Sleater-Kinney Carry On With New Sense Of Purpose

The Centre Won’t Hold, the title of Sleater-Kinney’s ninth album, is taken from W.B. Yeats’ 1919 poem The Second Coming, the words of which have been repeatedly invoked in the Trump era: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold … The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The cover of the album features the faces of the three band members – founding members Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and long-serving drummer Janet Weiss – split, as though they are dissociated identities, reflecting what Brownstein calls “a sense of brokenness, fractiousness and tumultuousness” in the surrounding political and cultural landscape.

Sadly, the band’s own centre wouldn’t hold in the album’s aftermath: only weeks ahead of the album’s release, Weiss decided she was done. “It’s ironic, or coincidental I suppose, that an album that speaks to the fragility of structures, that our own structure was dismantled in the process,” Brownstein says.

Losing Weiss, whose distinctive, polyrhythmic thump formed the core of the band, is a severe blow. Brownstein admits she is effectively irreplaceable: “You don’t replace her. I think you find a different drummer that can find their own way into the songs and their own way into the music, and to us, and we enter the middle period of Sleater-Kinney.”

But those words “middle period”, which Brownstein refers to repeatedly, are telling. After a decade-long break between 2005’s The Woods and 2015’s No Cities To Love, Sleater-Kinney are back to stay – good news for fans of one of the most celebrated indie-rock bands of the last quarter century.

Produced by Annie Clark, better known as St Vincent, The Centre Won’t Hold represents a slight change in direction for the band. The band’s longevity and stature, Brownstein says, had given them the freedom to stretch themselves creatively. “We wanted to defy people’s expectations and also surprise ourselves.”

That change resulted in straightforward musical differences that were cited as the reasons for Weiss’ departure. But Brownstein says Sleater-Kinney had the equivalent of a “free pass” with No Cities To Love, with the band coasting on the enthusiasm generated by their reformation. To remain relevant, they needed to reinvent themselves.

That increased the pressure on the band. “I think [No Cities] delivered in all the ways it needed to, but whatever we did next kind of needed to cement the middle period of this band” – those words again – “to actually say, this is not just for the sake of touring or for the sake of nostalgia, but really to re-enter the cultural conversation.”

Sleater-Kinney, which emerged from the riot grrrl movement centred in their hometown of Olympia, Washington, have always been a vital part of that conversation. “I think it’s hard to make music or any art right now that isn’t a reflection of the time we live in,” Brownstein says.

The Centre Won’t Hold is the deeply personal reaction of a deeply political band to Trump’s America. Brownstein says “we wanted there to be a real personal core to it, to feel like the songs were not just bombastic but [that] they were exploring an interiority, a feeling about what’s going on right now.”

Yet, she says, there is a lot of melody on the record: The Centre Won’t Hold might deal with interiors, but that doesn’t mean it fails to look out. “I think we wanted to provide a fulcrum for people to feel seen and heard within this broader context of despair and uncertainty, that there was something to stand on, even when the songs are dealing with pain.”

Brownstein says this was deliberate, and true to the band’s anthemic spirit. While the songs might deal with the daily struggle just to get up in the morning, “they get to the chorus and they’re joined by other people, and we set this up very purposely, knowing that we didn’t just want to spiral downwards. We wanted to find rungs on the ladder that uplifted.”

And Sleater-Kinney have always been a band to uplift. “We always worked so hard to make the music the message,” Brownstein says. “We don’t shy away from politics or earnestness or integrity, but the music is always the thing that lasts, you have to have good songs, that’s what people will remember.

“I always think that it’s up to other people to assess the legacy of this band. From inside of it, my goal is to keep it alive and relevant and scrappy and kind of hungry, and you know, Janet or no Janet, there’s been plenty of other detours. It’s been a really wonderful and exhilarating journey.”

First published in The Age (Shortlist), 15 August 2019

Damien Lovelock 1954-2019

Trying to sum up the truly Wonderful Life of Damien Lovelock, who died on Saturday morning aged 65, is no easy task. Where to begin? Lovelock was a rock & roll singer (for the Celibate Rifles, the Sydney band he fronted since 1980), solo artist, author, spoken-word performer, football broadcaster for the ABC, Sky and SBS (alongside the late Les Murray), yoga instructor, father to Luke and friend (to the Dalai Lama, among countless others).

Above all, he was a fabulous raconteur. Lovelock was a big man with a big voice and a hell of a lot of stories. Silence wasn’t in his vocabulary. Even in his yoga sessions, he peppered his students with anecdotes that had them trying to maintain poses in between contortions of laughter. This combination of physical mastery and people skills saw him hired as an instructor by, among others, the New South Wales State of Origin rugby league team.

