The Chills

Martin Phillipps, courtesy of www.flyingnun.co.nz

Martin Phillipps, courtesy of www.flyingnun.co.nz

I’m workshopping this bit. It may or may not make it into my next book. We’ll see. Here’s a rough excerpt.


One wet night in Nashville during the fall of 1992, about 20 hardy souls skipped a B-52’s/Violent Femmes double-header and ventured to a cavernous hall to see a disintegrating rock band from New Zealand.

In doing so, these folks helped the Chills break a record. Until then, the smallest turnout on their ill-fated North American tour had been in Salt Lake City, home of the Mormons. Now that honour would be held by the world’s country music capital.

“Congratulations, we’ve done it together,” said Martin Phillipps, the Chills’ singer/songwriter/founder/leader. The Chills played a lifeless 55 minute set and didn’t bother with an encore. The audience finished their lite beers and went home early.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The so-called “grunge” revolution was in full swing, and rock bands with an indie, post-punk ethos were the toast of the music world. The major record labels were enticing them with big deals and turning them into international stars. The Chills, perhaps a little ahead of their time, signed with Slash Records in 1990, and remained a cult item. Slash, home of the Germs and Los Lobos, was owned by Polygram’s London Records, while Warner Bros. Records handled North American promotion, marketing and distribution. The Chills’ 1992 tour was their biggest opportunity yet to break through the clutter and show these new bands who was boss.

Arguably few bands were more indie or post-punk than the Chills. If you liked the Replacements or R.E.M., you’d like the Chills, a band that formed in 1980 in the college town of Dunedin. With an upper-Antarctic setting that makes Seattle look tropical, Dunedin became a fertile environment for young musicians since there was little point leaving the house most of the time.

The shy son of a Methodist minister, Phillipps chose a life of financial monasticism in order to continue the legacy of musical heroes Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, Nick Drake and Scott Walker—four troubled or underappreciated songwriter geniuses he would later eulogize in a song.

The Chills—along with other bands such as the Clean and the Straitjacket Fits and the Verlaines and the Sneaky Feelings—were ignored by the mainstream labels and government-owned radio stations, and thus free to develop their own edgy brand of melodic, melancholy, shoegazing, hippie-punk rock. It became known at the Flying Nun sound, a nod to the equally shoestring local label to which the bands signed.

The Chills developed a strong following both at home and among the cognoscenti in Australia, the U.K. and North America. with exquisitely written singles such as “Pink Frost,” and “Doledrums” and “I Love My Leather Jacket.” They always seemed to be the next big thing, but then fate would conspire against them in some way. For example, they didn’t get around to recording their first album until 1987. But the underwhelming result, Brave Words, was poorly produced and the world-domination threat was averted.

The main problem was the group’s countless lineup changes. The Chills quickly became a Phillipps solo project with a revolving door of musicians. Just as the Chills were gaining momentum, maybe looking ahead to a big tour or recording session, someone would leave and Phillipps would waste valuable time looking for a replacement and bring him or her up to speed.

Most of his bandmates quit voluntarily, longing for a return to stability and a paying job. Only Phillipps was willing to stretch mental health guidelines and endure tens of thousands of miles of travelling in cramped minibuses, staying in ratty motels or on someone’s living room floor, the boredom of waiting around for hours, and the whole uncertainty of where it was all leading.

That’s the official reason. A darker reason may be that he could be just a tad difficult to work with. Certainly he was rather self-absorbed and reliant on ESP for communication. On the other hand, no one was more dedicated to the concept of the Chills playing and recording as a unit, everyone pitching in and deriving immense satisfaction.

In some ways, the Chills had it easier than a lot of bands. As Phillipps himself said, “I can go through the files and dish out piles of clippings saying that the Chills in the past were one of the best live bands in the world, one of the best recording acts.

“The belief in the band at an industry level and at a media level has been incredible. It’s not like it happens to every band and everyone thinks that they’re the most amazing group. The indication was that the Chills were something very special with commercial potential as opposed to very interesting but hopelessly unmarketable. People really thought there was something going to happen with us.”

By 1990, the Chills finally seemed to be poised for the international big time. With its strongest lineup in place, the band had signed to Slash and released an excellent album, Submarine Bells, kicked off by a killer catchy single “Heavenly Pop Hit.” The song went to No. 2 on the New Zealand charts. It should have hit the top, but was kept out by the ill-timed reissue of Aussie band Daddy Cool’s 19-year-old “Eagle Rock.” It also made the top 20 of the U.S. mainsteam rock chart.

