A new documentary on the career of the great Flying Nun band The Chills – and the personal struggles of the band's genius frontman, Martin Phillipps – opens in cinemas this week. Steve Braunias charts a parallel story through interviews with Phillipps and others who have known or worked with him.
Martin Phillips - frontman of The Chills:
At the age I am now – I'm 55 – I'm not doing too badly.
Christine Colbert - married to Roy Colbert, who died in 2017; his second-hand music store Records Records was a kind of intellectual and cultural HQ of the Dunedin Sound: I've known Martin since he was a child. He was an idealistic boy. His dad was a Methodist minister, a typical vicar type, quite intellectual. His mum was more satirical and witty. He had two sisters. They were a lovely family. Martin was gorgeous, an innocent cherub.
Russell Brown - editor of Rip It Up during The Chills' most successful years in the 1980s: The whole thing with Martin was looking back to childhood. I'll never forget what he did for Jesus on a Stick, the comic that Chris Knox edited; he did this amazing one-page illustration that was a car crossing Central Otago, with the eyes of two kids looking out the back windscreen, and there were power pylons marching across the landscape. It's a childhood image and he called it Machines Crossing. I've never forgotten that. And he was often looking to draw on the innocence of childhood in his music.
Doug Hood - produced The Chills' early masterpieces, and also worked as tour manager:
When I first met him he was 16 or 17. Toy Love were playing at The Cock, and Martin, Shayne Carter [who formed Straitjacket Fits] and a few others were standing outside, listening to them. There was always a worldliness about Shayne. But with Martin - it was almost like he was on another planet. There's something magical about him. Little boy lost.
Russell Brown : I first met him when I was living in Timaru. My year of purgatory in Timaru. I found out that Sneaky Feelings were playing in Christchurch, and we were having a party the next day, so I rang up Roger Shepherd [from Flying Nun] and said "Can you get me in touch with them? I'll come up with some money and they can play in our back yard." And they did, and the van driver was Martin. He had a laundry van because he was doing laundry deliveries for his job. I remember him arriving with the Sneakies, and it just so happened that [the Chills debut EP] Rolling Moon was blasting out of the speakers. I'm not sure what he made of that. He was very aloof. Quite stand-offish and mysterious.
Francisca Griffin - formerly Kathy Bull, who married Chills' drummer Martyn Bull, and played in Flying Nun band Look Blue Go Purple: He was so intense. He was intensely focused on songs and songwriting. He was also very much still a child. The things he collected! Some of them were just completely random, like the mummified cats, that he then spraypainted. There was a jar of hair ties that he collected on his walks and found on the street. I hope he's got rid of that jar.
Roy had a lot of admiration for Martin, a lot of respect, right from the start. He thought his stuff was amazing. Those first songs were just incredible.
Doug Hood: The first time I recorded the Chills was on the Dunedin Double album in Paul Kean's living room in Christchurch. I was like, "Wow." Those songs - that's Martin. He really did live in a kaleidoscope world. A world full of colour. I thought he was a genius. It was like he's our Syd Barrett.
Francisca Griffin: People talk about the Dunedin Sound - we were just a bunch of people making music, getting shit-faced, and hanging out. But there were maybe four of them who were special. David Kilgour [from The Clean], Shayne Carter, Wayne Elsey [from the Double Happys], and Martin. In my eyes the special one was David Kilgour. Now there's a genius.
Doug Hood: We recorded The Clean, and on the playback, when the line "I went to the doctor" [from Anything Can Happen] came on, as soon as I heard that – that was the first moment I knew we had something. We played it straight off the TEAC on the stereo. Barbara [Ward, Chris Knox's wife] cried. Chris said, "This is it. We've got something special."
Russell Brown: Chris was an arbiter and you looked to him to see what was good. He approved of The Chills. He never approved of the Sneaky Feelings, and made that known. Chris could be a complete prick! He could be really annoying and also welcoming and fascinating to talk to. I remember once at a party he kept on at me wanting me to hit him. "Punch me, punch me!" I was like "FFS, Chris!" And eventually I did, just to shut him up. It's actually probably the only time in my life I've punched someone in the jaw. He demanded it. He insisted on it. And then he seemed satisfied that it happened, and that was that. Sorted.
