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The Chills Share New Album 'Snow Bound' + Interview

The Chills Share New Album 'Snow Bound' + Interview

Interview by Stef Animal / Friday 14th September, 2018 3:17PM

Dunedin music icon Martin Phillipps' hugely influential group The Chills have unveiled Snow Bound, their first studio album since 2015's Silver Bullets, and are kicking off their extensive nationwide tour in celebration of its release tonight at Hamilton's Altitude Bar. Phillipps recently chatted with Wellington-based electronic artist (and Chills enthusiast) Stef Animal about the ideas surrounding Snow Bound, a forthcoming documentary about Phillipps' life and more, in an illuminating interview you can read below. The Chills will be joined on their tour for selected dates by Finn Andrews (The Veils), Tiny Ruins, Reb Fountain, and Steve Gunn, read the in-depth conversation while streaming the new album...

You’ve got this album coming out Snow Bound. How are you feeling about it?

Really good, I think it’s probably the best recorded Chills album. Due to a whole series of events it became quite a rush to get it done at the end. I had this whole other direction I was going to try, I basically ran out of time to learn the new technology I was going to use for this other direction. But luckily a whole bunch of good songs had come together and I suddenly realised there was a much better view of what I wanted to say amongst those anyway. Which was kind of - what people my age group, like the hippies in the 60s and the beatniks thought that they’d help change the world and that kind of attitude, and all of a sudden not only find that things are not only going backwards, but you’re not longer seen as a relative point of view, to contribute. Snow Bound is people stuck in a situation trying to re-evaluate what they can do, whether to move forward or how to contribute.

You feel like you usually have a ‘frame’ like that for an album, like an ideological story or a position?

Not so much. The rule has been for quite some time, unless it’s worthy material that makes some sort of statement, it’s not worth putting out.

So that’s how you usually approach an album? You kind of collect material that you’re feeling good about?

When it comes to the final selection, even then that can be - the lightweight pop songs can sound much better than the meaningful and tender lyric, which sounds pretentious. Silver Bullets, the previous album, that was a statement in terms of aggressive movements that have changed the world, as opposed to way back with Soft Bomb, which was a pacifist impacting. So pretty soon I knew this new album had an overall kind of statement. I generally don’t try and force it, it becomes apparent. Right near the end I might try and twist things a bit with selecting material, but if there’s an overall theme and a couple of options for songs then I’ll veer towards the ones that help the theme.

One thing about Snow Bound, is that because all the previous albums, they lurch all over the place, they’ll go from ballad-y, orchestral, jangly pop, almost sort of punk stuff. It’s really difficult to put them all in one sort of ‘space’. That was definitely kept in mind for this time, so it actually flows as an album. It was certainly the most involved the band has been.

(With) Silver Bullets I really needed to make a statement myself after all those years. If it went well, I didn’t want it to be credited to the new producer or something that “rescued Martin from his drug induced hell and wrung the best out of him.” I wanted to show what I could do and where we were going. The band had a lot of input, but right now they had the blueprints and understood how we communicate in the studio and the pace needed to get things done. When we approached this one, we really only had about two weeks recording over about a month. Ten days in Revolver Studios in Waiuku out of Auckland and then a week down here at Port Chalmers Recording Services, and then with me just one day at Roundhead back up at Auckland, although Greg Haver the producer has been doing other stuff as well. All the time that week we were working in Revolver, the files would be sent overseas overnight while we were asleep for editing and would come back in the mornings so we could work on them more. Then it was mixed and mastered overseas.

Someone was doing all that production work remotely?

Yeah, it was a machine that Greg Haver got used to using and it was really good. It keeps things going so you don’t waste time in the studio.

It’s good that you can pull that off remotely. Whoever you’re working with has got sympathy for what you’re trying to do.

Yeah well it was a test of fate for me, I’d never done that before.

You like to sit in on the mixing?

Yeah. We did one trial mix on one of the songs and it’s pretty much the same thing. Normally I’m out of the room while the engineer and producer do the initial… just checking out these takes, the real basic stuff. Then I come in when they have a rough mix. That’s pretty much what I was doing anyway, it’s just that room happened to be on the other side of the world. We were doing Skyping and sending files back and forth. Greg cottoned on to my communication which can be very descriptive and non-technical. I do call back “crashing the waves” and “we need more stars in the sky.” I’m learning how to bind that imagery, which can be really handy, with much more technically specific ideas as to how that might be achieved.

