 DVDs along with albums, comics and books, and little screens where you could sit and watch videos and interviews on headphones.
It was well done and there is talk of of it going further afield.
It didn't seem on for very long, just a month?
Yeah, it was only about a month, it was more or less a trial on many levels. It was in the Skinner Annex at the Otago Museum [formerly an old post office] so a lot of people were going straight to the main building and weren't aware that it was part of the complex.
So from the museum's point of view they put themselves on the line a bit, trying something different, but it was a good way of exposing the Annex.
Phillipps' life and the Chills' story is the subject of an expansive documentary which builds on and expands on the DVD The Curse of the Chills which came with the Live at the MOTH Club (since deleted from catalogues to allow the film a clear run).
Phillipps says that when his health issues emerged and he was not expected to have a long life he realised the need for valuing and cataloguing his extensive archive. For the film-makers, Phillipps is a gift in that he has such a huge and now well-catalogued collection?
Yes. It has been fortunate that not only did I collect on behalf of all the other New Zealand independent music scenes from the late Seventies – although I wound down around the late Nineties when I realised there were enough other people doing it by then – but I inherited some special stuff from Chris Knox and Doug Hood in terms of posters and things. So it is a remarkable collection now. Scott Muir, my manager, and I have done a lot of work in the past 10 years seriously in archiving things, and my experience in working at the Hocken Library twice helped me know what you needed to do to make things reference-able.
So all that was available for the movie and that has been an absolute goldmine for them.
That Live at the MOTH Club documentary was done pretty much in a rush but then they needed to get New Zealanders on board to have access to the NZ Film Archive and that's when it became way bigger.
Their intention is for cinematic release whereas most documentaries have Netflix in mind, but this is being shot for big screen and time-wise I think there will be final confirmation in October or November about which international film festivals it will be going in early next year.
Is there an irony that here is you looking at your past but you are still a contemporary working and creative musician who is touring and recording? This is not a full stop.
Without giving away too much about the movie . . . You'd know they just can't go into a movie and follow around what happens, you need to have a story of a start-to-finish concept. They suddenly found themselves in the middle of this health crisis and at the same time we were working towards a new album, so it became a really interesting story about the renaissance of the Chills and a good chance to look at what brought it to that point.
So it's not like a retrospective look, it is the whole field of what has happened in the last few years.
So rather then “The End” it has “To Be Continued” on the screen?
I can't wait to see how it finishes too!
Let's talk about the recent recordings. It seemed to me – but here we do work from the disadvantage of distance – that Silver Bullets was not just an excellent album but it did well internationally, I certainly read many favourable reviews. Was that true? You used the word “renaissance” so was this quite an international comeback for you. Or is that overstating it?
In terms of what we hoped the record would achieve it surpassed that, and also in terms of an awareness that the Chills were not just back but weren't out with some awful embarrassing nostalgic record. We were moving forward.
I don't think the sales figures were up to it. But whose is, aside from the odd superstar?
I'm not worried about that. More crucial was, as I said in some interviews at the time, some of that material was based on ideas that may have been there for decades . . . whereas Snow Bound is pretty much all new material.
I can see why people at the time might have said [about Silver Bullets], 'Oh well, Martin is more or less tidying up scraps or whatever.
But to come back with something potentially stronger with Snow Bound is really affirming that was not the case, that it is an on-going thing . . . and that is more important to me.
We then talk about Snow Bound, how the SB alliteration continues and if that is talismanic, a good luck thing? Martin laughs and says he's far too frivolous for that but . . .
It has become a self-imposed discipline and it does become more difficult because [the Snow Blind title] has to mean something. This was the most difficult one to see what shape the material would have but Snow Bound was the perfect image for my age group trapped in our situations and reassessing our role in the world. [We are] aging people who have been told our experiences are no longer relevant and we are redundant.
I've witnessed a number of occasions when a millennial has said, 'I like so-and-so' and I say, 'Do you realise all they are doing I pretty much based on such-and-such, check them out'. They do in front of you because they can pull them up in about a minute and they'll listen to three snippets of songs and that's it, the three most well known songs . . . so if its the Velvet Underground it is just Sweet Jane, Heroin and maybe Sunday Morning and they say, 'Oh yeah, I've heard that sort of stuff'.
It is quite frightening, but you can look for comparisons, like that the transition when the novel became shorter and people were trying to explain to the new shorter novel readers why you should sit down with something longer.
I mention one of my university students said he found a Beatles album difficult to listen to because it was too long at 38 minutes, but I note that Snow Bound is a tight and tidy 10 songs in 35 minutes. So does he still have an affection for the idea of getting an idea distilled down and into pop song length?
If I need to be longer as in say Underwater Wasteland [on Silver Bullets, about 5.30], then they are. But I do keep that in mind because I've got a lack of tolerance too. When I get asked about, say, songwriting techniques, if you find yourself doing the riff four times in a row that is at least one too many . . . so you chop things out.
