A singular band, the Chills are difficult to stylistically define because their diverse sound traverses lush psychedelia, whimsy and gloom, punk rock and bright jangly pop. Known for their revolving door policy on band members, perhaps rivalled only by the Fall (there have been at least 33 members of the Chills over their 41-year career), the one constant is Martin Phillipps. And they’re back with Scatterbrain, their first album since 2018.
10. Draft Morning (1989)
Phillipps goes to an early source of inspiration with this plaintive cover of the Vietnam protest song by the Byrds. Charting the inner world of a freshly recruited soldier on the morning he is to be drafted into the Vietnam war and the existential dilemma he faces, the song begins with the idealistic “sun warm on my face” and ends on the sombre line “today was the day for action. Leave my bed to kill instead. Why should it happen?” It has a slow, repetitive keyboard motif and does without the bombastic clatter of the original’s battlefield sound effects.
9. Effloresce and Deliquesce (1990)
Submarine Bells was the band’s first record on a major label and hit number one on the New Zealand charts. It only clocks in at 36 minutes but is a complete journey which saw the group refine some pretty serious songwriting. A lilting and delicate song, the impossibly named Effloresce and Deliquesce is an eerie folkish lullaby shanty with breathlessly rapid fire vocal delivery, a sense of high drama and urgency. In lesser hands a song like this would be embarrassingly twee.
8. Party in My Heart (1987)
This clever, droll but hilarious and bouncy b-side of House with a Hundred Rooms is one of the best gleaming examples of Phillipps’ skill as a lyricist. “The balloons have all shrunk, the streamers have faded, the punch has gone flat and the record’s outdated. All the dips and meringues and the cakes have gone mouldy. Nobody rang, nobody told me … ” On the back cover of the 12” the band members are shown wearing party hats and blowing streamers, surrounded by balloons, but looking comically glum.
7. I Love My Leather Jacket (1986)
“I love my leather jacket, I love my vanished friend.” Iconic and irresistible, this is like slowed down glam rock and has a steady stomp, driving repetitive riffs and swirling stabs of keyboard. Famously written as a tribute to former Chills drummer the late Martyn Bull who died of leukemia aged 22. Bull had bequeathed his leather jacket to Phillipps and this song is his bittersweet and philosophical tribute to his dearly missed bandmate and friend. And as the song goes, Phillipps did wear the jacket all the time as he said in this Under the Radar interview. “I wore it constantly … I travelled the world in it and I crashed out at parties using it as a blanket. It was very much a part of who I was for many years.”
6. The Great Escape (1986)
Years ago I used to work nights in a beautiful secondhand bookshop where I used to play the Kaleidoscope World compilation, sometimes on repeat. One evening Martin Phillipps strolled in and when he came up to the counter I said, “you probably get this all the time but you’re one of my favourite songwriters.” He looked genuinely surprised, maybe a little bewildered, shook his head and said, “no, no I don’t … Do you have any books on the occult?” This whimsical b-side to I Love My Leather Jacket features on Kaleidoscope World and was accompanied by a promotional video the band made while on tour in London. In it, it’s nice to see them having what looks like fun for once.
5. Hidden Bay (1984)
One of the very few (perhaps only) Chills songs not written and sung by Phillipps, Hidden Moon is the much stronger b-side to the dour and plodding Doledrums, a song I’ve never liked (see the Puddle’s Thursday for a more celebratory ode to dole day), and is the work of Martin Keen. A daft and joyful tune, it’s short and sharp and rhymes “bay” with “May” and “fool” with “cool”. Infectiously fun.
4. Balancing (1981)
While they formed in 1980, the Chills only released their first proper album Brave Words in 1987. But the band actually had enough material to release two albums prior. Released in 2001, the Secret Box is a dizzying set of three CDs which collects some of these rarities along with a slew of singles, EPs, live recordings, studio outtakes, demos, radio sessions and even jingles. If you can get your hands on this set, you won’t be disappointed. It includes Balancing a kaleidoscopic instrumental which was recorded live at the Cook in Dunedin in 1981. A hectic and majestic narcotic swirl of squally guitar, chiming keys, steady motorik drumming and phenomenal bass, it accelerates to a crescendo and you can almost hear the audience’s jaws drop at the end.
3. Pink Frost (1984)
“Just the thought fills my heart with pink frost … ” Is it a nod to Pink Moon or Pink Flag? It seems more in line with Syd Barret. The first time I ever visited Dunedin, one of the first places I went to was Lover’s Leap where the atmospheric music video for this song was filmed. This haunting, iced-over song reached number 17 on the New Zealand singles chart and still sounds heartstopping. It’s one of those songs that immediately stops you in your tracks whenever you hear it. While it was recorded in 1982, Martyn Bull died in 1983 so it was released posthumously as a single in 1984. If you look at the 7” you’ll see it has “For Martyn” etched on the A-Side.
2. This is the Way (1985)
“Fill your head with alcohol, comic books and drugs …” From the dreamy The Lost EP. I never knew there was a video of this until now and when I watched the deeply melancholy video clip for the first time, I burst into tears then promptly watched it another nine times. The autoharp, the juice bottle, the simplicity. Dexterously filmed by Chris Knox in one shot at his flat. Phillipps has said the clip documents the band at a sad time. Bassist Martin Kean had left the band but agreed to come back to do some promotional work, including this video. “He makes a personal point by not showing his face throughout the clip but there is also an overall feeling of sadness to the video anyway,” Phillipps wrote on a Facebook post when he unearthed and shared this video.
1. House with a Hundred Rooms (1987)
There are three different versions of this song that I know of, including a sensationally raucous 1982 live version under the title After They Told Me She Had Gone. Mayo Thompson from avant garde rock group Red Krayola produced this 12” version though, and it’s the best. Gauzy and wistful, it’s drenched with melancholic yearning. It sounds distant, like it’s beaming in from a different room or from underneath the floorboards. And when that unexpected, uplifting organ drifts in from out of nowhere at the end, the song ends on a quietly joyous note.