Martin Phillips wasn’t sure he wanted to come back. It’s 15 years since his band, the Chills, toured Europe. He worried whether anyone still cared — if the 40-hour flight from his home in Dunedin, New Zealand, was worth the inconvenience and expense.
He needn’t have fretted. Since touching down in London last week, the Chills have been welcomed enthusiastically.
“The response is extraordinary. What’s particularly striking is that we have five or six new tracks in the set and people are really warming to them. After the shows they come up and say, ‘Wow those are amazing Chills songs’. It’s good to know: I didn’t want it to be just me and a pick-up band playing the ‘hits’.”
He speaks about touring Europe in slightly Rip Van Winkle-esque terms, as if he’s spent the past decade and a half in suspended animation. “They have a London Eye now – and a Channel Tunnel. The last time we played Berlin, we were one of the first bands to perform in the east of the city. It’s completely different.”
The Chills are one of those outfits who, with a little luck, could have had huge success. They emerged in the early 1980s from Dunedin’s remarkably vibrant new wave scene (contemporaries included the Clean and songwriter Chris Knox). Pop with a punk attitude — their early hit ‘Pink Frost’ has been accurately described as Paul McCartney fronting Joy Division — they might have become the Southern Hemisphere’s answer to REM.
“We signed to Warner and they told us we were a six or seven album band — that it might take that long for us to break through. However, by the end of the 80s the industry was changing and Warner cut the bottom 40 per cent of their roster, including us. It was disappointing: we’d only done two records with them. Given time we could have got through to a bigger audience.”
In the early 90s he returned to New Zealand, confused and disillusioned. It all started to fall apart. Feeling his chances of a breakthrough were over, Phillips fell into depression and drug use. He was eventually diagnosed with Hepatitis C (he continues to receive disability benefit).
“I was a little bit lost. I wondered about the future. There were some dark days. Eventually I came to a realisation that what I do best is write songs and I’d got to do it well.”
Thus was born the Chills 2.0. With a more solid line-up — first time around the group seemed to lose and gain members by the month — they started touring New Zealand regularly and have issued two live records. A new studio album has been recorded. And here Phillips is, playing Europe.
The internet has changed everything but back in the analogue era there was a theory that the uniqueness of New Zealand rock was owed to its isolation. Phillips agrees: as a kid in Dunedin, he had a distinct sense of living at the edge of the world. “I wasn’t one of those people who read NME or Sounds or Melody Maker — however, if you were, you’d get them three months after they came out. There were whole trends that came and went before they even reached New Zealand.
“Everyone listened to classic records from across a very broad spectrum. Everyone was supportive of everyone else. There was never any bitching or backbiting.” A chilled out scene that obviously benefitted Phillips and his band.
The Chills play Button Factory, Dublin tonight
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