First off, let me state that The Chills are one of my favorite pop bands ever. When I heard there was a new album (Sunburnt) coming out, and a tour to follow, I was overjoyed. Then I thought, "Hey, why not interview Martin for Tape Op?" Eventually, there I was, a wee bit tipsy after a few too many pints of Pabst, doing an interview after the Martin Phillipps and the Chills show here in Portland. The intensity with which he delved into the subjects at hand startled me at first, but then I realized that this band, off and on and in its many permutations, has been a big part of his life for the last 16 years. On with the interview!
I'd like to start talking about the new stuff but I think we'll just skip to the chase. There's one question that's been bugging me. It popped up with the Barbara Manning snippet that we did in the first issue. She brought up the Brave Words incident. She said it had taken her a long time to connect Mayo Thompson to Red Krayola and the production on your record. I remembered that you had mentioned in interviews that you had wanted to remix it and call it Braver Words.
The problem with Brave Words is that it was done really, really fast. It was recorded and mixed in about two weeks. Obviously, that's the first album after 7 years, plus that band was about 2 ½ months old at that stage. In all aspects that record was really done fast. We basically just recorded things as they had been live. Then we went back and sort of went overboard trying to redo some stuff to make it sound as big as we'd been hearing it.
Was that you guys or Mayo?
Everybody. We probably did some technical things but I'm not sure how we could've made it better. The main problem we had was that the pressing was absolutely atrocious. The mastering...
Of the vinyl?
Yes, and also the CD. They're mastered terrible. It's mushy. A difference needed to be made at the studio. I didn't know as much then as I know now. When we did the Heavenly Pop Hits compilation last year two tracks from Brave Words were remixed, "Look for the Good in Others" and "Wet Blanket." That was a sort of test run for the others .
I didn't get to hear that yet. [Later I did-the songs sound much better]
There's also a new vocal on "Wet Blanket" as well. I sung it really badly at the time. I sang them [originally] with reverb in the headphones, "Everything sounds great!" The band played really strongly on the recording but there are things of much higher priority to be done before [remixing Brave Words].
I always liked the songs on that album but thought the sound was a bit off. Richard said he thought it sounded fine.
Richard: I think it has incredible sound, that record. It's so...different.
Martin: It was that. People who knew the band live were most disappointed.
R: I just come from hearing that and not being familiar with your other records. It seems like, through the murk, you can find these things. It may be a little more difficult but it's more rewarding.
M: There's quite a unique quality, like listening to AM radio, but that's not really how...
R: It's not like a bad demo. It's a more interesting sound than that.
It definitely worked and captivated a lot of people. With Sunburnt you worked with Craig Leon, who has a famous pedigree, although a lot of people don't know who he is. It was done in England. Had you played the songs with a full band before going over to record?
Some of it. I'd been writing ever since the band broke up in '92, so there was 2 or 3 years of material to choose from. All the darker stuff got put to one side (Shadow Ballads is the working title) that may hopefully end up as an extra CD with the next album. It's a plan of mine, anyway. We just realized--myself, Craig and the record company--that it'd be crazy to come out with a dark album after four years, especially following Soft Bomb. I wanted something that was much more positive and optimistic. Once we decided that was what it was going to be, it was pretty easy [to see] which songs fit together well. Probably about a third of them I worked on with Jonathan [Armstrong/drums], 'cause he's been with me now for a couple of years and Steven Shaw (the bass player) and the keyboardist, Dominic Blaazer. We realized it wasn't worth taking Dominic over 'cause I was going to be playing the keyboard parts myself and sequencing them. The rhythm section came over about two weeks after I got there only to be stuck at Heathrow airport immigration and promptly flown on the next flight back to New Zealand. We had to come up with ideas, that's how we ended up with the two Daves. Dave Mattacks, drummer for Fairport Convention and Dave Gregory from XTC, who's actually a keyboardist but claimed to me that he played rudimentary bass.
He played a lot of guitar on XTC stuff.
He's a real guitar maniac and he's got a huge knowledge. He's the one that put me on to the Charvel guitar.
