Out of the black

Martin Phillipps still has his leather jacket. It was bequeathed to him by his friend and band-mate Martyn Bull, who died of leukaemia in 1983, just as his group the Chills – arguably the pick of the many groups to emerge from the post-punk wellspring of Dunedin, New Zealand in the early 1980s, was taking flight.

A song about the jacket became one of the Chills’ greatest singles. “I love my leather jacket, and I wear it all the time,” Phillipps sang, although these days, he confesses, he can no longer fit into it (it was last seen in public in a glass case as part of a New Zealand art exhibition, simply called Black).

The jacket was “both protector and reminder of mortality”, and now, on the eve of the release of the first full Chills album in 19 years, Silver Bullets, Phillipps is facing up to his. He looks fine, but has just returned from a liver scan: he is in the fourth stage of Hepatitis C. “As yet there’s no sign of cancer or lesions,” he says.

It’s not terribly reassuring. Phillipps knows he may not have a lot of time, but after years of waste, filled with depression and a prolonged period of drug use that was the source of his illness, he’s determined to make the best of it. “I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time dwelling on it. I’d rather just be productive.”

Around the turn of the 1990s, The Chills were the band most likely, and arguably the most deserving. Introducing themselves with the song Kaleidoscope World, from the landmark Dunedin Double EP – the first release by the influential Flying Nun label – their second album, Submarine Bells, had them on the cusp of stardom.

That record opened with Heavenly Pop Hit, which was almost everything its title suggested, other than being an actual bona fide smash. Lighter than air, it was filled with the same whimsy as Kaleidoscope World before it, while the album retained the darker undercurrents of another early single, the deeply unsettling Pink Frost.

The band’s label, Phillipps remembers, envisioned them as the next R.E.M. Then grunge happened, and Britpop, and techno, and acid house. The Chills, beset by near-continuous line-up changes, faded from view. “They’d realised that I had nothing like Michael Stipe’s charisma, and that we were all a bit weird.”

The band’s fourth album, Sunburnt, was released under the name Martin Phillipps and the Chills in 1996, after the rest of the band were disallowed entry into the UK to record it. It was gorgeous. It bombed. This time Phillipps, who’d faithfully climbed back on the horse after each and every setback, didn’t get up.

“There came a point where I just fell off, and something drastically changed,” he says. “That was when the drugs – which had kind of been around a little bit, but more as a stimulus to get going – really got their claws in, and the whole depression thing.” He cites Harry Potter: “It’s like having a Dementor suck the life out of you.”

But Phillipps refuses to buy into the so-called Curse of the Chills. “Actually I think I’ve had a pretty good run, really,” he says. “Here I am, at 52, having made music the main thing of my life as a career since 1978 or ’79 … Any band of any duration is going to have worse stories than we’ve had. Although we’ve had some unusual ones.”

Since Sunburnt, the band has mostly lain fallow, even as Phillipps managed to assemble the longest-serving line-up in its history. Last year’s single Molten Gold, which also featured a new recording of Pink Frost, was the first new music since an EP, Stand By, from 2004.

Songs had kept coming to Phillipps, even as his physical and mental well-being faltered. All the while, the worldwide cult surrounding the Chills, which extended to fellow Dunedin contemporaries The Clean and Chris Knox (who himself suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009) grew.

Having accepted that just as people had inevitably moved on from the band – “People just get sick of you,” he reasons – Phillipps also suspected that, eventually, their music would be rediscovered. It just took a little longer than he thought to become an elder statesman. “I’m a legacy artist now,” he quips.

Silver Bullets, released by London label Fire, is the sound of a band that may as well never have been away. The songs – sometimes driven by intricate guitar lines; at others floating on a bed of keyboards – are there. So are the environmental and political concerns that never stoop to condescension or preaching.

There’s also the obsession with marine life. Behind Phillipps, amid stacks of records and awards, a copy of Submarine Bells stands out, its single image of a jellyfish on the sleeve. The cover of Silver Bullets, though, features barracudas. What once bobbed and drifted has been replaced by something more direct, sinuous, and menacing.

[1992 album] “Soft Bomb was about pacifist impact, about having to do something, but non-violently,” Phillipps explains. “Silver Bullets is not advocating violence, but it is saying that is the way things are heading. Silver bullets represent a violent solution against dark forces.”

Offers are flooding in, but it’s not easy to take advantage of them from the bottom of the world. Phillipps estimates a tour of the US will cost the band $100,000. “All five of us are now paying mortgages, everyone’s got jobs, two of us have families. It’s not like we’re in our teens or 20s and can crash on people’s couches.”

Then again, there might not be much time left. “I feel a lot of pressure,” he says. “Not just for myself, but for the band that’s stuck with me. There’s this growing awareness of just how many more Chills fans there are than I suspected, and how seriously they’ve taken the music, and that they want me around for a long time making more.

“It’s no longer just my decision. To some extent a lot of damage has been done, and I don’t know what the prognosis is. [But] the more I’m feeling happy and making music, that kind of energy has got to be a good healing kind of energy to have, rather than sitting around moping about what might be.”

First published in The Age, 7 November 2015

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