Martin Phillipps is that rarest of musicians, the Platonic populist. It is his dedication to the song as an ideal that animates his performances. The song sounds in Martinís head when others just hear silence; to write it is to write it down, to approximate that inner place with the architecture of guitars, keyboards, and drums. Band members are respected for their strengths yet, necessarily, theyíre in service of his composition; individual freedom is measured by reference to its parameters. If this has contributed, along with economic pressures, to the large turnover of Chillsí personnel then it also ensures that every song is worked out like an algebraic equation Ė although those perennial limitations, finance and time, often compromise the fine-tuning of recordings.
Naturally there are influences: some imposed, some chosen. His fatherís ritual playing of Bach and his motherís love for music. The psychedelica of 60s garage bands. Ray Bradburyís atmospheric short stories, which offered an adolescent Phillipps a way of seeing the human(e) against landscape that would inform his songs from the first. New Zealandís geography, where isolation is distinct from exile even if the two are confused by industry insiders who want the local artist to claim Los Angeles or London for a birthplace.
Martin may appear naïve. This is a misreading. He is innocent because to be otherwise, to be wordly wise, would be to circumscribe the possibility of the miracle that each song (re)presents. If he is often exhausted, as much by market demands as by the after-effects of Hepatitis C and his battle with clinical depression, it is because he still has a vision. This may be obstinacy; it is also intelligence, an intelligence that ensures his recorded songs operate as exquisitely enclosed spaces. You enter and find it difficult (often donít want) to leave:
I reached for the sun but the sun burnt my hand
I climbed on a mountain then fell on the land
I sang for a time when the songs were not old
I stood in the starlight but the starlight was cold
The Chills on the Web
The Chills on the Web
How has your first musical memory influenced you?
I remember, in the mid 60s, the comfort of the evening family environment and sitting beside the old gramophone (which I still own) as every night a man said: "...and now for the Evening Programme"; there was a sweet little intro on an oboe (I think) and the security of beautiful music. I later grew to love the old tunes and music-hall style of The Black And White Minstrel Show. I even remember my mother pointing at the old black and white television and saying "Look Martin, it's the Beatles!" but I couldn't see any beetles - just some people. I was about three or four then.
What got you started writing songs?
I was your typical cry-baby wimp right through my school years until my parents, having come into an unusual amount of money, agreed to buy me an electric guitar. The news spread through school like wild-fire and I was cool! I was asked by two acquaintances to join their new punk band, The Same, and I soon started mucking around with ideas and actually found I could write songs! I had for years tinkered on my mother's piano (with two or more fingers at a time). My mother had also forced my two sisters and I to attend piano lessons for a couple of years - which nearly destroyed my love of music but did leave me with a visual idea of where notes were in relation to each other. The Same only lasted a couple of years and by 1980 my songs were already beyond the band's raw capabilities so I looked around and soon formed The Chills with fellow music-fiend and friend Peter Gutteridge.
Over the years how has your approach to songwriting developed?
Sometimes I look with amazement at my early material and I do believe that you can come up with some of your best and most unique, powerful material while still in your teens and twenties. On the other hand a lot of my early material is obviously flawed and I have learned so much about simplification and connecting with a greater range of listeners as opposed to a snobbish clique. Like many people of my age I feel that some of my best material is still to come and, also like those people, I could be completely deluding myself! But I have over a thousand "song-seeds" underway and some new ideas as to the use of new technology etc which gives me hope and a real feeling of excitement. I believe that rock music has more freedom than any other art-form, and I feel it is tragic to see it being wasted again by persons more into style and fashion than content, so I see a real need for people like myself who have a grasp on where the medium is at and who still have the drive to make it a truly worthwhile medium.
What songs are you most proud of?
It is songs like Pink Frost with its strangely sad and slightly unnerving atmosphere that I feel still sound unlike any other band. I prefer the more expansive and atmospheric of my material and the songs like Ghosts and I Soar which are evocative of other times or places - sometimes verging on those landscapes of nightmares or science-fiction solitude. In the live setting I love performing the harder, more driving material as it is with those songs that I can usually lose myself and reach that wonderful plateau of exhilaration and timelessness.
How does a song develop through writing, rehearsing, performance and recording?
Very occasionally I will hear a song in my head - complete with some of its lyrics - and it is a mad rush to get down enough of the hooks to remind myself what it was about when I return to work on it more fully at a later date. More often it is a matter of putting together melodic ideas with lyrical ideas in an unusual form that creates a third element through the combination. I love the use of contrasts as I believe the human mind works in more interesting ways when presented with apparently contrasting elements. It is important for me to record a demo of some sort to show the rest of the band the type of atmosphere I am trying to achieve; then it is usually best to perform the song live enough times for those magic moments to offer up the subtle changes which should have been obvious in the first place but never are.
Video: The Chills of Satin Doll at
Windsor Castle on 29 June 1985 [courtesy of
Andrew Ellis Archive]
MPEG : 43MB
Real Media (streaming) : 1 MB
Martin Phillipps 2004