When you consider the precedents to The Chills' 2014 European tour it is something close to a miracle that it actually happened. From numerous disintegrations through to issues with substance abuse and a range of roadblocks and that had hampered prior attempts to return to northerly climes, the smart money might have been on them facing further adversity in the face of triumph.
For a band that has gone through as many break-ups, reformations and line-up changes as The Chills, their current existence is surprisingly democratic. An interview scheduled with vocalist and song-writer Martin Phillips, the spearhead of the band and the only member remaining from their formation in 1980, is taken with 4/5ths of the line-up that has, for all Martin's reputation for chopping and changing, been a constant for over half of the band's entire timeline.
In respect of that democracy, all answers here (unless indicated otherwise) are attributed to The Chills as the collective as it currently stands: Todd Knudson, Erica Scally, Martin Dickson, Martin Phillips and Oli Wilson - the latter of whom was not present for the interview - as ContactMusic caught up with them prior to their set at Indietracks Festival.
Contactmusic: This is your first tour of the UK in nearly two decades and the first one with your current line-up. How are you finding it so far, and what have the responses been like?
The Chills: I guess any apprehensions have gone now (after the first two dates of the tour). There were apprehensions about coming back what with the expectations people would have, but the band is playing so well, and we're having a great time actually. The audience has obviously aged since we were last over but a lot of younger people have discovered us, either through their parents or through other bands, and from them the response has been great. There has been a sense of relief as the old fans didn't want their memories shattered, and there are a lot of people who waited twenty years to see the band, and they're coming up to us after the gigs and saying "Thank you, it's been worth the wait" and so on, and that is as much as we can hope for.
CM: So what has made you come back now? Has there been a certain event that has driven it?
The Chills: There have been at least four times over the last six years or so where we almost came over, and all of them fell apart at the last minute. It costs an awful lot of money to get us over from the Southern Hemisphere, the band are all holding down jobs, two have got families, so we have to cover every day that we're away.
The main event that happened was early 2012; we were invited to play a private party in Memphis, this American guy who turned out to be a wealthy art dealer and knew The Chills' music and couldn't believe there was no real backing for us at that point and nothing happening for us back in New Zealand, and from there we set up a label in New Zealand (Far South), which is now signed with Fire Records for international distribution. So all of a sudden there was this impetus to move forward and the backing to actually record a new album.
We hadn't done a recording in ten years and hadn't recorded a proper album in twenty years, and we'd been doing a number of really good shows every year without really being able to move forward and, all of a sudden, that changed, and so did the band. Every single gig started getting better and better. We didn't really know this tour was on until about two months ago, it was still touch and go until the last second. You don't really believe it until you see the aeroplane tickets, and even then you don't know if someone is going to get stopped at customs.
We had an incident in 1995 when I (Martin) came over to record The Chills' album 'Sunburnt'. The rhythm section flew in about three days later and got stopped at Heathrow and, for some reason, probably because the bass player was on the verge of a nervous breakdown that he subsequently had, they decided to go through different aisles. One of them said they were here to work and one said they were on holiday, and customs saw they both had instruments and put them in an interrogation room for eight hours and put them back on a plane to New Zealand. So that was an awful lot of money wasted. We got to hire some great musicians for the record such as Dave Maddox who was the drummer for Fairport Convention and Dave Gregory from XTC on bass, but, unfortunately, The Chills have got this weird, intense energy thing which we only learn when we play over a long period of time. So as much as they played beautifully, it's not really The Chills.
CM: So how is the recording of the new album going?
The Chills: We started in September last year in Thailand and recorded a new version of 'Pink Frost' and a couple of other songs including a new song called 'Pyramid Moon', which was meant to be a b-side but we didn't tell the label it's about eight minutes long, so it ended up becoming the first track of the new album, and that has turned out to be a good thing as it was a great learning curve for us. We were hoping to get the album out by the end of the year but it will probably end up being 2015 by the time the artwork and promotion is done.
Both sessions (for the album) have been quite gruelling, especially the last one where we just hit it hard for two weeks doing twelve hour days, but it has made us more of a team. We've been very lucky to have Brendan Davies as the engineer and producer of the album as he has lots of great ideas and brought out the best of what we had. He is the first producer that we've really let tamper with our songs because we've learnt to trust him, and I think in ten years he is going to be one of the top producers.
CM: What was the process in writing material for the new album? How much of an influence does each member of the band have when putting together a new track from start to finish?
The Chills: What basically happens is that I (Martin) will write the sketch and everyone will fill in their own parts, but I'll still direct them if I think things aren't going right with the overall feel of the song. What normally happens (in regards to previous releases) is that I'll write a demo which at least contains the atmosphere of what I'm trying to achieve but this is the first time that I've really tried to take into account what this band is actually capable of and give them freedom, because they're all great musicians and they've been under utilised on the older material. I realised it was stupid to have these great musicians and have them playing parts that I could play, as I'm just a rudimentary musician myself.
We're all really excited about the album and know we've accomplished something really good, and I'm not just trying to hype the album. We've already decided that whether anyone else likes it or not we've done something special. But people are really accepting the new stuff live, you'd think there would be peaks and troughs (in the audience reaction to old and new material) but there has been the same energy level throughout.
CM: So how did you choose the set you're playing on this tour?
The Chills: We're lucky that we're not a one-hit wonder band, as then people would just be turning up for that, but there is a tier of about four or five key songs that people expect to hear. Then there is a next level than Chills fans would really hope to hear and we can only do so many of those, and then we're trying to incorporate new material into it as well. So we're playing about five or six new songs on this tour, and the response has been pretty much equal to all of them. It's a big back-catalogue now to choose from, and hopefully we can come back and tour the new album too.
CM: Are there plans for that set up already? What are your plans for the future?
The Chills: Well, part of the reason for this tour was to really nail down some of the long standing open offers that we've had from festivals over here in Europe and North America, and the right people are coming to see us and saying, "Yes, they are on form". But in regards to the new album, we don't know if that will be its own tour or part of a festival tour, and we're hoping there won't be another twenty year wait!
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