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THE CHILLS: Martin Phillipps

Questions in a World of Blue
Hearsay #14b / 1996 / Interview with Pete and Ewen

chills_bleddynbutcher"It's a nonsense that people think when you go in an American studio you're going to sound like an American band; it's like carpet in subma­rines – you get inside and you could be anywhere. "
 

Once a Chill, always a Chill. Or so it seems for Mr Martin Phillipps, New Zealand’s finest practitioner of lonesome melodies and incandescent lyrics. Pete and Ewen found themselves walled up with him at the Mean Fiddler quizzing him on the past, future and those bits in between, while a support band thundered through the dividing partition. Chills records are beautiful things, and the tenderness that authored them filled the room that night and left us buzzing well into the early hours. So travel back with us now to the late sixties, when a young boy, listening to his mother’s cello, feels a light bulb go on in his head.

HEARSAY: What is your favourite memory?
MARTIN PHILLIPPS: I worked out in later life that I must have had a really good summer of love in 1967: four years old, independent but not yet at school. I have a lot of really good memories of that time; watching the Banana Splits, riding in circles on my tricycle, drawing lots of pictures on a big blackboard we had- and a year later I was institutionalised forever. Both my parents were musical: my father sang in a hobby-type group, along the lines of the King's Singers, my mother played cello up to a combined schools-orchestra level. There was always music in the house. There was the Black and White Minstrels on TV and Peter and the Wolf on the radio- we had a record that had Peter and the Wolf on one side and Carnival of the Animals on the other. It got thrashed regularly on the old gramophone. My mother, more than my father, had contemporary pop stations on in the sixties and seventies.

The Chills' keyboards have always been distinctive and unusual, remaining outside current trends. You've maintained the sound throughout your career and all the line-up changes; is it an ongoing homage to psychedelia?
The keyboards happened right at the start. It wasn't unusual at the time for a band to have keyboards. Chris Knox's band at the time, Toy Love, evolved from Enemy which was one of the best punk bands, or any bands, I've ever seen. When they became Toy Love they brought in a keyboardist. Once we got started along those lines we tried here and there to play without keyboards but the music doesn't come across properly with just guitars. Keyboards have a much greater range, and you've got ten fingers available as opposed to six maximum. All sorts of things make it great for rock music, moreso now than ever: to have virtually any sound at your fingertips and be able to translate it into a rock format. Definitely no plans to do away with the keyboard thing! On the new album there's a lot of pretty cheap Casiotone sounds-I like the contrast between those sounds and the reasonably highly-produced sounds. You get something new out of it by the contrast. We're not trying to be retro-psychedelic or stylistically related to a sixties period thing, but in the sense of what psychedelic was first coined to mean-evocative of images and colours and so forth-then I hope we are psychedelic because music is meant to be more than a series of chords and notes and lyrics, no matter how good or bad the lyrics may be. I've always clung tightly to the belief that the power of rock music is much more vast than people give it credit for. It's easy to get stuck in a rut, playing hard and loud and it's so easy to ruin an audience that way because they're only used to responding to that sort of music. We have the softer side of the band which can be equally powerful; it's a lot more difficult to make it work right but it's worth it in the end.

Is your music an explora­tion of the parallels between fantasy and reality? Since your first invitation to explore a Kaleidoscope World, the Chills always seem to have dipped a toe into fantastical or cartoon­ist waters, more overtly perhaps at the start.
The vision was quite pure at the time in terms of what I was trying to achieve. The concept of the Kaleidoscope World album was kind of wrong because it was a collection of one-off singles and only perceived as an album later on. They were all steps in a vague direction, creating a separate Chills universe which was still a commentary on what was really happening. I'm still doing it to some extent. The future is almost fashionable; people go along with what they're told to go along with-don't hold with that. On the new album, As Far As I Can See is about how nothing is set in stone. Every step of the way there are decisions to be made. As a musician, I'm denying that this is the way the future has to go and saying that there is an alternative. Come Home is encouraging New Zealanders who are based in London or Sydney or other major cities to participate in some major decisions that are being made to shape the way the country is from here on in. The national government is pretty much like the Tory govern­ment was here a few years ago. There's a real feeling among New Zealanders that nothing serious can take place at home and so they jump overseas.

