Perhaps the most widely known and beloved combo of New Zealand’s ’80s indie-pop boom, Dunedin’s Chills — led by singer/writer/guitarist Martin Phillipps — made clean, understated, catchy music whose consistent taste and subtlety conspired to keep the band from having real commercial success in this country. At its best, the Chills’ work boasted an undercurrent of dark uneasiness that clearly marked it as a vehicle for personal expression rather than mere genre exercise. Guitars may twinkle like harps and jangle over angelically whispery vocals, but the love songs are never gooey. Gooey bands do not write lines like “Oh god this white ward stinks, sterilized stench of sticky death, sniveling relatives at the feet of another moist corpse, but that corpse is Jayne and Jayne can’t die” (from Brave Words‘ “16 Heart-throbs”). Soppy sentimentalists aren’t honest enough to admit “I’d like to say how I love you but it’s all been said in other songs” as Phillipps does on the same album’s “Night of Chill Blue.”
The Chills write mostly love songs. They love women, rain, the Otago Peninsula at the southern tip of New Zealand’s southern island and their leather jackets. They love maritime and oceanographic imagery. They even love to be hurt because out of hurt comes growth. They love cool, clean production with sparkling high notes, keeping just enough homestyle dustiness to avoid slickness.
Kaleidoscope World, which collects most of the band’s early singles and compilation tracks, is the cornerstone of New Zealand pop. Phillips, as well as the members of the Clean, had been among the first local musicians to explore the DIY ethic of punk, and “Kaleidoscope World” had appeared in 1982 on the Dunedin Double 12-inch EP with Chris Knox of the Clean. With its ebullient and utopian vision of girls, electric guitars and happy solitude, the song typifies the Chills at their most optimistic. “We go for a swim in the deep of space / A thousand colours reflect off your face / The stars surround us as we sail on through our kaleidoscope world.” Astronomical and meteorological motifs of space, rain and weather would continue to appear through Phillips’ work. The Homestead CD of Kaleidoscope World adds The Lost EP and four more tracks. If nothing else, the record — in any format — is worth owning for the band’s masterpiece, 1982’s “Pink Frost,” one of the most haunting songs about death ever recorded by a pop group. The bracingly electric “I Love My Leather Jacket” is another tribute, to early bandmember Martyn Bull, who died of leukemia at the age of 22 in 1983. It was a sizable hit in New Zealand and crossed over to England via the support of John Peel and the NME.
The Chills were formed as a singles band, and initially seemed lost in the long-player format. Brave Words, the band’s first proper album, is disappointingly flawed, but still contains such gems as “House With 100 Rooms” and “Wet Blanket.” The stop-start jangle of “Rain” is impressively grand, with an almost martial discipline interrupted by Phillips’ falsetto chorus and declamatory verses. Caroline Easther, who joined the band on percussion for this album only, adds backing vocals. Mayo Thompson of Red Krayola and Pere Ubu produced.
By the time the group — at this point a quartet with bassist Justin Harwood (later of New York’s Luna), keyboardist Andrew Todd and drummer James Stephenson — clinched a deal with Slash to release Submarine Bells in the States, the Chills had evolved a mature, restrained and affectingly personal approach that belied its original reputation as a singles band. Sympathetically produced by Gary Smith, Submarine Bells graduates the Chills from being just a first-rate singles band. Andrew Todd’s ghostly keyboards abound on such graceful yet eerie gems like “Effloresce and Deliquesce”; a tinge of knowing, slow heartbreak slings its way through “Part Past Part Fiction” and “Don’t Be — Memory.” Others, like the should-have-been-a-smash “Heavenly Pop Hit” (quite) and the splendorous title track, show a decided late-’60s Brian Wilson influence. And for all of the Chills’ charm, pristine textures and cool atmosphere, Phillipps’ roots in late-’70s punk still show in such uncharacteristic blasters as “The Oncoming Day” and “Familiarity Breeds Contempt.”
Recorded in Los Angeles with a largely American cast (including Peter Holsapple, Lisa Mednick and Clay Idols leader Steve Schayer), the conceptually ambitious Soft Bomb finds Phillipps addressing personal themes while producing some of his most engaging music to date. The romantic “Double Summer” and the rueful “The Male Monster From the Id” take on tricky inter-gender issues, while “Song for Randy Newman Etc.” movingly ponders the role of the artist in a philistine culture without condescension or self-congratulation, name-checking such kindred spirits as Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Scott Walker and Nick Drake. Van Dyke Parks’ haunting orchestral arrangement for “Water Wolves” accentuates the song’s chilling fatalism.
After touring behind Soft Bomb, Phillipps announced that he was putting the band name to rest and would henceforth release records under his own name. But the first thing to appear was the Pop Art Toasters EP, in which Phillipps and fellow New Zealand scene veterans David Kilgour and Noel Ward proffer five fluffy covers of obscure and semi-obscure vintage pop gems by the Who, Avengers and other English and American bands.
