From Soft Bomb to Silver Bullets

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Martin Phillipps on The Chills’ long-awaited new album, Silver Bullets. Photography by James Black.

Gracing the Friday night stage of Auckland’s Galatos, the looping melodies of eighties rock pop emblems The Chills reverberate with sounds both old and new. Performing with the band’s most consistent line-up to date, frontman and creative driving force Martin Phillipps is well-versed in the ups-and-downs of music’s multitudinous eras.

Out of 1980s Dunedin came not only The Chills but contemporaries The Verlaines, The Clean, and Straitjacket Fits, who marked the unlikely university town on the worldwide indie music radar. Having emerged out of a climate of isolation near the country’s southernmost point, The Chills’ distinctively melancholic wonder attracted the attention of Warner Brothers who soon signed them up for a place on the world stage. But in a shifting era of musical tastes and bouts of bad luck, the band struggled to supersede its height of fame. Back home in New Zealand, Phillipps struggled with depression, drug addiction, and subsequent health problems which only led The Chills further astray.

With the ensuing years filled with releases here and there, it’s safe to say that Silver Bullets—the band’s first full length album in almost 20 years—has been a long awaited feat. Conversing the next morning at Pitt Street’s Flying Out—the record store home of the proverbial Flying Nun label that started it all—Phillipps speaks with renewed vigour on the significance of the album’s release, ponders the fate of the band if they had emerged today, and reminisces about a brief run-in with the Greek mafia, ahead of performing at the Sydney Festival in January.

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img_silverbulletsJIHEE JUNN: Great gig at the Galatos last night. You looked as if you were really enjoying yourself.

MARTIN PHILLIPPS: I was a bit nervous at first because I’ve got this bad liver and I’d just had a samosa beforehand. It turned out to be the greasiest samosa I’ve ever had, so I was feeling a bit rough! But quite often it happens that once the music starts playing, you just forget all about that and get caught up in it. So it was good.

JJ: Many fans would have long awaited this performance. Did you have a chance to have a chat with some of them after the show?

MP: Yeah, quite a few. We went out to the front [of the venue] and signed a few copies of things and met some old friends. I’d say there was a pretty healthy mixture of people from our old crowd and some new, younger people as well. Which is good because that’s what I was hoping was going to happen.

JJ: Silver Bullets is your first extended release since 1996 when last you released Sunburnt. Why did you decide to put out a new album now out of all these years? Were there previous times where things almost happened?

MP: We just couldn’t. We didn’t have the finance and there’d been a lot of false starts. There have been other recording projects along the way like the Stand By EP and various tracks for compilations, but the same went for touring. There have been about five international tours that nearly happened but didn’t. So there’s been a lot of frustration but finally, somebody got behind us with the money and belief in both me and the band. It all happened quite quickly too. Off it went!

There was a lot of talk about doing the next album, but I just knew that what I was aiming for couldn’t be done on a demo level or small home recording set up. I know it works for a lot of people and it’d work for quite a few of my songs, but not for this bulk of songs. So I held out until the right offer was there.

JJ: Was there any sort of central concept or idea that you tried to anchor the album with?

MP: I wasn’t aware of how linked some of the themes were, but obviously with a number of the songs—particularly with the big ones—there’s environmental concerns, and concerns over corporate takeover and American foreign policy. They’re all linked. Something I avoided doing in the past was writing topical protest songs. But it’s so easy to have a record that gets very badly dated: full of slogans and sounding very trite and preachy. It was quite a challenge because a lot of the lyrics I’d been writing just weren’t relevant anymore, and I did really want to write about this stuff. So I thought: “Okay, if you think you’re a songwriter then that’s the challenge: to try and make it actually work.” And I think, [knocks on table] touch wood, I got it, and a lot of people seem to think that it works.

JJ: Are political subjects a lot more on your mind than they used to be?