Soft Bomb eschews the personal analysis of Submarine Bells in favour of more overt political commentary. Was this a conscious shift? Are the personal and the political equated in your songwrit­ing?
A lot of it comes down to the selection of songs at the time as opposed to what I'm actually writing. I've recently counted all the bits of songs I've started or completed and it comes to 550. To a large degree the bulk of my career has not been released so when it comes down to releasing 12 songs every 18 months, it's quite frustrating. I don't take much criticism to heart but one of the things I was aware of was 'it's just too much Martin Phillipps talking about his own problems’ on Submarine Bells! I thought, that's fair enough; it's something that irritates me in other people’s writing. There are worthy songs dealing with bigger issues, so when I came to choose what went on Soft Bomb, there was an attempt to incorporate some of those like Strange Case which was dealing with the Aramoana Massacre, and Sanctuary which was about wife-beating. There's a few 'issue' songs on there.

Chills songs have a strong environmental dimension. Is the environment an end in itself for you, or a metaphor for something more psychological?
One of the main things one finds when one comes to England from New Zealand is the lack of contact between humans and the environment. On the other hand, British people going out to New Zealand tend to be very scathing and sceptical at first, like they've stepped back in time or something. After a couple of months, they get this glow to them when they've experienced this different pace of life and this involvement with the natural environment. Some people don't give a toss about it, some people will be city people wherever they're from, but it's always been important for me in a songwriting sense to get away and find space. To be able to find space in a mountainous or seaside environment where there's nobody else– it's fantastic. It's always played a big part in the writing process. Although we were based in London for a couple of years, I realised it was time to get out, it was taking too much of a toll on me.

The sea is a recurring image in Chills songs. What does it connote for you? A return to something more pure or primal, perhaps?
A lot of
New Zealand towns were originally fishing villages or even whaling communi­ties. Most New Zealanders aren't very far from the sea. Most of the people in New Zealand grow up with some kind of dealings with the sea or lakes. There hasn't been the need to turn seaside towns into the kind of the English seaside resorts. As for city life, Auckland is known as the City of Sails, it's a huge flotilla of private yachts, that's kind of different. It's a very primal thing but there's nothing on this planet that's bigger than the sea, the sheer power of it. You can go and stand on a cliff and watch the sea rolling in from beyond your vision; it's awe-inspiring, you get these formative images. I like natural images which make you feel really small, and you realise in one sense how insignificant and yet how special you are as part of this living environment.

The Chills have encompassed numerous line-ups. How has it affected your career?
Basically, it's been a real hassle. It's been the single biggest blow that's kept us from achieving a lot more. When you think of our 16-year history, there's probably been five or six years that's been downtime, looking for the other members, rehearsing. The whole process takes a long time. I'd gladly have traded that in for a band that actually stuck together for a while. I think there's been a certain amount of freshness that's come through new people coming in. I've only recently taken over the role of saying' 'this is my group, this is what we want to achieve.' It's been a bonus in some sense: there have been a lot of great people in the band. I think there's only been two people I've actually asked to leave. Most people left for quite sensible career reasons when they realised the music industry doesn't pay you for being in a band. They don't pay anybody except songwriters.

Had you considered striking out as a solo artist? It was said you'd never use the name The Chills again, and now you've returned as "Martin Phillipps and..."
I never said I was going to drop the name; others said that on my behalf. A few people thought I should. I've done enough solo gigs to know it's not my forte, my forte is being in control of that band, directing it in a new direction. There’s only a third of my material I can perform solo anyway and it's just not as fun. When it came to the name thing, it was time to make it clear that it was no longer a four-way creative process, if it ever had been, which is what we were aspiring to, that the band was a separate entity but very important, especially in a live sense. I had the name The Chills involved to show that I wasn't just picking up session players.

