THE CHILLS: FRIGHTENING BEAUTY AND ETERNAL CHANGE
illustration by alice rutherford murthy
Reasons to adore the Chills: an unfailing lyric sensibility; a sound so bright and crystalline and shimmering and concise, guitars like the glint of the sun on ice; something like a preternatural melodic understanding; the capacity for the beautiful and the macabre, for criticality and the super-life-affirming, for restlessness and repose; above all, a Romantic Enthusiasm whereby a person and the world become filled with one another’s spirits, and boundaries between things are not so much blurred as they are pathways, the vehicles of another’s great depth, the registers of the other’s great reach. Given these things, it’s not hard, listening to the Chills, to go outside your own body. You’re not unsafe or unmoored, rather, you’re well-aware of a self that’s sometimes small, sometimes expansive, oftentimes both. It’s inspiring, sublime, really, and it’s why the band’s current stateside tour will be celebrated as one of those rare instances where the intensely personal and the intensely cosmic seem perfectly, positively aligned. The Chills perform their first California shows in decades on Sat., Mar. 2, at the Wayfarer in Costa Mesa and on Sun., Mar. 3, at the Regent Theater. Their 2018 album Snow Bound is available from Fire Records and their new singles collection Single Burger is just out on Burger, and The Chills Film documentary is slated for release later this year. L.A. RECORD’s Ed Johnson speaks to Chills founder and constant core member Martin Phillipps about joy, loneliness and the lasting influence of Dr. Seuss.
I wonder if I might ask about your first full US tour in 23 years thus: there are so many Chills songs that deal with longing; songs of things persistent in the mind and heart that are physically/temporally absent (ghosts, lost loves, former selves and dispositions). In some ways, 1996 seems to lie on the other side of a great historical and political divide; at other times, it feels like only yesterday … Does being on tour now trigger any feelings about time, memory, the past?
Martin Phillipps: When we began touring internationally again a few years ago I did feel some trepidation about confronting the past memories of my much younger self and the adventures we had in the late 80s and 90s, but—in fact—it has become an elating process of creating new memories and laying old ghosts. I feel a great connection with the person that I was when I wrote those strangely wise but often naive songs of love, loss and longing, but I have reached a stage where that person must take second place to the adult I am now—and what I feel is imperative to be accomplished with the Chills’ recorded output and live performances within whatever time we are allowed.
Snow Bound—the second record after a long ellipsis; marking nearly 40 years of the Chills’ existence—seems quite comfortable with the tropes of growing older: hard-won wisdom; deep, personal re-assessment; fresh eyes; perseverance. Throughout there are wonderful celebrations of things that have lasted, bittersweet farewells to those things that could not. Songs like ‘Scarred’, ‘Time to Atone’ and ‘Deep Belief’ seem to speak directly to this theme of the artist taking stock. Does the content of this album, more so than other Chills albums, blur into the context of its creation and reception?
Martin Phillipps: The making of this album was by no means easy due to many pressures from my medical treatment and my commitments to the ongoing Chills documentary and many other factors. But the band and I are very tuned-in to each other now and also capable of working quickly under pressure. Between the various members there is an awful lot of experience which all came together at the right moment.
The space in this latest album seems warmer, that is, without the daunting depths and searching instrumentation that I hear in songs like ‘The Great Escape,’ ‘Pink Frost,’ ‘Entertainer,’ or ‘Satin Doll,’ to name but a few. There is plenty of lovely transporting sound on Snow Bound, but the songs seem very firmly melodically grounded, songs for living—utilitarian songs. The playing is so great and collegial and interconnected and confident here. Is it right to take this for a kind of optimism? A general hopefulness?
Martin Phillipps: I have been saying that I wanted this album to be a ‘a Carole King Tapestry for aging punks,’ meaning that I wanted an album that connected with others from around my age-group who are having difficulty trying to find their voice and role in these troubling times. But it also needed to be a positive and powerful album and to achieve that we used an excellent producer in Greg Haver who understood what was needed to bring the Chills’ legacy up to date. I had deliberately avoided using a name producer on the previous album Silver Bullets because it was important that the band and I were able to create unhindered so we could learn to work in a studio together and produce something unique that we could subsequently use as a calling card to indicate our ongoing potential.
Chills works are often about/spoken by/for individuals that do a lot of passionate living in their own heads. The songs ‘Lord of All I Survey’ and ‘Snow Bound’ seem to describe an intelligence that is safe and warm with its own ideas and perceptions, but is maybe slowly going stir-crazy at the same time … as an artist, are there decisive moments where contemplating or synthesizing the world has to give way to being in the world?
Martin Phillipps: ‘Lord Of All I Survey’ is a personal song dealing with, once again, a relationship destroyed by distances and also the previously self-destructive personal choices of my lifestyle. In the song ‘Snow Bound’ I am both admonishing and sympathizing with someone who hoped they might escape the guilt of privilege by dedicating themselves to an ongoing series of altruistic acts only to discover that they are no longer being taken seriously. Obviously I see elements of myself in that character and I’m hoping to avert any criticisms by getting in first!