MP: Yeah, they are. I think because the situation is much worse than it used to be. The title track, ‘Silver Bullets’ is a move on from the Soft Bomb album from 1992. The Soft Bomb concept was pacifist blows against dark forces. But ‘Silver Bullets’ is more of an aggressive angle; not promoting violence but basically saying that when you force people onto this kind of situation, that is what happens. Historically, there will be violence. It deals with some quite dark themes.

JJ: The global dynamics have certainly changed since Soft Bomb was released in the nineties.

MP: I think things are moving at a much more incredible pace in terms of the super wealthy 1%. All pretence has gone and they’re just taking over. Things are happening so fast now that people just don’t have time to organise protests, and when there are protests, they’re ignored anyway.

JJ: When you were writing the album though, was the process more ebb-and-flow or did it just happen in one go?

MP: I was very lucky that one thing I’d been doing leading up to it, not knowing that the album was going to happen, was digitising all my old work tapes of songs. I got all sorts of formats like cassettes and microcassettes digitised, and I had friends helping me sort them into files on the computer. So there are rock songs, pop songs, Christmas songs, children’s songs, and hard rock. I became really familiarised with an awful lot of material I’d started at various points, so that was kind of running through my head. The same with the lyrics. I was going through old lyrics which helped in selecting parts of the music that were going to be used. But when it came to the crunch of actually writing, probably two-thirds of the album was written in the space of year because none of the songs were complete. They were just little sketches.

JJ: Listeners would obviously have their own opinions on things, but as the songwriter, do you feel like the music you make has changed in some ways over the years?

MP: I never know that until some years later. I won’t be able to listen to this from that kind of perspective. But certain things have changed. There’s a maturity that creeps in and not so much of that young man’s angst and writing about failed relationships. Well, there’s only one failed relationship song on the new album, ‘I Can’t Help You’. But you learn your craft more. I was a bit more free form when I was younger, and that’s a good thing. I listen back to early recordings and just think: “How did I think of doing that?” I just wouldn’t do that these days. But, at the same time, I think I’m avoiding formulas, which is important.

JJ: Would you say the creative process itself has developed over time?

MP: I think so. It must. Also, I really incorporated the band’s talents and skills a lot more than I have in previous albums because we’ve worked for years now. They know how I work and know that I’m avoiding clichés. There’s so much skill in the band. There are at least three people who can play piano, play guitar, do arrangements, and everybody can sing to some extent. I made sure everyone sung somewhere on the album so they all got credits.

JJ: So you were able to take advantage of that multi-instrumental talent within the band?

MP: Yeah, which was really good. There was a time when Erica [Scally] went to Canada for a year or two. That’s when Oli [Wilson] joined. When Erica came back, she re-joined and was able to play a lot more violin. It’s just starting to feature more and I’d really like to feature it a lot more in the next album. Because when you hear what she can really play, it’s just staggering. The electric violin is an amazing instrument. Very expensive, but worth it.

JJ: In terms of incorporating the band throughout the album, would you say you’re more relaxed over the creative process than in the band’s earlier years?

MP: I think so. I was scared in the past that we’d end up sounding like other bands. Sometimes there were ideas put forward by band members that would’ve gone down certain paths that I wasn’t happy with. But as I said, I just know that these people know me so well now that they’re not going to do that. I still have final say on everything and keep an eye on it, but I was just really blown away. It’s great to hear things happening that go beyond what I could think of musically and beyond what I could actually perform.

JJ: Is there a song on the album that’s a personal favourite of yours?

MP: Not really. For a while it was ‘Underwater Wasteland’ because I just like the whole scope of it. But the whole album seems to have worked, like a good novel with chapters, and that’s what I like about it.

JJ: There’s also the eight minute long ‘Pyramid/When The Poor Can Reach The Moon’ which is quite an ambitious epic.

