Some fans were worried when The Chills launched their comeback in 2015, after more than a decade of silence. “They should have been terrified,” the band’s frontman Martin Phillipps says.
As Phillipps says, The Chills rode a wave to successes in the 80s. “We were riding a wave and the wave kind of dissipated. The wave broke,” Phillipps says.
The band was cut from its label. Phillipps arrived back in Dunedin worse for wear. He was depressed and started a 15 year journey of self-medicating. The band was his life. He had sacrificed relationships, friends and opportunities to build them up, then it looked all over.
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In 2015 The Chills relaunched with the album Silver Bullets. The album strode a tricky line; it had to fit with the band’s past, but couldn’t be seen as old-fashioned, Phillipps says.
The songs are airy with reverb but blunt with lyrics that clearly scrutinise the new millennium like it’s 1989. For instance, in America Says Hello there’s the recurrent chant: “there’s a rocket attack, then a property boom”.
Phillipps says he wanted his comeback to mean something, but would hate to be considered pretentious.
The desire to do something important, and not settle in “the heap off average music”, was brought about by his belief he was about to die.
He had about another year left in 2016, doctors told him. The 53-year-old’s life expectancy was shortened during the time he called “the dark years”.
“After things had gone so well right through the 80s and early 90s, it fell apart quite rapidly,” he said.
His band members left him, but Phillipps couldn’t give up on The Chills.
“It’s who I am, right from when I discovered I could make music. I couldn’t just turn it off again. It’s my career and my life,” he said.
But couldn’t find any new band members either. But he did find – and became addicted to – opioids and other drugs.
“It was kind of like an old nasty spiral, which made it harder to be productive and also easier to make stupid mistakes,” he said, looking back. The biggest mistake though came as a complete surprise, he said.
“One ends up associating with idiots no matter how careful you are,” Phillipps said.
“Someone had left a used syringe inside my house, in a paper bag.” He was always careful not to share needles or anything like that, but when he reached to pick up the discarded bag a needle spiked him and left him infected with Hepatitis C.
The addiction that started in the mid 90s and lasted about a decade, was over, he says. Last year he was found drink driving in Dunedin, on his way to a McDonald’s. Since then, he’s given up alcohol as well.
It’s now time to re-emerge as “a legacy band”, Phillipps jokes.
He’s been told that thanks to a new treatment started in 2016, “quite a number of years” have been added to his lifespan. It was good news, for sure, but even the dark years and the health problems weren’t all bad, Phillipps said they also have him a new perspective for his music.
“I’m glad I did it, I sort of got a view of society and people that I wouldn’t have otherwise. The worst thing is you lose time, hours become days months.
“I never wanted to be a social commentator,” he says, despite the starkly political messages of his latest work. “Every time I write a song now I ask, ‘am I being too pretentious?’ I hate that sort of stuff.”
The biggest hope, Phillipps says, is that old fans wouldn’t be disappointed at this year’s tour. Phillipps said he would have rather not returned than performed covers and “another bad comeback album”.
The Chills’ 10 stop tour includes:
April 26 – San Fran, Wellington
April 27 – St. Peter’s Hall, Paekakariki
April 28 – The Cabana, Napier
April 29 – The Royal Wanganui Opera House, Whanganui
May 4 – Blue Smoke, Christchurch
May 5 – The Scottish Hall, Invercargill
May 6 – The Sherwood, Queenstown
May 11 – Totara St, Mount Maunganui
May 12 – The Raglan Club, Raglan
May 13h – The King’s Arms, Auckland