But most of his stories were poured into the lyrics he wrote for the Celibate Rifles, whose name was a pun on the Sex Pistols. The band released nine excellent studio albums, along with a clutch of EPs (including their first effort, the tearaway garage punk of 1981’s But Jacques, The Fish?), compilations and live releases, and garnered a dedicated cult following around the world.

The Rifles emerged from Sydney’s northern beaches, and were a mainstay of the city’s post-Radio Birdman independent music boom in the 1980s. Lovelock was their point of difference: older than his bandmates, and from a musical family (his mother Joan Wilton, who died when he was 19, was a jazz singer; father Bill wrote and produced songs for a young Nina Simone), Lovelock’s words and presence gave the band’s all-out attack gravitas.

But the band also provided a necessary centre of gravity for Lovelock’s life, or one might say lives, for he’d already used up a few before he joined them. In between more standard punk fare of the time – songs of suburban alienation and disaffection with the modern world – early songs such as Back On The Corner broke the mould, rendering the tougher side of Lovelock’s early years in often startling lines:

He makes his connection and he glows with delight

As his demons he banishes into the night

On a thin beam of white light, he flies through the air

Wrings out his hopes, trying to drown his despair

Live, while his bandmates flailed furiously, Lovelock radiated deadpan cool, his movements minimal, a shake of his broad hips and the occasional pump of a fist usually enough to accentuate a song’s groove or get a point across. While other singers were hurling themselves around the stage like Iggy Pop, Lovelock commanded attention rather than demanded it. He never screamed, and the faster the Rifles played, the more time he seemed to have.

The band peaked as a touring act in 1988 with the album Blind Ear and its classic singles Johnny and O Salvation. They constantly blew bigger names away in clubs (my first experience with the Rifles was an O-Week gig at the University of Queensland, where they wiped the floor with the Buzzcocks) and played to large festival crowds, including the inaugural Big Day Out at the Hordern Pavilion in Sydney in 1992, famously headlined by Nirvana.

Lovelock himself told me that was among the best shows his band ever played, but from there the Rifles slowly began to fade, even as they continued to produce excellent work. Their 2000 album A Mid-Stream Of Consciousness (which featured a jar of urine on the cover) briefly revived their fortunes and featured one of the band’s most loved and funniest songs, I Shoulda, in which Lovelock paid homage to his own life of happy accidents:

I shoulda read the instructions

I shoulda had me a plan

I shoulda made preparations

I shoulda act like a man

I shoulda triumphed regardless

I guess I shoulda began

But Lovelock was really only just getting started. His life seemed like an endless series of acts, where he would stumble on stage and star by force of his impossibly authentic personality. The shock of losing him to cancer at a comparatively young age comes from the fact that rather than succumbing to rock’s vices, Lovelock had been a health guru for decades. The only solace is that he packed so much into his 65 years that he shoulda been 200.

First published in The Guardian, 4 August 2019

Michael Hutchence: Mystify

If the X factor is that indefinable charisma that gives a performer star power, the late Michael Hutchence had it in abundance. On stage, the INXS singer took moves from Jagger, Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop and transformed into a serpentine, almost supernatural presence. In Mystify, a new documentary by his longtime collaborator Richard Lowenstein, he fills the screen, but slides in and out of focus, as though untouchable.

Which, in death, he is. It’s now 22 years since Hutchence took his own life in a Sydney hotel room. Lowenstein says his film is an apology, of sorts, that he wasn’t there for his friend. When the surviving members of INXS saw his film, Lowenstein tells Guardian Australia, he saw “all these people still incredibly damaged, not by the ups and downs of being in a band with Michael Hutchence, but the damage done by his departure. He’s left this huge hole in everyone.”

Mystify is not a standard rock documentary. There are no talking heads, and there’s no narrator. Instead, Lowenstein relies entirely on archival footage – much of it shot by the singer himself, or by his intimate partners, including Kylie Minogue – with his story told as an off-camera oral history by associates, lovers, and mother figures, in particular INXS’s manager in the US, Martha Troup.

The result is a far more intimate, close-up portrait of a complex man who, by the end, had been reduced to an unbecoming tabloid caricature. An assault in 1992 had left him with an acquired brain injury that severed his olfactory nerve, leaving the sensual, hedonistic Hutchence with no sense of smell or taste. The coroner’s report – acquired by Lowenstein “by nefarious means” – reported two walnut-sized lesions on his frontal lobe.