Martin's greatest work was Pink Frost. We didn't really know what we had for a year. We recorded it, and then Martyn [Bull, the band's drummer] died, and it kind of just sat there gathering dust for a year. It was all instrumental. Just the backing track. Then a year later we listened to it again, and Martin added his vocals and a guitar overdub, and I put on shitloads of reverb. My over-riding thing as producer was to get a good live take. And then put reverb on top of reverb. Martin has got one of those voices, just like John Lennon's, that screams out for reverb. Some voices do. It's a tone or something.
It took a couple of hours to do Pink Frost. I knew we had something special. I think there's a little bit of Aramoana in the lyrics. "What will you think when you see what I've done."
Russell Brown : I went to Dunedin for the first time in my young adult life and Pink Frost was everywhere. I remember walking past student flats and hearing Pink Frost coming out of all these windows.
Doug Hood: That's Martyn playing the drums on Pink Frost. Not a conventional drummer. Not a conventional person, either. A lovely, gentle man.
Martin Phillipps: Martyn was more physically fit than most people I knew. Big torso, like a Superman torso. Always smiling, very upbeat. He'd had his own brushes with drugs and a near-death experience connected with that which gave him a really positive view on making full use of life. He was the person in our group of friends who was great to be around.
Francisca Griffin : Martyn and I got married in December of 1982, and in July 1983 he died. He had the [leukaemia] diagnosis in about June of '82, after The Chills had come back from their North Island tour. He came home and pretty much collapsed and went to bed. We were so close that I got sick too, as sick as he did; we both went off to the doctor the next day. There was nothing wrong with me. They couldn't find anything. The following morning Martyn's doctor was knocking on our door. You can imagine what that meant. He said, "You have to come to the hospital right now."
Martin and my Martyn were really close. When we got married, Martin was Martyn's best man. There was a vanload of people who came up from Dunedin; we had at least 10 of our friends who came, which was just magic. It was in Martyn's parents' backyard in Masterton. [Chills drummer] Terry Moore gave me away. He was my dad for the day. My Martyn wore a morning suit, with tails. Martin Phillipps wore a light blue suit, and Terry wore a tan suit. I wore a raw silk wedding dress that my sister and I made, from fabric that my eldest sister sent me. I still have it. It's hanging in my wardrobe.
It was a Jehovah's Witness wedding. That was Martyn's upbringing. Brother Hector married us and he wouldn't let us kiss at the end of the ceremony. "Lots of time for that later," he said. Martyn and I looked at each other and went "F** him", and had a kiss. As you do when you seal the deal.
Martin Phillipps : Martyn and I weren't as close as everyone thinks. The strange thing is, I only knew him for two and a half, three years. We hit it off pretty well but I can't remember one occasion where we went out together to a movie or a party or something. The closeness has been mythologised.
Did I mythologise it in I Love My Leather Jacket [the Chills classic dedicated to, and about, Martyn Bull]? No! I wrote about my feelings in that song, which were real, but to interpret that therefore I was his best friend...I mean, the fact I was his best man still really surprises me. I think that was an indication more of where we thought our friendship was heading more than the reality of what it was at that point. And then to be his pallbearer so shortly afterward felt really strange. I didn't even feel worthy of that because I was surrounded by his genuine friends and school friends, and they had a real connection.
Francisca Griffin: Martyn went up to Masterton the day before Shayne's 18th birthday. He was just exhausted and he had enough. We organised a bed on the airplane to get him up there. I went up a week later. The night before he died, we were just chatting and he said, "I've had enough. I can't do this anymore."
I said, "Well, you'll have to die, then, my love." Like he was asking for my permission. The next afternoon at quarter to three, I was sitting in his room as he died.
