07 Apr 2021

Martin Phillipps: Chuffed and Chilled Out

07 Apr 2021

The Chills new album Scatterbrain is the band’s third in six years, an unusually productive period for a band who’ve often been famously interrupted by line-up changes. Martin Phillipps spoke to Richard Langston about the new approach to record this album and why he’s excited about the band’s future.

When I saw you had a new album out, I thought: wow, that was fast…

Well yeah, it should be what bands do or what songwriters do at least, get an album out every couple of years. We’re sort of on schedule, two and half years or something since the last one. It’s good,  it’s just unusual for The Chills, there were always a couple of line-up changes in between that delayed things plus in the old days extensive touring got in the way of studio time as well. Three really good albums now, I’m pretty chuffed actually.

Of your three comeback albums Snow Bound (2018) strikes me as the rockiest…this one feels more reflective…how do you see them?

It does take me a while to step back and see what we’ve done, that can take years sometimes especially with lyrics, I don’t realise how revealing  of myself I can be until some years later, it’s like ‘oh my god’ I put that out there. But there’s been a process to these albums. When Fire Records got involved and we did Silver Bullets (2015) I really didn’t want some name producer coming in and taking credit for the revival of The Chills.

We worked with a really great producer-engineer, Brendan Davies, and I was prepared to take responsibility for the success or failure of the album and it was a great way of getting the band some of whom have really not been in an intense studio session like that before. It was a great way of getting the band working together, and then with Snow Bound it was time to step up and actually work with a producer again. I had my own reasons for being nervous about working with producers, it hadn’t always worked for me. Greg Havers was just great. 

He brought the best out of the band and I think he put us through the hoops but at the same time he had enough respect for me to work with me on the overall record. But this time with Scatterbrain it was time for me to step back and let the band’s skills come to the fore. It worked. I was still writing the album as we were recording it so I was able to take off home and keep working on songs and trust what the band was coming up with Tom Healy who was an excellent producer.

I’m really pleased, people are saying it’s probably the most produced record they’ve heard, and I think that’s right. It’s where it needs to be, and people also said the best album since Submarine Bells; people always say that but It’s a nice thing to hear because it’s a recognition of the quality I guess.

I hear more spaces in this record and more orchestration…

Yeah totally, I’ve been learning…because I’m one of those song writers I sit there with my guitar basically and try and do the entire band, rhythm and the chords and all the melodic breaks by myself. It’s been a learned skill for me to then go into the studio and strip away what’s not necessary or assign it to another instrument. There’s been way more of that done on this record than in the past. There’s actually very little of me on it playing guitar.

That’s a big feature of the album…were you worried you would lose that signature Chills sound…the interplay of guitar and keyboards?

Yes, I was concerned and that’s why it’s taken a while I guess to understand what we can do with those melodies, actually chuck around ideas, it’s no longer necessary for me to play relentless guitar which i did for years and years. That’s been great, that little line of guitar can be done by Erica on violin or that one can be done by Oli on keyboards. He added an awful lot to this record. Songs like ‘Scatterbrain’ he basically built that whole sound structure up with Tom Healey and it’s a great bit of work.

The songs were written but the actual approach to how they were going to be realised was different, I was able to step back and acknowledge the expertise of others. Erica was a child prodigy violinist and she plays great guitar now and keyboards. Callum the new guy, I didn’t realise he played horns till he started coming up with these great horn parts and arrangements. Oli is head of the contemporary music school at Massey and has all sorts of experience. That’s an enormous range of talent to be able to draw upon and having me relaxed enough to accept that this is the new Chills and it’s a way into the future. 

You talk about the horn arrangements, ‘You’re Immortal’ has a Morricone-like sweep about it…

(Laughs) It’s so ironic because my briefing to the band was this should sound like Ennio Morricone and while we were recording it a week later he dropped dead so I will not say that again about any living artist! But that was the brief, there were actually three other songs completed that were left off and one of those, ’The Dragon with the Sapphire Eyes’, has even more amazing horns on it, and that’ll come out in some form.