According to a neurologist Lowenstein consulted for the film, that traumatic injury alone put Hutchence in the highest risk category for suicide. At the time of his death, Hutchence hadn’t slept for between 36 and 48 hours, had a large quantity of alcohol in his system, and was locked in a bitter custody dispute with Bob Geldof for his daughter with Paula Yates, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily (known as Tiger).

It was a perfect storm. “His ability to navigate cognitive and emotional dilemmas was severely impaired,” Lowenstein says. Band members and Hutchence’s partner between 1991 and 1995, Helena Christensen, report the change that came over the formerly gentle singer after the accident: he became erratic and sometimes aggressive, and INXS lost their way as their singer lost his.

Lowenstein first met Hutchence in 1984, filming the video clip for Burn For You, the third single from their breakthrough album The Swing. Over the course of the next 13 years, he got to know him “fairly well, on the level that any Australian male knows another Australian male”. Once asked who his best friend was, Hutchence replied “I think Richard is, but I don’t think he knows it,” and Lowenstein says “that encapsulated us”.

Hutchence confided more in the women in his life, and Mystify leans on their accounts (and home videos) to get a glimpse of the private person. Off stage, he comes across as needy: he could be the life of the party, a prankster who had to be the centre of attention. “He felt he had to entertain you,” Lowenstein says, and while the men around Hutchence had the rock-star war stories, Lowenstein avoided them. It’s the footage featuring Minogue, Hutchence’s partner between 1989 and 1991 – home video and stills shot by the pair in Hong Kong, on the Orient Express, and in various hotel rooms – that provide Mystify with some of its most touching, whimsical moments.

The other key woman Lowenstein connected with was Tiger, just 16 months old at the time of her father’s death. Now 22, Tiger provided the key to licensing a selection of INXS’s songs for the film. Up to that point, the band had withheld permission, leaving Lowenstein with only the music of Max Q, Hutchence’s collaboration from 1989 with Ollie Olsen, and an underscore by Warren Ellis.

Lowenstein met Hutchence’s daughter at a cafe in London. He had his laptop, with the film on it, and Tiger suggested they adjourn to her flat to watch it. “We watched it in her share-house flat, which funnily enough reminded me of a scene from Dogs In Space [Lowenstein’s 1986 film featuring Hutchence]. She was living with some friends, and she wasn’t by any means a rich kid.

“She watched it, she liked it and was quite emotionally affected by it, and said, ‘Well, you obviously loved my dad and you need his music, what do you want me to do?’” Lowenstein dissuaded Tiger from writing an open letter to The Guardian in support of his cause; instead she composed an email to the band. Within 24 hours, Lowenstein had permission to use nine songs, giving the film its musical backbone.

The presence of the music, and concert footage, allows Hutchence to shape-shift before our eyes on screen, as we watch him transform from a vulnerable man, who hated being alone, to the lounge lizard rock star who commanded stadiums of up to a hundred thousand people at a time, and back again. But it was in that hotel room in Double Bay that, on 22 November 1997, he found himself alone, at his wit’s end.

“If Michael had gotten through that moment – if he could see the pleasures in life and the love of his daughter, whatever the troubles that were there – half an hour, an hour later, he would have made a totally different decision,” Lowenstein says. Still, there is doubt. “I don’t think anyone really knew what was going on in Michael’s head. He was a performer, and what he was showing his friends, especially his male friends, was a performance.”

But even for Lowenstein, occasionally, the mask dropped. “He identified with the quiet types,” he says. “You’d be sitting in the corner while the classic rock’n’roll party was going on, and you’d just find that he would just come and quietly sit next to you.”

 Lifeline 13 11 14

First published in The Guardian, 30 June 2019

Something To Believe In: A Playlist

I was driving alongside the Brisbane River not far from home, with a Ramones anthology playing at full volume, when it hit me. I was trying to piece myself back together after a difficult couple of years. My mother had been transferred into care with advanced Alzheimer’s disease and my marriage had broken up. Something To Believe In was the song that did it – an almost-forgotten single from the Ramones’ troubled mid-’80s era. It was about losing your grip on yourself, on life, then rediscovering your sense of purpose. I knew I wasn’t going to be the same person but, then again, I didn’t want to be.

