One of the keenest double-edged swords in rock music is that, while certain musical approaches never go out of style, they’re never truly in style either. In the indie-rock space, this most obviously applies to a multitude of promising bands from the pre-Nevermind era of college radio who ended up with much shorter careers than they deserved, because the rising tide of “alternative rock” in the early-1990s favored distortion over melody. It also holds true for the practitioners who endured to have careers old enough to have children of their own by now. With a history encompassing more than 40 years, few bands embody this truth as artfully as New Zealand’s The Chills.
Best known in the United States for the 1990 single “Heavenly Pop Hit,” The Chills formed in Dunedin, a city in the Otago region of New Zealand, in 1980. The band soon signed with local label Flying Nun Records and released their first recordings in 1982. In addition to three tracks on Dunedin Double, a two-EP set from Flying Nun showcasing bands from that city, the band released their debut single, “Rolling Moon,” a song that became the group’s first hit in their home country, later that year. More recently, The Chills completed a successful tour of the United States to promote their latest album, the excellent 2021 release Scatterbrain.
The one constant throughout The Chills’ history has been lead singer and songwriter Martin Phillipps. Talking about the band’s early years, in an interview before the band’s November 2022 show in Washington DC, Phillipps recalled, “The whole thing was quite a learning curve, because there wasn’t really an established independent music scene when we started.“ The group’s first decade was busy and often difficult – filled with relentless touring, departing band members (many due to interpersonal conflict but also one who died of leukemia), and at least one occasion where the group’s future was in serious doubt.
Phillipps persevered, and The Chills’ international reputation continued to grow, alongside fellow Dunedin bands, such as The Verlaines, who also found receptive audiences on American college radio. This period culminated in the band signing a deal with Warner Brothers subsidiary Slash Records. “1990 came around with us signed to a major,” said Phillipps. “So we were sort of riding the crest of that wave in some ways.”
Recorded evidence of The Chills’ shifting fortunes came on their 1990 album, Submarine Bells, produced by Gary Smith, whose production work included such alternative music icons as The Pixies and Blake Babies. Submarine Bells’ best-known track, “Heavenly Pop Hit,” made a powerful argument in support of UK music critic Andrew Stafford’s assertion that The Chills were, “The greatest singles band New Zealand produced, after Split Enz.”
Possibly the best Beach Boys song not written by Brian Wilson, it was a major hit in New Zealand and received airplay on both college radio and MTV in the United States. The song remains a fixture in The Chills’ concerts, even as world events have rendered its opening line somewhat out of date.
Each evening the sun sets in five-billion places
Seen by ten-billion eyes set in five-billion faces
While Phillipps acknowledges drawing some inspiration from Sparks’ 1979 hit “The Number One Song in Heaven.” the singer stressed that his own intent was not at all ironic. “It was not a tongue-cheek song,” he recalled, adding. “It was trying to do something big and beautiful that wasn’t lightweight. That had something…something credible behind it.” The broader influences on the tracks were producer Phil Spector’s “little symphonies for kids” concept and the music of Brian Wilson.
The troubled Beach Boys leader’s influence speaks to a core aspect of Phillipps’ songwriting, the streak of melancholy that permeates The Chills’ music, from early singles such as 1984’s “Pink Frost” to the present. This was memorialized on “Song for Randy Newman etc.,” a track from the band’s 1992 album Soft Bomb. “People like Nick Drake, Syd Barrett, Randy Newman, and Scott Walker, there’s a dark side to all of my favorite songwriters. And that’s always been the case with me,” related Phillipps. “All the kind of pop songs – ‘Kaleidoscope World,’ ‘Rolling Moon’, ‘Doledrums,’ ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ – they…they’re never quite what they seem. There’s always, there’s always a little undercurrent of reality, if not overt darkness then at least, a bit of balance.”
Balance was in short supply for The Chills for most of the 1990s. Soft Bomb featured several excellent songs, like “Male Monster from the Id,” but Nirvana’s breakthrough left very little oxygen in the “alternative music” ecosystem for bands outside of grunge. Phillipps dissolved the band mid-tour, then reversed course soon after to record the 1996 album Sunburnt, a return to Flying Nun credited to Martin Phillipps & The Chills. From there, the band entered a period that even by their own standards seemed profoundly unsettled. Though he continued to play shows with rotating line-ups of The Chills, Phillipps didn’t release any new material for several years, in part because he was suffering from Hepatitis C, contracted during a period of drug addiction.
After the 2004 EP Stand By, nearly a decade passed until the next Chills release, but in 2013, they released the live album Somewhere Beautiful as well as a new single entitled “Molten Gold,” both via their new label Fire Records. “Molten Gold” later appeared on the 2015 album Silver Bullets, a record which demonstrated that despite the long gap, the fundamental qualities of Martin Phillipps’ songwriting were undiminished. The concern for the human condition that animated earlier songs like “Doledrums” appeared in the infectious track “When the Poor Can Reach the Moon” while another standout, “Warm Waveform,” displayed his enduring gift for seductive melodies and somewhat otherworldly atmosphere.
The latter element – the way their songs sometimes sound like radio broadcasts from another planet – has been part of The Chills’ musical identity since their early singles. “So much of our material is very cinematic…even without the lyrics,” observed Phillipps, noting that “Pink Frost,” a track he identified as the quintessential Chills song, would have fit nicely into the TV series Stranger Things, whose most recent season gave another cult figure from the 1980s a boost in popularity. “It doesn’t sound like any other band, and I’m still very proud of it. And every night we play it. It’s…it’s a joy to be part of the atmosphere of ‘Pink Frost.’”
With Martin Phillipps’ health improved after a number of treatments for his Hepatitis, The Chills are as active now as they’ve ever been. Silver Bullets was followed by 2018’s Snow Bound and last year’s Scatterbrain, along with a number of singles and additional tracks. Comparison with the period that yielded Brave Words, Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb doesn’t lie solely in the number of records released but also the strength of the work. Guitar-driven-but-keyboard-accented songs such as Snow Bound’s title track and The Walls Beyond Abandon from Scatterbrain sound as good as nearly anything in The Chills catalog. This achievement wasn’t lost on the group’s leader, who observed, “We’ve established ourselves as one of…I must say one of the few bands who have kept going this long and who are still doing good quality material.”
For all his pride in The Chills’ longevity, Phillipps expresses both self-deprecating and philosophical attitudes towards the many fits and starts within their history. When asked if there was ever a time where he was sure it was the end of the line for the group, he jokingly replied, “pretty much every second week,” before taking a more thoughtful turn. “There is something in me that keeps going, and I’ve got such a wonderful band now.”
In at least one respect, his “wonderful band” represents a decided break with their early history. “You know, there’s the whole thing about the Chills’ ever-changing personnel line-up,” said Phillipps. “But in fact, we’ve only lost two people in the last 22 years, so it’s been a very stable line-up.” A welcome side-effect of that stability is that before working on their next “proper new album”, the band can devote their attention to a collection of previously unrecorded songs from The Chills’ early years, expected to be released in 2023, as well as a remastered edition of the group’s first album, Brave Words. Though international stardom turned out not to be The Chills’ path, their musical legacy remains as enviable as it is tuneful.
Photo: The Chills (Alex Lovell-Smith via Fire Records)