Martin Phillipps interview
by J.L. Fernández
Almost undoubtedly, The Chills are the most well known pop group to emerge from New Zealand since the early eighties. So now, eight years on since the last Chills album, when the group's leader Martin Phillipps talks about depression as one of the factors which almost retired him from music, one cannot only feel sadness but also the sense that it's somehow not so much unexpected, for melancholy was always at the heart of his music. The best Chills' work are always their exultantly and honest melancholic songs, but while Phillipps' muse never bordered on trite sentimentalism. Phillipps is one of the most overlooked talented songwriters and now he's back with a vengeance.
With a mutating roster of collaborators, The Chills was Martin's creature from the begining. The group (which initially included Phillipps, bassist Terry Moore, keyboardist Frazer Batts and drummer Alan Haig) grew out of the blossoming New Zealand scene of the early to mid-eighties, informed by locally succesful groups like The Clean, The Bats and Tall Dwarfs –all of which were supported by the Dunedin based Flying Nun independent label. But The Chills were destined to be the most beloved combo of the lot. Their world is like a multiple-shaped toy; a prism you can enjoy from different angles: it's a carousel of keyboards and chiming guitars, precious hymns, fragile pop miniatures that sometimes expands into crafted art-pop orchestrations.
After releasing a bunch of singles and the Lost EP (included in the Kaleidoscope World compilation), the group made their landmark debut album Brave Words (1987), produced by Red Krayola mainman Mayo Thompson. The Chills distilled post-punk with the sweet delivery of Phillips, making it sound like The Fall paying hommage to Prefab Sprout. something that rare.
Back when, The Chills became the most succesful NZ act and signed to American label Slash in order to obtain worldwide distribution through Warner. While some would complain that the group sold out, this resulted in the most fertile music the group ever produced. Soft Bomb (1991) was The Chills' finest hour. For the recording, Phillipps took advantage of having the back support of a major label and brought in giants of contemporary American music like Van Dyke Parks and ex dB's Peter Holsapple as collaborators, producing a conceptual song-cycle meisterwork. After returning to Flying Nun, Phillipps recorded the excelent Sunburnt (1996), released as Martin Phillipps & The Chills. In 2004, with a simpler sound which recalls his former years, Phillipps broke almost ten years of silence with the release of the Stand By EP.
PSF: Why has it taken a while for you to do a new record?
Martin Phillipps: The reason this work has taken so long is that I need the space to concentrate without interruptions. I usually go away by myself to an isolated location, preferably in Central Otago, with its beautiful lakes and mountains. Or another favourite location for these "song-writing sabbaticals," the Otago Peninsula –and that's just ten minutes drive from downtown Dunedin. But the worst problem was my depression, which I discovered to be a very real and disruptive condition and it obviously lead to self-medicating when the prescribed anti-depressants didn't work. Then I had to deal with the underground drugs community and that put me into risky situations and I inevitably contracted Hepatitis C. One of the effects from that horrible virus was even more depression, along with incredible exhaustion all of the time. But I was so fortunate in being able to be completely cured of the Hep C virus with the Interferon/Ribaviron treatment, and I was also very fortunate that my band stuck with me through these dark days. I was even more fortunate when my friend Bryan Spittle suggested that a mutual acquaintance, Scott Muir, might make the perfect manager. Scott has undertaken to remove all the business rubbish from my shoulders as much as possible thus enabling me to focus on the band, song-writing and live performance. So I am finally working again on new songs, from the comfort of my little home-studio set-up. My situation hasn't looked or felt this positive for over a decade!
PSF: Where did you grow up and how has that effected your work as an artist?
MP: I was born on the 2nd of July, 1963, in New Zealand's capital city, Wellington. My family shifted up to Auckland in early 1966 and lived there until my father was given his first posting as minister for the Methodist church in the very small town of Milton. It was during this time in the late sixties that I can truthfully say I first fell in love with music. I know for sure that I heard The Monkees on the radio. Then, in 1970 my father got a job as University Chaplain for the University Of Otago and we shifted there. Its close proximity to the wondrous Otago Peninsula and all the beautiful beaches, the wild wind-swept spots, the quiet native bush areas, the tall barren mountains that surround the city and its harbour were bound to influence and inspire anyone with an artistic temperament and I certainly had that. In fact, life at school especially was a torment for me because I was the typical shy, sensitive arty type who didn't enjoy sports very much and avoided them as much as possible –which was almost impossible in 1970s New Zealand, where in Winter the boys' recreational choices were either soccer or rugby. Anyway, the growth of the popularity of The Chills in the mid 1980's meant a shift to Auckland to be based where most of the country's music industry was and then further growth sent us to London in 1987 to live in cold, draughty squats and tour Europe in winter. I also lived for a few months in Los Angeles during the recording of Soft Bomb, and I eventually came to understand and enjoy that crazy city.
PSF: But neither the classic sounds of London or Los Angeles seem to have permeated through the music you did during that time, period.