Your last three albums have been recorded in a bizarre triumvirate of places. The recording of Soft Bomb in Los Angeles was sandwiched between whimsical English towns (Farnham in Surrey and Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire)...
Warner Brothers were keen on having us recording Soft Bomb nearby because there wasn't a proper band at that time. I was keen on trying a different recording environment. I think it's a real nonsense that people think when you go in an American studio you're going to sound like an American band: it's like carpet in subma­rines – you get inside and you could be anywhere. It's up to the relationship between you and the recording people as to how it comes out. There were definitely mistakes made in that sense on Soft Bomb but that was the album where I chose to step back and let the people with the recording expertise make more of the decisions. With hindsight, I could've made a few more of the decisions myself. You live and learn. I'd actually started work with Craig Leon on Submarine Bells but Warner Brothers wanted us to work with someone more contemporary, so we stopped but we'd always kept in contact. Signing back to Flying Nun for the world this time, as opposed to just New Zealand, when it came to choosing a producer for Sunburnt I made contact with him again and he was pretty keen. As it turned out he took much, much less for his fee than he normally would because he was really happy with the project. With the budget, it was actually cheaper to come and do it in England, with all the studios competing for the same business than it was to do it in New Zealand where the studios are reasonably pricey for what they are.

Do the 'live' and 'studio' Chills feel like separate entities?
It's always been a lot more powerful live. We never really tried to capture live what's on the records because people who try to do that generally fail. It's an obligation that people leave satisfied with a 'rock' show. Post-grunge, audience expectations are much louder and faster than they were before. I know from watching audiences' responses that you can only get away with so much slow material before you need to do something big. At the moment, the set's working quite well, covering different styles without getting too disparate either.

And are words and music distinct components in your songwriting? The Oncoming Day is musically confronta­tional and lyrically fragile...
Yes, sometimes that's deliberate. If the lyrics are personal then I don't want them to be out in the open too much. The people who know what they are from the record can appreciate them. It's the melody and the rhythm that tends to come across live anyway. Oncoming Day is a good example because even though the images are quite beautiful, it's kind of a teenage, angst-ridden song, from 1982 I think, about an inability to express myself properly. Now I've heard so many other songs saying the same thing I’ll never write one like that again! It's also a very difficult song to play–it has a triple kick-drum beat; only two or three of the Chills' drummers have ever been able to play it. It's a machine-song, a real motorised sound that also needs the delicacy to build slowly, notching up a bit at a time. It's songs like that and Night of Chill Blue where I realise if I've got a good band. It's good to be able to play both of those songs again.

Do you feel you have a duty to inform or educate your audience?
It doesn't come naturally, although I'm now more relaxed on stage. I used to have to force myself to talk to the audience. I'm not a natural showman–I've never had that skill. I just try to be myself, relaxing the audience, making them feel part of the show. People like Shayne Carter from Straitjacket Fits and especially Chris Knox, they can take control of the whole audience, they're great-I don't seem to have that skill inside. It'll never be a 'Good evening,
Pittsburgh!' kind of show.

After the excesses of Soft Bomb, Sunburnt feels a far more straightforward album. Were you attempting to simplify your style and imagery?
Some people would go as far as to say it's more like the Kaleidoscope World era than the other albums. After the band disinte­grated in 1992, there was a lot of stuff to organise and I was on my own a lot. A whole network that had been supporting each other just disappeared. There was some major legal stuff to be worked out, the threat of bankruptcy, and we had to get free of the Slash contract and find a new deal. Through all that, to have the Chills fall apart through all that, I spent a lot of time from '92 writing dark material and then I started to get the energy back, realising there were things to prove, having to decide whether the Chills' time was over or whether other factors had caused the disintegration. So the material started getting more positive and when it came time to choose the material for Sunburnt, it was the obvious decision to not go with the dark material, to not make a 'the industry hates me’ album but to go with the stuff that was more optimistic and forward-thinking. Once the decision was made, it was easy to choose the material. Two or three of the songs were written in one night. I thought, 'I'm not going to keep going back to this and change that, I'm just going to leave it.' And it worked generally, too. Lost in Future Ruins took about an hour to write and I thought, 'that's complete; let's just leave it.'