We were all pretty devastated. For quite a long time. We coped by getting drunk all the time and taking drugs, which obviously was not coping at all. Then a few years later Wayne Elsey died [in a train accident, travelling with Shayne Carter] and it all came back again. I knew Wayne quite well. We had become really good friends. When you listen to his songs – they're written by somebody who is so old and wise. He was a wise, gentle, caring, spectacular man. I can't even begin to imagine what it must have been like for Shayne, and all the other people on that train.
Doug Hood: There was only one gig I never got them to because I had to spend two days in Whanganui Hospital. We were driving down State Highway 1 and came to this long approach to a bridge which curved around, and all of a sudden, coming straight at us on the wrong side of the road, was this Kenworth truck - or a Mack, I'm not sure. I was driving. The only thing I could do to avoid hitting it was to smash the car into the wall of the bridge. The truck clipped the right-hand side of the car. My knee got smashed up against the dashboard. The band got out of the car and were very chilled out about it. I found out later they'd all had poppies that morning.
Russell Brown: He loved to party as much as any of us. I remember him explaining to me how gross cactus enemas were in Dunedin but that it was worth it because you don't get stomach cramps.
Doug Hood: We'd be on tour and go to these little hick towns, and everybody else would go to the coffee shop, but Martin would go looking for op shops and come out with a handful of 45s and LPs. He never bought clothes. Just obscure stuff from the 60s. He's kind of obsessive. He recorded everything on his little cassette player just in case it might come in useful. It's really hard to argue him about facts because he kept all these diaries.
Russell Brown: He always had a sense of mission. He's always believed he's got something to say.
Francisca Griffin: I think he was always looking at the next thing. I used to sit back and watch people at parties. And Martin always seemed to be looking where the next thing was instead of where he was and finding some joy there.
Christine Colbert: It was always his band and his creative say. And he was probably right to think that. They were his songs.
People go on about how many line-ups there were in The Chills, but I never found him difficult. He's my boy's godfather. He was wonderful with Jack when Jack was young. Jack absolutely adored him.
Martin Phillipps: There's a bit of finger pointing at me [in the documentary] which I could prove was not quite justified, but it's a pretty fair documentary, and I've taken to heart some of the criticisms, especially about my lack of communication. I didn't realise how bad it was. I would take a lot of the blame - but not all of it. Also, I was not the only one not communicating... I just kind of got down into a strange mindset of just plodding forward and almost getting used to people falling by the way, and that was unhealthy.
Caroline Easther played drums with The Chills in 1987-88: All the bands I've been in have been a family, apart from The Chills. The Chills were not a family band. We were not close. Martin was a bit of a cold spirit. He's so in his own world.
But the music was so good, and it bound us. Playing with him was a lot of fun. Drumming's always been my happy place. It really is! I love driving, too. As soon as I get behind the wheel, that's my happy place. And drums – as soon as I saw a drumkit, it made me so happy. It's a big powerful machine, a car, and the drums are a very powerful thing too. It's a wonderful thing to drive a drumkit and to drive a car. So, yeah, I was really happy playing in his band! Especially doing things like Night In Chill Blue.
When I look back at the rush of playing those songs, the big concerts, I Love My Leather Jacket, Night of Chill Blue - I close my eyes when I think about it and your heart just swells and you go, 'Wow. That was amazing.' And it was. Nothing else in my music career has come near that, really, in terms of the rush that you get from playing that sort of stuff. He was a really good songwriter.
I remember Chris Knox standing at the side of the stage once when we were about to come on, saying something like, 'Go hard!', or, 'Give it everything you got!' And he looked at me as if I was a nice middle-class girl who didn't deserve to be in a Flying Nun band. It really, really annoyed me at the time. But I did go hard! I gave it the best I had. All those pretty full-on songs that Martin wrote - you couldn't not because you would be right behind Martin and he was setting up a storm and you just got pulled into it.
Russell Brown: I remember the excitement when they headed off to England. It was a really big deal back then and everyone was excited for them. Doledrums had come out [in 1984] and was single of the week in the NME. We all felt they were the ones who were gonna make it. It was their time.
