An exclusive chat with Martin Phillipps of The Chills
Here’s one thing I bet you don’t know about the Chills: The Dunedin, New Zealand’s pop band’s name was directly inspired by a Cleveland-via-New York psychobilly band of yore, the Cramps. Yes, the refined and polite Chills and the bawdy and balls-out Cramps. What’s the link?
I’m in an office upstairs at a Cambridge, Mass. rock club last month talking to Martin Phillipps, singer-songwriter-guitarist, the main Chill since 1980. The interview, per se, had concluded and we were just basically shooting the shit, waiting until the band had to prep for its gig. I asked about the name of the band and why he decided upon it.
He said he liked what The Cramps had done – took something unpleasant, something you don’t want and then put a positive stamp on it, claimed it as their own. (Ray Davies told me that a long time ago about why he chose The Kinks.) Phillipps added that part of it, too, though was the non-specific nature of the name – chills have multiple meanings. One could have feverish chills or scary chills or there’s the other take – something really fantastic can give chills up the spine of your back. But, really, The Cramps was the starting point.
Phillipps, 55, was pretty happy to be here – to be anywhere, really, as the old joke goes – considering what he’d been through. It’s almost a miracle he’s alive. He’d contracted Hepatitis C in the ’90s and by 2016 his liver was shot – he was told he had little time left – until the miracle drug Harvoni came along. And there was the drug and alcohol addiction, too. It didn’t kill his songwriting, exactly, but it pretty much killed The Chills, in terms of actively recording or touring.
And now, he and The Chills were on their first US tour in more than two decades. They were still finding a dedicated audience that valued the aggressive-but-atmospheric, twisting, turning, smart pop-rock that has been the band’s trademark through myriad incarnations.
The last time I saw Phillipps was in 1996 when the Chills played the same club they were at now: The Middle East Downstairs, a 500-plus low-ceilinged club. They were touring behind what became one of my Top 10 albums of the year, Sunburnt. What I wrote then for the Boston Globe: “There’s a core of resilience – in the music and in Phillipps. Defying the odds, gathering strength to carry on. A modern-day Brian Wilson with a touch of Syd Barrett. Irony and disappointment are part of the package, but so is direct emotion and ecstasy.”
I wouldn’t change anything there as it pertains to the band now touring the US behind Snow Bound. It was another Top Tenner for me in 2018 and I noted in the Cape Cod Times: “Phillipps is not going to reinvent the wheel he started working on in 1980. There’s a lightness in Phillipps’ voice – the band could be mistaken for breezy – but his twist-and-turn insights (some barbed, some joyous, some political) zip along these insinuating pop melodies, with instrumentation that employs guitar, organ, oboe and synths.”
Back to ’96: My recollection of the show was it being a very good gig, but Phillipps hated the tour and hated himself. It seemed like he and the band were headed away from active duty; they scrapped a European tour after Cambridge.
Those gigs were bad, then? “Some of them. It was deliberately an exorcism of sorts. I needed to get more simple rock music out and as a calculated move it was what was going on then. The band was good, but …
We talked about the long layoff and the need to reassemble The Chills once he had healed and climbed out of the hole.
He’s pretty happy about early response to The Chills – this was just the second US date after Brooklyn – and has ambitious plans for the year, with 23 songs in consideration for the next album already.
Another thing that made pleased him: We talked some about Iggy Pop and he said he was surprised and chuffed to hear Iggy play The Chills on his radio show and then describe the music as some “fine art.” (Martin, by the way, does a very good Iggy-speaking impersonation.)
Chills fans were also pleased when Silver Bullet came out in 2017 and even more pleased- shocked even – when Snow Bound followed the next year. Not one, but two, good-uns. The thought was: Well, they got one album out and that’s probably going to be it. Not only did they release the stellar Snow Bound, Phillipps says they’ve got 23 new tunes at the ready and hope to record, winnow and release them on an album later this year.
We were also talking about the upcoming set list – they had about 24 they knew and would play about 15 of them in little over an hour-long show. I asked if my favorite Chills song, “The Oncoming Day,” was on it and he said no – “It’s actually a very difficult song to maintain that level of intensity from start to finish – it was a complicated one to learn and the band wasn’t there yet.” (I did get a copy of the master list after the set and the song was one of four under the category of “To Learn and Consider.” Others were “Rain,” “Halo Fading,” and “Warm Waveform.”)
I joked I would be the guy side-stage heckling, “Come on! Play ‘Oncoming Day,’ you fuckers!” As it turned out, I simply danced, head-banged and dug it. And, as we’ll discuss later, The Chills in concert have a harder, crunchier rock ‘n’ roll kick than the more chiming recordings might suggest.
“Heavenly Pop Hit,” played at the end (pre-encores), was, of course, heavenly. A gorgeously infectious pop song about wishing for a hit so badly – but politely (“if anyone wants it”) … ah …. Well, it did go to No. 2 in New Zealand in 1990, No. 97 in the UK and No. 17 on the US alternative charts. Not a worldwide smash.
The Chills today: Aside from Phillipps, they are drummer Todd Knudson (20-year vet), bassist- keyboardist James Dickson (also 20 years), keyboardist Oli Wilson (10 years) and the (as of this writing very pregnant) Erica Scally on violin, keyboards and guitar (15 years).
I saw the Chills last in 1996 and that was when we last met up. I remember writing a critic’s tip for the Globe ahead of the show basically telling people to change whatever plans they had that night and to go see you. But you weren’t so happy about the band at that point.
