Part Past Part Fiction: A Conversation with the Chills’ Martin Phillipps

Martin Phillipps discusses his struggles as well as his creative reawakening and his newest album, Silver Bullets, a record that's been in the works some form or another for nearly two decades.
The Chills
Silver Bullets

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.