So you’re happy with it?

Oh yeah. There’s nothing on the album I’m really disappointed with. There were things that aren't what I set out to achieve, but not in a bad way. In fact some of them have gotten better than what I wanted. Some of them are alternate realities of the same concepts. And some really flourish. ‘The Greatest Guide?’, more or less is about David Bowie but also Lou Reed, Prince, other people that have been pioneers, not in just music but in life. It was a very hit and miss song, it was very hard to get across to people that it wasn’t almost a bad rock and roll structure, and it ended up nicely epic.

And now you’re going on tour? How’s that, it looks like a good comprehensive tour as well.

Yeah, with the Silver Bullets tour we get out off the beaten track in New Zealand, the main centres, for the first time in many years. We used to do that a lot in the 80s and early 90s and it’s so much more fun. Sometimes it’s frustrating because you’re more likely to get audiences that are expecting a nostalgia, greatest hits package. We include enough to satisfy that, but they also realise it’s an ongoing thing and they always leave blown away or satisfied. So it’s good as opposed to the more “seen it all” snobbery of the main centres. We’re looking forward to doing that and still putting together the overseas tour to follow.

That’s exciting.

It’s so expensive, there’s five people in the band, we need a sound person to travel with. If we were The Clean and it was just bass, drums, guitar, vocals. Within reason you can pick up anybody to do a good job, that has a good reputation. But we’ve got four vocalists, violin, guitar, another guitar, three keyboards.

A balancing act.

…by the time we've got that, picking up the stage tech, three of the band have got families and they’ve all got jobs, you have to replenish the coffers for those. It’s really expensive, around 20 grand before you can even start touring.

Do you enjoy touring?

I think I do again. I was very nervous last time because I don't know what it was going to be like after such a long hiatus. Especially for my voice, so we timed it with no more than three shows in a row with a definite day off, which means no live radio stuff. That worked for the last European tour but I’m 55 now, I’ve just got to be more careful. I didn’t used to know how to write my own vocal range so things like ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’, unfortunately, is me straining my voice, right at the top of my range for three minutes almost without a break.

That’s fine in the studio maybe.

And it was fine when I was 25. Now it’s a real challenge, it can ruin my voice for a couple of days but we have to play that song most nights.

Can you have some instruments that are tuned down especially for that?

In theory we could tune the whole thing down but it’d still be high register, just a wee bit lower. It’s more about the fact that I used to write a lot of lyrics and there’d be hardly any room for breaths, let alone musical interludes and that’s one of the worst ones. The only break I get is when I start going “a ha” for like three minutes. It’s great fun to play it live but it is pretty much like “here we go, destroy the voice.”

Do you leave it till the end?

Yeah, then there’s usually just enough left to croak out ‘Leather Jacket’ or something like that.

You’ve had this film crew following you around for a year now?

It’s over two years of filming now.

How’s that been affecting everything?

It’s been really good, overall. It’s been a lot more challenging... I’m trying to think of a nice word for intrusive. It hasn't really been intrusive, it’s been very considerate the way they’ve approached it, but it’s a big story with some dark areas and stuff that’s been going on the last years that they weren’t anticipating when they drew up the rough plan of what they’re trying to capture. So it become also a real unfolding of how the story progresses.

But they’ve ended up with a really quite an amazing film from what I’ve seen of it. For a start they filmed it for the big screen, most of them film for satellite channels and stuff and then maybe get shown in the film festivals, but it’s the other way with this so it looks amazing. Luckily The Chills’ archive is in better condition in terms of access then most. I’ve always kept lists of where things were. So we’ve tracked down some remarkable old stuff and there’s enough pain and hurt people and that sort of side story that people have been... the key players are of the age now that they can sit back and they see it’s water under the bridge and they’ve still got, what I consider things to say. So I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Plenty of material, it’s not just filler.

Yeah, there’s already way to much. There is talk of a DVD so there’ll be heaps of features. They hope to have it finished by around November to finalise what film festivals internationally are going to show it, then it won't be back here until about this time next year.

I suppose it’s a lot more revealing than releasing an album.