It was such a debacle at the time. There was kind of this last bit of hope that the old Chills would rise above the hurdles and then there was when the depletion when the drug use really kicked in. There was just no road forward. Part of what I want to do now … it’s kind of a relief that there’s an opportunity to write the story again. The other thing is – particularly when we played Europe again, we played two or three or times in the last four or five years – and I was quite nervous about going back because there were memories associated, especially of me as a young man on a wave, I wanted to create new memories with Europe. That’s what’s hit me in the States now, confronting people who were disappointed in ‘96 or had never seen us.
I’m seeing some young faces here tonight, not just our peer group.
There’s a whole lot of young people who’ve discovered us through devious routes or their parents’ collections.
Gain any fans via new movie soundtracks?
Very few. There was a [song in a 2012] Sigourney Weaver movie, The Girl in the Park. The Chills are so cinematic and evocative and there’s a lot of material that at the very least could play over the closing credits. That’s something that’s seriously under discussion about how to really try and do that.
Taking away for a moment your problems that happened later – the drug abuse and disease – when you were younger, in the major label days, did you feel you were going to grab the brass ring?
Of course, in a way. It was the line that was told to us. I can’t blame Warner Bros/Slash, because I think they’d taken a good calculated punt on what they thought was a New Zealand R.E.M. There was a very small window of opportunity where they gave bands like ourselves much more creative freedom than they had previously and probably ever since. It was the sunset on the Warner empire when there were still people like Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman wandering around. I remember I got to meet Randy Newman and I was in a bit of dream world. I thought what I was doing was establishing myself as a songwriter – with The Chills as a vehicle – which I would ride out whatever came. And I was so wrong.
People who write about older rockers often use the terms “survivor” which is an over-used cliché and I sorta cringe, but I’ll toss it at you anyway. Do you look at yourself that way?
I think of it being surprisingly sensible for a drug user. I think I’ve been extremely fortunate that I’ve always had people around me to – I scared a lot of people off but there was always a core group of family and friends that were just making sure it never went too far.
What kind of person were you on drugs? Down, angry, negative?
More of a solitary, confused person. Pretty much all my drinking and drug taking was at home watching movies and listening to music. I wasn’t a go-out-and-get-angry and get-in-a-fight sort of person or blackout and not know.
Was it nagging at you, not being able to make and release music?
I was still making music, but there was no business coming out. That was when I was realizing that going back to New Zealand may have been a mistake, that I actually could have stayed on in New York, L.A. or London and been involved what was happening in the ‘90s. I sort of missed that, because I assumed we’d be coming back within a year and it was like 16 years.
You talked about writing a new chapter for The Chills. What’s different about you or different about what people are hearing on Silver Bullet and Snow Bound?
A much more considered adult, but still with a core kind of dream-like qualities. It’s still there, but I’m much more selective about what I want my legacy to be seen as now. There’s so much bad or irrelevant music being made now. And I know we’ve got a very finite group of people because frankly my lyrics are too sophisticated for a lot of people. Some of the topics put people off. It seems to be a real niche. Very few people know what we’re doing, but we’ve finally reached that point where people say “It’s The Chills” and they recognize our sound.
Today’s sound would be defined as …
You’ve still got the fury in your blood and you want to do it, but we’re talking about adding to the canon, so to speak, and I want to try and maintain some literal quality.
Where did the Chills come from initially?
Like a lot of bands in the early ‘80s, triggered by their own personal discovering of the ‘60s, the psychedelic garage, then the punk and post-punk thing.
Talking about your catalog, any songs you must play or will not play?
I’m very thankful that we’re not a one-hit wonder band [even though] in America, [the best-known song] is more “Heavenly Pop Hit” and in Europe it would be more “Pink Frost.”
How many Chills incarnations have there been?
Twenty-something lineups and thirty-something members.
Ever-shifting. Why so much?
In some ways the jury is still out on that. The isolation was a real part of it. The idea of making a solid career with some of those people, it became apparent that myself as a songwriter had a much bigger chance and I had the drive. I was going to go on anyway. Very few were personal fallings out – only two people I sacked and that was very much for musical reasons. Mostly, we’re on pretty good terms.
You have this documentary out soon, The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps.
Yes, the documentary is coming out – guys following me around in different forms. It premiered at SXSW. It’s following the Chills history, my illness and my weird … It’s really good, it’s quite moving and I even know what happens at the end. It’s not really a rockumentary. One of the very first things we shot was me going into the hospital expecting to be told I was clear and they told me I only had two years to live. I won’t tell you what happened subsequently, but we were expecting a happy moment for the documentary. [Post-interview, Phillipps won the 2019 SXSW Grulke Prize for Career Act.]
Your songwriting, there’s that balance of melody, aggression, and edge, with that atmospheric lightness, if you will. I circle back to Brian Wilson sometimes.
Oh, yeah, I recently have been putting everything on to my iTunes. The three big ones were Bob Dylan – over the last two or three years I’ve been buying all of them so I can cycle through – Bowie and the Beach Boys. The Smiley Smile era is still a huge influence on me, but to throw in the kind of necessary aggression for anybody who’d been through punk or post-punk. I thought it was a nice combination and it comes naturally to me. The term “twee” drives me nuts. They’re people in Britain and all they’ve ever heard is “Doledrums” and they assume we’re a twee band, and I even think some of the promoters on this tour, if you look at the posters, are assuming that’s what we’re gonna be. We’re nowhere near as forceful post-punk as we were in the ‘80s and ‘90s but there’s still a unified intensity. As soon as people hear the melodies, they assume we’re trying to be a pop band and that’s been the constant bane of my life. [The idea has] been to try to capture the power but with beautiful scenes.
Hey, there’s nothing wrong with great power pop – Badfinger, the Raspberries …
To me, power pop can be the light side of Suicide, the band Suicide. Some really beautiful, gorgeous songs and they’re as raw as anything.