Brave Words, Submarine Bells, Soft Bombs and Me

An exclusive, career-spanning chat with Martin Phillipps of The Chills

Martin Phillipps (Art: Ron Hart)

Martin Phillipps is an efficient manager of the in-between.

Phillipps faced an extreme health crisis before finding surprising relief and renewed possibilities in life. After years of fluctuation, his band The Chills have an unexpected stability and forward momentum. Even while he looks forward professionally and personally, he makes space to look back, through archival and musical work. 

Currently, he can celebrate thirty years since the release of Submarine Bells, its mix of post-punk sensibility and jangle-pop sound enabling it to be one of the defining works of the New Zealand’s Dunedin sound even as the band moved to a major label. Two years later, the group released Soft Bomb, maintaining a pop footing while expanding its sound. With both albums getting a remastered release this year, Phillipps reconsiders the band’s past while pushing into the future.

“I’m a completist by nature, so I like to see things done orderly. To see these available again, it fills a real hole, especially with Soft Bomb,” Phillipps says. “It never got the fair chance it needed the first time. I have a feeling of relief.”

The Chills Soft Bomb, Fire Records 1992/2020

That release remains as strange part of the group’s catalog, with its unusual length and varied styles. The group had taken a step forward in its long-form work with Submarine Bells, but, at its time, the more mature (as Phillipps has described it) follow-up would have been hard to contextualize at the time.

“There was so much going on in the industry in the early ’90s,” Phillipps explains. “Soft Bomb‘s a very difficult record. I’m not surprised it didn’t do as well as we’d hoped. We really had had a good run at that point. People were a wee bit sick of us at that point. The nature of the digital age was really starting to impact on the way people were listening to music. One of the problems with Soft Bomb is it’s too long. We thought about how much material we could put on a CD and filled it.”

Even with those thoughts in mind, Phillipps explains that while “there are always things you could change,” he would leave both of these records the way they are.

“They’re a product of how I was as a songwriter at the time,” he says. “I’m quite happy to leave those as products of the time.” 

The musician speaks more critically of 1987’s Brave Words, one he would like to revisit. With that album, he doesn’t fault the songs or the performances so much as the actual recording for the release.

 

AUDIO: The Chills Brave Words (1987)

“It was such a rushed album,” Phillipps says. “We used material from six or seven years of our history. There were problems with our mastering. It didn’t live up to expectations after waiting for the first Chills album for years. The material was strong. I can hear what I remember being there underneath. I don’t always want to be revisiting the past – just the one album. It would help to set the record straight if the first proper Chills album was represented more accurately.”

While Phillipps doesn’t feel the need to rework past work, details of the Chills’ history has been made more accessible with the release of last year’s documentary The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps. The film looks back at the band’s story, but it also follows Phillipps in the recent past, highlighting his battle with hepatitis C and his work to organize his massive collections (which eventually turned into an exhibition). The story can be stark at time, but fans – and even for Phillipps – it’s revelatory.

“There was an understanding that if this was going to happen, it had to be as honest as possible,” Phillipps says, “but it was very difficult to try to tell the Chills story, my own health story, and show what a strange person I am with all my weird collections and my odd views on things.”

As the film circulated, Phillipps watched people respond by doing “amateur diagnosis” on him and had to see himself and “realize it didn’t feel right,” even if it was “a bit of an eye-opener.”

Reflecting on what comes out in the film and his own youth, he says, “These days if I was a child at school I’d be given options on loony schools, the way I think about things.”

Phillips, in recognizing how he’s different from other people, realizes that he could have handled personal things differently in the past. It’s long been part of the Chills mythology that the members come and go constantly (you could somewhere around 20 different lineups over the years). In the 2000s, though, the band had remained much steadier, and Phillipps has made some adjustments as he’s matured.

 

VIDEO: Film trailer for The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps

“I discovered after the event, certain band members leaving or being unhappy, there being signs that I missed or people not communicating,” Phillipps says. “[The documentary] simplifies things, but it makes me look like the guy who was unaware. I lost some very good band members. As I started to grow up a bit, it became apparent that so much of that could have been curtailed if we had just communicated better. With this line up, we’ve always made a point of doing band meetings”

Some of this wisdom as simply come with age.