I’m thinking of it as my only opportunity to try and make sure that the story was treated with respect. That was my undertaking, was to open up and be as honest as I can within reason, knowing that everybody creates their own version of events. It’s ironic that we’ve got the worst ratio of appalling band videos of just about any band. Most of them are terrible. But a couple like the ‘Pink Frost’ one that I had the most input into has actually aged the best out of the lot of them. So that’s good.

What’s your favourite album / recording project that you’ve been involved with? Do you have one that you’re most proud of?

The current one? The most memorable would be Submarine Bells, because it was the golden period when we were signed with Warner Brothers. We were recording in late summer in Sussex in the beautiful scenery and a deer would walk past, and a fox would spring over the fence with the golden sun setting behind it. It was one of the most amazing things I ever saw and it felt like all the work had lead up to then, it was already a whole decade, it was paying off and we were riding our wave and the music was there and it just felt really good. Strangely enough, I don't recall a hell of a lot about the actual recording process. Bits and pieces but it was just kind of like, once you’re in there doing it it’s work. I don’t recall that moment when I knew I’d sung the song the best it had ever been, or [melodramatic voice] "the way the guitar rang, I looked at them, they looked at me, we knew we had it." There’s none of those stories, because I’ve never been a great instrumentalist, I’m kind of a rudimentary musician, trying to realise vision more than actually being effective at playing. I kind of fumble through my part and try to put together good bands to cover up part of it.

So the recording process is really just the work…

Well we make it fun and maybe I might have stressed that wrong. Because it is immensely satisfying. For me also, the main thing is there’s always this thinking that I might get squashed by a bus and have those songs in my head not really get out there. When you’re in a studio and it’s vibing out, I start avoiding roads and start avoiding people until it’s finally done. In this case we had to fly down to New Zealand, the plane’s gonna crash before the final mix. When you finally sign off that final mix, it’s a weird feeling. Obviously it’s also a bit of a downer as well, because that enormous adrenaline filled ride is over and it’s kind of like back to reality.

It’s so important though isn't it, to finish things. Even just finish one thing so that you can sign it off in your head.

Yeah I’ve been learning a lot about that. That’s part of being my age but also that health scare I had a few years back, was finally putting on hold numerous little projects in my head. Do I really wanna do that? All those hair ties I collected. Do I really wanna actually do an art project with those? Is that more important than putting another record out? No it’s not. It’s gone. And that’s a feeling of relief. What do I need to do? I do need to get my diaries annotated. There’s massive work to do there, there’s about 18 years of very fine, sprawly print diaries. We’ve already one about 10 years, just really sorting my archives

The amount of projects that really need to be done is finite and that’s an amazing feeling. If I can tick of these major ones without letting myself start drifting into, as you suggested making a movie or something, and just really focus on the music, because that is what I do best. I’ll be in a really fortunate space compared to most people who would spend a lot of their lives dreaming of doing a thing, and never get the chance to complete it or maybe even start it. One of the best things about now is that not only do I have the chance to do not one but two really fine albums, and bring the whole Chills story up to date, so it’s no longer about stuff I did way back then and I already have about four songs on the way for the next one, without even touching the literally hundreds of raw ideas. So it’s good, the machinery is starting to be attractive to me again.

You’re a viable artist, it’s always a nice feeling. This might be a good time to ask for some recommendations – what’s a good book?

I just read a think piece today about Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, because I really enjoy Neil Gaiman’s comic stuff, Sandman and so on. I was lucky enough to have my finger on the pulse back then, when that whole adult swing of comics took over, Watchmen and Frank Miller stuff and everything. Neil Gaiman was very quickly the next generation.


An ex-neighbour of mine, we’ve got a bad habit of going to see the latest Marvel, DC and Star Wars movies. So Ant-Man and the Wasp was actually really good. We liked Deadpool and Deadpool 2, Taika Waititi's Thor.

What’s your album of last week?

I’ve been going through a hell of a lot of Bob Dylan. Doing a hell of a lot of catching up. I think next week’s album is going to be Ha The Unclear, from the two songs I’ve heard so far… I just really like what they’re doing, where they’re going.

'Snow Bound' is out now via Fire Records.

You catch The Chills playing throughout Aotearoa this September and October in celebration of their new album - for tickets and more info head over here.


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