The Chills have finally done it: they’ve released their first studio album in nearly 20 years. It’s been a long time coming, something I learned from conversation with Martin Phillipps, mastermind behind the Chills. Phillipps has been an important figure in the history of popular music for his work on New Zealand’s Flying Nun label.
The Chills were first introduced to the world on the classic Dunedin Double EP, a notable EP of New Zealand artists which featured the Chills, the Verlaines, the Stones and Sneaky Feelings. Flying Nun got its start in Dunedin, a town with a population of around 100,000 people on the South Island of New Zealand.
A remote and isolate country, particularly in the pre-Internet era, the artists of Flying Nun created a unique sound influenced by the Velvet Underground as well as punk. Groups like the Clean and the Chills have influenced other stalwart indie bands such as Yo La Tengo and Pavement, the latter band having their music distributed by the label during their initial run.
The label’s made an indelible impact on indie music, particularly on artists who favor a more lo-fi recording approach. It’s a wonderful time to be a Flying Nun fan as the label has undertaken a reissue campaign that has made a lot of rare music more readily available. The influence of the label can be felt in the music of groups like Twerps, Dick Diver, and Salad Boys. The latter group previously served as the backing band for Clean member David Kilgour.
The last studio album by the Chills was Sunburnt which arrived in 1996, and since then there have been a few compilations, EPs, and live albums released, but no proper studio albums, until now. It all changed when Silver Bullets arrived in late 2015.
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The last Chills album came out 20 years ago, why release one now?
Well, we’ve done various recordings in the interim, in particular the Stand By EP. It always seemed that a new album was about to happen but various problems arose. And it was hard to get the actual support that we needed to record a proper album in a studio. Even without that there wasn’t the support there for what the Chills are doing as there had been in the ’80s and early ’90s.
What influenced the creation of this album lyrically and musically?
Well musically some of the concepts, I think about a third of them have been kicking around my mind for anything up to 20 years. But when it came to it, the bulk of the album was written in a little over a year, once we got the numbers up to record an album. And our songs are a lot more topical material, which is something I never specifically wanted to do in the past, because I felt it would be too easily dated and I didn’t want to produce slogans. But I found myself more and more angry or upset about the way the world was heading and that was the way the lyrics came out. So I took it as a challenge, that song-wise I should be able to do something with that and turn my thoughts into proper lyrics that would outlast the contemporary problems I was writing about.
What would you say keeps you driven creatively?
Well, I still very much love music and I couldn’t stop making it if I tried. I don’t actually think I could stop this idea coming through. I’ve long since realized that it is my forte, my strength is to be a songwriter and secondly a performer of the songs.
You’re the one constant thread in the Chills, to what do you credit your longevity as an artist?
I realized long ago that music was my career. I’m not planning to do anything else and at 52 it was kind of too late in life to start anything else. With this lineup of the Chills, two of them have been with me for 16 years now. Todd Knudson the drummer, James Dickson on bass. Erica Stichbury who played violin, guitar, and keyboards she’s been with me about 11 years and the other keyboardist, Oli Wilson, about nine years. The stability has helped maintain the momentum of the Chills. They’ve been through some pretty rough periods with me and it’s been great to finally unleash them in the studio.
I listened to the album last night and I thought it was great. I think it’s on par with your earliest work. Sonically, it reminded me of some of your more classic recordings. I think people are going to be really pleased with it when it comes out. Did you make a conscious effort to recapture the magic of some of the earlier work?
I think the idea was, from my point of view, that I really wanted to bring the legacy up to date. I think it achieved it, it sounds like the Chills of old, but a tune up utilizing what’s available in the studio now to make these ideas more real. So far the response from everyone who’s heard it, it’s exceeded, it’s up to anything we’ve done in the past . And that’s great. At the same the band and I have already decided that even if no else liked it, we knew we’d done something special. We want people to like it.
What was the process of making this album like?
We recorded the live album [Somewhere Beautiful] in 2011, I think it was, a private birthday/New Year’s Eve Party and David Telpitzky was there and he was astounded that the opportunities were not being given to the Chills to record. He’d seen a band signed to Far South Records and that label subsequently got a deal with Fire Records for international distribution. All of a sudden we were given access to Karma Sounds Studios in Thailand back in 2013. That’s where we re-corded “Pink Frost” and also the song “Pyramids/When the Poor Can Reach the Moon” was recorded there as well. It was sort of meant to be a b-side but I thought it should be the first track for the album.
And the rest of the album was recorded in my home town of Dunedin, on the South Island of New Zealand, in one of the last BBC-style studios. Pretty much modeled on Abbey Road Studios. Then we came over as a band last year to do a quick tour of Europe and the United Kingdom and I stayed on to mix the album here in London. We were leisure time while labels worked out their own deal between themselves. We were recording some more and Brendan Davies came aboard as co-producer. He and I worked on the final twitching right up to early this year. It was wonderful having that piece of time just to really fine-tune things and I’ve never had that sort of luxury before.
There seems to be a wave of bands lately influenced by Flying Nun groups, bands like Dick Diver, Twerps, and Salad Boys. What do you think it is about the Dunedin Sound that makes that music so enduring?
