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Martin Phillipps talks Pink Frost and The Chills

Martin Phillipps talks Pink Frost and The Chills

Thursday 4th June, 2009 12:00PM

Legendary New Zealand band The Chills, headed by Martin Phillipps, are playing a very special show on Friday June 12th at the MonteCristo Room in Auckland. It’s to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their single “Pink Frost”, released in June 1984. Having played bass for Martin for a short period in the 1990s, “Pink Frost” has its own special meaning for me. It uses a unique musical language unlike anything I’ve heard since.

Below is a very special guest post, written by Martin Phillipps himself. It’s the story of the Chills’ “Pink Frost” from its inception in Dunedin to recording in Auckland. And he should know, he was there…

Song: “Pink Frost” (Martin Phillipps/Terry Moore)
Date: Early 1982
Location: Phillipps family’s home, Upper Albany Street, Dunedin, N.Z.

It was one of those special and very rare occasions when the ideas were coming so quickly that it was difficult keeping up, writing down, turning those head sounds into guitar notes - truly feeling you are simply the receiving vessel for ideas from “beyond”.

Minus the intro section, “Pink Frost” was born fully formed in music and lyrics (I’m guessing) in less than two hours. “That sounds good!” said Mum from the dining room next door. I thought so too.

The next day at rehearsal - with bassist Terry Moore and recently joined drummer Martyn Bull (fresh from a stint as guitarist with Dunedin’s The Elevators, who also included future Snapper member Christine Voice), we worked on the song and - by modifying two riffs Terry was fortunately doodling on that day - we added the two intro sections.

I believe the song was debuted that very week at Dunedin’s now legendary Empire Tavern and I know that it has been performed at nearly every Chills show since then. It is the song we shall be remembered for. It’s my choice, anyway.

Pink Frost
It was recorded at Auckland’s Lab Studios on the 29th of May, 1982 - a mere ten days after the recording of our first 45, “Rolling Moon”. My younger sister Rachel had been on tour with us playing keyboards again (as she had in the first line-up of The Chills back in late 1980) because our then current keyboardist Fraser Batts had been unable to tour and had left the band - but then Rachel left too and returned to Dunedin. We were left only able to record the songs that worked as a three-piece - a situation which has turned out to be extremely fortunate, historically.

We decided, after recording “Pink Frost” and “Purple Girl”, that we hadn’t quite captured the former but that we could return to Auckland later to complete it and the other songs destined for the Rainbow E.P. which was to have collected all the colour-titles onto one record: “Pink Frost”, “Purple Girl”, “Green-Eyed Owl”, “Red Sky Morning” and “Night Of Chill Blue”.

The normally extremely-fit Martyn Bull was noticeably tired after the “Pink Frost” recording session and subsequently slept for much of the time in the back of our CF Bedford van on the way home to Dunedin. Two weeks later he was diagnosed as having leukemia and the battle to save him began.

Terry and I agreed to put the band on hold for a while rather than finding a replacement drummer - so as to show Martyn our belief in his inevitable recovery. I guess I didn’t realise how long that process might take and I really didn’t believe that he might actually die. He had always been just so healthy!

But, soon feeling that the chemotherapy was killing him more quickly than the actual disease, he discharged himself from hospital.

His partner, Kathy Griffen, had already begun to use her ever-growing knowledge of natural healing to fight for his life. Others joined her, and the effect was remarkable. A change of location to the warmer climate of Masterton in the North Island also helped and Martyn’s friends were thrilled when many of us were able to travel to Masterton to celebrate his clearly visible ongoing recovery and, of more immediate importance, his marriage to Kathy Bull!

On the 4th of December 1982 I was honoured to act as Best Man (in an atrocious hired suit with flares!) while Terry Moore, representing Kathy’s father, gave the bride away. Norma O’Malley (who played alongside Kathy in Dunedin’s wonderful all-woman band, Look Blue Go Purple) was the Best Woman and the whole occasion was wonderful.

Some months later Martyn returned to Dunedin looking thin but great and joined in a couple of truly awesome (recorded) jams in the tentatively entitled Time Flies with David Kilgour, Terry Moore, myself and, a little later, Peter Allison on keyboards. We thought, at that stage, that a break from the name of “The Chills” might be timely; it had already been problematic after only two years!

But, sadly, it quickly became apparent that the music was taking too much energy from Martyn. I still believe that the realisation that he could perhaps never play the music as he wanted to was subsequently a major factor in his losing the desire to survive.

There was a great version of “Oncoming Day” (and another of my songs, “Dolphins”), filmed at South Dunedin’s Mayfair Theatre for TVNZ by the enthusiastic cameraman and Dunedin-music supporter, Peter Janes, but only afterwards did I learn quite how sick Martyn had been throughout - and he had never complained.

In fact, during the entire tragic affair I remember him always managing one of his heart-warming smiles for me. I’m sure Kathy Bull saw the other side of things - particularly after they had returned to Masterton and in the leading up to his death on the 18th of July, 1983. She had fought hard the entire time and not until that last sigh left him did she believe he could not be saved. She has since become a naturopath of growing acclaim (under her new name of Francisca Griffen) and continues to save others - or, I am sure she would say, help them save themselves. She is raising an excellent crop of children and continues to make music long after the demise of the much missed afore-mentioned L.B.G.P. and another local group during that time of continual reshuffling, the Bel-Curves (who had also included our friend Selwyn Andrews, plus Martyn Bull on guitar and ex-Bored Games drummer, Jeff Harford).

Following Martyn’s death it was obvious to Terry Moore, myself and the others involved at the Flying Nun and recording end of things that we would have to listen to the version of “Pink Frost” which we were left with - and we were all pleasantly surprised. It was suggested that an extra guitar overdub would do wonders and it certainly needed a better lead vocal so Terry and I returned to Auckland, this time to Progressive Studios, to complete and mix the single on the Fifth of January, 1984.

Everyone was thrilled with the final result and Terry had also taken a beautiful photo of frosted grass that was used for the cover of the single when it was finally released - nearly two years having passed since the initial recording.

So - it’s a long tale but it needed to be told!

There are still those who believe “Pink Frost” is about Martyn Bull - Hello! He drummed on the bloody thing!! - but, in a sense it has certainly become part of his story and his bewilderingly original, masterful approach to music making is well-captured in “Pink Frost” and it continues to inspire.

There is a live version, recorded on cassette at the Reverb Room in Auckland just a few days prior to the actual studio recording, which has a more powerful drumming style, and it reminds me that Martyn always said that he hadn’t quite achieved what he had intended to on the take, which we used for the single.

Martyn Bull was born on the 6th of March 1961 and died aged 22 yet, to me, he STILL feels older than I am. He was someone to look up to, someone special. It was the first passing of a friend for most of us in that young Dunedin music scene of that time but it is not that which still keeps this story so alive in my mind. He was one of the special ones; one of those people whom we are honoured to meet, if we are so fortunate, during our short lives.

I think about him often and still miss him.

The song, “Pink Frost”, continues to convey an atmosphere that I am sure he would be proud of.

Martin Phillipps, Dunedin, NZ
May 2009

Story from
The Chills play the Montecristo Room, Auckland, June 12th.
Tickets are available from here

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The Chills
Fri 12th Jun 8:00pm
Monte Cristo Room, Auckland