THE CHILLS: THE TRIUMPH & TRAGEDY OF MARTIN PHILLIPPS
I watched this long-awaited documentary on New Zealand’s finest over the weekend. It’s very, very good, and you don’t have to be a fan of The Chills’ music to enjoy it. (Although that would beg the question, WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOUR MUSIC TASTE? Unless you had never heard of The Chills, in which case, please excuse me for shouting but GO LISTEN TO BRAVE WORDS NOW!) It also confirmed a few things I suspected that, in being true of The Chills, are also true of so many other ‘groups’ in similar scenarios.
Genius comes at a cost. I can not possibly overstate Martin Phillipps’ brilliance as a songwriter of quirky, heart-felt jangly pop songs. I listened almost constantly to a cassette of the 1987 full-length debut Brave Words for many many years; it kept me company for a number of lyrical reasons as I moved from the UK to the USA. And although I’ve sold most of my record collection, I held onto my vinyl of early compilations The Lost EP and Kaleidoscope World. Similarly with Submarine Bells, the group’s major label debut from 1990, which truly deserved its plaudits and awards. In a right and just world, Phillipps would have had number one records. But he clearly had terrible people skills, which resulted in a constant turnover of band members and management. At the end of the movie, he admits as much and apologizes to those he may have hurt along the way. And hurt them he did; several former members and managers make no bones about the pain they felt, breaking down in tears on camera in memory of what they had but what was lost.
Geographical isolation comes at a cost. The Chills were able to make the music they did in part because they were at the other end of the world, developing at a slow and steady pace away from the pressures of anything but the admittedly fertile and healthily competitive local Dunedin scene. But as just about anyone who goes traveling from New Zealand or Australia finds out, the cost of that travel means you need to make a long journey of it. When The Chills did set off to live abroad or/and on the road, the poverty of that existence frequently broke the resilience of the other band members. Which brings us back to Conclusion 1: Phillipps’ refusal to share any songwriting royalties even with those who clearly contributed to the arrangements – the most egregious example being Submarine Bells-era Andrew Todd, a classically trained keyboard player without whom, etc. – proved far more costly in the long run than did keeping said royalties for himself.
Major label deals come at a cost. Sometimes, a partnership with a large indie that is itself partnered with a major is just the tool needed to make the big time. But when that record label interferes with the creative process, then it’s not. This viewer watched in dismay as, following Submarine Bells, which was immaculately produced by Gary Smith, Slash boss Bob Biggs lectures Phillipps on commercialism, then brings in a clearly unenthused Gavin MacKillop as the new producer. MacKillop in turn hires Peter Holsapple to re-write Phillipps’ admittedly obtuse new compositions, all while demeaning any remaining Chills to the point of destroying their confidence (and contributions). It’s like watching a train jump tracks in slow motion, and we all know that it’s only a matter of time once a train jumps tracks before it crashes. The resulting album, Slow Bomb, is poorly received, the new concert line-up uninspired, and The Chills are dropped by Slash half-way through a world tour.
Drug habits come at a cost. Phillipps is hardly blameless in The Chills’ destruction. Apart from the aforementioned leadership problems, he follows the all-too-familiar rock ‘n’ roll path, taking cocaine first for recreation, and then for solace, before switching to heroin to numb the pain of a stalled career. (There’s an untold story here about how heroin can easily reach even the furthest corners of the earth, i.e. South Island, New Zealand, where Phillipps holes up in Dunedin to nurse his addiction.) Constant injections destroy his veins and his limbs’ dexterity. He contracts Hepatitis C from a dirty needle. A consistent accompanying diet of alcohol destroys 80% of his liver. The movie opens with him being told he will die within a year unless he stops drinking.
It’s never too late to make amends. Like a classic episode of VH1’s Behind The Music, The Triumph and Tragedy… ends, if not with triumph, then at least with Phillipps’ redemption. No spoilers here: the film is well-crafted enough by directors Julia Parnell and Rob Curry (and crowd-funded by enthusiastic Phllipps’ fans) that I highly recommend itsviewing. But rest assured, Phillipps is still with us, and still making music as The Chills. So while The Chills: The Triumph and The Tragedy of Martin Phillipps is primarily a cautionary tale, of fleeting brilliance brought down by the combined destructive habits of the music business and a tortured genius, at least it comes with an uplifting ending. Not the one Phillipps would have written for himself 40 years ago, but life rarely works out the way we planned, does it?