You’ve mentioned that you purposefully shy away from explicit political references, but there seem to be a number of Chills works that could be classified as calls to action. I couldn’t put an object to it, but there’s an urgency to the melody, the tempo, the vocals … given the proliferation of sickening right-wing ideas, do you feel more such songs are forthcoming?
Martin Phillipps: I feel my role now as an artist is to try to put into words concepts that many people are finding overwhelming at present when dealing with the rapid changes and enormity of what we are all having to confront. At the same time, while there is possibly more wonderful music being made these days than in any time in history, I do not want to be adding to the growing heap of awful, vapid popular music that is the face of our medium. Instead, I am trying harder than ever to self-edit and maintain a much higher quality and tackle these serious issues without getting preachy and always remembering that it is rock ‘n’ roll and it is fun!
It’s difficult to think of too many bands that so deftly combine pathos and lightness, be it from one track to the next, or within the same song. Can you talk about the role and/or the effect of humor in your work?
Martin Phillipps: Perhaps I can blame it on Dr. Seuss but I have always loved word-play, dodgy rhyming and the use of words which only reveal themselves as a different word when actually read. I have a dark sense of humour and there are many dark topics dealt with in Chills’ songs—suicide, domestic abuse, a massacre, insanity, etc.—but I try to build into all my material some sense of the context of these events within a world of frightening beauty and eternal change.
The Chills, while unafraid to give voice to despair, seem to me poets of that joyous sensitivity to the outside world that results from being alone. Alone or otherwise, what brings you all joy these days?
Martin Phillipps: As a band I believe we go well beyond many other groups in genuinely looking out for each other and by communicating any issues to the best of our abilities, but also giving each other necessary space when needed. It is a constant balancing act but this is the most relaxed—yet seriously efficient—touring group I have ever been with. There is happiness in that. Three of the five members have families and that, obviously, is their main source of joy and growth. I experience loneliness but also the exhilaration of solitude in the extraordinary landscapes which surround my home town of Dunedin.
I wanted to recognize your poetic and practical interest in the natural world—have you left any room in your American tour schedule for transcendental experiences?
Martin Phillipps: Obviously tours are incredibly expensive, therefore hours for rest and recreation are few and far between, but we are using the opportunities we have to get out and see as much as we can. This usually means a famous gallery, exhibition, museum or pop-culture/historical site, but on the long drives we can often be exposed to startling new scenery just around the next corner. All of this gives us at least the impression of places we would together or individually like to return to for longer experiences.
This may sound really snobby, but I don’t think I’m the only American who was/is amazed by the abundance of high-order rock and roll coming out of New Zealand. And you have said—paraphrasing—that the U.S. has hosted some of the best Chills performances ever. What is it, if anything, about the N.Z.-U.S. relationship?
Martin Phillipps: These are huge generalizations but I guess, to some extent, Australians would see us as uppity cousins if we got too big and the British might always see us as backwards colonials, while both Europe and the United States may see us as novelties with strange accents but they take us seriously as artists. But in America, we have always found the sort of people who enjoy our music are also more welcoming and hospitable. We seem to share a love of intelligent pop/rock music and culture generally.
I know you’re not quite here yet, but will there any moments of reverie on arriving in the city of Roger McGuinn? Joni Mitchell? Captain Beefheart? The Weirdos? Randy Newman? The Urinals? … Am I leaving anyone out?
Martin Phillipps: I don’t remember doing this often before but on this tour we are having fun finding appropriate music to both prepare ourselves and enter each city. We used the Modern Lovers’ ‘Roadrunner’ to enter Boston, we drove through Baltimore listening to both Nina Simone’s and Randy Newman’s song about that city and today we drove into Detroit listening to the Temptations’ ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’—having decided that both the Stooges and MC5 actually lived too far out of town.
I’m looking forward to seeing the movie. Were there any conventions of the rock and roll documentary that you all wanted to avoid—or embrace? Did seeing it/making it spark any new, unique self-realizations?
Martin Phillipps: It quickly became apparent that this movie was not going to be a standard ‘rockumentary’ by any means—primarily due to my health issues—so we were all winging it to some extent. [Phillipps has been battling Hepatitis-C—ed.] But the decision had also been made to create something of cinematic quality and, having seen a nearly final edit, I believe that all involved have produced a very special film which is genuinely moving and rewarding.
THE CHILLS WITH COTILLON AND VENETIAN BLINDS ON SAT., MAR. 2, AT THE WAYFARER, 843 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA. 8 PM / $20-$25 / 21+. GET TICKETS HERE! AND WITH COTILLON AND THE FAWNS OF LOVE ON SUN., MAR. 3, AT THE REGENT THEATER, 448 S. MAIN ST., DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / $20-$25 / 18+. GET TICKETS HERE! THE CHILLS’ SNOW BOUND IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM FIRE. THE CHILLS’ SINGLE BURGER EP IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM BURGER RECORDS. VISIT THE CHILLS AT SOFTBOMB.COM.