It was March 2018. I’d written a few pieces that began to sketch out a story of a life on the margins of music but from the perspective of a fan, a wannabe, rather than a player. Over the next two months, a music memoir poured out: the first 30,000 words in three weeks. It was finished by Mother’s Day. Something To Believe In was the obvious title, music being that something that had kept me sane, kept me going and, at times, kept me alive.

What follows is a playlist of 10 songs – most sublime, at least one ridiculous – that signposted that journey.

1. The Ramones – Something To Believe In (1986)

For whatever reason, the title track of Something To Believe In isn’t on Spotify, so you’ll have to go to YouTube for it. It’s a Dee Dee Ramone song; he wrote most of the band’s really dark stuff. This is one of his saddest but it’s also uplifting. Joey’s vocal will put a lump in your throat. In the first half, he wishes he was someone else. After Johnny’s solo – one of very few solos by the guitarist – there’s a bridge where he grabs life by the throat: he decides he’s going to accept himself instead.

2. The Velvet Underground – Rock & Roll (1970)

3. Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power (original mix, 1973)

To me, this is the greatest song about the power and the glory of rock’n’roll ever written. The chorus – “Don’t you try, don’t you try to tell me what to do” – is what it’s all about. So is this lyric: “Raw power’s got a healing hand / Raw power can destroy a man.” Who knows how Iggy is one of the last true originals left standing but you only have to count the bodies to know he’s right, and his next stop after recording this album was a psych ward. It’s a classic now but, at the time, Raw Power was so far ahead of the curve no one even knew there was one up ahead. David Bowie’s mix buried the rhythm section but it’s still punk as almighty fuck.

4. Do Re Mi – Man Overboard (1985)

This came out when I was 14 years old. At that time I knew nothing about women, let alone feminism, and I didn’t really understand this song but connected with it anyway. I was a tiny kid and got bullied a fair bit in the playground, and I think I just related to Deborah Conway’s rage and hurt more than anything. It’s a post-punk song and a lot of punk spoke to people who had been marginalised in some way. These days I identify more with the object of Conway’s disdain in ways I’d rather not – I know I’m addicted to attention and, as a music writer, I’ve been wallowing in a swamp of trivia for most of my adult life.

5. Patti Smith – Free Money (1975)

Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith group and compiler of the great ’60s anthology Nuggets, once said garage music reminded people of why they wanted to rock & roll in the first place, which was pure desire. And we always want what we can’t have. Another key concept of rock & roll is transcendence, the conceit that it can take us outside ourselves and so set us free. Smith embodied both in this song about escaping the prison of poverty. What really gets it over is the intensity of her performance. She sounds as though she’s clawing out of your speakers. It starts slow, with just Smith and Richard Sohl on piano, then the band shifts through the gears until they’re at maximum horsepower.

6. Kate Bush – The Big Sky (1985)

This is similar to Free Money in that what makes it leap out is Bush’s wild performance. Hounds Of Love, the album that it’s from, is really special to me; it seems to keep reappearing at key times. This song is about moving on – the idea is that we’re all just specks in the cosmos. It’s all big tribal drumming and stacked vocals, arranged for maximum impact. It gets louder the longer it goes as more elements are added to the mix but at the centre of it is Bush’s voice. From about the three-minute mark she completely loses it – she sounds as though she’s talking in tongues, then from 3.45 she unleashes a series of heart-stopping shrieks. She was possessed.

7. Liz Phair – Johnny Sunshine (1993)

A lot of these songs are about the self-mythologising of rock & roll, something the Rolling Stones were pretty adept at. Liz Phair was in love with that ideal too – and the Stones – but understandably she had a problem with a lot of the lyrics. So she decided to write a song-by-song feminist response to the Stones’ Exile On Main St. That was her first album, Exile In Guyville, and it upended all those old cliches. I write about Divorce Song in the book (because, well, divorce) but Johnny Sunshine is closer to the theme I’m getting at here. It’s Phair’s response to All Down The Line, where the protagonist takes off with a “sanctified girl”. In Johnny Sunshine, Phair replies from the perspective of the woman he’s left behind. Living in an adolescent fantasy world usually means that someone, somewhere is getting hurt.

8. Jen Cloher – Hold My Hand (2013)

My mother is in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease; she has been bedridden and unable to communicate for more than 18 months now. But the years before that were harder for her emotionally, and for her family and friends, as her illness stripped her identity from her, piece by incremental piece. She got it young, too, when she was in her mid-50s (she’s 71 now). When Jen’s song appeared, it reduced me to ash. Her mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s too and the song describes a circular conversation between her parents: her dad explains to her mum how they met but she forgets instantly, so she asks him again. I had lots of conversations with my mum like that. The message of the song is that “love is more than a reward or balm we use to soothe”. It’s an ongoing test of patience and loyalty.