It certainly sounds the most varied album and there’s a lot of reflection going on on your part…

The three songs that I left off were the first ones when I started writing the album and they just became not the right theme. ‘The Dragon with the Sapphire Eyes’ is about consumerism, and here’s me an old guy trying to tell people off and it was just boring and it’s been done much better by the younger generation. It was pointed out to me by a couple of people  independently that the stuff that really registers is when I draw upon my own experience especially as an ageing adult confronting mortality, the death of my mother, that’s what connects with people.

‘Caught in My Eye’ is the rawest most stripped-back song about loss..but it’s strange Martin the one I found most affecting was ‘Destiny’…a bitter-sweet lament on mortality…

Yeah, it’s been quite remarkable seeing how that is connecting with people. One of the few good things about the streaming of music  is you get a good record of where songs are being played around the world and ‘Destiny’ has taken off in Latvia and I’ve had to do an interview with Croatia as well. It really wasn’t one of the crucial songs, it was almost traditional Chills, the kind of stuff we were trying to move away from. The lyrics are very real and somehow it’s connecting.

I always find with Chills’ records person by person they will find a song that’s key for them. I’ve had two people  say already that the best song on the album is obviously ‘The Wall Beyond Abandon’ the closing track and that’s certainly not our view, most of the band feel that ‘Hourglass’ is the most important song on the record.

Just harking back to ‘Destiny’ for a minute it must be the only time the word autarchic has been used in a song…

(Laughs). Yes, it’s sort of a nod and wink to the documentary, me as the dictator. I was looking in the thesaurus for another word for dictator and discovered autarchic which I’d never heard of before. If you’ve seen the cover artwork it’s quietly hidden in the top right corner. The line ‘autarchic on the mend’ means I’ve realised it’s not the be all and end all to be in total control.

With the artwork we were very lucky because the guy who designed it, David Costa, designed Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for Elton John, Night at the Opera for Queen, and he did the recent Beatles ‘Let It Be… Naked’ and all sorts of stuff. The reason that came about is he was in a ‘60s acid folk band called Trees, not a million miles away from Pentangle or Steeleye Span, and because they had the reissue of their albums through Fire Records he offered to do a cover for one of the bands and we got it. We were really fortunate, it’s a really powerful image.

What is it about that image that appeals to you?

I guess Scatterbrain is referring to my state of mind, and the mind of people of my age group that I see daily on Facebook and things. The uncertainty so a powerful image of being stared at by a kind of ominous diving bell but with the bird nest on top indicating a bit of confusion. I was really impressed and he did that from listening initially to old Chills stuff to get an idea of what kind of music I made. When he actually got to hear the album just before the cover was finalised, we all agreed that he’d nailed it.

You’ve had a lot of marine imagery in your past work…’Submarine Bells ‘being the obvious one…that was the association I made…

It was deliberate to link it back to those kind of nautical themes because as you mention there’s actually quite a  few of them when you start looking at artwork for singles as well and in the cover art for Submarine Bells. There is actually a diving bell helmet in there somewhere, so it’s just appropriate bringing the saga into the now.

It’s interesting Martin that all you people in Dunedin who started out writing songs 40-odd year ago…David Kilgour…Shayne Carter..you’re all dealing with mortality…Shayne’s song about his father…David’s album about his mother and Peter Gutteridge…

I think the best thing about the people you mention is the sheer fact that we’re still going. That’s the most crucial thing. I’ve connected with Shayne probably more than ever before through the Tally Ho concerts initially but we’re just sort of been comparing notes as life goes by more than we ever did in the past. In some ways The Chills/Straitjacket story, I had no idea how many similarities we had in common until I read Shayne’s book. There are few other people that we can share that with when we talk about the highs and the lows. It’s been really good.

