The Chills - Biography
BY Scott Feemster
The Chills were one of the finest pop-rock bands to come out of New Zealand during the 1980’s and 1990’s, taking a more tuneful and chiming approach ot their songs than many of their Flying Nun label brethren. The group had an astounding number of members and line-up changes over the course of their career, but all the line-ups were based around songwriter, singer/guitarist and sole founding member Martin Phillipps.
Martin Phillipps grew up in the college city of Dunedin, New Zealand, located near the southern end of the country’s South Island. Probably because the city had a large college, it also always had a large art and music scene. Enter young Martin Phillipps into the city’s burgeoning punk scene in the late ‘70’s. Spurred on by local bands like the Clean and the Enemy, Phillipps formed his first band, the Same, playing mostly cover songs in a punk-meets-garage-rock-meets-‘60’s-British-Invasion sound that many New Zealand bands seemed to have stumble upon. The group played gigs around Dunedin for a couple of years, until breaking up in 1980. The Same never recorded anything during their time together. Phillipps continued the same approach, though with more emphasis on melodies and tunefulness, with the Chills, the band he initially formed with his sister Rachel on keyboards, Jane Dodd on bass, his friend and musical mentor Peter Gutteridge on guitar and vocals, and Alan Haig on drums. This line-up only lasted a little while, and the group actually went on hiatus for a time while Phillipps played keyboards with the Clean for a short time. When Phillipps returned to Dunedin in 1981, he put together a new line-up of the Chills, including guitarist/keyboardist Fraser Batts, drummer Haig, and bassist Terry Moore. This incarnation of the Chills was one of the most powerful, and they were signed to the noted New Zealand indie label Flying Nun in 1982. Through the next few years, the group went through a dizzying array of line-up changes, though all the while they were able to produce singles, including “Kaleidoscope World”, “Satin Doll”, “Pink Frost”, and “Rolling Moon” that all became hits in their native New Zealand, but never really made it out to the rest of the world, except to pop and indie music fans who became aware of the band through letters and word-of-mouth. Phillipps knew to make the band more popular and to bring his music to a wider audience, he would have to go to England to do some recording and touring, so the group toured around New Zealand as much as they could, and eventually made it to the U.K. in 1985. Once there, they played some well-received gigs and even got to record a session with the noted BBC DJ John Peel. The group returned to New Zealand, and went through another series of line-up changes, but while they were in England, they met up with people from the British label Creation, and arranged for a compilation album of many of the band's early singles, titled Kaleidoscope World, to be released in 1986 on the label. (The album was released in the U.S. on the Homestead label.) The group returned to the U.K. in 1987 and actually lived there for a time, touring in Europe and the U.S., and recording their first 'proper' studio album, 1987's Brave Words (Homestead). The album received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, and was a hit back home in New Zealand, as well. After more line-up shifts, the group returned to the U.S. for touring, and while there, signed on with Slash Records, a semi-indie label that was distributed through Warner Bros. Records. The group returned to their new home base in London, and recorded their next album Submarine Bells (Slash), released in 1990, with producer Gary Smith, who had previously worked with the Pixies. Submarine Bells was a college radio hit in the U.S. and charted in the U.K., and was, of course, a big success back in New Zealand. The group returned to New Zealand and Dunedin in 1990, and were hailed as returning heroes, with all of their homecoming concerts selling out and the band even being welcomed back officially by the mayor of Dunedin. At the end of the tour, bassist Justin Harwood and keyboardist Andrew Todd left the band, and that left Phillipps with a successful band, but no actual band to play. Phillipps and drummer James Stephenson recruited former bassist Terry Moore to rejoin the band, and made a series of demo recordings before making plans to record a new album in Los Angeles with producer Gavin McKillop. Once there, though, Stephenson became homesick, and returned home, leaving Phillips and Moore to put together a band to record their new material. Enlisting ex-dB's member Peter Holsapple on guitar and keyboards, Mauro Ruby on drums, Lisa Mednick on keyboards, and background vocalist Steven Schayer, the band finally managed to record a new album, 1992's Soft Bomb (Slash). The album was another underground and college radio success for the band, but they just couldn't seem to break through to a wider audience. After the release of the album, a new line-up of the band, minus Holsapple and Ruby, but with new drummer Earl Robertson, toured the U.S., and then continued on back to tour in Australia and New Zealand. Following a couple more line-up changes, the group returned to the U.S., but, due to less-than-expected sales and sparse turn-out for their gigs, it was announced that Slash would be dropping the band, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Exhausted, heartbroken, and, as the leader of the band, in serious debt to Slash, Phillipps announced at the last gig of the American tour that the band was breaking up.
Phillipps returned to New Zealand, and spent the next few years sorting through the contractual and financial mess he had found himself in, while also making home recordings, writing a book about the history of the Chills, compiling an album of Chills b-sides and rarities, (Secret Box (The Chills Rarities 1980-2000)(Flying Nun)(2000)),a collection of the band's singles, (Heavenly Pop Hits: The Best Of The Chills (Flying Nun)(1995)), and playing short stints in the Clean, and a '60's cover band called the Pop Art Toasters. In 1995, Phillipps decided to move north to Auckland, and put together a new band, this time calling it Martin Phillipps and The Chills. With keyboardist Dominic Blazer, bassist Steven Shaw, and drummer Jonathan Armstrong, the band rehearsed, and Phillipps made arrangements for the band to fly to England to record a new album. Phillipps flew to England a few days before the others, and when the other band members arrived in Britain, there were complications with their visas, and all were sent back home to New Zealand. Now stuck in England with studio time booked, Phillipps, and producer Craig Leon, contacted the rhythm section of XTC, drummer (and former Fairport Convention member) Dave Mattacks and bassist Dave Gregory. The ad-hoc group managed to craft a fine album, 1996's Sunburnt (Flying Nun). After that, Phillipps split up the Chills again, and returned back to New Zealand. He spent the next few years recording solo material, and served time as a member of his friend David Kilgour's band The Heavy Eights. Phillipps put together a new version of the Chills in 2003, and recorded a new EP, Stand By (DunedinMusic)(2003). With a current line-up of Phillipps, drummer Todd Knudson, keyboardist/guitarist/violinist Erica Stichbury, and bassist James Dickson, the group are reportedly at work on a new album in Dunedin.