Named after the band’s best-known song, Heavenly Pop Hits is a generous career-spanning compilation that chronicles the Chills at their best and brightest. However, the band’s best early singles are on Kaleidoscope World as well, so there’s a lot of redundancy. Ice Picks, a bonus CD of alternate mixes, accompanied some of the New Zealand pressings.
With the break-up of his band and resulting financial strife, Phillipps fell into depression, drugs and a long hiatus from recording. Sunburnt in 1996 was credited to Martin Phillipps and the Chills, but the distinction is largely meaningless. The album encountered problems from the start: Phillipps’ New Zealand musicians were unable to get visas to join him and record in London. (Session players were hired to fill in.) The most notable difference in the sound is more keyboards in the mix. The closest Phillipps ever got to a Go-Betweens record, it features such fine songs as “Swimming in the Rain” and “The Big Assessment,” but lacks the drive of the best of the band’s singles. The moving “Come Home” is a seeming appeal to New Zealand’s expatriates in the UK, USA and Australia to return to their homeland and rejoin the national life.
For years after Sunburnt. Phillipps entered a long period of artistic and personal stagnation he later discussed in interviews. No new material appeared, although Phillipps’ enormous collection of home recordings was partly unearthed in 1999 with the release of Sketchbook and the daunting Secret Box, three CDs of rarities. Five years later, Stand By appeared, a mini-album driven by acoustic guitar and keyboards, with a few decent songs (“Bad Dancer”) but not much overall impact. The lyrics are particularly underwhelming.
There were periodic one-off singles, most under Phillipps’ name, and a self-released EP in 2012 with two new songs and two solo Chills remakes (“Pink Frost” and “Leather Jackets”).
Then new material began to emerge under the Chills name, initially drawn from the archives but with hints of new productivity. First came Sweet Bites, an alternate-history compilation of live tracks, radio recordings from 1987 and 1990, and previously unearthed studio music. From the cover artwork, Sweet Bites is clearly meant to stand alongside Heavenly Pop Hits. “I Saw Your Silhouette,” a 1980 track from Phillipps, appears in its original form and as a new 2010 recording, the first new music he had shared in years. A rushed cover of Cat Stevens’ “Matthew & Son” was an unusual addition to the Chills repertoire.
In 2013, Fire put out Somewhere Beautiful, a 57-minute live record from a private concert in Auckland on New Year’s Eve 2011. It’s shaky at times, with false starts and rudimentary recording quality, but there’s plenty of energy. Phillipps’ punk roots show through in the song selection as well as the more aggressive tones. This isn’t a concert of pretty keyboard riffs, but energetically strummed electric guitars.Fans interested in the Chills’ classic performances would be better served by BBC Sessions, a collection of recordings for British radio, including sessions with John Peel. Dating from 1985, 1987 and 1988, it includes many of the Chills’ best-loved singles from the Kaleidoscope World and Submarine Bells eras — “Rolling Moon,” “Rain,” “Part Past Part Fiction” — with professional sound and vintage lineups of the band.
In 2013, more new music from the studio at last began trickling out — first a lush, Internet-only single, “Molten Gold,” with a lovely violin solo that compellingly puts the Chills alongside the Church and the Waterboys. Then final confirmation that Phillipps was preparing a full-length album, which emerged in 2015 as Silver Bullets after Internet pre-releases. (For those counting, more than ten records now have the initials SB, including Sunburnt and Sketchbook and Solo Below.) Considering the two-decade delay in its creation, Silver Bullets is remarkably of a piece with the Chills’ past, especially Submarine Bells, all the way down to the artwork, which carries on the marine imagery. Silver Bullets is, if not revelatory, a completely successful return to form.
Opening with solemn church bells and chorale singing in “Father Time,” the record quickly turns toward more typical Chills tones. The best tracks, especially the hypnotic eight-minute buildup to “Pyramid / When the Poor Can Reach the Moon,” are absolutely on par with Phillipps’ 1980s heyday. One unfortunate misstep is the blaring “America Says Hello,” a bit of spiteful anti-Americanism; Phillipps does better taking his stands against less obvious targets, as in the pacifist and environmentalist themes of “Silver Bullets” and “Underwater Wasteland,” which is surely the most trenchant musical criticism of bottom trawling yet penned.
Phillipps has been candid that years of drug abuse have impaired his health and made his long-term prospects uncertain. If Silver Bullets ends up being the final studio record from the Chills, it’s a worthwhile effort that any fan can appreciate purely on its musical merits.
As a result of Phillipps’ dozens of lineups within the Chills, and the incestuous trading of band members between New Zealand pop bands, a complete Chills family tree is well-nigh impossible, but at various points, members of the Chills played with the Clean, Tall Dwarves, Verlaines, Snapper, the Able Tasmans, Let’s Planet and literally dozens of other bands. A true list of “related artists” would likely comprise the majority of the Flying Nun roster, as well as the many American and British collaborators of Phillipps’ peripatetic career.