MP: That was actually the first thing that we recorded for this album, a year before the rest of it. We went to a studio in Thailand called Karma Sound which is about two hours south of Bangkok. A long story involving the king as to how it got there, but we went there to re-record ‘Pink Frost’. We did some live and studio recordings, and in theory, do a B-side for the new ‘Pink Frost 13’. I knew that ‘Pyramid/When The Poor Can Reach The Moon’ was never going to be a B-Side. It was just too big. But I made use of the opportunity to see how the band worked in the studio and it worked out really well.

For some people, the first half of the song, ‘Pyramid’, is their least favourite thing on the album because it’s pretty dark and strange. Whereas for other people it’s one of the highlights. That’s one of the things I’m really enjoying about this record: everyone has quite different favourite songs. Some of the critics have said that ‘Tomboy’ is the weak song on the record while others have said it’s one of the best.

JJ: Famously, a lot of your past work was inspired by the Otago Peninsula and the landscapes you experienced down south. Do they still function as a source of inspiration for you? Do you still get a chance to explore the area much?

MP: I still live in Dunedin but I don’t get out to the Otago Peninsula as much as I used to. But I guess the themes have ingrained now, that feeling of belonging to that place. Which is why a song like ‘Underwater Wasteland’ would occur, because we’re just in such close proximity to abundant nature and ocean life. You’re more aware of what the repercussions might be or are. But as an inspiration, it’s not something I’m as conscious about because I think it just comes through as part of what I do now.

JJ: In hindsight, looking back at that early period of success for The Chills, how have you come to understand it?

MP: It was a real rollercoaster ride. There was always something new and exciting happening for a long time. I don’t know, we just took it in our stride and went to the next level and the next level. But I was very much caught out by the whole change in the industry; the digital revolution in the early nineties and the impact that would have on what we were doing and on music generally.

It ended in a bit of chaos and unhappy times, so it’s really good to be able to bring things up to date now and not be known as a band who did some good work in the eighties and nineties. We’re actually still going. Once I realised how good the album was going to be, even from listening to rough mixes, I was just praying that I was going to live to see it and no one was going to get killed or the record company wasn’t going to go bust or something. It was such a relief when it actually existed in the public.

JJ: Clearly the music industry’s become even more digitally advanced and technologically interconnected since that period. How do you think The Chills would have fared if they’d emerged at this point in time?

MP: The more primitive Flying Nun sound probably wouldn’t have existed, for a starter. There are pros and cons to that because it’s famous for having a good, raw energy, but there’s also quite a few records that didn’t live up to catching those bands and that’s a real shame. I’ve said at times that it would’ve been quite good if there was some semi-retired sixties rock music producer living in New Zealand who realised what was happening and put all their expertise into recording Flying Nun bands as best as possible. Not to put down other people who did record because it caught something really fresh, but it was in a way that was never going to reach a wider audience just because of the sound of it.

But I think if The Chills were starting now, there’d still be the interest in just the songs and me as being a weird person, too shy and everything. So I think there’d still be record company interest, but how that would translate these days, I don’t know. It’s become so expensive to get a band from New Zealand to the Northern Hemisphere. You can’t count on anything from record sales now. It’s all down to touring, merchandise, clever marketing, and deluxe packaging. But if you’re not based in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ve got to come up with the money to get there first of all. So I don’t know, The Chills story could be very different.

JJ: Because the Dunedin Sound did emerge out of quite an isolated environment, do you think that because the world is so interconnected, that kind of thing is still possible? Do you see that ever happening again?

MP: I’m in two minds about that, because I think there’s always going to be small, isolated places. Even if it’s some amazing city in Africa that suddenly discovers a new angle on music and a group of friends will start working on it and something special will happen. But there’s just very little chance of anybody who’s going to be isolated from all this music now, and we kind of were. We drew on our own resources and that’s a really good thing. That meant that a lot of that music has aged well and still sounds quite special. But then every time you get exposed to new music, new ideas come through as well and that’s really exciting.

JJ: I’m sure The Chills have also been a source of inspiration for a lot of bands over the last two decades, and it’s good to see Flying Nun still bringing out quality independent music.

