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Martin Phillipps of The Chills: ‘There’s common link between New Zealand and Ireland. We’ve both been done wrong’

It’s a long time since Martin Phillipps and his band were the next best thing, but his story of survival is remarkable


The sun never quite came up for Martin Phillipps and The Chills. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, Phillipps was widely feted as alternative music’s resident boy wonder. In the breathless style of the time, the British music press would herald The Chills as “Paul McCartney fronting Joy Division” or “Lou Reed guesting with Abba”.

The songs Phillipps wrote were indeed wondrous, combining the tumult of punk and the happy/sad ache of classic pop. But media acclaim failed to translate into commercial success and darkness descended. “I was kind of like the wimp at school. And then, all of a sudden, I find myself as a minor-league rock star. Things were going well with Warner Brothers,” Phillipps says. “Then it flipped again.”

Dropped by Warner Records, The Chills unravelled, as did Phillipps. He spiralled into booze and then heroin, or the closest thing to heroin he could lay his hands on in distant Dunedin, in New Zealand’s far south. And then his liver packed in. It’s been a long journey back.

“I think I was in a shock for a few years. But I never stopped making music during that time,” Phillipps says. “I can’t estimate how many songs I have unfinished: it must be 400 or 500. I never stopped doing that.”

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Phillipps is speaking over Zoom from Dunedin before a trip to the northern hemisphere, including a show at Whelan’s in Dublin on Thursday, June 22nd. It’s 9am in Ireland – 8pm in New Zealand – and he is in a positive frame of mind. That’s a contrast from the last time I spoke to him in 2014 when the interview was delayed because of his deteriorating health.

Phillipps contracted hepatitis C in the 1990s, during the darkest days of his heroin habit (which wasn’t technically a heroin habit, owing to the scarcity of the drug in New Zealand: he instead synthesised his own version using morphine sulphate pills). In 2016, with his liver ravaged by the condition and heavy drinking, he was diagnosed with stage four cirrhosis and given a year to live.

But then, a miracle. Phillipps was prescribed the experimental drug Harvoni, which purged his body of the hepatitis virus. He has taken it ever since, and while his liver is still a wreck, it is something he can live with.

“It will always be ongoing. Although I’m cured of the hep C virus, about 80 per cent of my liver was compromised,” Phillipps says. “So I have to be pretty careful. I stopped drinking for about 3½ years. I do drink a bit again, because I’m able to. But if I combine it with say, two nights of takeaways, then I’m sick for a full day. It’s a constant battle of learning what I can and can’t do.”

The Chills return to Ireland amid a remarkable late-career renaissance. Since 2015, the band has released three beautifully autumnal records. They hold their own against Chills classics, even as they upgrade the boyish zeal of those songs with wee-hours melancholia.

“I’m not trying to recapture the post-punk energy I had when everything had to be played 100 miles per hour,” Phillipps says. “Even though it was pop music, it was played with rock passion. That made it very hard to get it recorded properly, because record producers would hear the pop song and, in many cases, hadn’t seen the band play live and didn’t realise the potential. People who know us for 40 years say this is one of the best Chills they’ve ever seen.”

The golden rays of commercial success may never have shone on Phillipps and The Chills, but what wonders he worked in the darkness. The best Chills songs rank among the finest indie pop ever.

Thirty years later, fans can still reel them off, one classic after another. Rolling Moon, Double Summer, Doledrums, I Love My Leather Jacket, House With A Hundred Rooms, The Male Monster From the Id – a before-its-time deconstruction of toxic masculinity.

Then there is Pink Frost, where a gothic bassline and REM-style guitars collide with fever dream lyrics inspired by a nightmare in which Phillipps accidentally killed his girlfriend in his sleep (“I wanna stop my crying/ but she’s lying there dying”). Did he know when he wrote it that it would be a song that would follow him for the rest of his life?

“I didn’t at the time because I was on such a roll of songwriting,” Phillipps says, thinking back to the tune’s genesis in 1982 when he was just 19 years old. “The only inkling was that my mother stuck her head through the door and said ‘this sounds really good’. [That] was not a usual occurrence. The next day I took it to practice. Martyn Bull, our drummer, and Terry Moore, the bass player – they kind of looked at each other. They spotted it straight away. That it was something special.”

The Chills signed with local indie powerhouse Flying Nun before setting off for the UK. Much like Irish musicians of that era, they did the rounds of the labels, major and independents. Rough Trade, home to Microdisney and the Smiths, was interested for a while. Ultimately, The Chills went with Slash Records, a division of Warner Music with roots in the LA punk scene.

We quickly established there was a common link between New Zealand and Ireland in terms of their relationship with Empire. We’ve both been done wrong

“Rough Trade was a possibility. At the same time, they were very focused on the bands they had already signed. I can understand. The Chills looked like it might be a one-year wonder,” Phillipps says.

