The Chills' album Snow Bound is released today. It's the second of a late career return for the band and its leader Martin Phillipps that seemed an unlikely prospect for most of the 20 years before it actually happened.
But pretty much from the opening bars, Snow Bound is palpably a different record to Silver Bullets, the band's first with the British label Fire Records. It finds Martin at the stage of taking stock, no more so than on the second track, 'Time to Atone':
We made mistakes and we caused heartache
Woke up, now it's time to atone
As the interview below indicates, individual songs aren't necessarily about what you'd think, and some, like the title track, are related in the person of a character rather than the singer himself. But there's no mistaking a sense of assessment.
It also sounds different. With producer Greg Haver at the helm, it's richer and more melodic. I saw the band's manager Scott Muir a couple of weeks ago and he told me that while Martin had made albums before and knew the score, Haver pushed the rest of the band harder than they'd been pushed before, to good end.
The album arrives with a two-year documentary feature on the band close to wrapping and Martin's well-publicised battle with a particularly tough strain of Hepatitis C that ravaged his liver not quite won, but in a much better place than it was. It's worth recalling that when the Fire Records deal was signed, Martin was talking openly about not having a lot of time left. Now, he's planning out a year of touring and promotion for the album and the forthcoming film. Most of us don't experience something like that in our lives
I had a chat with my old friend recently about the album and where he's at.
I noticed a different feeling the moment I put this album on. It feels different it feels like you've reached a point of looking up and taking stock. Is that how you see it?
That's certainly part of it. I should explain that I was actually going to write a completely different record after Silver Bullets, but with health factors and other things, by the time I got the equipment for my home studio I didn't really have time to get on top of it.
So I looked at the material I've been writing and realised there was a common theme to it, which was that it was time to reassess where I stood with things and realising that that was a very common state to be in for my age group. This common thing of 'oh, you're an old white male and you're redundant'. And actually no, I feel like I've got a lifetime of experience to share – how do we go about doing that?
And yet you're not angry about it in these songs. Whereas Silver Bullets was quite angry in place. You were pissed off at things.
That's probably quite true. The stated aim of Silver Bullets was that it was more reactionary than its distant predecessor Soft Bomb, which was pacifist. Now it's just more consolidation. There's a quote where I talked about this being a possible Carole King Tapestry for the time. I feel like we're in the same boat as the sixties protest generation or the beatniks 10 years before were – where you seriously feel you've made headway and helped change the world and all of a sudden you're watching it slip back. Trying to work out what you can do, how you can still contribute.
Is the 'The Greatest of Guides' about Roy Colbert?
No, it's not. I've taken to actually not telling people, asking interviewers who they think it is before I say. You're the third person to think it's Roy. It's about people like Bowie, Lou Reed, Prince – the pioneers going forward into unknown territory and coming back. The guide could stand for Roy, but not the line about cutting lines through the snow so the show could go on.
But having said that, it's more about 2016, the bad year for our age group's celebrity deaths. I was almost surprised by the level of surprise – 'what a terrible year, I hope it doesn't go on like this' – and I'm thinking, gosh, this is where it starts, this is what happened to our parents, just watching all your heroes die off'.
Was you thinking about that partly to do with you having to contemplate your own mortality in recent years?
Certainly, that permeates the whole record in some ways. Time to reassess what I've done. One of my rules is that I don't want to release stuff which is just adding to the heap of music out there. It's got to have some sort of poignance to it, some sort of relevance.
So if I think that I'm still able to put into words things that other people are expressing, even if it is drawing on personal experience, then it's worthwhile.
The reason I wondered about that song is because I've had the experience of an old friend dying this year, and it's made me think a lot about tribe and identity and who I am.
I suppose my moment like that was Peter Gutteridge. It's a strange thing when you realise that the person who's died was in what would be their mid-life and you've known them since their teens. Acknowledging that the slide into old age really does start getting steeper and faster. There's a 20-year period where you're more or less the same person – and then all of a sudden, whew, off you go.
Is 'Scarred' about Hep C?
'Scarred' is about learing bounadries and how much you can give away of yourself without feeling depleted. One aspect of that is through social media. It's just about drawng boundaries. And also my wee celebrity thing and just realising that the nature of media is to try and give everybody what they want – another selfie, another autograph – and realising that they're kind of walking away with a bit of you and you're feeling, not used, but … it's a strange feeling.