Did you and Craig Leon do a lot of pre-production? Picking through the songs and arranging stuff?
I was there about two weeks. I had my own rhythm section tuned up; we spent at least a week and a half trying different approaches to different songs. We had to refer closely to my home demos.
A lot of it is actually close to what I had. Which, with hindsight, I think forced my hand to make a really solid record.
Like having too many options?
I'm sure if the band had come up, it would once again have a diluting effect. The two Daves couldn't come in at the same time, even though they had worked as a rhythm section previously. So they came in for two days each.
Did you track with the drummer first?
Yes! They're both great rhythmic people. They really enjoyed it and it worked out well.
The album previous to that, Soft Bomb, was done with Gavin MacKillop producing. Where was that done?
That was done in Los Angeles at Master Control Studios.
To me, I think it's one of your best sounding records.
I really like it. A lot of people never really gave it a chance 'cause they were looking for another Submarine Bells. That's a reasonably dark album. Actually, one point why the records have been done overseas (especially the last one, where right up until two weeks before we started was supposed to be recorded in New Zealand). It actually ended up being cheaper to fly the entire band to England than to fly the producer and his partner to New Zealand.
Because the cost of studios in England is just so much cheaper with all the competition. New Zealand has some good ones but they're overpriced for what they are.
Supply and demand.
Basically. The top line studios there charge top line fees even though they're actually B or C studios. So we just couldn't afford it. There was also free accommodations thrown in with the studio we did it in. We've been trying really hard to record in New Zealand for ages 'cause we've never done an album there. Probably the next one will be 'cause there's such a tiny budget.
Were you happy to make an album and not be in a US studio?
I think it's a real "indie" myth that somehow you go to an American studio and make an American sounding record. It totally comes down to who you're working with. In the studio, once you close the door, you could be anywhere. Soft Bomb sounds like it does because of other factors and it sort of got out of control in the production sense.
Do you think things got out of hand?
In a way it's not...actually it sounds quite amazing, especially when you crank it up on a good stereo...but it's not what I've been trying to catch with the Chills. It's somebody else's angle on it. I made decisions with that album where I felt I didn't know enough about the recording process to justify throwing away tons of extra things. Better to let the people who've got expertise. Through that record I realized that I did have a reasonably good ear and a surprising amount of knowledge built up from the years. So come Sunburnt, I was a lot more active and it's really paid off.
It doesn't sound like someone took it and ran off in the wrong direction.
Craig Leon, and his partner Cassell Webb, she's got the title of Production Coordinator. She basically makes sure we're free to concentrate. Between the two of them they made it the most enjoyable recording process I've ever been in. That was really good and Craig really encouraged me to stick with the original arrangements that I had done. A lot of the keyboard sounds were a cheap little Casio organ I picked up once during a writing sabbatical. There's a certain sort of glee using this reasonably big budget recording this little Casio organ. It really works. There's this really beautiful drum sound and this cheesy organ. I love contrast.
Your earliest stuff was done with Doug Hood and Chris Knox.
Mainly Doug. Chris kinda hovered around and threw in the odd suggestion. He was a really good balancing influence 'cause Doug would always have the tendency to make things sound more professional. Chris was a really good one to say, "Stop. You don't need this overdub." Sometimes he's wrong, too. I was always satisfied to prove Chris Knox wrong on a point.
There's a certain feeling on that old stuff...a kind of innocence.
The interesting thing is, even at the time, especially in the early 80's, I was listening to a lot of 60's garage rock, and we were by no means trying to do a sort of retro recording. We turned out the best possible recordings we could. People think we were trying to make it sound like that. If we'd had access to a full studio we would've gone straight in and it probably would've sounded pretty much the same, I imagine. The point was, we could be talked into a better studio to try and catch the band. It's this ongoing battle about whether it works or not. I don't feel it's a mistake to go to the most expensive studio in the world and capture your raw sound, if that's what you're trying to do. I've been lead astray, or lead myself astray on some of the records, but I still believe, and I think Sunburnt proves more than the others, that you can catch that raw sound but in a really well recorded way. As opposed to having a "try-hard" indie recording. It really irritates me when people are still doing indie recordings after 10 years. It's not honest anymore. It's as phoney as somebody going to a big studio and losing sight of it. I always try to encourage people not to be scared of big studios; just trust their ears and demand what they know they can do.