You allude to the unconscious a lot in your work. Do dreams inform your  songwriting? Do you ever have premoni­tions?
Not really. I wish I did, it would save a lot of bother. 'Don't choose this band coz they're going to leave in six months!' I used to write my dreams down every morning in the back of a diary, by the end of the year there'd be about ten pages of them. I've got out of the habit of it. There's no way I could describe them anyway, they were too surreal, probably full of symbolism but way above my head so I just forgot them. I woke up in the middle of the night once in 1983 and wrote down a title, got up in the morning and there was this title, 'Smile From A Dead, Dead Face', and I thought, 'Fuck, that's good!' But that doesn't happen often. I've heard songs in dreams; I wake up and try to get them down on tape, which has been quite neat. I've heard songs of other people's, too. I heard a great EP that Iggy Pop did in between Idiot and Lust For Life which doesn't actually exist, a mixture of the dark Idiot and up Lust For Life. That was fantastic; I just wish I'd had a tape machine.

The Chills has been your world since you were 17. Can you envisage yourself doing anything else?
I've got to look at it quite seriously now I've come back here and started touring. I can see signs that if you keep touring and keep touring it'll grow and grow but as soon as you stop it dissipates again. I've lost two serious relationships through touring. I'm not prepared to put myself or the band back on the treadmill again. There'll be some serious decisions made after this tour. In New Zealand I personally lost about $5000 through touring and I can't afford to do that. I don't know what else I would do. One thing I'm thinking about is the setting up of the ICE (International Chills Enthusiasts) Club–I hope to release a lot more small, side-projects but still put out the major albums on Flying Nun maybe every 18 months. There's a potential rarities album of B-sides and outtakes, we’ll hopefully get the rights to the Peel Sessions. There's three sessions, twelve songs, a whole album there. I'd have a homepage, mail-order, maybe there'll be a magazine that will come out three or four times a year, maybe with an hour-long CD each time. I've got 550 unreleased songs–I should start doing something with them. It's not good enough for me to do the major label approach of releasing one record every once in a while with the expanse of so much other material, so I'm looking at different ways I can work. The Chills' audience are the kind of people who like demos and outtakes and alternative versions because the career started with lots of EPs. It's really important to me to maintain contact with the fanbase. That's the plan. It may end up becoming the major means of promotion as opposed to the band thing which has become so expensive, even compared to ten years ago, when it was frighteningly expensive. All will be revealed by this time next year!

Do you always carry the audience with you when you juggle the melodic and the experimental, or do some people prefer one 'Chills' over another?
A good example is the song Sunburnt on the new album. I spoke to a German journalist the other day and he said, 'obviously, it's the key song on the whole record' and I've done two interviews with people who've said, 'I really love the album except obviously Sunburnt–you should've left that off.' Chills people are so adamant that theirs must be the only way to approach the material– 'well, that's the best song, it's obvious, isn't it?'! Pretty much every single song I've written has been somebody's favourite. Everybody hears their own song and each one is somebody's favourite. People say, 'I was trying to kill myself but then I didn't because of that song'. In the 550 unreleased songs there's a lot of experimental stuff which has never been released because it just didn't sit well beside the other material on the album. That's why I want to make these EPs of material at quite bizarre tangents.