The Chills toured North America and Europe. They should have returned six months later to keep the momentum going. But two members left soon after the tour, leaving Phillipps to start all over again while the rock world went on to embrace Soundgarden and Nirvana instead.

Phillipps and a different lineup returned in 1992 with a new album, Soft Bomb, which turned out to be aptly named. The first single, “Male Monster from the Id,” lacked the soaring majesty of “Heavenly Pop Hit.” Other Soft Bomb songs such as “Halo Fading”, “Song for Randy Newman, etc” and “Sanctuary” formed a sleep-inducing bloc during the Chills’ shows. The Chills had always been at odds with the mainstream; now they were at odds with their own genre.

“I don’t think it was a college kids-type record,” said Randy Kaye, the Chills’ A&R guy at Slash. “The record isn’t overly exciting, and when you went to the shows that was really painfully obvious.”

Soft Bomb came close to being aborted during recording in Los Angeles. It was produced by Gavin MacKillop, a guy whose biggest claim to fame was working with the lame band Toad the Wet Sprocket. That should have been a red flag. No Steve Albini? No Butch Vig?  Diplomatically, but perhaps unwisely, Slash mostly kept its nose out of the recording sessions.  On the few occasions label executives did drop in, they were concerned that the sound was uninspiring. Out went the trademark keyboards and angry vocals, in came strings and soppy harmonies. A hefty chunk of the budget went to enigmatic arranger Van Dyke Parks, a cohort of Brian Wilson, for his lush orchestrations on one song.

The finished product won warm reviews in New Zealand, where a mysterious ingredient in the water allows Phillipps to walk on it. But Slash executives found themselves agreeing more with the caustic reviews in offshore publications like Rolling Stone, whose reviewer (a Chills fan, by the way, who had done her homework) detected a lot of “unexpurgated drivel”.

The Chills scheduled a big world tour, beginning with shows in New Zealand and Australia. Ticket sales were lower than expected and at the end of that leg, underperforming American drummer Earl Robertson was jettisoned.

The Chills came to the United States in September, and they let me tag along for the first leg, which began in Seattle and took them down the West Coast. After the final L.A.-area gig, Phillips and I spoke for an hour in his Sunset Strip hotel room until 3 a.m. He was exhausted, frustrated and despondent.

Two weeks later I flew to see them in Nashville and Athens, Ga., by which time Phillipps had decided to break up the band. It was one of my big scoops, and I gave it to the New Zealand Herald, which had kicked off my journalism career almost five years earlier by publishing my exclusive interview with David Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar.

The first obvious thing was that the Chills tour was no glamorous jaunt through airports and five-star hotels. Rather it was seven people in a van, two roadies in a truck, modest hotels and dingy backstage digs that we sometimes shared with cockroaches.

Sleep took a back seat when the band finished after midnight, needed several hours to wind down and then had to leave for the next town a few hours after that.

Yet this was all luxury, made possible by the Chills’ deal with Slash, where they worked closely with one Melanie Ciccone, who happened to be Madonna’s younger sister. Melanie once hosted a party for the Chills at Madonna’s house, when the star was out of town.

For much of his career, Phillipps and his bandmates had couch-surfed, carrying and setting up their own gear. Now there was a tour manager to take care of the bureaucracy, three supremely efficient roadies to see to the technical area and a U.S. manager in Los Angeles who ran interference with the label.

Warner Bros. agreed to finance the hefty tab for the American leg, but—as is standard practice in the industry—the money came out of Phillipps’ putative royalties. Another change from the bad old days was that Phillipps was now paying a wage to his band. This would ensure a little more stability in the personnel stakes, but it also reinforced the feeling that Phillipps was the Chills and the others were hired hands and not the equals that he constantly begged them to be.

Seattle seemed the ideal place for the Chills to launch the North American leg. I took a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles, stupidly thinking it would be a quick trip. Thirty hours later, I was feeling appropriately grungy. Never again. Magnarella flew up to Seattle to catch the show, didn’t like what he saw and heard, but gave the band the benefit of the doubt: opening night nerves and all that.

