Martin Phillipps on getting glared at by Lou Reed, forgetting that he played Glastonbury and sharing a room with a ghost on the road with The Chills
“I can get hit by a bus tomorrow now and I’d be happy. I mean, it wouldn’t be great, but at least I’d have finished remastering my first record…” Martin Phillipps is joking, but you wouldn’t know it. Mostly because he’s so deadpan, but also because he really has spent 36 years trying to release The Chills’ 1987 debut, Brave Words, the way he actually wanted it to sound (“without all the bad 80s reverb”).
Now working with Fire Records and the Manic Street Preachers’ producer, Greg Haver, Phillipps is finally almost ready to rewrite his own history with a remastered and expanded edition of the record that launched The Chills. Eight LPs, one hit compilation and a landmark live session album later and the band are sitting atop one of the most important legacies in rock – a discography that helped define jangle pop, that shaped New Zealand’s Dunedin sound and that now brings Phillipps to Barcelona for a much-touted legacy gig at Primavera. Not that he’s too happy about it.
“I just had a 42-hour journey from home, including a 16-hour flight from Sydney to Dubai, sat in the very back row, right by the toilets,” he winces. “At least all the gear turned up this time though. The last time I played, Quantas lost all our equipment. And my medication. And the last international gig I played, I got COVID…”
Reminding himself of all the reasons he does still love touring (the people, the music, getting to eat tapas in a 600-year-old Spanish restaurant after a long flight and an upcoming UK tour that will bring him to some great new venues), Phillipps walks us back through his gig history.
The one that made me want to play music
It’s a combination of two. The first big gig I went to was The Hues Corporation. ‘Rock The Boat’. But that wasn’t the one. It was good fun, and it also showed me that you should never play dance music to a seated audience. But I also saw the early Split Enz, when they still had Phil Judd.
They were playing to a bunch of students, all in greatcoats back then, and I would have been easily the youngest person in the room. There were probably only about 300 people there, I guess, but the enormity of what they were doing… it just made you realise the power of drama and of telling a story.
Not long after that I saw Lou Reed in the same theatre doing the Street Hassle tour. And it was just fantastic. Especially because everyone was terrified of Lou. His band, the venue owners, the entire audience… He’d played there before in a bad mood and walked off after 30 minutes, so the entire place was silent, everyone too scared to say anything. At one point he stopped and said, “Oh my God, you’re so quiet”. And the place went nuts. Hearing stuff like ‘Sweet Jane’ being played live was just incredible. And the irony is, not less than 10 years later, we supported Lou Reed up in Auckland.
Was he still as scary?
I never even got to meet him, but I did have him glare at me from about five feet away. The sound crew had told us that Lou wanted everyone off stage whenever he got there, but we had technical troubles so we couldn’t get off. I was up at the mic and just felt this freeze… I turn around and he’s just standing there, glaring. We left.
I did hear though that on the flight over somebody gave him a tape of ‘Pink Frost’, and he was really blown away. In my diary, it says Lou talked about producing us, and I don’t know if he really produced anybody, ever. Probably somebody got the story wrong, but he was obviously intrigued. And then later, on the strength of that, he signed a book of his poetry for me, which was nice.
My first band was called The Same. We started in 1978, but we were pretty much encouraged within about five months to just get out there and start playing. So it was April ’79 that we did our first show, supporting The Clean’s first solo show. We were awkward. We were badly dressed. We played badly. It was kind of embarrassing. But at the same time, it was a thrill. And I instantly knew that something was underway. I knew this was the path that I was going down.
And so a year later, it’s the first Chills gig. We were up at a coronation hall, and it was Board Games – Shayne Carter’s first band – and it was suggested that we get up. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a keyboard, so we just did two songs. There’s a very bad recording of it, but it was pretty exciting. I mean, leads were cutting out, we were getting electric shocks off the microphone. The full deal. Welcome to the world of rock music. But, you know, within a week or so, things went off pretty quickly for us.
It’s tricky one. We’ve played some really big ones. If you’ve seen the Heavenly Pop Hits compilation, there’s a photo on the back of us playing a homecoming gig on the Submarine Bells tour, and that one was huge. And it was immensely satisfying too. That was probably one of the biggest crowds of our own, but during the late 80s we did a lot of European festivals.
I’m often asked if we’ve ever played Glastonbury and I always used to say no. But then a few years ago someone showed me an old poster and we were on it! I suddenly remembered it all – Doctor And The Medics had just had a hit with a remake of ‘Spirit In The Sky’ and they walked on stage after us. But my memory is that it was just another overcast festival in Europe, you know,? We’d been doing a whole series of festivals around that time and Glastonbury just kind of blended into one sort of muddy grey thing. We trudged mud into a lot of stages. But I guess that was one of the biggest of that era.
That homecoming gig was clearly a huge moment for you though. What are your memories of that day?
Well, it was kind of a short-lived buzz. Right after that was when I realised that all three other members of the band were leaving, for various reasons. I’d bounced back from that kind of thing before, but it quickly became apparent that the buzz was over. We’re talking here about the time of Nirvana. We were old news. I’d always kind of thought, as long as you put out quality material, you’ll ride out the changes. But that’s not always the case.
