Back From the Brink, The Chills Can Write Their Own History

New Zealand indie music legends make dramatic return on stage and screen

“It would be hard now to understand just how isolated we were,” says Martin Phillipps, who founded The Chills in 1980 in a then-remote Dunedin, New Zealand, long before the internet made music videos, websites and global radio streams instantly accessible. “We had so little contact with the reality of what our favorite bands from Britain and America were like that we were kind of basing it all on photos in magazines.”

“... in a hundred years, will Lou Reed have become just a footnote? Will [his legacy] be down to only a couple of songs ...”

Phillipps goes on to describe an environment in which individuality was ostracized and punk rock was scorned by the local cover bands and older musicians. Nevertheless, a fuse had been lit and a flock of young Dunedin kids were hellbent on expressing their own interpretations of what they felt “punk” meant, Phillipps being one of them.

“The flipside to that isolation,” he adds, “is that once we did get to see some of these bands on TV (via a new one-hour Sunday night video program called Radio With Pictures), we started realizing that we’d actually developed a much better, more terrifying, idea of what a band such as The Cramps was like than they really were, because the pictures were so good.”

Driven by this force of imagination, Martin Phillips would guide The Chills through four decades of ups and downs: In the 1980s, their unique combination of melodic pop, psychedelia and youthful punk energy would make them cult legends in America, a favorite of John Peel in the U.K. and at their peak, the biggest band in New Zealand. It also took them from indie import status to major label artist, signing to Warner Brothers imprint Slash later in the decade. In the 1990s, however, things fell apart.

Martin Phillipps. Photo by Alex Lovell-Smith

Martin Phillipps. Photo by Alex Lovell-Smith


On the final date of its 1994 tour for the album Soft Bomb, the band played New York City. After the last song, Phillips announced from the stage that it was the final Chills show because they were breaking up. The news shocked everyone in the venue that night, including the rest of the band. “It was very Bowie of me to do that,” “It was very Bowie of me to do that,” sighs Phillipps in hindsight.

Though he would regroup with a different lineup in 1996 to record the album Sunburnt, as Martin Phillipps and The Chills, the writing was on the wall. The band had already been dropped from its contract with Warner Brothers, and the ensuing tour was tumultuous, at best. It was at this point that Phillips retreated to Dunedin and quietly slipped into a long period of depression and drug use: “Everyone seems to agree that things had gone off the rails around the Soft Bomb period,” he concedes. “But the complete failure of Sunburnt and the tour that followed was kind of the final straw.”

Phillipps’ journey is chronicled in a new documentary film, The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps, that will have its world premiere at SXSW 2019. It charts not just the history of the band, from the beginning to today, but also Phillips’ own personal struggles over the latter two decades.

It may be difficult for some fans to reconcile the image they have of Phillips--soft-spoken son of a clergyman and thoughtful lyricist who collects toys and records for a hobby--with that of a “sad heroin user”. But, as the film chronicles--and without giving too much away--his story would take even darker turn.

Today, luckily, finds Phillips in positive spirits on the eve of The Chills’ first American tour in more than 20 years and live performances at SXSW to coincide with the film’s premiere. Also out is a recent album, Snow Bound, which features a muscular new Chills lineup and a delightful collection of new songs. Paired with 2015 release Silver Bullets, the two albums (both on Fire Records) represent Phillips’ first substantial output since the 1990s and something of a Chills revival.

Preserving The Chills legacy is important to Phillips, and he’s all too aware of the risks of cultural acceleration and history being rewritten. It’s a topic he addresses on recent track “The Greatest Guide”, which considers the likes of Bowie, Lou Reed and Prince, figures who served as cultural and spiritual guides to the eras in which Phillips and his peers came of age.

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps. Photo by Herman Nijhof, courtesy of New Zealand Film Commission

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps. Photo by Herman Nijhof, courtesy of New Zealand Film Commission


“I looked at my parents’ generation and realized we’ve all gone through the same thing: you grow up and reach a point where the younger generation maybe hasn’t even heard of some of the leading lights of your own generation,” Phillips explains. “There’s a lot more media now, of course, but still... in a hundred years, will Lou Reed have become just a footnote? Will [his legacy] be down to only a couple of songs, like ‘Walk on the Wild Side” and ‘Perfect Day’, that still get played?”

Another concern for Phillips is the overdue reissue of Brave Words, arguably the most beloved LP in The Chills catalog yet long out of print. “I’ve always said that the mixing on that album was done so quickly that it did not do justice to what I know is on those tapes and the intensity of the band’s performance. It ended up as sort of a mushy mess,” he says. “So there’s been a lot of dialogue with Flying Nun about what to do with that. I know you’re not supposed to go back and remix something--you’re only supposed to remaster--but I think this could be an exception.”

In addition to the film and reissue campaigns, Phillips is further taking The Chills legacy into his own hands by embarking on an intense archival project of “countless unfinished songs”, dating all the way back to the Kaleidoscope World era. It is said that nothing quite focuses the mind like a brush with mortality, and Phillips’ recent experience seems to have spurred him into action. He says he’s determined to complete demo versions of all his work so that, even if he never gets to record the songs properly himself, maybe others can someday.

“As a reader, even more so than a lover of music, I’m very aware of the number of writers who have died with unfinished books and notes of the things they were going to write. I have a lot of pieces of songs and lyrics where nobody else would see what the original intention was--and that gnaws at me,” says Phillips, chuckling at the ambition and vanity of it all. “My dream is that I won’t be like that, that I’ll actually be the first person who, having checked-off ‘Riff Number 2,904 Rough Demo’ from the list, can now happily go in peace, and everyone will know what the plan was and my music will be preserved for generations.”

“I’m rediscovering some really good material!” Phillips insists. He pauses, then gives another gentle laugh. “So there’s a lot to do.”

The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps will World Premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on Tuesday, March 12 with additional screenings during the week. The Chills will perform four times as part of the SXSW Music Festival.

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