The 25th anniversary of The Chills' haunting Pink Frost is the impetus behind a tribute concert, writes Scott Kara
by the Chills was one of those mysterious yet catchy songs from the mid-80s that lingered on the New Zealand charts for weeks on end.
and the Bunnymen's
had a similar, slow-burning impact around the same time.
The Chills song, which put the band on the musical map, spent 18 weeks in the charts during 1984 and had a strange eerie quality that made it seem longer than the 3.54 minutes it actually lasted.
"I know what you mean," says the Chills main man Martin Phillipps. "Once that song clicks from the intro section into the haunting first movement, people in the audience, who may have been chatting up until then, do tend to stop. It really does grab people and if your attention is focused on something then time does take a little bit longer," he ponders down the phone from his home in Dunedin.
The first Chills single from 1982 was the far poppier
, which hardly made an impression at all; but the darker, more dour
made people take notice.
It doesn't surprise Phillipps: "Right away there was something about it that people recognised as being a bit haunting and special that caught a side of the market that wouldn't have gone for the more overtly 60s pop of
"And between those two releases the band had become a lot more well known so the next single was bound to sell better anyway. And it's ageing really well," he says.
Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd remembers
as the song that got the Chills' ball rolling.
"It's a great song and crucially a different kind of song. You get mood and atmosphere rather than a sense of a traditional song structure. It was an important indicator that the band had breadth and the brave ambition to do their own thing."
In celebration of the song's 25th birthday - it was released in June 1984 - Phillipps and the Chills play a one-off Auckland concert at the Monte Cristo Room on June 12. It will be an extended two-set show made up of old songs and new interpretations of older and rare Chills songs, as well as some new songs Phillipps has been tinkering with in recent years.
Phillipps is the only constant member of the band he started in 1980 with singer and guitarist Peter Gutteridge - who went on to form drone noise merchants Snapper.
The Chills played their first gig in Dunedin at the Coronation Hall as support to Bored Games (Shayne Carter's old band) and The Clean on November 15 that year.
Phillipps, who for years has suffered from depression, addiction, and illness, is in good spirits these days.
He still has Hepatitis C ("So that means energy levels are low and working hours aren't long but I'm certainly doing a lot with them.") but is finally getting around to piecing together some of the hundreds of songs he's had in unfinished states across various formats.
"I'm getting very close to doing what I've been trying to do for the last 10 years - to become a songwriting factory again," he laughs.
"I do battle with depression and have ever since things fell apart a bit in the early to mid 90s," he says of the time when the Chills disbanded.
Following the worldwide success of the single
Heavenly Pop Hit
- also a signature Chills tune like
and 1986 single
I Love My Leather Jacket
- and the album
the band seemed destined to break the big time in America and Britain. But for various reasons, including a lack of record company support and line-up wrangles, it never happened. These days Phillipps is adamant the constant line up changes - of which there have been more than 20 incarnations over the years - was the biggest obstacle to the Chills success.
"If the Chills had done an REM thing and actually found the right line-up within the first year or so it would have been such a different story. We never quite have."
Phillipps says the current line-up of bassist James Dickson, drummer Todd Knudson and keyboard player Erica Stitchbury is one of the strongest yet and he's looking forward to the special
The story of the song can't be told without telling the story of Martyn Bull, one of the Chills' many drummers and one of Phillipps' closest friends.
Bull died of leukemia in 1983 aged 22. Bull's death is the main reason it took so long for the song to see the light of day after initially being recorded in May 1982 and finally being released in June 1984.
"Martyn's death was the first time I'd ever had a close friend of mine die, I don't even think I'd had a close relative die until then. Certainly a grandparent or two, but the idea that one of us, a young person could die was such a novel and frightening thing, it was just unbelievable.
"Hence the fact we put the band on hold rather than finding someone to fill in because we really thought he was going to get better and we'd pick up again.
"He got within two points on his blood count from being completely recovered. We thought, Woohoo, superman Martyn because he really was a very fit, agile and happy person. And then it came back again as soon as he started expending energy on music.
"I believe once he realised that, his spirit went out of trying to stay alive because music was a really big part of him. He could basically pick up any instrument and play something on it really quickly.
"There was so much emotional impact by his death and that was all somehow sort of linked in with this song because it was a song about death."
Many musicians refuse to play certain songs because they've played them too much over the years - Shayne Carter's aversion to playing
in Straitjacket Fits for example - yet Phillipps has never had that feeling for
"I know what it's like with the other songs. We've only just started playing
again recently and that's been great fun because there was a time when it seemed totally irrelevant to me because it was me when I was young, leaping around on the peninsula on mushrooms," he laughs.
"It was a very young man's song. Now I can play it with the distance required and it's fine.
I still haven't gone back to because I just can't stand in front of an audience and sing those lyrics. But
and the wee story it tells, is like a bit of dark poetry, a bit of Shelley, and the core of that song has always been the music. Every night that song is rewarding to be part of on stage."
Martin Phillipps of The Chills
The 25th anniversary of the song Pink Frost
Where & when:
Monte Cristo Room, Auckland, June 12