SXSW Exclusive Review: The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps

Image: The Chills performing at Hotel Vegas, Austin.

Author: Melody Menu

From our position in the Alamo Theatre audience, it rather looks like Martin Phillipps, the sole continuing member of The Chills, is a bit of a hoarder. ‘That’s my pufferfish lamp,’ he tells us, guiding the camera into the depths of his home. ‘My collections of trolls and toys,’ and ‘my egg collection, when I was eating boiled eggs everyday’ all elicit great bursts of laughter from the crowd, but also take on a tragi-comic hue as one looks past the seemingly endless boxes of plastic figurines, tubs of miscellaneous things, and DVD stacks snaking around hallways and walls, to the man compelled to keep them. In The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps, the film’s protagonist is certainly shown as the larger than life band leader for the cult Kiwi band, but also the vulnerable man behind the mask.

The intimate processes of combing through his household belongings for an exhibition for Otago Museum, and attending hospital treatments to fight a longstanding battle with Hepatitis C, offer an ideal setting in which to analyse The Chills’ career, where nothing is hidden. Phillipps cuts an eccentric yet fragile figure, and the panoramas of greater Dunedin lightly coated in rain provide an idyllic view into his creative process, with many of his songs steeped in these natural surroundings. Here, fellow Dunedin Sound compatriots Hamish Kilgour of The Clean and Dr Graeme Downes of The Verlaines provide commentary on the many and varied phases of The Chills, along with a plethora of previous band members. Through the ensuing raw and uncensored portrayals of Phillipps from his numerous contemporaries, juxtaposed with his own admissions and contradictions, directors Julia Parnell and Rob Curry never seek to demonise their protagonist, but nor do they acquit him of any perceived wrongdoing.

The band’s late 1980s line-up is particularly significant, with the band members following The Chills’ 1987 European tour providing insight into the internal communication difficulties that would follow Phillipps through later line-ups. Not only were drummer Caroline Easther and bassist Justin Harwood living in poverty while on tour – being unable to find work due to Phillipps’ intensive rehearsal schedules – but Phillipps was living comfortably with his girlfriend off royalties, of which the rest of the band were not entitled. This in turn created a wider chasm, as then-keyboardist Andrew Todd began to struggle deeply with his input into the band being largely unacknowledged.

Harwood articulates this beautifully: Phillips may have penned the song lyrics, ‘but Andy made them symphonies,’ and you need only point to Todd’s reverential, hymn-like synth lines that frame ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ to consider the evidence. Easther’s replacement James Stephenson also echoes this sentiment: ‘[Todd] wasn’t getting the support he needed from the man he needed most…I don’t think he wanted to leave.’ These words also reflect Stephenson’s own personal experiences within The Chills, where the confusion and pain of his own eviction from the band is evident to this day. Of this moment in time, Phillipps expresses regret and a great deal of confusion, but also remains firm in his beliefs: ‘I’m not going to sacrifice equality for some team spirit.’

As Phillipps gradually replaces most of his band after this fateful European tour in favour of temporary American artists, on-and-off bassist Terry Moore – who both replaced and premediated Justin Harwood – sums up the line-up changes of this time period well. ‘We’re a New Zealand band, but who are these people? Why are people coming and going? And you suck! [Laughs] You sound bad! [It’s] a bad combo.’ For Martin Phillipps, there is only a ‘blankness’ around this period in the band’s history. ‘I couldn’t quite get my head around it, I think,’ and citing Terry’s presence as a source of support for him at the time, even as Moore waited balefully for his own inevitable eviction from the band.

Meanwhile, Phillipps’ journey with illness and historical drug abuse make for sobering footage. He is lead through a treatment for Hepatitis C with a staggering price tag of one thousand dollars per pill for a total of 84 pills, and also resurfaces his ‘drug paraphernalia’ bag from his heroin days – including needles, tourniquet, blood-stained towel, and sharps canister. Considering this more sombre collection of his, Phillips concedes that keeping it was a source of comfort when coming off heroin, and represents a proud moment for him that he was able to get clean. As a result of his habits, Phillipps relates the dire consequences: having collapsed all of the veins in his fingers, hands and feet. ‘That’s a lifetime of circulation damage; it isn’t coming back.’ Thoughtfully, he bins the lot.

Arriving in the present day, and none of the current band members appear to carry the same shared traumas of their predecessors, despite even laying witness to Phillipps’ leave of heroin. This is a testament to their being the longest-running line-up of the band, with two exceptional albums under their belt, and a live show that remains musically tight and joyfully triumphant. It is clear that the current band have a deeper understanding of Phillipps’ process, and while this may be due in part to Phillipps’ efforts to be more open to acknowledging the band, it may simply be a result of history. (At one point, bassist James Dickson laconically tells the viewer that friends of his attempted to dissuade him from joining the band, warning him of Phillipps’ difficulty to work with…He joined anyway). Here, an earlier comment from Phillipps echoes through the film, of music being both a healer and distractor. And in the spirit of atonement, Phillipps directly addresses his previous band mates and their shared history: ‘I want to thank you and say sorry to anyone who is still hurting.’

As the credits roll over the names of the names of all 32 Chills members, and then over the licencing details of the Chills songs that appear in the film – all attributed to M Phillipps – he sings “I’m not the man you think I am / I’m a complex piece of the plan.” As the chiming tunes ring out from the 2018 album Snow Bound, Phillips’ perceived status of tortured artist is held open to interpretation, while his resulting catalogue of heavenly pop hits – and their impact on generations – remains firmly in place.

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps directed by Julia Parnell and Rob Curry premieres in New Zealand at Dunedin’s Regent Theatre on Wednesday, May 1 2019. More info here.

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