And you've proven it a few times. How was it working with Gary Smith [on Submarine Bells]?
I've learned an awful lot from all the producers I've worked with. It's probably Gary and Gavin MacKillop where I was challenged to explain things or justify why I wanted things a certain way because they had their own ideas about recording things and what worked. A lot of people were disappointed with Submarine Bells for the fact that the guitars were so cleaned up and mixed back. The nature of The Chills live, maybe more so then than now, was the real clash of guitar and keyboards creating a third instrument. As it's played on record it is like half a picture. They kind of proved to us, every time we'd start doing a mix, 'cause my guitar playing was so rough if we turned it up it would sound worse. When we'd bring it back the overall sound was much better. It was too late to change it 'cause it was how the whole project had gone. I guess we didn't realize until it was mixed just how clean the whole thing was. It's still got a gorgeous sound on that record. Again, it wasn't what we were trying to do. Gary felt under a lot of pressure, with the size of the budget we had from Warner Brothers, he felt that he must be expected to produce this little friendly record. It was actually Warner Brothers that first said, "Where are the guitars?" It was quite ironic that it was Warner Brothers that wanted what they'd seen live. I suspect that it contributed to Gary giving up production. In another 2 or 3 years he would stop producing. I never had the chance to sit down with him. We were all really happy with the record — it's a fine record.
It's a beautiful record.
There's a song, "Dark Magician", a b-side of "Part Past Part Fiction" that was an example of what didn't work. That song had an extra minute, and it went back to a slower chorus for the second time, and at that stage was still meant to be on the album. Gary said, "Look. Structurally it will work much better if you just drop that section all together and go straight to the tail section." Eventually he kinda talked us around and we less wanted to hear it. "Okay. That sounds alright." It didn't end up being on the album anyway and that really pissed us off 'cause we could've just left it as it was. Especially, with hindsight, it was much better with that extra section. The scope of the Chills material has proven to be too much for most producers. They always like elements of it but there's always things they don't like. Gary wasn't fond of the long-winded dark stuff. Gavin MacKillop, on the other hand, loved the dark stuff and couldn't stand the fluffy pop stuff. On the Soft Bomb album it was a real haggle to get songs like "Double Summer" and "Ocean Ocean" even on, and they'd come out so much more light weight than they needed to be. He couldn't understand this thing I was trying to achieve; this real sonic but beautiful pop music. So it sort of came out kind of reasonably twee, which is a major factor why that album bombed. Either "Ocean Ocean" or "Double Summer" were meant to be the successor of "Heavenly Pop Hit". With both of them being handicapped and having to go with "The Male Monster From The Id" as the single...it's sort of a dead topic now...
What a way to go out.
The good thing is now people tell us it's quite a good album.
Where have you done your demos for the albums?
Submarine Bells and the first album I started writing was on a Tascam Porta 5, 4 track cassette, so I've been using one of those ever since. That's just completely bitten the dust now so I have to make a jump into the computer world and start doing it that way. I've always had really shoddy rough takes too. It was a mistake but I was just doing it so I could be reminded of things. Never realizing that these recordings have a real special feel, and that if I just put a bit more care into them, could be up for releasing one of these days. As it was I was taking the Porta Studio down to Volt where Brendan was working and we tidied them up as much as possible. I think I'll probably do it again at some stage. Those will be made available someday. We're setting up the ICE Club — International Chills Enthusiasts — an internet home page and mail order thing. Possibly even a magazine. I'll make available those demos and outtakes and stuff. Hopefully things like Peel Sessions and so forth.
You have quite the cult following.
Well the nature of the Chills true fans is they want to hear all the little variations. I'm quite eager to get stuff out.