9. Neil Finn – Chameleon Days (2017)

In early September 2017 I was in Auckland for a music conference when I should have been in hospital. I was in a hotel room and had enough tablets on hand, plus booze, to kill a horse. I was in a really serious, unstable condition. But I had one thing left to do: I had to review Neil Finn’s album. It sounds absurd but it was important to me to finish this one task. I listened to Chameleon Days about a dozen times in a row and it stayed my hand. It’s a very gentle song about fate, change and radical acceptance. The next day I was up at Roundhead Studios where Neil had livestreamed cutting the song.

10. Kiss – God Gave Rock & Roll To You II (1991)

It’s worth finishing with something big and dumb and silly, and they don’t get bigger, dumber or sillier than Kiss. Originally this song was a hit for Argent in 1973. Kiss covered it in 1991, long after the face paint had come off. I love it, partly because it’s so ridiculous, but also because it posits rock & roll as a primal life force in and of itself. Paul Stanley’s rave at the end is hilarious: “I know life sometimes can get tough! And I know life sometimes can be a drag. But people! We have been given a gift. We have been given a road. And that road’s name is … rock & roll!” He was a true believer.

 Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14;Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

First published in The Guardian, 28 June 2019

Hatchie: Keepsake

No music writer will win any prizes for pointing out where Harriette Pilbeam, aka Hatchie, is coming from. Not to do so though would be ignoring the elephant in the room. Right down to the blurred cover photo, no one familiar with the dream-pop of the Cocteau Twins, the Sundays, Lush or My Bloody Valentine will find anything especially new about Keepsake, the Brisbane singer-songwriter’s debut album.

But with that out of the way, dwelling on those influences – influences which Pilbeam herself has acknowledged – also misses the point. If you are already conversant with those aforementioned acts, there is much to like here. If you aren’t, it hardly matters: everything old is new again. Keepsake’s lead single Without A Blush has already notched over 750,000 Spotify streams; Sure, from last year’s Sugar And Spice EP, has clocked 3.5 million (including a remix by the Cocteaus’ Robin Guthrie).

What’s made Hatchie jump out of the pack is her voice. Even drenched in endless layers of effects and reverb, it’s got a keening, yearning quality that cuts right through Keepsake’s washed-out guitar textures, and the background hubbub of any cafe or club in which it appears. Even when the overall sound of Keepsake drifts hazily into the background – and it often does – Pilbeam’s timbre and phrasing keeps pulling you back in.

That said, getting the full rewards out of Keepsake takes some persistence. While Pilbeam and John Castle have done their best to mix things up with different rhythmic textures, electronic, dance and classic indie-rock sounds, your initial impression of the album is likely to be a sonic blur as it passes by. Even as that mesmerising, insistent voice keeps beckoning you, it takes a little time for the 10 songs to differentiate themselves.

Without A Blush, at first, comes off like the exception that proves the rule. Its hook immediately recalls the backing vocals of My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 classic Soon, but the longer it goes, the bigger and more enveloping this song becomes; when Hatchie sings “I didn’t want to end the dream”, I didn’t want it to either. Similarly, the chiming guitars and cascading vocal trills of Her Own Heart are reminiscent of a lost Sundays gem – but it’s just a good song, and Harriet Wheeler’s voice has been lost to the pop world for too long anyway.

It’s in Keepsake’s middle tracks that Hatchie begins punching holes in her own dream-pop web. Obsessed features a programmed dance rhythm and a mantra-like lyric to fit the title. Secret is the closest thing to straight pop, and it’s irresistible: when Hatchie asks if you can keep a secret, it works because it draws the listener closer; you’re being invited to share an intimacy.

Two songs more clearly point to Hatchie’s likely future. Unwanted Guest is a 1980s-style floor-filler that comes on, bizarrely, like a lost cousin of Wang Chung’s Dance Hall Days. Even more convincing is the dance-floor pop of Stay With Me – a hit Kylie Minogue might kill for. It’s the best vocal turn on the album. “I feel nothing, I feel numb,” Pilbeam sings, but her voice, at its most melancholy and wistful, betrays her longing.

The obvious reference points of Hatchie’s debut album are only a problem if you let them be. She’s a smart songwriter, with time on her side to forge a more distinctive identity. In the meantime, as Wilde’s aphorism tells us, talent borrows; genius steals.