If you look at my songs they are chop-chop-chop al the way through. 'Have we experienced that little bit?' Yes we have', so it is on to the next thing.
Which is awful for instrumentalists in my band who like a bit of time to develop themes and so on, but at the same time - with the last two album more particularly – people are saying straight away 'It sounds like the Chills'.
That is what you would hope for, to have an aural signature … so that would be the response you would want?
Exactly. If there is a reward that I would dreamt of, it is that. That there is a signature style and being recognised for it. It's been pointed out that [the Phillipps' aural signature] is very hard to emulate, there are a lot of people who namedrop us but you wouldn't exactly pick it when you listen to their music . . . what is it they actually do to sounds like the Chills?
True. Now some of these new songs sound cathartic, you are getting something out and there is an urgency in songs like Scarred and Complex. Would you consider them cathartic?
Yes, I very much would, but one of my wee rules now is I don't want to make maudlin, self-pitying music. Like, “look at my situation”.
None of these [songs] would be there if they didn't resonate with other people . . and in the overall context of more aiming towards my age group. We are still going through things. A song like Scarred is for anyone who feels they are giving too much of themselves away [and they can] relate to that. That is partly a social media comment as well.
That was my stipulation: If I could not see other people perk up and think, 'Yes, that's what's been bugging me' then what's the point of putting it out?
But there are some very uplifting qualities all the way through, even in the urgent power pop stuff. I'm thinking of Time to Atone and In Harmony. There seems an uplifting message in that we need to face all these facts, but there it is all way through. Are you conscious of that?
Well no, I thought I was writing very dour songs (laughs).
The crucial thing was the track order on the album, some of them really did leave you in a sombre and introspective frame of mind, but to come out the other end with ,'Yes, we know there is a lot of shit going on but we still believe in the harmony of human nature to at least put up a good fight'.
That is a good way of coming out of that process of things.
I was initially surprised when people said, 'What an upbeat kind of record' and I thought, 'Wait until you read the lyrics!' There is that contrast between that upbeat sound and dealing with something more personal, going back to that Leather Jacket approach.
The song Greatest Guide is a lovely sentiment, for whomever that is directed to. Was there anyone in particular in mind, or was it much more generic?
Okay, I am being asked this now so I will ask back, what are your initial suspicions?
My initial suspicions would have been Lou Reed and David Bowie and people like that, but it might have been Leonard Cohen or even somebody local. The fact it was wide open gives anyone the option to put whomever they want to in there.
That's interesting, because there have been people assuming it was Roy Colbert down here.
I get that.
But it is about Bowie, Lou Reed, Prince . . . the people we've grown up with and count on always being there. The pioneering people, sending back the ideas.
Once you know that's who it is there's a real giveaway with 'they cut lines through the snow . . .'
That's what drew me to Bowie and people like that. Finally Martin, last one in that regard: role models seem almost unfashionable when you are fiftysomething, but do you have any role models these days?
Ummm. I think the palette is constantly broadening. Chris Knox will always be there, he is another one of the greatest guides for me, I'm into discovering the wealth of new music out there. So I'm into the younger fresher guides, some are reinventing the wheel . . . but there's also a lot of good challenging stuff.
I've got my old heroes . . but I've never been a follower of any one particular person that I'm trying to emulate.
Elsewhere has other archival interviews with Martin Phillipps here.
Snow Bound is released on September 14
The Chills - Snow Bound Tour
Friday 14th September - Hamilton, Altitude w/ Reb Fountain (solo)
Saturday 15th September - Gisborne, The Dome w/ Reb Fountain (solo)
Sunday 16th September - Napier, The Cabana w/ Reb Fountain (solo)
Thursday 20th September - Christchurch, Blue Smoke w/ Finn Andrews (The Veils)
Friday 21st September - Dunedin, 50 Gorillas w/ Finn Andrews (The Veils)
Saturday 22nd September - Wanaka, Water Bar, w/ Finn Andrews (The Veils)
Thursday 27th September - Wellington, San Fran w/ Tiny Ruins (solo)
Friday 28th September - New Plymouth, Mayfair Theatre w/ Tiny Ruins (solo)
Saturday 29th September - Palmerston North, The Globe w/ Tiny Ruins (solo)
Sunday 30th September - Paekakariki, St Peter's Hall w/ Tiny Ruins (solo)
Thursday 4th October - Whangarei, Butter Factory w/ Steve Gunn (U.S.A)
Friday 5th October - Leigh, Sawmill Cafe w/ Finn Andrews (The Veils)
Saturday 6th October - Auckland, Galatos with Tiny Ruins (solo)
Sunday 7th October - Waiheke Island, Artworks Theatre w/ Steve Gunn (U.S.A)