Despite struggles with health and technology, Martin Phillipps has consolidated the return of his iconic band the Chills with a timely and topical new album. Nick Bollinger talks to the big Chill.
Barring perhaps the haka, there can be few sounds from this country more immediately recognisable than that of the Chills.
It’s that weirdly affecting combination unique to Martin Phillipps: the almost-winsome way he delivers his clear pop melodies against the churning urgency of his band. And there are ten solid examples of it on Snow Bound, the Chills’ new album.
The sonic continuity with those definitive Chills records of the 1980s might come as a surprise considering Phillipps has long been the only remaining member from the original band, but it says something about the strength of his musical vision and the ongoing pursuit of the sound in his head.
Even more remarkable might be the fact that in 2018 there is a Chills at all. It’s been well documented how, after that initial run of New Zealand hits, the Chills came close to repeating their success on a global scale, including two elaborate albums made in America for the Warner imprint Slash. But the Slash deal went belly-up and from the mid-90s Phillipps began a long slide into depression and addiction, from which he only began to emerge in the new millennium.
The last couple of years have seen the Chills touring locally and internationally in support of Silver Bullets, the first full Chills album in almost two decades, and getting good notices from Paris to Paekakariki. Yet with Phillipps’ ongoing health issues the longer term has always seemed uncertain.
“I understood that people took Silver Bullets as kind of ‘Martin’s saying to himself, it’s old material, he’s tidying up so good on him for getting one more record out before he croaks’,” Phillipps says, with a mordant chuckle.
“So it’s really nice with Snow Bound to have people actually perking their ears up, a bit surprised, and going ‘Oh, so they really are an ongoing thing. They really have picked up the reins’ or to mix metaphors, ‘got back on the train again’.”
With new treatments for his liver condition apparently working, Phillipps is currently as prolific as he has ever been. But while the sound of his new material might be ageless, his lyrics reflect the passage of time. ‘The Greatest Guide’ mourns the recent passings of some of music’s celebrated heroes, but also reminds us of our own mortality. And many of the songs on Snow Bound revolve around questions of personal responsibility and what one chooses to do with one’s allotted time.
“I was actually looking to make an entirely different record but then just things going on in my life - health things and technology - by the time I got a new recording set-up for home it was too late to learn how to use it to try this other idea I had, so that can wait.
“But I had been constantly writing anyway and there were just enough songs to select a good album from, and that’s when the theme became apparent - a unifying theme of people of my age group trying to find their voice and, I guess, the means and the incentive to move forward trying to contribute to the ongoing dialogue about the fraught situation that humanity finds itself in.”
Though he tends to write in extended metaphors or fables, his songs more than ever are grounded in a view of the modern world. It’s a view that contrasts with the youth-dominated perspectives of much current pop. In the title song he addresses someone who no longer feels passion; who appears to be emotionally snowbound. Who is he singing to?
“It’s true that it could be part of myself,” he muses. “But I think the person being addressed is someone who has been privileged all their lives and has thought they have covered that by giving back to society or doing charity work and they suddenly realise they are still being seen as redundant and disposable. They thought they had bought at ticket to some sort of respect and I have no pity for people like that, I don’t think its true engagement. It actually happens quite quickly, you start to realise you are redundant at least in the eyes of the youth of today so it’s how people respond to that, whether they accept it or start saying no, our point of view is still valid.”
It’s an idea that is echoed elsewhere in the album.
“I think there has always been a social commentary angle to certain aspects of my writing. The funny thing is I can trace that right back to my very first songs on the Dunedin Double LP. ‘Frantic Drift’ was a very juvenile dig at social structures and religion and so on. But right through there’s been these things. ‘Brave Words’. ‘America says Hello’ on the last album.
“But somehow in the last few years, I guess imminent mortality and just an awareness of being an elder statesman of rock, a legacy artist” – he chuckles, showing he doesn’t take the term entirely seriously – “has given me a freedom to say whatever the hell I want really.
“I think I’m a reasonably considered person, I’m prone to the odd outburst but I think a point of view is relevant and that’s what I’m saying on behalf of other people too; that you can’t write off us old white guys quite yet.”
Snow Bound is released on September 16 on Fire