Part of that came out on the Aldous Harding tour. I did solo supports on that and she was doing the thing of not talking to the audience. New Zealanders wouldn't quite let her get away with that like they have in Europe, but she said to the audience the reason for it is "I'm trying to protect you and I'm trying to protect me." That was very thoughtful. She's already being very thoughtful about that two-lane highway of expectations.
How has the making of the Chills documentary been feeding into what you've thinking and writing about. I imagine that once you start going through the back pages, you're back there.
That's been quite a considerable thing. It's a couple of years now we've been doing it and it'll be wound up by the end of the year, but I'm still not quite done with it. It's good that my manager Scott Muir and I over the last 10 to 15 years have done a lot of organising of my archives. Not just Chills stuff, but the whole New Zealand indie scene stuff I've got. That's made a historical pathway for the documentary.
From a personal point of view, I've now done at least a hundred hours of interviews for this record and obviously some of it gets into areas that you've already dealt with once and tried to put behind you, areas of conflict and personal deception and all sorts of things. I knew that's what we were getting into and I believed [the producers'] stated aims to keep it fair and honest and I believe that's what they're doing. But yeah, it's been quite a demanding ride.
When is the film due to come out?
As far as I know, they're finishing everything before the end of the year, so it'll be the international festivals, which tend to be February-March – meaning it'll be back in New Zealand about August next year.
Do you expect to go to some of the festivals?
It's tricky. We're trying to promote the album through the States and Europe and we also want to be available to do this with me solo or the band. So there's a big juggling thing going on at the moment about what that involves. You can't just vaguely get a visa for the States and turn up when you want – not any more you can't anyway.
So we're trying to do a good comprehensive plan for at least the next year for promotion for both things.
It must be gratifying since Silver Bullets that it's become evident that there still very much is international interest in what you. Did you have the fear that everyone had forgotten?
I wasn't sure. And the best way of finding out was that I very much took the reins of overall production and sound of Silver Bullets – because I didn't want any credit going to some producer for having picked me out of the gutter and wrung the last few drops of talent out of me.
But it was time now to get a producer in and Greg Haver was just great for us to work with.
With Silver Bullets, it was probably my fault and I told people at the time that some of the material had roots going back many years and so it did give the impression of one last tidy-up effort. But now we've got this one and I think the general response has been that Snow Bound is probably the better album. It's certainly a positive step along the road.
One thing that strikes me about it is how melodic it is. You write pop songs, so melody's always been a key part of it, but I'm really noticing it this time.
I'm glad you said that. Because it has occurred to me, in a weird way. It could be because we’ve done so few albums over these decades, but I notice a lot of people who are still making music tend to sort of drop the melody. In particular, Bowie and Scott Walker, two big influences, you start finding interesting chord changes with essentially sort of monotone vocal lines going through them. But I love good melodies. It's still doing the same thing I used to do – which is cover a darker topic with a brighter or more powerful sound.
I also thought that your singing's more ambitious on this record, or that you’re writing more ambitious melodies for yourself to sing.
What's happened is that I've finally learned to write things that I can sing. I never used to worry when I was young about putting things in the register that I can sing. I was unaware you could do that. I think I have taken it up a few notches.
It's like acting: you have to over-act it for it to come across as even normal. That's a learned skill.
So what happens for the band after the album is released?
We've got the New Zealand tour, which is essentially the four extended weekends. We've got three band members with families now and all of them need to have money continuing for their families while they're away, so we have to plan very carefully. Which brings me back to what I was talking about – the reality of touring the States and Europe is that we need to be able to guarantee that we're covering all those costs, as well as the expected 20 grand-plus in air fares.
Fire Records is saying they're looking at promoting this record for at least a year, if not more. I would hope that it helps us achieve our aim of shifting up onto the festival circuit, where we can raise out game and possibly start earning a living from it. Which would be great.
It's impressive that they've made that commitment up front.
Frankly, I was really touched. And it was in the back of my mind that it would not be the first time that it would not be the first time for a band that once the launch and the overseas tour are done, people leave the band. We had a serious talk with them about it and they are really committed. Some of their partners are not that thrilled with it, but that's the reality of how much they're sticking up for it.
How are you? How's your health?
I'm certainly feeling better than I was. It's an ongoing thing and to a degree uncertain, so I'll always be keeping an eye on things. But it's been good having the documentary follow the whole process. It's something they weren't expecting to happen.
But certainly, where I was nervous about sustaining energy through the Silver Bullets tour, I feel much more confident about it this time. I wasn't even sure I could sing on consecutive nights last time. It turned out I could.
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And then she rickrolled everyone! If this doesn't make you smile, your heart is charred and shrunken and we will have to reassess our friendship:
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