I say the albums got those reflective songs but it’s also got rockier stuff…I think ‘Little Alien’ is just a great pop song…

Most of these songs started out with a lot more lyrics and I’ve become aware that I can just be too wordy. I stripped things back with ‘Little Alien’ and ‘Monolith’. There were all sorts of explanations of what I was trying to say but it just became unnecessary. ‘Little Alien’ is basically about refugees and people who are not in their comfort zone and feeling scared,.There were other verses that helped explain that to the listener and they just became unnecessary. I’m trying to make things a bit more open, it’s just better for people to have room to move with their own minds as well and not being preached at

You’ve always been quite purposeful in what you’ve wanted to say in a song…ethical and moral concerns…I’m trying to think how far back they go…maybe ‘Submarine Bells’…

It’s funny you should say Submarine Bells because I was having a conversation the other day about this where did the message songs start. It’s all the way back to The Same with ‘Frantic Drift” which is dealing with religion, all the way through there’s songs about women’s issues, ‘The Male Monster from the Id’, ‘Sanctuary’ about domestic abuse, ‘Tomboy’ about gender identification and stuff. They’ve always been there and it’s an on-going battle to question yourself about your motives but also whether the quality of what you’re trying to say is worth putting out there.

I’ve wondered if that’s the influence of your father…(who was a Methodist Minister)?

My father’s input, he’s very much of a classical bent and has never been able to understand rock music. It’s just not his thing.

I was meaning more that he’s a minister, and you probably heard him speak on moral issues and maybe you sat in church and listened to him …

There’s an assumption that Dad would be speaking about higher and moral things but most of the stuff I’ve seen him talk about is about social issues and people, certainly not about what they should be doing in the eyes of God or anything like this. The short answer is yes, my father’s influence will be there to some extent. He’s always admired my words and suggested I should’ve been a writer which is kind of a back-handed compliment, he doesn’t get the music but ‘you should write books’. But at the same time both parents were proud of what we’d achieved, pretty staggering for them to go to a packed Town Hall for Submarine Bells and years later going to a packed Regent Theatre to see the documentary premiere. It’s quite overwhelming for them sometimes.

On the matter of you being a writer, you wrote that great piece for AudioCulture on your posters, and I thought, Martin you should write a book..your wry take on things…your honesty…

Over the years I have had quite a lot of stuff published in various little publications and things, short stories, poems, tales of my hepatitis C adventures, all sorts of stuff. But frankly now that Shayne’s put out his book and he’s lifted the bar so high I might just not do that! Maybe I could focus on a very different way of telling the story.

You’ve definitely got your own take on things…

Yeah, and I’ve become more confident with it over the last ten years. I think I’m old enough to be eccentric now which is quite a nice free-ing situation to be in, I really don’t care anymore about what people think. It’s been very liberating.

I want to ask you about the re-releases of your albums…I imagine you feel comfortable about Submarine Bells but I wonder how you feel about Soft Bomb…given it caused you and the band so much grief…how you were kicked off Slash at that time…

It was a very fraught album but that’s not unusual in the music business to have something like that happen. I always believed in it because there’s at least seven or eight really good songs on there and I think we put too much on it, the strange choice was made at the time to basically fill the capacity of a CD. That was a mistake and some of the songs went a wee bit awry. It’s very hard to get back to a song you love when it’s been mis-recorded.

One of things that made that record fail was just the times, the era of Nirvana and all sorts of extraordinary stuff happening in hip hop and stuff, so we’d had our run by then the band was more or less fourteen years into its career, and that’s pretty good. I knew that people would eventually discover the good stuff on it and the same with Sunburnt from 1996. People are starting to discover that too, once people got sick of playing Submarine Bells over and over again they started to look further afield.