I went over a bit later and joined them on a tour of Europe. I'll never forget they played this gig in Belgium. Not that many people came but the young promoters took everyone to the restaurant next door and these enormous platters of food arrived. It was insane. Huge platters, one of which had two-inch high steaks on it, and the others had similarly sized fillets of fish. it certainly wasn't what happened in New Zealand and it wasn't what happened in Britain either. Touring Britain was horrible. The food was likely to be fish and chips, and the accommodation would be extremely basic.
Caroline Easther: I got quite ill in England because it's hard to eat properly and look after yourself. I was run down, really tired, and anxious about what the future would hold, and poor. And the tinnitus became a real problem. Graeme Downes' guitar playing first set it off [when she played with The Verlaines] and it got worse and worse. I just couldn't carry on at that volume. It's still there. It will settle down if I leave it alone, and I'm used to ignoring it. When it gets worse, I get a sort of morse code thing happening – bip-bip-bip! But generally, it's a single, high-pitched, quite loud background thing. I can hear it now.
Russell Brown: Martin and I had become very close in England. He was a really good friend back then. I remember me and him and his girlfriend Kate and Martin Aston aka Simon Alexander [an author and music journalist who went by two names], we went to North Wales and I had one of the best days of my entire life. We took acid and we went to Portmeirion, the village where they filmed the TV series The Prisoner. We were wandering across that estuary where that big ball chased Patrick McGoohan in the programme. Wonderful day!
Caroline Easther: We didn't see Martin between practices and the gig, because he was reasonably comfortable with his girlfriend Kate while we were desperately trying to find somewhere to sleep. At one point there were three of us in a room with one single bed.
Francisca Griffin: Was Kate the love of his life? Oh so definitely. So definitely. He seemed to be really quite happy and really quite content. Pretty much besotted. She was beautiful. Calm. Steady.
Doug Hood: She was a Tattersfield. Mattresses – you know, Tattersfield mattresses. Serious wealth. And the daughter of Christine Fernyhough. She was with him at his creative peak.
Caroline Easther : Kate was very beautiful. Sad-eyed, an English complexion, very pretty, a slightly sad mouth. Beautiful blonde hair which she backcombed into a great big bun on her head. I thought she had the most beautiful hair. I've seen photographs of her and Martin asleep in the back of the van, leaning on each other. Gorgeous.
Russell Brown: They were meshed together. She learned to tune the guitars and became the band's guitar roadie. She wanted to do something and not just be the girlfriend.
Martin Phillipps : Kate came on the initial European tour. It's no holiday. It's no fun being around your partner because I was at work, and had to focus. She stayed home the next tours and just…yeah. I think she needed more stability than I could provide.
The break-up was devastating. It really was. I was working towards this happy picture of me being a successful songwriter who tours once a year and lives with his partner at home. We had a nice place in Grafton together.
Christine Colbert : He came home [to Dunedin] and was pretty devastated when it fell apart. Relationships are a lot about compromise and when you get people totally focused on their art, things can easily go wrong.
Martin Phillipps : It felt like going back to the little town. It really was like having my tail between my legs. I accepted the dream was over, and shifted back to a room out the back of my parents' house.
At the time I'd been so close to actually buying my own house. When I got my first decent royalty cheque, for Submarine Bells, I bought my first car - a 1964 Rover three-litre stage 6 Coupe, then found to my horror Flying Nun had sent me the royalties for the entire band and hadn't actually told me. It took me years to pay that off. But then another big cheque came through and I thought, 'Oh great, this is how things are going to be.' But it petered off after five or six years.
Things kept going wrong until I felt my whole vision of what my life was going to be was just crumbling in front of my eyes.
Christine Colbert : I was really surprised when he got into drugs. When he was young, he was relatively clean living. But when he plunged in, it was like a nightmare. It was almost like he was too old to be doing that crap.
