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SOUND CHECK: The Chills, led by Martin Phillipps, are roadtesting songs from an upcoming album.
SOUND CHECK: The Chills, led by Martin Phillipps, are roadtesting songs from an upcoming album.

Music is both protector and reminder of mortality and Martin Phillipps, of seminal New Zealand band The Chills, believes a new album will bring their reputation "up to date".

"A lot of people refer back to the 80s and 90s with us," Phillipps says. "I've always been thankful we're not a one-hit wonder band. We have a range of material that people are familiar with now. In different countries we're known for a different song.

"Here it's I Love My Leather Jacket, in America it's Heavenly Pop Hit and in Europe it's Pink Frost."

Because their songs are melodic, Phillipps says the influential band's sound is often incorrectly labelled as pop.

"People have always called us a pop band but the songs are delivered much more as a rock band, with post punk beginnings. It's always had that intensity but because we don't sound like a normal rock band we fall in the middle somewhere."

The new music has been growing in stages, and has been for ages, just singing and floating and free.

Last year The Chills released the digital only single Molten Gold and they are currently road-testing new material with a tour of the main centres.

"After we do these three shows in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, we go into a world class studio in Dunedin, it's pretty much Abbey Road 2, on schedule to have a new album out by the end of the year I think."

He describes the demos as "familiar territory" for The Chills but says that sonically it sounds like a contemporary record.

"The band is all pretty excited about it, it's the first proper full album release since 1995, it's been a long time coming."

The new songs also signal a change in direction in his songwriting.

"As much as I've always shied away from writing protest songs or political commentary, a lot of these songs seemed to want to head in that direction. There are a lot of important things that needed to be said, whether I wanted to or not, that's what came through. It's not in a preachy kind of way, I was contemplating the environment.

"There are serious things going on at the moment. I couldn't see a point in just putting out more pop music because there's a lot of that out there already. It had to be worthwhile for me."

The lineup of Erica Scally, Oli Wilson, James Dickson and Todd Knudson has been the same for some years.

"Todd and James have been with the band 14 years now, Erica for eight years, and Oli has played keyboards with us for about five years," Phillipps says. "People always talk about The Chills' revolving door policy but I think after 14 years we've only lost one member now so that should just be put to rest.

"Because of what's happened over the last year or so, the whole band is just fired up, we have something to aim for. Previously we were just playing five or six times a year, now we have an overseas tour coming up."

He's making plans for the great escape and with 10 gigs in Europe over 16 dates in July it'd take a Superman to supervise.

"Berlin, Amsterdam, Dublin, and a few more are stll being finalised. We've been asked to play on Mark Ryder's show on BBC to over one million people. I'll stay on in London after the tour and mix the album."

The Chills remain signed to the Flying Nun Records label in New Zealand but the new album will be distributed in the United Kingdom via Fire Records through Far South Editions who released Somewhere Beautiful, a collaboration between The Chills and artist Shane Cotton, last year. It was limited to 150 editions and came with a price tag of $6500.

Phillipps professes to being anxious about maintaining his voice on the overseas tour.

"Obviously I'm excited about it but I'm also quite nervous because I haven't done a set of gigs like this in a long time. I'm worried about singing night after night, I'll need to pace myself.

"There are certain songs, like Heavenly Pop Hit, which are hard to sing.

"I don't really consider myself a singer, I consider myself a songwriter."

Don't let his modesty fool you. Phillipps' back catalogue is more than deserving of his enduring cult-like status both in New Zealand and abroad.

For the upcoming tour, he is particularly curious about returning to Berlin.

Recently he saw photographs for the first time of The Chills playing in East Berlin some years before the wall came down.

"We were the fourth band from the west ever to play there. We think they let us in because of New Zealand's anti-nuclear ships policy at the time.

"We had the KGB following us the entire time. I'm probably one of just a few musicians who could say that they've had that experience."

He hopes to cross paths with friends made on that visit.

"When the Berlin wall did come down a friend we made over there, a photographer, called me up at about 4am one morning to say he was out. It would be nice to run into him again."

Phillipps has never stopped writing songs. He has built up a large collection of material over the years but says he had "no real outlet" for it in terms of recording.

"I also had all my riffs scattered over cassettes, micro cassettes, reel to reel. . . but I've managed to get them all digitised. Some of the material for the album is based on stuff from the 90s, some of it is just brand new."

If the overseas tour goes well it might signal a return to the festival touring circuit.

"There seems to be a whole new generation of people who have discovered our music. I'm really not sure what age groups we will be playing to overseas. We get contacted by very young people right through to people in their 50s. I don't know how far we will go."

How far? See that star . . .


The Chills play at Juice Bar in Auckland on Saturday, at Churchills in Christchurch on Sunday and at Dunedin's Fuel Bar on June 6. Pre-sale tickets $30 from

The Press