This is the full transcription of the interview with Martin Phillipps that appeared in The Brag and Beat magazines…
How long has it been since you last played in Australia?
It’s been at least 15 years, quite a while. I can’t remember if we played there on the Sunburnt tour – I don’t think so. It’s certainly a while back.
I chatted to David Kilgour last year and he regretted not trying to tour over here more in the 80s, do you feel the same way?
No offence intended but one of the best things we did was leave Australia till later in the piece. There were 2 reasons. One was we had Chris Knox saying don’t go to Australia because he’d had such a terrible time with Toy Love. The other was that we’d had all this interest in Britain with John Peel playing our stuff so it made sense to go directly there and of course we got caught up with everything – playing Europe and the States and back to Europe. By the time we got to Australia it was 88 so the band had been around for 8 years. The good thing about that was we bypassed a lot of those really horrible smaller clubs, the cockroach clubs and managed to slide into something a little more respectable. Apologies to The Chills fans who sat around waiting, it probably paid off in the long run because they got to see a very good band when they finally did see us. I do wish we’d played a bit more since, there’s been all sorts of economic reasons and other things that prevented us from getting back.
It’s great to see you’ve had a stable line-up for a few years now, does that benefit your songwriting, in terms of the way they play your songs – or do you write solely by yourself?
The best thing for me is to do a demo of a song and then take it to the band and strip it apart again. It’ll be even more so with this next batch of songs as we’ll have the ability to keep parts of my original demos and see what else the band comes up with so it’s going to be really exciting. The ProTools and M-Box system I’m using is finally coming together which means I’m very close to finally be able to tackle all these bits and pieces that have been building up over decades now and start completing them as songs. People ask why I don’t just scrap them and work with new songs but the point is that this is new stuff as well, it includes stuff as recent as yesterday. Now I’ll be able to go through this digitised stuff and categorise it into rock music, folk music, psychedelic music and then within that I can match pieces up and an awful lot of songs will be 70-80% complete just by finally getting those parts together.
Then its demos which doesn’t take very long if I’m doing a simple one and then I think the plan is to get the band together and go off to some obscure location and spend some time just mucking around, getting the band involved. I’ll still be the boss, it does not work having too many chefs. I don’t know everything about every instrument by any means so it is great to have a band that is in tune with what I’m doing and has listened to a lot of music that I haven’t heard. In particular Todd Knudson the drummer has been with me over ten years now and James Dickson is on bass, he was on keyboards, he joined shortly after so he’s been with me for ten years. Erica Stitchbury has been playing keyboards for about three years but she is in San Francisco working at the moment and has been replaced by this guy Oli Wilson. We decided it would be brilliant to have them both playing – and quite exciting. Erica’s first instrument is the violin and she’s played with orchestras and supported Rod Stewart of all people. She can do that and play a good strong guitar and sing well. Oli plays guitar and sings too. We’ve just been going through the list of songs we want to do and looking at the opportunities we’ve got for doing something really quite special for really the first time since 92 that we’ve been a five piece. That was when we had the part Mexican guy from Los Angeles, Steven Schayer, on the Soft Bomb tour.
The only other time we were a five piece was the very first line-up with Peter Gutteridge who went on to form Snapper. Basically he and I formed the band with two guitars but he only played three gigs with us before he went on his own way. We’ve got a very solid core and then on top of that we’ve got two really good musicians to do things on top of it which should add quite a bit of excitement I think.
Do you get a sense of your songwriting constantly evolving or do you have a loose template you are comfortable using most of the time?
I’m determined to get beyond the songwriting formula – verse, chorus, verse etc. and I really want to explore sound a lot more and make it my sound, interesting things that get me excited and then find ways of incorporating all these different songs I’ve got within that. Thats the direction I’m heading in and another reason I haven’t blasted out album after album which I could have done if I’d stayed with just basic songs. Thats where I want to take things, to keep it interesting and in my own little way contemporary.
I think that rock music has just splintered into so many things, an untraceable morass, its the strangest thing. Within NZ in the 70s everyone would stay up and watch Radio With Pictures. That was one of the best bit of programming, that and Sunday Horrors. Even though it was a really filtered view of what was going on in the world people were kept up to date together to an extent. Now everyone is off doing their own thing. Sure everyone is happy listening ot what they want to listen to but that communal thing is going to be very had to happen again. How do you have a new punk rock or a new hip hop if people aren’t working against the same thing anymore. That concerns me a wee bit.
The recent changes at Flying Nun bide well for your back catalog, will you be looking to release your new material with them as well?
That’s a while down the track how we are going to deal with that. How they deal with the back catalog is going to be the most crucial thing. It makes sense in this day and age for bands to maintain rights to their catalogs and for record companies to do what they do best and distribute it. That is certainly an option. We hope to have a new album out as soon as possible. I’m not going to make any promises when though.
I caught up with Graeme Jefferies of Cake Kitchen when he was living here in Sydney and I was impressed by his passion for continually writing and recording new music. There seems to still be a strong drive by the likes of Shayne Carter, The Bats, David Kilgour, The Verlaines etc to keep releasing music. What is it about music that keeps you motivated?
I’m not quite sure, it’s the only thing I can really do. When I discovered that I could write and perform music and emote an audience it was like finally finding myself and what I could do. I think that’s basically the same for the Kilgour brothers and Robert Scott, Shayne Carter and Peter Gutteridge who is still going. Any number of them. I suspect in some ways that we live in a country where we are a bit spoilt. We can get by on unemployment benefits and other benefits. It was a mixed blessing having hepatitis C and I remember feeling very dodgy and not being able to physically hold down a regular job but to be able to get through an hour and a half of music on a night I could build myself up for that. In other countries like USA it must be an absolute nightmare for people who are really very sick but have no choice but t hobble along to work each day – its crazy.
That is one weird part to it but the main factor is that I don’t think any of us imagines a life without doing it. Its an interesting way of judging the ones who were truly into it from the start. Without naming any names there are some people that I’m not surprised have fallen by the way. They were the ones ‘getting it out of their system’ before settling down to a real job. You can spot them a mile off. There’s that rock & roll thing and, whatever it is, some people have got it and believe in it and some people it’s just a bit of fun when you are an adolescent and then you settle down and get serious. We’ve grown old and gotten serious but more serious about rock music and its role as a form of social change its still a very powerful medium, often misused I think.
I first heard Pink Frost as a 12 year old staying up late to watch Radio With Pictures and was mesmerised by it. Did it always have that haunting feel or did that come in the studio when it was recorded?
Definitely before, that was why we rushed to record it. It was one of those magic songs that did happen in the space of a couple of hours – including the lyrics. I had this atmospheric song that needed an explanation and so the story was that someone woke and discovered they’d killed their girlfriend in their sleep. The strange thing was that happened a few months ago, somebody actually did that though its probably not the first time ever. The lyrics to that extent are a wee bit throwaway and naive but they perfectly suit the atmosphere of that song and we quickly managed to capture that although we did initially think we’d missed it and would have to go back again because we were due to go back to Dunedin from Auckland where we recorded it. Then Martin Bull got sick and subsequently died. We went back and listened to it and realised we had just about got it. It just needed a slightly bigger guitar and a better vocal I think and there it was.
That video is still my favourite of all the Chills videos and has stood the test of time and I can say proudly that most of the ideas of that were mine which was good. We were working with Midnight Productions which was Steve Young of Mother Goose and we were just buzzing with ideas, one of those special things that happened, it was really good. A band has done a tribute to the actual video almost shot for shot. I was really pleased.
14th May – East Brunswick Club VIC
15th May – Oxford Art Factory NSW