One of the songs  that’s stuck in my head after listening to the vinyl reissue of ‘Soft Bomb’ is ..the one with the line.. .’never trust a man in camouflage gear’…

‘Strange Case’ yeah, which is obviously about the Aramoana incident, pretty harrowing and very different from the demos I did for it. It’s got that bouncy threatening kind of feel to it, it’s at odds with the message. I don’t know if I’d be brave enough these days to take the point of view of the killer, that was the kind of thing because I’d been listening to Randy Newman songs like  ‘In Germany Before the War’ that I thought was acceptable,  and I think it would not be acceptable now for me to presume to try and and explain some of rationale…certainly not to excuse him. I did have somebody who had a friend killed at Aramoana say that song really helped them and I only needed to hear that once to feel it was justified. Still pretty heavy.

‘Double Summer’ is a terrific pop song…

That’s one that failed, sadly. It was so much bigger in my head. Often it’s those big pop songs that don’t quite work. ‘Molten Gold’ we never quite got that, ‘Party in My Heart’  on the back of ‘House with a Hundred Rooms’, that was giant and majestic and it just didn’t work. Sometimes you get the great riff but you cannot get the great lyrics to sit alongside it.

‘Double Summer’ is one of  the ones most requested to play live but some of these things I used to sing at the top of my vocal range and that meant singing for three minutes on a really high note. It’s bad enough having ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’, we have an obligation to play that but we just can’t do all the old ones that are that strenuous.

You seem in a very creative period and I remember in the documentary you said…’there’s a lot to be accomplished and there’s an uncertain amount of time’…

It comes and goes. The unfortunate part of the creative package is I get periods of not just the blues but the deep blacks as well and I just can’t see my way to doing the next song let alone the next album. But then it happens, just in the last week the pad which sits beside me while I’m watching tv has started filling up with little ideas, quotes, and song titles. It’s an exciting feeling that once again the process is underway. I came out of recording ‘Scatterbrain’ which was quite draining and I was thinking that is going to be the last album. But here we go again.

The songs on Scatterbrain all feel like new songs, they don’t feel like songs that you’ve finally got around to recording…

That’s true. Most Chills albums have had riffs that date back sometimes to the very early ‘80s. I can’t think of any on Scatterbrain. We recorded the album at what used to be Chicks Hotel but is now called Port Chalmers Recording Services run by Tom Bell.  We were four days from finishing when covid hit, Tom Healy the producer just made it back to Auckland otherwise he would’ve been trapped here. But it gave us extra months to send sound files around and really fine tune it, that ultimately really paid off. We pulled it in so there’s a uniformity to it which wasn’t there in the early mixes, it sounded like a jumble of different songs. Now it has a flow and a feel to it.

I notice that you did record an old song, ‘Lost in Space’ that goes back to your early days on that cassette Fire Records issued in 2016, Single-Burger

Yeah, there’s a live version on Secret Box (Three CD package of rarities). Essentially because we didn’t get to record our first album for seven years there are at least two albums of Chills stuff that never got recorded. We’ve been talking seriously about making use of this downtime while we can’t tour overseas, and just nail those old songs one at a time and basically record what we’ve been the ’82 Chills album and the ’84 one.

I’m hoping that happens, there’s a lot of really good material. There are other things like ‘I Saw Your Silhouette’ and ‘Frozen Fountain’ and ‘Juicy Creaming Soda’, ’Steinlager’ crappy title but I have a different set of lyrics for it and it’s called ‘Stay Longer’. I reckon getting members of the old bands and the new bands together in a good relaxed environment, listen to the tape a few times, learn the songs and bash them out with as much of the old equipment we can find, not dwell on it too much, that would be a dream to finally record those.

The Chills – Scatterbrain Album Release Tour

April 16 – Oamaru Club, Oamaru
April 17 – Larnach Castle, Dunedin Arts Festival SOLD OUT
April 18 – Festival of Colour, Wanaka
April 30 – Cassels Blue Smoke, Christchurch
May 1 – Wakatu Hotel, Nelson
May 6 – St. Peter’s Hall, Paekākāriki.

May 7 – Meow, Wellington
May 8 – The Cabana, Napier
May 9 – The Dome, Gisborne
May 13 – Totara St, Mount Maunganui
May 14 – Powerstation, Auckland
May 15 – Town Hall, Raglan

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