MP: Exactly. It’s funny because certain bands say that we’ve inspired them. Peter, Bjorn, and John recorded two songs called ‘The Chills’. But when I listen to all these bands, I can never quite hear what it is about them that’s meant to have come from us! It’s still very nice that somehow we’ve become woven into the fabric of a more worldview of music because it used to be very much the United States and Great Britain. Everything else was the next level down. But it’s possible, whether it’s Bjork from Iceland or everywhere else.

JJ: Looking at that time after The Chills laid low from the nineties onwards, how have you come to assess that period of the band’s history?

MP: We never really stopped, it was just confined to New Zealand which meant with a small market you can’t play very often. There’d be parties or a special celebration gig somewhere, so we were only playing around half-a-dozen times a year most years. Obviously that was when I was going through my most troubled phase with depression and subsequent drug addiction. Things got pretty wrapped up in turmoil.

But the interesting thing was, the sequence of events that got us here started with me virtually waking up one morning and saying: “No. That’s over.” Something just finally clicked back into place which had clicked out some years before. It took a little bit of work but all of a sudden, it was like the universe said: “Right! The click’s happened.” And starts throwing good people in this direction. These offers of help just started to come through. It was wonderful to see how many people really still believed in me and wanted to see this work. It’s been quite humbling and really good to be able to present those people with the album.

JJ: Throughout your career, you’ve played multiple times overseas as well. Do you have any gigs that you find particularly memorable?

MP: We were something like the fourth band to play in East Berlin years before the wall came down. That was really moving because they weren’t allowed to advertise and there was just one little line in a newspaper. But about a thousand people turned up really enthusiastic and it was quite moving. And one of the few things I can say is that we’ve been followed by the KGB. They were pointed out to us by the guys showing us around, sitting in their little car across from the café we were in. We also had a run-in with the mafia on our Greek tour, so that was interesting.

JJ: Hopefully nothing bad happened.

MP: No! We were lucky. At one point during the tour, the ‘tour manager’ turned up. His name was something like Angelo, and he goes: “Hello! My name is Angelo! I am from Sicily, but it is no problem!” That was the first thing he said just walking into our dressing room. It soon became apparent he knew nothing about the music business. I think he was just following us through to ensure we got paid and they got their commission out of it. But they eventually ended up with my keyboardist’s very expensive full length leather coat that he’d only owned for about a week because he left it at the hotel room. We found that it disappeared into mafia hands, so we just let it lie.

JJ: Nowadays though, what’s your attitude towards critical and commercial success?

MP: Oh gosh, I’m a bit blasé about it really. I’m really pleased that there’s such good reception of the album. I no longer believe that it translates into any sort of commercial success. People are listening to such a wide range of stuff and reading so many different reviews that even quite a few Chills fans that I thought would be on top of what we were doing were still unaware that we had a new album out because they just didn’t follow those kind of threads anymore. So it’s going to be quite a lot of hard work to keep the album out there. But at the same time, it’s very enjoyable. I’ve got that buzz back of just how fun it is to make music again.

Frankly, when we toured Europe last year, I was a bit nervous because I thought it might reawaken memories of the golden era and it’d be all depressing. But in fact, there was whole bunch of new good memories. All the major cities changed so much. Particularly Berlin, going back there without the wall and just driving from our hotel to the venue, I vaguely knew where we were and if the wall had been there, we would’ve crossed through it about three times. London is such different place as well. So much more cosmopolitan and much more open to different cultures than it used to be, because we were there in the eighties when it was getting very National Front and Britpop. They didn’t want Antipodeans there. But it’s just been really exciting: the adventure continues. And I finally got to take this band overseas because they’ve stuck with me for so long. Finally, here’s some payback.

© James Black 2015. All Rights Reserved. More images at blackphotographic.

The Chills perform as part of the Sydney Festival’s live music programme on January 13, 2016. ‘Silver Bullets’ is out now.