The pedigree of musicians on Sunburnt is enviable. Were you a fan of Daves Gregory and Mattacks?
I don't look at musicians' names on records so I wasn't really aware of them at all. Jonathan the drummer and the previous bass player Stephen Shaw came over after I'd been here for two weeks last year doing pre-production. They got as far as Heathrow Airport and Immigration put them on the next flight back to New Zealand, thanks to confusion over work permits. We were actually in the right, but one of them said he was here for work and the other said he was here for a holiday and it all escalated from there. That was something of a nightmare for me. I thought it was going to be like Soft Bomb with people boarding the project who really didn't understand where I was coming from–I thought, 'oh God, here we go again.' But it turned out Craig had some really good ideas about people who could fit the bill, and luckily they were two of his first choices and it worked out really well. It was really enjoyable and really full-on. Dave Mattacks had worked on XTC records as well with Dave Gregory, so they'd worked as a rhythm section together. They came in separately, two days each, in which they did the whole album; they'd had the tapes a week before. It was intense work. But the good thing that came out of it was that had my own band turned up, we'd have done more rehearsal and tried different things and perhaps diluted my vision a bit, trying to appease the different factions. By having session players come in, we had to stick to what was on my home demos, beat the beat of the drum machine. So it was very much my first solo album in that sense. They're both really good people, too. I think they were quite nervous going into that situation, not knowing what to expect. Especially Dave Gregory being a keyboardist –it meant he played quite rudimentary bass, but we didn't want anybody too flash so it worked out really well.

How did Van Dyke Parks enter the Chills' universe?
That came up because Peter Holsapple had worked with him before. We were talking about string arrangers and I thought it was a great idea, and we had the money to spend on it, too! Van Dyke took much less than his usual fee because he was keen on the project and he was great to work with. We could understand where each other was coming from: he was very genial, loveable and eccentric. The pace of those people working was so fast, especially once the string section came in and sat down with their scores: Water Wolves was recorded in less than an hour, once we'd set up and they'd all read through their scores. If half the album were string arrangements, we could have got it done in a day! So although you're paying for those people, it does make budget sense. I hope Van Dyke and I will do a bigger project at some stage.

Do you feel your career has been supported by your Dunedin compatriots?
No, not really. A lot of the Dunedin people won't even come and see us play live, they're more of an Expressway label crowd; Dead C, 3Ds kind of crowd. They told me several years ago that we'd sold out by becoming big rock stars and hardly any of them have actually seen us play. There's always people with their knives drawn, saying we've gone too far by having Americans in the band. There's always some reason why we're not being true to the Dunedin ethic. For my part, I've always seen myself as taking the ethic and trying to get a better deal for it.

The check-list of tortured geniuses on Song For Randy Newman Etc. (Wilson, Barrett, Walker, Drake) is pretty definitive. Do you identify with implosive personalities?
Yes. Some of the best music is made by people who are either insane or have terrible drug addictions or something. I still believe in making music which is completely open to general understanding and is great chart-material but in fact it's just so far away from it. I relate to it but I've been able to keep myself together a lot better than any of those people mentioned. It's my favourite kind of stuff – when I was young I listened to a lot of songwriters, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Tim Rose, Fred Neil….

Your prime minister is proud to call himself an 'Asian male'; do you see yourself as an Asian male? Do you feel like a dislocated European?
'White Pacific islander' is the best description I've heard. The Asian thing is purely business. Coming back to England I've had no sense of coming home at all – New Zealand is my home.

Some of your songs have been cleaned up for CD re-issue. Does the prospect of re-recording old songs appeal?
There's a handful of songs that don't sound so good; not so much for fidelity reasons but because they don't quite catch a couple of things. The version of Night of Chill Blue on the record wasn't as good as it should have been. The songs that were meant to be singles from Soft Bomb, Ocean Ocean and Double Summer, neither of those are anywhere near what they're meant to be. They're meant to be a kind of progression from Kaleidoscope World, Rolling Moon, Doledrums, Heavenly Pop Hit… But there's too much other stuff that I want to work on. Another one of the side-projects is there's about 40 songs that the Chills played in the early years–a lot of what established our reputation in the first place was never recorded, so there's two really strong albums there before we get into the dross. I'm hoping to record those with some of the new band and some of the old band players and do them quite quickly over about two weeks. I don't want to spend much time on stuff that's already been recorded–I'd rather cut my losses.

When the 'stranger in the black container' (Big Dark Day) arrives, how would you like to go?
I'd like to be a grandfather in my eighties on a summer evening with a big head of opium. That'd be nice.

 
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