Nirvana are often cited as the band that killed off melody in pop music around that time – pushing sounds like yours to the fringes. Did it really feel that sudden at the time?
It wasn’t instant. But maybe it was in hindsight. I think some people were aware of the ramifications straightaway, but I checked Nirvana out and I thought, well, it doesn’t seem that new to me. It reminded me of the first time I heard The Stooges outtakes. It just seemed like ‘Gimme Some Skin’ on speed. I didn’t realise then how much Kurt Cobain connected with the disenfranchised youth. It took me a while to realise that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. This was a fundamental change and bands like ourselves never really recovered our career trajectories. Not that not that I blame them at all. I think Nirvana were fantastic and I’m still upset that I never got to see them live.
There was some really awful little upstairs room, somewhere like Newcastle. The ticket sales were so low that eventually they just cancelled the gig. But I remember somebody brought a dog. We were doing our soundcheck and the dog just stood in the middle of the empty room and did a big sh*t on the floor. That summed up the day.
In terms of impact on my career, that would be The Troubadour in Los Angeles. That was supposed to be our big moment, playing in front of Warner Brothers and people from Slash Records, and it was just one of those gigs where everything went wrong. I’ve gotten better at riding it out, but I did have the propensity back then to just get in a real blue funk. And unfortunately that was one of those nights. I just couldn’t believe this was happening. We had equipment failures all over the place, strings were breaking – it was a living nightmare. We gave a career destroying performance in front of the most crucial audience that we’d ever played to.
This has to be playing behind the wall in East Berlin, right?
Yeah, well, that’s not the weirdest one actually but I’ll tell you about that… The Prime Minister of New Zealand at the time was very left wing, and he challenged the Americans about nuclear arms, so I think word got to the Kremlin. We were only the third or fourth Western band to have been allowed to play in East Berlin. To be honest, we were as surprised as anybody. It was obviously just bizarre going through the military corridor with all the checkpoints and guns everywhere. Our van broke down and halfway and we had to pull into a service station, so of course we got challenged at the other end: “what happened with that spare half hour?”. They rang the guy at the garage to confirm, and he was probably taken off and killed somewhere…
They weren’t allowed any posters in the city so apparently there’d been one tiny mention of “New Zealand band, The Chills” in the national newspaper and over 1000 people turned up. There were police and KGB people everywhere. The equipment was all thrown together from remnants of the 1960s – the lights were just Trabant headlights. A guy there made friends with us, Peter Braun, and he risked being seen with us the next day and showed us around, pointing out the KGB agents following us. A few years later, I get a call at about three in the morning and it’s Peter, telling me he got out.
So which gig was possibly weirder than that then?
It wasn’t too long ago. We were asked to play a marquee tent for a cycling run afterparty, and they made the stage out of wooden pallets. This is Central Otago in the South Island of New Zealand, in an area called Middlemarch. They’re mostly farming people, and it’s very flat and windy and bleak. The farmers weren’t particularly impressed by us, but they got drunk and they started enjoying it. I actually cracked my tooth on the microphone that night because the pallet we were stood on was so uneven. But the weird bit happened afterwards.
I sort of assumed we were going to sleep in the van with sleeping bags. But as soon as the sun went down it was just like the chill of death. The marquee tent was no better because it was already getting frosty on the grass inside, but luckily a local farmer took pity on us. His family had recently built a big new expensive farmhouse but they still had the traditional wooden one which they used for duck hunting season. There were about five couches around this huge fireplace, and they were quickly taken by my band so I had to look through the rest of this abandoned house. The rooms were all so creepy, but one was obviously a kid’s room, covered in pink wallpaper. I slept there with the light on, leaving the door open, but I woke up in the middle of night and there’s a guy standing in the doorway. I could literally see the light from the hall coming through him, through his face and body. He was obviously a… former person. I could see him clearly enough. I saw that he was wearing dungarees and he was balding, with ginger hair.
Bloody hell, Martin.
I thought about running, but then I thought, well, it’s his house. So I thanked him for letting us stay then I just kind of went back to sleep. I’ve never had an experience quite like that before.
It might sound like an obvious thing to say, but we’ve been doing some of the best gigs we’ve ever done on this tour we’re on now. It maybe doesn’t have that kind of post punk teen energy we used to, but what it does have is a consistency of power – and of people really working well together. The four shows we did in Australia recently just got better each night. It’s wonderful having this confidence now. Knowing that there’s gonna be mistakes here and there, but that it’s just all so satisfying now.
Listening back now to old tapes, you realise just how ramshackle we were in the old days. It worked, but I think the fact that I wasn’t able to hear it at the time really hindered our career. I think other people could spot straightaway what we needed to be doing, and I was so resistant to being told what to do. I thought we were on our own path, but I guess a lot of the advice we got at the time was probably very good advice.
The energy now feels different, and everyone in the band is watching out for each other. That’s really lifting our game. I love my band now.