MP: Yes, my soul was always in New Zealand, and more specifically in the Dunedin area. New Zealand is famous amongst painters and photographers because of its intense bright light and the subsequent strength of colour. This is caused by the angle of the sun's rays hitting the lower hemisphere or something but it is factors like that which have created a very unique environment.
PSF: How do you come up with songs?
MP: My song-writing involves a process of piecing together bits and pieces of lyrics and music to create odd but pleasing combinations. I always have a notebook handy and I write down any ideas I come up with for a large range of topics; song lyrics, visual ideas, short stories, poetry/prose, band names, designs for t-shirts, and I try to always have a recording device with me too. It was a Dictaphone cassette recorder for a long time but I am now using a digital mini-disc recorder which means I can actually take a raw sound or idea right through to the finished album stage. Initially, after I have gathered enough new ideas, I will start the process of matching up words with music. Sometimes I will get melody ideas and lyrics at the same time as the musical idea (usually on acoustic guitar or 12-string though sometimes electric guitar or on my parents' piano) and in those cases I now try to find at least one other part for what has already become a "song-seed". That way there is more of the actual moment captured for later on when I come back to it and begin the more traditional process of working the parts into a proper song. At the very least I usually give a rough instrumental idea a title because it is amazing how often when you look back at it you can see all sorts of connections with things going on in your life at that time or in world events which may have troubled or inspired you.
PSF: Brave Words (1987), The Chills' debut album, is a truly classic of New Zealand pop. Even though, words spread about your dissatisfaction with Mayo Thompson's work as a producer. Can you tell me the factuality of those sayings?
MP: While it is true that I ultimately became unhappy with the mix of our first album, I certainly have never suggested that the overall distant and slightly murky sound that many people have commented on was the fault of Mayo Thompson. The trouble was that we had to work so quickly in the studio that we really had to record things pretty much as we had been playing them live for the previous few months. A band usually learns so much in their first explorations into a recording studio. But it ultimately meant that Mayo had not a lot to do in the creative department. The engineer just recorded things as we played them and Mayo made sure it was a good performance and maybe a few quick changes but there were times when he'd just sit back in his chair, feet on the desk, sun-glasses on and listen as it all went down to tape. I was a novice in the studio and I had little idea of how to get those sounds from my head out onto a record. I knew they sounded huge and grand and I had discovered the joys of reverb so I went overboard in my demands for "more reverb!" on guitars, vocals, drums and everything. Sadly, it's one of those less is more situations: the whole thing sounded gloriously huge on the high-quality studio speakers but once it had been compressed onto a vinyl disc it ended up as listening to big beautiful music through a blanket. This is why I am so determined to have it re-mixed someday soon.
PSF: What kind of afterthoughts do you have about your relationship with Slash/Warner Brothers in the early '90s?
MP: Once The Chills had shifted to London in 1987 it was time to think seriously about a new label to sign with that could handle the international music business as it was generally agreed that Flying Nun Records could not do justice with The Chills on an international level. In fact, the demands of The Chills for recording budgets and tour promotion was already proving damaging to the New Zealand end of the Flying Nun label, where it was becoming difficult to sign new acts and make promises that could be kept because so much depended on how well The Chills went. I have always been saddened by the way that a lot of ill-feeling towards The Chills began at that time, especially from those who could not see that we weren't demanding anything –as arrogant young rock stars are expected to do, particularly in the U.K. We were offered deals with a very healthy number of respectable and capable record companies but we were insisting that the deal would be for "The World excluding New Zealand," so that we would remain on Flying Nun back home and they could finally reap the benefits of The Chills' success.
After a lot of deliberation we chose to go with L.A.'s Slash Records because they were essentially a smallish label –almost an American Flying Nun, but they had the benefit of being worked and distributed through Warner Brothers, which has always maintained some kind of credibility amongst other major labels. At the time, I had been discovering the works of Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman and other confusing, disturbing but beautiful artists who had been signed up during the '60s and '70s to Warner. And indeed, Slash/Warner Brothers said they saw us as a band to support through a growth over a few albums –they saw us as another R.E.M. type venture. Unfortunately for all concerned the marketplace changed, succumbing to the realities of a massive fall in music/movies product while the sales of computer games soared. Those young people still buying music wanted Nirvana or something similar, where a band like ourselves had already done the high-energy/angst-ridden adolescent punk thing a decade before and we were starting to explore a larger musical world.
PSF: I perceive "Sleeping Giants" as the central track from Soft Bomb. There, you wrote about the hope of justice for the weak and the oppressed; something that naturally relates to ideological issues. Can you tell me how that song came to you?
MP: I kept coming across references to various ancient and new cultures having legends of legendary Kings (like King Arthur) who would return when their land and its people were in ultimate peril. Then there were other, generally much older, cultures who believed in giants sleeping under the land or the mountains or the sea who were waiting for the right time to rise up and avenge, protect, destroy... Whatever. But it all seemed to me to be just another typical sheep-like reaction from the majority of human beings who would rather not be directly involved in anything serious in case they got hurt or their comfortable situation was forever changed. The song "Sleeping Giants" is basically a challenge to anyone who hears it to take responsibility for their own actions and their own role in the desperately needed changes which must come sooner or later.
