New Zealand alt-rock innovator Martin Phillipps brings his band the Chills to the Catalyst on Tuesday, March 5 as part of their long-overdue return to the U.S. Here are five songs essential to understanding what makes the Chills great:
“Pink Frost”: This 1984 single from the Chills arguably cemented the cool factor of the “Dunedin sound” that came out of the band’s hometown in New Zealand. (The Kiwi label that released it, Flying Nun Records, also championed other Dunedin bands like the Clean and the Verlaines.) Ironically, it doesn’t sound much like what the Chills would evolve into, at least on the surface—with its spooky, winding guitar ramble and gothic tale of a man who accidentally kills a lover in his sleep, it’s a bit more like something the Cure would have put out around that time. But on a deeper level, it’s an early example of how Martin Phillipps’ music has always evoked primal elements of the natural world.
“I Love My Leather Jacket”: Like “Pink Frost,” this song was on the Chills’ first “album,” 1986’s Kaleidoscope World, which was actually a collection of previous singles. Unlike “Pink Frost,” it really captures the love-in-the-face-of-the-terrifying-abyss spirit of Phillipps’ songwriting. It’s a tribute to Martyn Bull, the Chills drummer whose illness caused the band to take a year off just as it was finding its first success. Before Bull’s death from leukemia in 1983, he gave Phillipps his leather jacket, and this song in Bull’s memory is a powerful swirl of shock at losing a loved one and gratitude for having known him in the first place. “I wear my leather jacket like a great big hug/Radiating charm – a living cloak of luck/It’s the only concrete link with an absent friend/It’s a symbol I can wear ’til we meet again … I love my leather jacket, I love my vanished friend.” It also really rocks, with a muscular, stripped-down sound that Phillipps has returned to more often on recent Chills albums.
“Heavenly Pop Hit”: You’d be hard-pressed to find a purer expression of joy in ’90s rock than this song, which earned the Chills an audience worldwide and came this close to breaking them in the mainstream. Ironically, Phillipps told me that because his problems with drug abuse and low self-esteem at that time are so well-known, many fans still can’t believe it was genuine. “You’d be surprised how many people come up to me and sort of say, ‘Wink wink, nudge nudge, but it’s not real, is it? You weren’t really happy, surely.’ Like it must have been cynical underneath or something. But it was a song about the power of rock music to uplift you.” Maybe they should have looked more closely at the lyrics, which suggest even Phillipps wasn’t sure how he could feel so good: “All the tension is ended, the sentence suspended/And darkness now sparkles and gleams/And it all seems larger than life to me/I find it rather hard to believe.”
“Submarine Bells”: The entirety of 1990’s Submarine Bells album is a far-reaching musical landscape, from the forest and stars of “The Oncoming Day” to the watery guitar ripples of “Effloresce and Deliquesce” to the evening afterburn of “Dead Web,” but nowhere in perhaps the entire Chills catalogue does Phillipps sync his sonics with natural beauty the way he does on this album closer. It’s a gorgeous love song so startlingly vivid that it seems to literally sink into the depths of the sea as he sings “sound moves further underwater.”
“Bad Sugar”: The lead single off the Chills’ 2018 album Snow Bound starts off with a glowing guitar effect that epitomizes Phillipps’ ability to harness a remarkable spectrum of sound. Like much of Snow Bound, the album that really solidifies the Chills’ comeback after nearly two decades of all but disappearing, “Bad Sugar”’s lyrics try to foster a little empathy for those whose belief systems leave us in staggering disbelief. Lines like “Of this wide world of wonder, you’re scared to take a look” and “When they’re hiding their heads in the sand/Then it seems they’ve been damned by their very own hand” would seem to be a setup for a total dismantling of the small-minded true believers he’s aiming at, but Phillipps brings his characteristic humanity to the chorus: “But then I’m wrong, I know I’m wrong/It’s just people and how they get along.” Bonus points for the sly kicker: “Even bad sugar makes bitter taste sweet.” I mean, your Creationist uncle may be filling some deep human need and all—and you should maybe be nice to him at Thanksgiving—but he’s still wrong.
The Chills play at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5, at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave. in Santa Cruz. Tickets are $18 advance/$20 at the door; catalystclub.com.