New Zealand’s The Chills Make Santa Cruz Return

Martin Phillipps, one of alt-rock’s best songwriters, rebounds from near-death experience

Led by Martin Phillipps (left), the Chills play the Catalyst on Tuesday, March 5. Photo: Gabrielle Devereux

The rise of the #MeToo movement has brought the phrase “toxic masculinity” to the mainstream, but it’s something the Chills’ Martin Phillipps was challenging his audience to think about almost 30 years ago.

When the song “The Male Monster From the Id” came out on the Soft Bomb album in 1992, the Chills had fans worldwide for the first time, after the 1990 major-label debut Submarine Bells and its college-radio hit “Heavenly Pop Hit” had broken them out of the small—but now somewhat legendary—New Zealand indie scene of the 1980s. Phillipps used that platform to assert that “Each man I’ve seen has some animal behavior in him/Some can conceal better the male monster from the id,” and encourage his male fans to take a hard look inward. (Click here to brush up on “5 Essential Chills Songs.”)

Unfortunately, a combination of record-industry support crumbling beneath his feet and Phillipps’ own struggle with depression and drug use led to an almost total breakdown of the Chills, with the band breaking up and then resurrecting in fits and starts—and not producing a proper album for almost 20 years, until 2015’s Silver Bullets. But it was a strong return, and last year’s Snow Bound was even better. Phillipps’ complex and layered songwriting has returned to peak levels, and as the Chills land in the U.S. with a tour that comes to Santa Cruz on March 5, he finds a cultural landscape that is far more ready to explore some of the difficult issues it wasn’t altogether ready for three decades ago.

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I think that’s true,” Phillipps tells me by phone from New York. “We seem to be saying the appropriate things for not just our own age group who are tackling some of these issues, but there’s sort of a new crowd coming up who are discovering us, too. It’s a very confusing time for a lot of people, and I think we seem to be tapping into that—a band with experience, that’s sort of on the right side in terms of being melodic rock music without being testosterone-fueled.”

Perhaps the reason that Phillipps has been able to bring brutal truths to his songs is that he always seems to start by owning up to his own frailties. He did it on older songs like “Male Monster” (and the great line from the Submarine Bells album, “Familiarity breeds contempt…and I’m not exempt”), and has continued to do so on new ones like “Scarred,” the drug-addiction mea culpa “Time to Atone,” and the rational-thinker anthem “Bad Sugar.”

“Frankly, I think it reaches more people at a deeper level if they can see that you’re trying as well, and looking within. I found that finger-pointing is too simplistic,” says Phillipps.

The results are lyrics that sometimes seem almost too smart for rock music, but which are grounded in the alternately shimmering and jangly hooks of the Chills’ catchy rock.

“That’s what I love to hear in lyrics myself—but I don’t know, in some ways I’ve shot myself in the foot, so to speak, by making them too clever,” admits Phillipps. “Especially when I was young and being a bit pretentious in my songwriting. But it’s still more fun, and it makes performing them live a lot more interesting, too.”

This international tour is especially celebratory for Phillipps because it was only three years ago that the Chills comeback was almost cut grimly short when he was told he had only a year to live. He had contracted Hepatitis C in the 1990s as a result of his drug use, and doctors told him his liver was about to give out. However, a drug developed in his native New Zealand, Harvoni, turned his situation around. He is determined to make the most of it, bringing both the Chills’ new and classic songs to U.S. audiences who have never gotten to hear either live.

“In a strange way, I feel like we’re picking up and getting back to where we should have been,” says Phillipps. “It’s kind of like a parallel universe sort of thing. It’s really odd.”

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.

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