First published in The Guardian, 21 June 2019

The Triumph And Tragedy Of The Chills

The independent scene that emerged from Dunedin, New Zealand, in the early 1980s had all the strange qualities musical trainspotters around the world associate with isolation. Hamish Kilgour from the Clean describes the city as a cauldron, with the low-hanging sky its lid. It’s a creative pressure cooker from which artists must escape.

In the decades since, the bands that steamed from the top of that cauldron have gone global. Next to the Clean, the biggest name is Martin Phillipps, the legendary leader – of 21 different lineups – of the Chills. They were the definitive Dunedin band, with a strange, light, airy, eerie, breezy magic that both matched the city’s geography and transcended it.

But they were cursed. The subtitle of The Chills: The Triumph And Tragedy of Martin Phillipps – a new documentary by Julia Parnell and Rob Curry – tells you that this is, first and foremost, a portrait of the artist. A consummate songwriter, Phillipps appears as both a driven man and a lost boy, emotionally cut off from those drawn into his orbit to help him realise his vision.

The film opens in the interior of Phillipps’ home. Over the haunted opening notes of Pink Frost (“That’s fine art, according to me,” we hear Iggy Pop say, on a radio show), Phillipps pulls out his keyboard – then breaks into Heavenly Pop Hit, which wasn’t so much his biggest hit as his nearest miss.

Spliced amid scenes of festival crowds, ecstatic gigs and the video clip of the song, Phillipps climbs into a decrepit car and drives himself to hospital to receive the results of his liver function tests. Phillipps has hepatitis C. He is told, with medical precision, that he has a 31 percent chance of dying within 12 months.

Then he is given a guarantee: “If you do keep drinking, Martin, you will die,” the physician says.

There is so much about the Chills’ story that is, on the face of it, cliched. After a number of acclaimed singles and EPs, Phillipps, whose best songs are touched with a sense of wonder, signs his band to a multi-album deal with a US label, Slash. When the hits fail to materialise, he sinks into a fog of heroin addiction, alcoholism, depression and withdrawal.

But Parnell and Curry treat their subject with unusual sensitivity, helped by Phillipps’ extraordinary candour. He allows them access to every step of his treatment process, as well as to his archives (he is an obsessive collector). Around him, other band members, each of them individually numbered, step forward to speak.

What they have to say is just as unfiltered. The former drummer Caroline Easther (Chill No. 12) says Phillipps made her feel anxious. The bassist Justin Harwood (Chill No. 14) comments that he didn’t know if he was needed or expendable. He came to the latter conclusion after Phillipps told him he planned to write the bass parts on the band’s next album himself.

Another bass player, Terry Moore (No. 6), who played in two stints with the band, wonders if he’s going to be next. The drummer Jimmy Stephenson (No. 15) has been left traumatised. In tears, he pulls out a gold record of the band’s biggest album, Submarine Bells, the glass cracked after falling off his wall in an earthquake: to him it’s symbol of both “great success and shattered dreams”.

In between, we watch Phillipps going through piles of junk as he reassesses his life, sorting the detritus from the essentials. Preparing for an art exhibition – while spray-painting a mummified cat – he muses that “it’s much more fun working as a team on anything. But I’m not going to sacrifice the quality for just a bit of team spirit.” Phillipps remained Chill No. 1.

Over it all, Dunedin hovers. “The black cloud rolled in and it was there for a good long stay,” says Chill No. 26, Phil Kusabs. He’s speaking of Phillipps but he may as well be talking about the city, for its combination of suburban blandness and gothic grandeur. We see trees bent out of shape by the elements and the forest in which Pink Frost was shot behind the town.

It’s beautifully filmed, suffusing the documentary with an atmosphere to match the Chills’ glorious music, and we get to hear much of that, too. But it’s never allowed to get in the way of the story – there’s no recounting of the band’s discography and, other than Neil Finn and the aforementioned Iggy Pop, no higher luminaries are called on to affirm the band’s standing.

Phillipps’ story resonates because despite his self-involvement, it’s bigger than he is. It’s about artistic integrity, self-realisation, self-acceptance and a reflection on mortality. Towards the end of this sad, lovely film, the emotional rush is equivalent to the Dunedin surf washing on to the cold beaches – it finishes far more optimistically than it promises to.

As a fan, I wanted to punch the air. And of course, it will be fans of the Chills who queue up first to see this documentary. If you’ve not yet had the distinctive pleasure of hearing his band, the triumph and tragedy of Phillipps’ story will make you one for life.

First published in The Guardian, 14 June 2019