I think the isolation helps a lot. We weren’t constantly exposed to things that were going on around the world. But there was also a little post-punk attitude of not doing what was expected. And certainly not trying to replicate what was being heard on mainstream pop radio. So was living in a town with a population of only a little over 100,000 people, Dunedin. It was not the kind of cut-throat competition you’d find in other musical cities. That really helped a lot.
New Zealand is obviously pretty isolated, especially in the pre-Internet era, do you feel that was an advantage for developing a scene/musical sensibility? Do you think it’s possible for something like that happen in this day and age?
Not to that extent, no, because, as you say, people have access to the internet. It would take us months, perhaps years to track down music we’d heard about. So you very much had to turn to your own resources and inspirations. It’s just more mixed-up than it used to be. I think it’s a healthy thing, but I mean you probably won’t find the same isolated groups, musicians coming out with a completely different approach to music.
What’s exciting you musically these days?
I’m actually trying to catch up. I’ve really sort of fallen behind. So much is available. I don’t keep up like I used to. There’s been a bit of a financial hindrance, so I started listening more and more to something I was familiar with. It’s also a part of getting older. People my age start looking for some security, I think. But there’s so much astonishing music being made and particularly with the next Chills album, I want to push the boundaries in terms of what the Chills sounds can be like using much more modern technology. With that in mind, I think I’ll take a closer to listen to what’s been achieved already.
Is this new album a sign of things to come? It seems you’re intent on making some more music and recording more albums.
Oh I certainly hope so, now that we’ve got this deal with Far South and Fire Records. And still working through Flying Nun Records for Austral-Asia or New Zealand at least. We’ll see if this thing takes and if we’ll really be able to focus our energies again on creating music. Which has not been the case for many years because there just weren’t any opportunities. Now there are and it’s opened so many avenues of opportunity. So I’m rediscovering the excitement of creating music again, like we did in the ’80s.
What would you say is the message behind your music and is it more personal or abstract?
It’s one of individuality, of staying true to what you believe. And more of a political/ social/ environmental awareness on the new album. There’s a choice to sort of take away things. Whether people respond to that or not isn’t up to me. I do think that it would be pointless to add more music to the huge amount of music that’s being produced that wasn’t worthy in some way. And I mean that in a lyrical sense, not just about nice sounding tunes.
I read that Guardian article about you from last year (The Chills: The Band Who Fell to Earth“) and it discussed your battle with depression, which is something I’ve experienced in my life. What kind of effect did that have on you both personally and creatively? What did you do to get out of that rut?
Well, the impact was severe because people who haven’t experienced it think you’re talking about just the blues, just being a bit down. They don’t realize how debilitating it can be. It’s quite exhausting. In my case I found it very hard to just focus on achieving anything. And getting anything done rather than just basic survival. So it means production of music became very slow or difficult. I saw all sorts of professional medical experts and I tried a number of prescribed antidepressants. Nothing seemed to really work in particular. In fact some of them seemed to make it much worse.
Eventually I realized that the main reason I was depressed was that my life was well worth being depressed about at that point. That’s when I really figured out how to make things better. By then unfortunately, I’d been self-medicating and ended up with drug addiction problems and that took long to get over, and the decision to get better. Eventually I managed to get clear of it. In the early days we were young and just experimenting. In the early days it could be quite inspiration in a creative sense.
But it’s very easy to suddenly get trapped and much harder to get away from. When I finally did, it was like the universe had been waiting with all these possibilities for me and as soon I got my act together, all sorts of things started happening, like the new label deal and options for getting my health better. It’s been a time of reawakening.
I’m really glad things turned around for you, because your music has meant a lot to me over the years. I discovered it when I was a college radio DJ. When I come across people who are fans of Flying Nun, it’s like I’ve stumbled into some really secret, really cool club. It’s a privilege to be familiar with your music.
Oh that’s good. I’m meeting a lot of people for who that New Zealand music scene has really impacted their lives. I will say that there was an overall more active preaching about that music, people weren’t putting on false personas. It’s the type of music people can relate to. In particularly, when we go through difficult parts of life as everybody does, it was the type of music that could help explain or help you through those times. It’s great to find these people who really, bottom of their hearts, feel thankful toward it. I don’t think you could ask for anything more as a musician than that.
One thing I think that’s helping to raise the profile of Flying Nun, along with bands that are influenced by Flying Nun, groups like Pavement who I think were distributed in Australia and New Zealand by Flying Nun. I think Flying Nun is doing a nice job with the reissues. I just picked up the reissue of the Stones’ stuff. I hadn’t gotten a chance to hear some of that stuff because it was so hard to find. I think it’s a really great thing that Flying Nun is making it more available.
Oh that’s great. It looks like Kaleidoscope World is going to be reissued as a double album on vinyl sometime next year with extra material on it. So that’ll be good, too. And it was great to see the Stones finally get a decent package. They unfortunately were one of the bands that really had trouble capturing their true spirit in the studio. They were one of the more remarkable Dunedin bands at the time.
What would you say to someone who is perhaps on the fence about checking out your new record? What would you say to somebody new to check you out for the first time?
Do you mean in the sense that should they check out the early stuff first?
For people who haven’t heard you before, should they start newest record or start from the beginning? What do you think would be the best approach for them?
I think if people like that music, they’ll quickly discover a network of fans who will point them in the right direction as far as the rest of the catalogue. Some of the older music, the audio quality will be difficult for the new listeners. I think the new album sounds really good.