Martin Phillipps: I did the classic thing of having tried most of the major drug groups through my teens and twenties, to come to that conclusion I was immune to addiction. I don't think anybody is. No, it wasn't heroin; you couldn't get actual heroin. It was a kind of morphine sulphate. It became available to me right at the time that things just went wrong.
Russell Brown: He always had a kind of mythology about himself and I think that maybe sometimes he too often focused on the glorious failures. He was always fond of tragic heroes, like Brian Wilson. He really related to Brian Wilson. Not just for the music, but the story, the mythos.
Martin Phillipps : The drugs thing is very difficult. Because I'm still sort of pro exploring the realms of your consciousness, and some of my best material and my philosophies have come from life-changing events through hallucinogenics and opiates. I will thank opiates for giving me a break from the times I may have had a nervous breakdown from the sheer weight of accumulation of things going wrong.
But as a drug of choice for getting anything creative done, for getting anything done with your life, that is a real mistake. What I was able to achieve just got progressively less and less as the drugs took hold and more hours were burned out.
I didn't go around gang houses like a lot of people I knew did to get it, but even some of the friends I had, it took me years later to realise I didn't sell that particular Nico album, that Johnny Thunders record, that Velvet Underground bootleg.
Christine Colbert: We were all worried. I was definitely worried for him when he was at his worst. Roy never had much time for addicts. His own father was an alcoholic and didn't make for pleasant living with. But he always – he was obviously disappointed in Martin's choices, but I don't think he judged him too harshly. We just felt sad for Martin.
Martin Phillipps: Yeah, sometimes it was very good fun! That's the missing link in the cautionary tale. It's great hanging out with people and having a good time on drugs. The joy of a clear winter morning, trudging through crunchy grass on the way to meet someone at their house, and everyone's all cold and puffing steam, and then you have your drugs, and you have tea and coffee, and listen to the 13th Floor Elevators.
But you have to extricate yourself out of it. My entire grasp on reality I thought I was living in and working in, crumbled. I just got severely depressed and didn't even realise it.
Russell Brown: I didn't think he was going to die during the dark years. I thought of him as a lost soul.
Martin Phillipps : I'd go away for a week or two, and record. I'd get everything ready, and on day one or day two I'd take a trip, or some mushrooms, and go out into nature and commune with nature and let things start surging up through me. Usually, by the end of day one, I'd be working feverishly through the night. I'd do that at Hawea, Wanaka, a number of places. But then came the time I went to Lake Hawea and I could not physically record. All the machines failed. And that was it for me. The outpouring of music had become such a therapy. To have it stifled on top of everything else – that was when I snapped.
I actually lay on a couch for two days just staring at a blank TV screen. I had expected to pour all these feelings into songs, and just – it was like the universe was saying, "No. We've taken away your girlfriend, your band, your record label, the music industry has changed and it's not feasible for you to go back overseas, the taste in music has moved on, where you thought you would see yourself as a songwriter with at least a trickle of income – all that's gone."
I would have been alright if I could have got my music out. Got it out of my head and onto demo form. It's such a release and to be denied that, it was really like the universe hating me. That's what it felt like.
What happened was I was using a four-track cassette recorder and the record button would not go down. Then there was a ghetto blaster; I bought one on the way to Hawea, and ghetto blasters always have a little pinhole microphone. But this one didn't. Then I had my Sony Walkman but the record button wouldn't go down on that, either. Both of them are still stuck to this day. The chances of it happening just seemed beyond the realms of possibility.
Francisca Griffin: The few times I saw him in the dark years, I was like, "Oh you stupid, stupid man." I would give him a hug and we'd have a very surface conversation and that would be it. I left him to it. When you're in the throes of that demon, it's all you want to do. He let the drugs get in the way of everything. I thought he would die.
Martin Phillipps: I was always very careful. That's why the incident of being stabbed with someone else's syringe made me realise that no matter how careful, I'm surrounded by idiots.
