Martin Phillipps is one of New Zealand’s great songwriters. As the only constant member of The Chills, Phillipps helped invent the sound that came to define Flying Nun Records in the ‘80s and early-’90s. You can’t imagine that era without having ‘Pink Frost’ and ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ roll around in your brain. And while the band’s productivity has ebbed and flowed ever since, Phillipps is currently as productive as ever. Martin Phillipps and his band The Chills are the subject of a new feature documentary – check out their Facebook page for more info.
When was the last time you were this busy?
Things changed around 2011 when we got interest from record labels, which resulted with us going with Fire Records and then releasing a new album which was partly recorded in Thailand and partly in Dunedin and London.
There was a bit of nervousness on the part of old Chills fans about a new album after all this time, which is a sensible fear to have as there have been so many disappointing comeback albums. But we wouldn't have done it if it was going to be substandard. I don't want The Chills to go out with that. It was really nice on a personal level to bring the Chills saga up to date and not just be known as a band that did some stuff in the '80s and '90s.
How did that pressure affect the band’s re-entry into the world?
From our point of view, The Chills had never really stopped. We'd just sort of disappeared off the radar, working low-key, doing the odd gig here and there. I was still writing songs, waiting for an opportunity to record a new album as well as it should be done and have the support to get that record out there.
I was determined not to be out touring as an awful nostalgia act, playing the handful of hits surrounded by a bunch of cover songs that people probably thought were ours. It was just a matter of getting out there and showing people. It was great to see the look on the faces of the old fans who came along wondering if we were going to screw up their memories. But by the end of the first song, they're all giving each other high-fives and hugs and they realise we're taking it seriously.
How has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?
I'm carrying on being me and my response to the world. The difference is, having generally avoided making any social commentary or political stances or material in the past, I'm finding that that's happening naturally a lot more as the seriousness of the world situation has and an impact on everything I see around me and therefore comes out in the music. But I don't want more trash going out and added to the huge pile of musical rubbish which is everywhere. If it's going out with The Chills name, I want it to be recognisably us.
So where’s your music heading?
The vague concept I have in my head for the next album is something I'm really excited by. I've got an idea where I'm taking it but the specifics get worked out as we go. And I have been learning to trust the expertise and skill within my own band. They now all understand where I'm coming from and how not to sound like other people,
so it's time to really open up, not be so tight on the controls of my own music. Just really let the band show me different avenues.
Are you excited about touring the country again?
Yes. There are some places we haven't been for 20 years. The problem is that we've been stuck doing the main centres for the past few years and we're usually on our way somewhere – on our way overseas or about to record. So this is just us wanting to get out and reconnect with the joy of touring your own country, which is what we did an awful lot in the '80s and '90s. And it'll be a mixture of old and new. We can't play everything – we've got enough well-known songs to play
an entire set.
How do find the right balance between old and new material?
I put a lot of thought into the set list but there's always going to be people who are disappointed that they didn't hear certain songs. There are certain songs I feel obligated to play. If I go and see a certain band, I expect to hear certain songs and unless we get really sick of playing them, songs like 'Pink Frost' are always fun to play. It's an atmosphere that takes over the stage and the room. And every night is a wee bit different.
What does it feel like to play songs that you wrote in your teens and early-20s? Is it like you're revisiting your old self or is the song a separate entity with its own life?
It actually becomes more enjoyable after a while when it becomes so long since you were that person that it is like playing someone else's song. That's when you can rediscover the song just as a good song and enjoy it. So I no longer have that reticence to play songs that I don't feel in the same way. That was a problem in the early years with songs that I just didn't relate to anymore. It took me a long time to realise that you don't need to. Just enjoy them as songs. You don't need to try and remember exactly how you felt as a 17-year-old.