“We’re all older,” Phillipps continues. “I will take a super amount of the blame for the early departures, but we were all young, in a very unusual situation. We got a lot of media coverage for being the band with the revolving door policy, whereas there were certainly a number of other bands with similar stories. You can make a strong point for coming from New Zealand and the southern hemisphere, and being torn away from family and friends … the winters and the hardships in the ’80s, that took its toll on quite a number of people.”

As the Chills move from an infamous past into a solid present, Phillipps has found some rewards. Touring in the US was a boost for him. He had “a wee bit of been-there-done-that” and felt “reawakened” by the US visit. At the same time, he doesn’t know when the band will be able to tour here again due to the pandemic. He knows their fans will be anxious to see them, but he’s not sure about the risk, including the 12-hour flight that would start the tour.

The Chills Submarine Bells, Fire Records 1990/2020

Even if the band’s pretty much locked down right now, Phillipps’ primary attitude appears to be one of gratitude.

“I’m extremely grateful for what’s happened with the Chills getting a renaissance,” he says. “It came about because in 2011, we played at a private New Year’s Eve party, also the birthday of an art dealer who couldn’t believe we’d not been given the opportunity to record and tour, so he basically started a record label … that got handed on to Fire. The sheer fact that I’ve been given the opportunity to pull my career and my legacy out of the ’80s and early ’90s and establish the fact that the Chills are an ongoing entity, I’m so thankful.”

And the Chills truly are ongoing at this point, as stirring as every. Phillipps points out that a new album is being mixed at the moment, and he’s quite happy with it. As a live act – assuming we ever get back to that point – the band now has a deep catalog to pick from, and there are only a few songs they feel obligated to play (yes, “Heavenly Pop Hit” and “Pink Frost” make that list).

“It’s such a joy to be with a good strong band,” Phillipps says. “We get along well. It’s a really adventure.”

 

VIDEO: The Chills “Heavenly Pop Hit”

The coronavirus pandemic has supplied a less welcome part of that adventure. When we spoke, the band was still planning on doing some shows around Christmas, but Phillipps says New Zealand isn’t big enough to support touring more than once every 18 or 24 months. Being stuck at home is especially tough with the excitement of a new record.

“If this new album doesn’t lose us 30 percent of our old fans, we haven’t done it right,” he says. “I think it’s going to piss off some early fans … I’m not interested in being a nostalgia act.”

Even in the midst of crisis, Phillipps finds plenty to keep him positive. He lives within a five-minute drive of the coast, where he can be out (an important part of life for him) and around very few people. He’s at work on the Brave Words project and his archival work continues, something that many people are doing during lockdown

“There are a lot of people going through the archives, posters, and photos. I think this period of history will be turn out to be a remarkable period for archivist and historians,” he says. “People are finally getting out those poster rolls, and developing those photo rolls from 30 years ago. Remarkable things are turning up.”

Phillipps has always valued collecting, even “at the expense of [his] music,” as he puts it in the film. He and his manager have been working on itemizing his archive for 10 or 15 years, and they’re nearly finished. Phillipps sounds especially excited about his posters, including the special flat containers they designed to store them. Now he has to sort out what to do with the archives. There’s interest from museums and from private collectors. He has “one of the more complete collections for independent music from the late ’70s through the ’80s,” in part because he had been traveling so much.

“When we started the band,” he says, “we couldn’t afford brand new equipment, so we bought secondhand equipment. When you think about it, that secondhand equipment bought in the ’80s was from the ’60s. And now you realize you’re sitting on equipment that’s over 50 years old and eminently collectible.”

Ultimately, Phillipps turns from the past back to the present, and from the stacks inside his house to the people outside.

“We’re really feeling for our friends in America at the moment,” he says. “Not just COVID, but also Trump. It’s terrifying. Obviously there are worldwide repercussions. The New Zealand situation has always been equal British empire and new American pop culture right through my life. To suddenly see America falling apart, and communicating with friends who can barely disguise their fear is really troubling. We’ve, as a band, talked about it. The Chills send their best wishes, and we’ll be back as soon as we possibly can.”

 

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Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Cober-Lake, based in central Virginia, has worked in publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. You can follow him on Twitter @jcoberlake.

One thought on “Brave Words, Submarine Bells, Soft Bombs and Me

  • October 21, 2020 at 12:19 pm
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    Thank you for this article. The Chills are so criminally underrated and are so important to me. Love ’em

    Reply

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