Doug Hood: Everyone starts off thinking they're bulletproof. Life's not like that. Hepatitis C took Bill Payne out, Graham Brazier too. Peter Gutteridge. Liver problems. I call them the Hep C generation. Sad but true. Martin's just lucky that science saved him.
Martin Phillipps: My song Molten Gold is about realising that I was actually starting to die from my drug and Hepatitis C combination. I actually more or less prayed for the first time. And something actually came back – this blast of golden, universal love. That was the mark from where I started to improve. I asked for help and good things suddenly began happening.
Christine Colbert: Once he tried to get on top of things, we had a lot of admiration for him. He really pulled things around.
Doug Hood: Talk about resilience. I've never doubted his determination to hang in there. He's an optimist in a funny way. Even through all the darkest days he never lost sight of what he had. Talent lasts forever, eh.
Francisca Griffin: Martin's had so many opportunities and he just basically sabotaged himself. He's not doing that now, which is awesome. He's really happy. It's so good to see him happy! He hasn't had a drink in two years, and of course, he does no drugs at all. He's singularly focused on making music.
Christine Colbert: I've got a lovely photo of Roy at Martin's house. He went there a few times in the day. Martin doesn't really entertain. The place looks choc a bloc with all the books and things he collects.
Francisca Griffin: It's a little bungalow. Every room has got records or DVDs or cassette tapes or LPs; one of his rooms is a practice room. There's shelves of shit everywhere, of possessions. Not a lot in the kitchen. It's not untidy at all; it's really seriously organised.
Martin Phillipps : It's the first mortgage I'm ever paying off.
Russell Brown: Assuming you're not going to be David Pine from the Sneaky Feelings and become an accomplished diplomat, or Graeme Cockroft from Netherworld Dancing Toys and become very successful in the world of finance – people like Shayne [Carter] and Martin, that's never going to happen. They're never going to have day jobs. It's not what believe in. They believe in their art, and I guess for them it's finding a way to live as an artist.
Martin Phillipps: The Hep C virus has gone for good. I was so fortunate. But even though the virus has gone, 80 per cent of my liver is never going to be working again. So I do get tired. I have more energy than I've had in years, and more clarity and focus, but I will suddenly get very tired. Sometimes I have to pull the car over and sleep or it will be very dangerous.
Christine Colbert: He's always got this innocence and hopefulness, and it's still there. It's been affected by his life's experiences, but it's still there. He's still got those qualities for sure. He's got that quest for creativity that he's always had, too. He still wants to make stuff. He's still hungry for it. That creative drive is so strong.
Martin Phillipps : Two or three years ago I realised there was an awful lot of Bob Dylan I hadn't heard. I set about getting it, and now I have his entire catalogue. I've done the same thing with Kate Bush and I'm about to do the same thing with Joni Mitchell. I'm patching up some big holes.
I lost that interest in music for a long time, during the 90s and 2000s, because I'd been so much the music collector and archivist – Jordan Luck wrote a song in which he calls me "the archivist kid". But music started to hurt so much. I wasn't able to do it myself; there were hundreds of songs that I started, and I'd get all excited, but I was down to a Dictaphone by that point. On a sickness benefit, so any time a royalty came in, I'd have to use it to pay a dental bill or something. Just not able to get equipment, and not able to demo my songs to a level that could have got people excited.
And I couldn't afford to go out and get excited about a new boxed set. I can now afford the new Buffalo Springfield boxset. The Can boxset.
Russell Brown: Is he childlike? I guess I would agree with that. And maybe part of what he's had to do, now he's out of the dark years, and he's an adult, and clearly not a child anymore, is to work out who he actually is.
Martin Phillipps: I still go through moments of this extraordinarily great depression. I think I've come to see it's just part of the creative package, the highs and lows. The lows are just extraordinary. I've had some severe ones in the past year. Because I live alone, and coming back after the peaks and exhilarations of tours, or recording, I walk in the door and close the door, and its just silence. I can keep busy for a while and all of a sudden it gets very dark.
What: The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps
When: In cinemas May 2