Indeed, it was just the second show with new drummer Craig Mason whom Phillipps had poached from Flying Nun labelmates the Able Tasmans. The lineup was rounded out by avuncular bass player Terry Moore, on his third stint as a Chill; Texan keyboardist Lisa Mednick, who had played on the Soft Bomb sessions, was then lured away by neo-folkie and good friend Michelle Shocked but subsequently fired for no apparent reason; and guitarist Steven Schayer, the one “find” from the Soft Bomb sessions. The son of a cop who had busted Lenny Bruce, Schayer started out as a backing vocalist and was promoted to guitarist, an able foil for Phillipps.

Three Chills: Martin Phillipps, Lisa Mednick, Steven Schayer. At the Warner Bros. patio, 1992.

Three Chills: Martin Phillipps, Lisa Mednick, Steven Schayer. At the Warner Bros. patio, 1992.

There was one small hitch. The band was completely incapable of getting its act together on stage. The raw energy, take-no-prisoners attitude that characterised earlier Chills line-ups was nowhere to be found in this incarnation. The band consisted of five people who did their own thing on stage and barely interacted. Sure, Phillipps sang and played his heart out and was ably supported by Schayer, but it fell away pretty quickly from there. Mason’s arrival came too late to stop the rot.

Moore, prone to tucking his sweatshirt into his jeans, seemed a rather lacklustre performer on the bass. Mednick, for all her experience, was not up to the challenge of providing a meaty keyboards sound either. “They were just blah people,” said Kaye. These two would have been better off behind a curtain, he reckoned.

Phillipps, a musical perfectionist but somewhat lacking in HR skills, knew as well as anyone that this lineup was having problems. During the tour, he complained about the band but only reluctantly communicated his concerns to the band members themselves. “There’s a limit to how much I can verbally describe things, it has to be something that’s discovered by a group through playing the songs,” he said during our Los Angeles chat. “I’m really trying to get into it on stage and I’m not used to looking around and seeing everyone else play their parts contently. All the songs have sort of reached a level where people think that’s what they are, but in fact I know that they can be another 40 per cent more powerful, and more amazing in some cases.”

Meanwhile, Magnarella’s suspicions were confirmed when he caught up with the Chills for the crucial Los Angeles performance at the Roxy Theatre on the Sunset Strip. The audience was stacked with Warner Bros. bigwigs, all excited to see what the Chills had to offer. Not much, evidently. The band was hamstring by poor preparation, technical snafus and their underlying mediocrity. The crowd quickly lost interest, and their chatter virtually drowned the band out during the quieter songs.

“Chills Fail to Raise a Ripple at Roxy,” sneered the Los Angeles Times, describing the Chills’ music as “pleasant but anonymous, unpretentious but bland.” To be fair the smaller circulation Daily News raved about the show. “The Chills draw a warm response,” it said, noting the large turnout and a forceful performance.

In short, Warners concluded after the Roxy set that the band was a lost cause, having already been swayed by poor retail sales data. But Phillipps did not find out about that for a fortnight. In that time Magnarella was tearing his hair out trying to plan an economical European tour. If Soft Bomb had been selling well in Europe, London Records might have underwritten it, but it wasn’t so the label didn’t.

The corporate cold feet dovetailed with Magnarella’s own doubts about the Chills’ viability. At one point, Magnarella suggested Phillipps and Schayer tour Europe as an acoustic duo. It was inspired by a brief outdoor set they performed for Warner Bros. staffers at the label’s headquarters in Burbank. Phillipps, to Schayer’s relief, nixed the idea since most of his songs are built around keyboards. Europe was cancelled, and the Chills limped through the rest of the American tour. “Ultimately if I’d really sort of pushed for it, I’m sure we would have gone (to Europe). It just didn’t seem worth it,” said Phillipps in Athens, with nine shows left. “While you have to be out touring to move the record at all, it’s not worth touring if there isn’t a single doing well on radio or a video that’s being played a lot.”

In cancelling Europe, Phillipps effectively sacked the band which caused some heartache since the members and some of the roadies had been promised wages up until Christmas. Especially miffed was Mason, an affable fellow who’d abandoned the Able Tasmans barely a month earlier attracted by the regular wage the drummer would be able to send to his girlfriend and two-year-old daughter back in Auckland. Mednick, fresh from a legal battle with Michelle Shocked over unpaid wages, wasted no time in getting onto the phone with Magnarella demanding severance.

The biggest loser was Phillipps, and he was less than impressed with his bandmates’ reaction. “The whole attitude towards this band has been so monetary, it’s like a job to do and even from that point of view it hasn’t been done properly. A lot of it has been very unprofessional,” he said.

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NOTE: Unrelated to the above item, my first book Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com

Copyright © 1992, 2014 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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