Southern Comfort

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
Otago Peninsula, Germany, spiritual cries of pain, and the magic of live music according to The Chills’ Martin Phillipps.

Incendiary ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ is about freedom, Martin Phillipps says. “Yes. It is an explosion of joy at simply realising that you are alive. I was surprised by how many people found it a horrible song because, I suppose, it was the time of grunge and the much more popular message then was darker and more aggressive. Many people have tried to get me to say that it was tongue-in-cheek, that I was being cynical etc. But I wasn’t, it was a song of the power of beauty and joy and love. And we didn’t really capture the full force of what I had intended; or even those people who found it so lightweight may have been grudgingly impressed.”

I find it lovely; celestial, actually:

“Once we were damned now I guess we are angels
For we passed though the dark and eluded the dangers
Then awoke with a start to startling changes
All the tension is ended
The sentence suspended
And darkness now sparkles and gleams…
So I stand as the sound goes straight through my body
I’m so bloated up, happy, I can throw things around me.
And I’m growing in stages and have been for ages
Just singing, and floating, and free.”

The Chills’ front man suggests that of all his Flying Nun touchstones, only ‘Pink Frost’ will outlast him. He’s modest about ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ (the video for which was shot in Ireland). “We were rehearsing for the Submarine Bells world tour, which surprises people because it looks, as was intended, like it is New Zealand. It has been issued in at least three versions because of the nature of record companies where people want to be seen to be having an input. So I had four or five matching shirts in different colours and they keep changing throughout the clip. But the bosses, back at Warner Brothers, wanted “more shirt changes” so it was re-edited again and again. More interesting to me is the fact that the wild goat that just arrived out of nowhere to watch the goings on is briefly featured alongside our bus—presumably as we were trying to coax it on board. I do not know why we were trying to coax a goat onto our bus.”

‘Pink Frost’ is marvellously evocative of the Otago Peninsula, near his Dunedin home where The Lumière Reader interviews him from. “I have not been visiting the Otago Peninsula lately as much as I should be doing, which is a shame because it is an extraordinary collection of environments, each powerful and or beautiful in their own way. In my youth I roamed far and wide over the many inlets and mountains and was very much inspired by what I experienced there. On one of my last visits to the tree-lined path to Lovers Leap and the chasm (that path featured in the ‘Pink Frost’ video), I passed by a stranger who said “Oh, back again!” So I realised that the area had become associated, in some people’s minds, with that particular video. Which is a good thing to me as I am still proud of that clip. Although technology has certainly advanced since it was shot in 1984, the basic concept and look of it is still very evocative of the Peninsula’s powerful atmosphere.”

“Abject, staggering genius”, Grant Smithies wrote on The Chills’ Dunedin Double contribution (‘Satin Doll’, ‘Frantic Drift’, ‘Kaleidoscope World’) in Soundtrack, adding the Verlaines ‘Angela’ (on the same 1982 vinyl) made him want to move to Dunedin the next day. Smithies is one of many who have suggested (or evangelised) that in the eighties New Zealand’s best music—such as The Chills, The Clean, Straightjacket Fits, The Verlaines—came from frosty Dunedin flats.

Phillips reflects further on his favourite songs that evoke landscapes: “‘Rolling Moon’ was inspired by youthful trips on the Otago Peninsula in groups of up to twenty or more friends, most of them seeing the world enhanced by the local magic mushrooms. There is something special about tripping in an area on a substance which has grown there naturally. Perhaps it is the pesticides?

“‘Night of Chill Blue’ was also an Otago Peninsula song, although it was more about lying in a car with a girlfriend so that the clouds appeared to fall earthward rather than across the sky.  But I also threw in some Christmas card imagery (“Twinkling stars over foreign lands/ silent camel train on desert sands”), because the sky was amazingly clear and I experienced that feeling of the immense age of the universe and all that had happened under those same stars.

“‘Tied Up In Chain’ was a song that had been undergoing many lyric revisions, but was entirely rewritten following The Chills’ visit to the site of the Dachau concentration camp in the late ’80s. I may be wrong but I recall no bird noises there, although it is surrounded by trees.  The atmosphere was overwhelming, and it was way beyond the typical cynic’s explanation of purely being created by our expectations. Because of this our German tour guides would not take us to Auschwitz because they had done so with a previous touring band, who had been left unable to perform the next night.”

The first Flying Nun band to tour overseas, The Chills have gigged in 39 countries. Playing East Berlin, on November 7 1987, was one of their most memorable performances. “Being only the third or fourth band from the West to be playing in East Berlin to around a thousand wonderfully excited young people was just amazing. Many of them had gone to great efforts to make sure that we realised how special and memorable it was for everyone involved. Young photographer Peter Brune showed us the grim sights under communism. He also pointed out the KGB operatives following us around in their little car. It was wonderful, some years later, to be woken in the middle of the night back in New Zealand by Peter ringing to say ‘The wall is down and I’m out’.”

Blogging recently about his favourite movies, Phillipps also mentioned a German connection, Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, which translates literally as The Heavens Over Berlin). He adds:It is so long since I have seen Wings of Desire, I remember being very moved by its themes at the time. I loved the look of it and I have always loved a movie that can realistically bring elements of the fantastical into the everyday world in a manner which is convincing, or at least acceptable, on a story-telling level.”

