I was excited to be introduced to Martin Phillipps when The Chills came to play at Norwich Arts Centre. This was the chance to sit down with a writer of an unimaginable number of songs, (many more than the 500 oft-suggested), while he was passing through Norwich.

We sat in the beer garden of The Plough, soaking up the late-afternoon heat and talked about song writing, playing in a band, the history and geography of New Zealand, where Martin, founder and leader of The Chills, resides. Spin a globe round until you find South Island. To locate Dunedin, look pretty much as far south as you can go on the east coast. It’s a fair way.

Dunedin’s remoteness, (or is it we who are remote?), seems such that people have to make their own entertainment. And thus it was, in the late-1960s when Martin and his two sisters were corralled by their mother into piano lessons at a young age. One of their mother’s friends had announced she was setting up as a piano teacher and Mrs. Phillipps offered up her offspring accordingly.

A few months under the tutorage of a strict teacher taught Martin enough about music to realise that being drilled into playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star was not taking him far enough, or close enough to the sophistication of Chopin’s masterpieces he had loved hearing from his dad’s records. However, those initial painful weeks of formal piano tuition turned out to be time well spent. Learning about octaves, major and minor keys, chords and the structure of the key board became the spring board for his life in music.

Origins covered, I was keen to know how Martin’s song-writing happens. Unsurprisingly, it just does, all the time. A notebook, then a Dictaphone and now the iPhone have been essential to catch the nuggets as they flash in the stream of consciousness that is the world we live in.

Martin is on constant alert for a phrase or line that might spin off into a new song. It may be from conversation, reading non-fiction, or a TV programme that demands to be paused to get the provocative line. His lyrics then take on a life of their own, rarely remaining as unearthed, having to be smelted and beaten into something of relevance.

With a song in mind, the idea and emotion of the song is taken to the band, which seems to be the tricky bit. Phillipps admits that the technical jargon of music is not his forte and this means that the feeling he has about a song has to be communicated through imagery. For example, the music for a song might sound like a cold sun rising on a winter’s morning, or a breaker crashing onto a pebble beach. The ability of band members to tune into his wavelength at this point is pretty crucial.

dr feelgood

In the past Martin has been “…accused by former band members of perfectionism.” a character trait, he demurs. He just strikes me as a man keen to push himself and his fellow musicians to find fresh ways to bring his lyrics to life. He is as keen to avoid musical clichés, as he is to avoid lyrical ones, something not easily done.

When signed for a lucrative seven-album deal by a Warner Brother’s subsidiary, Phillipps was never worried at the prospect of turning out that many new songs. Yes, there were rare pep talks with the message, “Martin, you need to come up with more hits.” but States-wide success on the college radio network, a loyal fan-base in the expanding German market and being played on Radio 1 by John Peel, gave The Chills a solid sales base. He was not phased by it. He was being well-rewarded for doing what came naturally

Martin Phillipps

I had read that Martin’s songs with The Chills were highly influential on REM, but until listening to the band at Norwich Arts Centre this week, I did not get it.

Honestly, being a punk listening to the post-punk musical music, was not my thing. Dave Burns, a friend of mine at Birmingham Polytechnic, had to almost force me to listen to the debut Orange Juice album, You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, before I got what Edwyn Collins was creating. So, The Chills were not a band I was open to in the 1980s. 

However, other more musical ears were open to the Sound of Dunedin, notably Michael Stipe and REM. Listen to The Chills album Submarine Bells with the No 1 song Heavenly Pop Hit released in 1990 and then put on R.E.M.’s album Automatic For The People from 1992. Immediately you will identify why Martin Phillipps is held in such high regard by the writers of Rolling Stone magazine and members of R.E.M. and The Pixies, (a little more surprisingly).

The Chills, Martin Phillipps triumph and tragedy, rated as a five-star documentary film, covers all the ground you need to know about the trajectory of The Chills from a small city in NZ to the upper atmosphere, before falling back to Earth. Obviously, Martin addressed his career path at times in our conversation, but soon to celebrate his 60th birthday with a trip to the ABBA Arena, he has arrived at a place where he realises, you can’t take it with you when your time comes.

He is gradually decluttering and delving into previously neglected works. Consequently, the gig on Wednesday had the unusual feature of the artist giving away some of his merchandise. A signed, limited edition print to someone who knew the title of their first hit, a tee-shirt to the person who came up with the best question, (“What’s your favourite pie?”). I was going to ask, “How influential has the Treaty of Waitangi been in developing New Zealand’s cultural identity?” but that would have been cheating, as I had already discussed that with him down the pub.

After hearing how that treaty was presented orally to the Maori tribal leaders, but then translated into Maori for signature, with an English version establishing the dubious governing principles of the islands, we turned to conversation about the tension within New Zealand politics between those wanting to pursue an ecologically sustainable agenda and the people trying to keep their heads above water in a heavily rural economy. How much of this does Phillipps draw on in his song-writing, I asked.

Underwater Wasteland and America Says Hello are songs considering environmental concerns. He has also been moved to write about domestic violence, with Sanctuary taking a woman’s point-of view. Whatever themes he picks up on have to be relevant and credible.

As we focused again on song-writing, Aldous Harding was referenced as a current singer-songwriter admired by Phillipps. She is someone he admires for striving to write original songs, cutting out her own creative route, something he has sought to do throughout life.

Now with a band, which has coalesced over the past 24 years, with only bassist and trumpeter, Callum Hampton as the newbie, each is contributing to the evolution of The Chills. Erica Scally brings the electric violin into the mix, as well as guitar and additional keyboards to Oli Wilson’s keyboard. Drummer Todd Knudsen is the rocker, by all appearances, but he is just about able to constrain himself enough to stay on-side and sympathetic to the tingle-tangle sound of the band.

Martin Phillipps
The Chills at Norwich Arts Centre | Image © Chris Perry

The Chills play a varied set of familiar and songs from the most recent album Scatterbrain, for about an hour at the old church before a two-song encore.  The set closed with I love my leather jacket, the tribute by Phillipps to his friend, Martyn Bull, an original member of The Chills, who died of leukemia at 22 years of age.

The gig attracted a disappointingly thin crowd, but they toddled off having had a really nice time. A bit of nostalgia for some, with something new to enjoy along the way.

The sound of the Chills is well-suited to warm summer evenings, the company of family and friends and thought-provoking conversation. They are not a band to be taken at face-value, but might be easily over-looked, because the music throws a dummy disguising the edginess of the ideas. The Chills tour in the UK continues for another week, before tying off in Galway. I hope that the weather holds and ticket sales are strong, Martin Phillipps and The Chills still deserve to be heard.

Listings at Norwich Arts Centre