PSF: But I sense the way you adhere to equality and quixotic causes is somehow mirrored in your own music. I mean, perhaps the same epic quality that gives The Chills a unique voice...
MP: I believe in the basic equality of all human beings. I believe that it is worth persevering with some "quixotic causes" because occasionally the best of human nature can be glimpsed in times of apparently hopeless odds –and that goes for music too. Sometimes a raw but beautiful first-timer screeching his/her untrained lungs out on stage in an awkward air of self-consciousness can somehow create a thing of perfection. I have always believed in trying to do big things, in trying to inspire those masses who generally are fed mind-numbing rubbish through their televisions, radios and cinemas. I feel very fortunate that my own sense of satisfaction with melodies or sounds from my bands have often crossed those typical boundaries between the more elite and knowledgeable music lovers and the casual, maybe more working-class people who can still respond to some truth they hear in my music. It is easier for many recording artists to have a basic persona which they will portray and see the world through. I can imagine that would be difficult when your audience wants to thank you and you know they are really thanking a fictional character. I have been accused of wearing my heart on my sleeve but I prefer to come across as honestly as possible to my listeners because it affects them more deeply and I do not have to try to remember which role wrote which song.
PSF: From The Clean to Dean Roberts and noise groups like The Dead C, the NZ sound is clearly distinguishable. How could you explain this fact?
MP: In Dunedin, there is a small population of a little over 100,000 when the students of Otago University are in town and less than that when the students go home for the holidays. But the University is a very good and highly respected educational facility and that, and the other aspects of Dunedin life which have always attracted artistic people of all mediums, appear to have brought together a disparate group of people at a crucial time in pop music history –during the late 1970s and early 1980s- who reacted individually but also as a small movement to the international excitement and call-to-arms of the punk rock/do-it-yourself ethos. Bands were constantly being formed, re-structured, everyone was in other bands as well or had other art-related side-projects. Something very special happened in Dunedin starting around 1977 with The Enemy and carrying on well into the late '80s with all the bands that subsequently became better known as "Flying Nun bands." But there were also those many other fine bands that came and went, unrecorded and now virtually forgotten. Love In A Gas Oven, Gamaunche, The Alpaca Brothers, Skin... It was only when I traveled internationally and saw many of the bands I had grown up listening to that I realised how strong the Dunedin scene had been. In some ways it rated easily alongside any of those odd "happenings" that have occurred in New York or London, Liverpool or Seattle. In some ways, though, we were very sheltered and naive. And although that may have added to the more pure nature of our music it also prevented many of us from realising the full potential of what we were doing. Musical equipment was shared, along with those records that we tried to turn each other on with, and much of the real history –the discoveries, the epiphanies, the electric revelations took place at the cozy Winter parties or at small special gatherings where odd combinations of Dunedin's musical discoverers would rant and rave and share the dream. When The Chills were based overseas in the late '80s I really missed that camaraderie and I made real efforts to sell to the music press the concept of the true excitement of the whole music movement. One other major factor that helped to define Dunedin's musical adventure was the impact of the women. The girls were not simply wide-eyed onlookers or groupies –they were very active participants in a very creative and politically active era, charged with post-sexual revolution and determination to create anything but typical male music. The all-female Dunedin group Look Blue Go Purple are still, to my mind, one of the best examples of true women's music that I have heard that had been made up to that point in time.
PSF: In which way did particular instruments affect the classic Flying Nun sound?
MP: Certainly the New Zealand-manufactured equipment like Commodore and Jansen guitars and amplifiers and the other amplifiers like the Holden Wasp and the Gunn Classic created sounds which have helped make that time and place in musical history sound a little different from any other time and place in the world's rock music history. But there were probably more occasions when recordings were weakened or even ruined, by bands having to use old, shoddy equipment. Sometimes what worked OK or even really well in a live situation just sounded noisy and awful when microphones were placed in front of them in a studio.
PSF: What do you think about today's NZ music scene?
MP: New Zealand's music scene at present is the best it has ever been. That is as seen from a commercial point of view anyway, because there is such an incredible amount of music being recorded. To my ears though, a lot of the new music sounds hopelessly derivative with its influences so obviously displayed –and this would have been seen as most embarrassing when I was younger. But it seems that many of the kids who are into music these days just don't care whether it's been done before. They just want fast, accessible entertainment. Thankfully, there will always be those who discover the fire and the passion of creativity and the power and freedom of rock and roll and they will get a grasp on the history so that they can understand the language of the various eras and why something that might sound lame now was such a breakthrough sound or attitude or even a riot-causing effrontery back in its day. Surely it cannot be that difficult to get a rough grasp on an art-form which is roughly about fifty years old –especially when compared with painting or sculpture. And when you can relate to music from all sorts of times and places all you find is that there is more than a lifetime's joy to be found in the music already known –and in that music which is still yet to be discovered by those even more infected with this joyous disease! The wonderful music bug! May they never find a cure!
Also see our Sneaky Feelings/Flying Nun overview and our Flying Nun & Nationalism article
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