From ‘Kaleidoscope World’ and ‘Don’t Even Know Her Name’ to ‘Submarine Bells’ (“submerged sound sublime”) via ‘Familiarity Breeds Contempt’ (“So simple to be cynical”), I note Phillips’s talent for crafting atmosphere. “Thank you. I used to believe that creating an atmosphere—lyrically or musically—was an important place to start as it meant that you had removed your audience, in a cinematic sense, to some other place where you could then work on them and their emotions. Sometimes the music and lyrics would be in a kind of opposition which could lead to all sorts of strange, new environments and all of this sort of thing meant that the individual listener/reader was in a position to take their own private journey and interpret whatever they encountered there.”

One debate is the Dunedin Sound. “I guess we all shared equipment, band members, girlfriends and stuff,” Phillipps observed on that question in Flying Nun documentary Heavenly Pop Hits. “There is still a staggering amount of very good music being made here but, as with the rest of the world, the ease of communications has brought about changes for the better and has also deprived us all of some of the strange little scenes that sprang up through their very isolation. I am not up on all of the current Dunedin bands, but the idea that there would be a sound that is specific to a particular region or city seems to be pretty much gone. Overall I guess that this is a good thing. The more the world communicates the better for all of us.”

The topical launch of Far South Records means Phillips is in an upbeat mood. “I have had some great times performing alongside labelmates Katie Raven (with her as yet unnamed band), and Two Cartoons, who are just excellent and a lot of fun. We even did a fairly wild version of ‘Pink Frost’ together in Auckland a couple of months back and that was great. I’ve been learning not to be too precious about the way some of my old songs must be played!”

“A spiritual cry of pain,” Simon Sweetman pithily described Phillipps’s chef d’oeuvre in On Song. Some other favourite songs in this vein? “‘House With a Hundred Rooms’, ‘Night of Chill Blue’, ‘Halo Fading’, ‘Don’t Be—Memory’, ‘Submarine Bells’, ‘Entertainer’,” Phillips records an impressive Chills array. “‘Water Wolves’, ‘Sunburnt’, ‘You Can Understand Me’, ‘Lost In Future Ruins’, ‘Walk on the Beach’, ‘True Romance’, ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Small Spark’, ‘Hawea’.”

Multitudinously, ‘Doledrums’’ sharp sense of humour flashes through the interview:

“In the doledrums
On the dole
Counting down lonely hours
Drinking lots and taking showers

…But the benefits arrive and life goes on!”

This sly song may well be the spiritual father of The Phoenix Foundation/Eagle vs Shark’s ‘Blue Summer’, with Luke Buda’s winning romancing line “Oh we could be unemployed together.”  Not to mention Flight of the Conchords’ ‘Inner City Pressure’: “When you’re unemployed there’s no vacation/ No one cares, no one sympathises/ You just stay home and play synthesizers.”

Asking for an account of Phillipps’s favourite gigs as a listener occasions a characteristically lucid stream-of-consciousness. “Just one? In that case I will not mention The Enemy, Toy Love, early Split Enz at the Regent Theatre, Talking Heads beginning their worldwide Fear of Music tour at that same venue, or the two times I saw R.E.M. or Randy Newman or the Pixies or the Rolling Stones or whatever. I will talk about the Clean! I cannot pick a particular gig but there were so many around the early ’80s which were just on fire and primal and life-changing! Actually, no I will talk about the Residents instead. We were lucky to see them, with Snakefinger on guitar, at the (now) Powerstation on a tour that, I believe, only went to Japan, Australia and New Zealand. I don’t think I’ve seen such a diverse audience for one band and I don’t believe that the Residents quite believed the incredibly enthusiastic reception they received here either. At the bottom of the world? No way! Actually I’ve seen Bob Dylan a couple of times and he’s worth checking out. The Troggs were good, too.”

A late friend told me the best moment of his education was when Phillipps guest lectured at his SIT audio-production course. “It is not something I would choose to do often, but it is fun to occasionally engage with a group of people who are there to learn, and I usually rattle things up a bit by showing them that there is no black and white. Young people these days into music tend to know far more about most aspects of the business and performance and creation of music than I do, but it is that very complacency that I try to break through. There are no rules.”

No ironic poseur, Phillipps’s genuine passion through the interview augurs well for Bodega on December 1. “The band is going great! The five-piece has become very powerful as we learn more about our capabilities. We are playing a very strong set of songs well-known and less well-known. I make sure that we all put everything into it or I pinch them later on when they’re not looking. I have to practice on my beautiful new black Gretsch Electromatic so that I can be in tip-top shape for my fellow Wellingtonians at the gig. Yup I was born there, 49 years ago.”

What does a Chills audience member get from a live gig they can’t get from Spotify? “The smell, the bumps, the bruising, the over-charged merchandise.  Being sure that the singer looked straight into your eyes! Sweat, which goes horribly cold when you leave the venue. Slipping on something, or somebody, or something from somebody. Ringing ears. A new girlfriend!”

Alexander Bisley interviewed Brotha D about Dawn Raid’s glory years here.
Filed under: ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.