“A quick look back at what 1960s-pop could be now, in the 1980s. People were a bit cautious. We ended up with three labels under the Warner umbrella – Warner itself, Slash and Sire.

“They were all bidding for us. Warner’s accountants got word of this and said, actually, the advance would be coming out of us, whoever it is. They said, ‘We’re going to offer you this figure and you can choose our label’. It stopped the bidding war. Then somebody else came in – it might have been Columbia. And the bidding war started again.”

They went with Warner, who released their 1990 LP Submarine Bells and 1992′s Soft Bomb.

“Warner Brothers had talked about a six or seven album deal and dropped us after two. But I’m pleased to have seen that label at the end of its golden run. There were still people like Mo Ostin (the executive who signed Prince, Fleetwood Mac, Talking Heads, Paul Simon and Madonna) walking around the corridors. It was the end of an era,” Phillipps recalls.

“There were odd things. I had a meeting at Warner Brothers headquarters in Burbank. I’d left my bag behind. I went back to get it. They said: ‘You can’t go back in, Ray Charles is in there…’ I walked into a friend’s office, and David Byrne is chatting there. Another time, somebody walks out the door and kicks the wall in. It’s Ry Cooder – he’s just been told he wasn’t getting the deal he wanted.”

Phillipps always connected with the Irish artists he crossed paths with. They were all outsiders hustling in a London music industry that didn’t necessarily want anything to do with them. He recalls The Chills being in the frame for a cover on one of the music weeklies, only for the honour to pass to an English group.

“The band’s identity, being based in London at the time, was more problematic because of the rise of people like Oasis. That sort of patriotism. We came across a lot of negative responses to us just purely being from Down Under,” Phillipps says.

“We had sort of a core group of fans and so on. But it was pretty impossible to [break through], really. We couldn’t get a cover story on any of the big three weekly magazines. We sort of came close. But the real motivation was desperately trying to find British bands, to sum up what was happening post-Thatcher. And we weren’t part of that.”

Nor, he learned, were Irish peers such as That Petrol Emotion and Microdisney. “We quickly established there was a common link between New Zealand and Ireland in terms of their relationship with Empire. We’ve both been done wrong – on very different levels. You guys have had it much harder… It doesn’t go away that feeling. We found we had much more in common [with Irish musicians] than expected.”

Dunedin is one of alternative music’s great hotbeds, comparable to Olympia, Washington, a proving ground for the young Nirvana, or Athens, Georgia, which produced REM. It gave the world The Chills and groups such as The Verlaines, The Clean, The Bats and Tall Dwarfs, each idiosyncratic yet connected by a lightly-worn pop genius.

“There are only 100,000 people here. It was a university town with a big focus on culture. It attracted the right sort of people. By the time you’ve got bands like The Verlaines, Chris Knox [from Tall Dwarfs]… there were so many people with different tastes physically sharing records,” Phillipps explains.

If I wanted to reciprocate, I would have said things about all those people. It’s the nature of being young and in a band: altercations and disagreements

“You might be trying to show somebody the Velvet Underground and they’re playing you Al Green. There was a weird mixture – and very little on radio you could respond to. It was improbable that those people should be in the same place at the same time – and create a scene that is still having ramifications.”

During Phillipps’s darkest days, The Chills were often described as “cursed”. The singer had his health issues; drummer Martyn Bull died young (inspiring Phillipps to write I Love My Leather Jacket, referencing an item of clothing bequeathed him by his bandmate). And then, during the 1980s and 1990s, The Chills went through band members as though trying to rival Mark E Smith’s The Fall for hiring and firings.

In all, there were some 20 line-up changes, condemning the group to a state of permanent flux. That never-ending turmoil was the subject of a 2019 documentary, The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps, which featured tearful interviews with bandmates who felt cast aside by the singer.

“It’s probably the one aspect of the film I wasn’t entirely comfortable with,” Phillipps says. “The director was pushed into digging up more dirt. If I wanted to reciprocate, I would have said things about all those people. It’s the nature of being young and in a band: altercations and disagreements.

“To have them try and paint me as the bad guy was not entirely accurate. I accept that, looking at it now, I didn’t think enough about people. I was not trying to hurt anybody or kick anybody out or anything. It’s not entirely accurate.”

With his health restored, he has opened a new chapter for The Chills. “I’m turning 60 in July. That used to be very old. How long can you go on? It used to be that, after 25, you were out. I think people have used The Rolling Stones as a kind of marker. It’s just keep going and going.”

The Chills play Whelan’s, Dublin, on Thursday, June 22nd. A remastered edition of their first album, Brave Words, will be released in October