The Chills were primarily responsible for what became known as the Dunedin Sound, named for the band’s hometown on New Zealand’s South Island.
What the band hammered out was an engaging form of chiming, hook-laden guitar pop, an amalgam of jangly garage-pop invested with a spooky, otherworldly touch—as if being on the other side of the world meant the music was played upside down (as U.K. journalist Martin Aston put it in The Guardian).
The visionary behind the Chills—and its lone constant member—was, and is, guitarist Martin Phillipps, the band’s founder.
Phillipps began playing music with the NZ punk band The Same in 1978.
They released no records, but those who were around at the time say the band primarily played covers, creating a raw fusion of British Invasion and garage rock.
The fledgling musician applied the same approach with the initial 1980 lineup of The Chills, which briefly included his sister Rachel.
Two years later, the rapidly evolving band signed with legendary NZ indie Flying Nun, releasing several singles that made a big impression on fans in their homeland, though these early recordings were little heard in the U.S. or U.K.
It wasn’t until 1986 that Chills music became widely available, as Creation, the pioneering U.K. label founded by A&R great Alan McGee, released the group’s first album, Kaleidoscope World, which collected the early singles, including such memorable tracks as “Rolling Moon” (the first to hit the NZ chart in ’82), “Pink Frost,” “I Love My Leather Jacket” and “Doledrums,” several of which later became college radio staples.
Subsequently released in the U.S. on Homestead, the album instigated the modestly sized by utterly rabid cult of The Chills, spreading Kiwi music around the world.
In 1987, the group’s tenth lineup—consisting of Phillipps, bassist Justin Harwood, keyboardist Andrew Todd and drummer Caroline Easther—recorded their first proper album, Brave Words.
Produced by Mayo Thompson of Texas cult group The Red Krayola, the music is thick and echoey, adding a layer of foreboding to tracks like “House With a Hundred Rooms,” “Dan Destiny & the Silver Dawn” and “Look for the Good in Others and They’ll See the Good in You.”
Throughout, Todd’s organ work is in the foreground of the mix, even overshadowing Phillipps’ lead vocals on several tracks.
The effect tends to treat Phillipps’ voice as another instrument, which when combined with the tumbling logorrhea of his lyrics gives the sound an odd, unsettling urgency, as Stewart Mason put it in his Allmusic.com review.
Boston’s influential Gary Smith (The Pixies, Throwing Muses, Juliana Hatfield) produced the following LP, 1990’s Submarine Bells.
The first of two releases on high-profile U.S. indie Slash, the album is the best known and most cherished Chills effort, for good reason.
Lead-off track and single “Heavenly Pop Hit” remains their most famous song, as over a rapturous keyboard/rhythm combination, Phillipps sings just that, an inspiring lyric with a soaring chorus, aided by additional backing vocals from guest Donna Savage. From there, it’s one high point after another, including “Oncoming Day,” “Part Past Part Fiction” and “Drug Magicians,” Phillipps and company at the top of their game throughout.
Though Submarine Bells exponentially ramped up the excitement level surrounding The Chills here in the States, it failed to cross the band from the left of the dial to the mainstream.
Unfortunately, neither did Soft Bomb two years later, this one produced by the pop-leaning Gavin MacKillop (Toad the Wet Sprocket, The Rembrandts, The Church), and yielding the cult classics “The Male Monster From the Id” and “Double Summer.”
Frustrated by the band’s lack of sustained success outside NZ, and struggling to conquer his personal demons, Phillipps broke up The Chills in 1993, only to dust off the nameplate yet again to record Sunburnt (1996), working with the world-class rhythm section of drummer Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) and bassist Dave Gregory (XTC) and, most recently, Stand By (2004), containing the late-period classics “Liberty or Love” and “True Romance.”
The constant turnover of personnel is one reason for the band’s lack of consistent momentum, a predicament Kiwis have dubbed “the curse of the Chills”. Another was Phillipps’ health.
For much of the 1990s, he was laid low with hepatitis, a side effect of his the drug addiction problems he eventually overcame. But perhaps the biggest factor of all was “the tyranny of distance,” as Shayne Carter of NZ’s Straitjacket Fits aptly put it.
No city on the planet was further from London than Dunedin, and it would be hard to name a more remote locale from the U.S. than South Island.
The even Chills moved to London in 1987, but three years later Phillipps, by then homesick and penniless, returned home.
The Chills still exist and are said to be recording yet again, with their umpteenth lineup. Let’s hope we haven’t heard the last of this quintessential underdog band. But either way, Martin Phillipps has left DIY rock with a considerable legacy.