The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps @ SXSW – 24 Beats Per Second Section

Some see The Chills as one of New Zealand’s greatest bands ever. Right behind bands like Split Endz and Crowded House. They have sold 100,000 records worldwide. Led by the enigmatic Martin Phillipps, it is probably a story of having coming tantilizing close to conquering the international music world. Another case of drug and alcohol addiction cutting a band down at the knees.

At the age of 54, Martin Phillipps was given a grave medical prognosis which brought about the creative but lost soul having to come face to face with his demons and what he still wanted to accomplish in music. The clock is ticking and he has to overcome his life long battle against his fear of failure and have his own mortality constantly in the back of his mind.

Over the 90 minutes of the documentary we get to know the man and what his life has been like since the 1980s. A rather eccentric character who has spent the decades since his music career ended living back in his hometown of Dunedin collecting anything and everything and continuing to write music. Now, with the uncertainty about how much time he has left, we see a man putting some order to the mess.

In the 1980s the music scene was filled with energy and rebellion against mainstream music. The Chills got together during the early 80s and plunged into the New Zealand music scene. Once they started playing shows record labels began to salivate over the their potential for commercial success.

Tragedy and uncertainty has followed the band around since the very beginning. Original drummer Martyn Bull died in 1983 from leukemia. It was just the first of many line up changes that happened over the next two decades. It will make your head spin trying to keep track of the band members. Just let it be said that only Martin Phillipps remained constant.

By 1985 the band was earning notice from both music fans and critics. They began an exhausting cycle of constant touring. Besides New Zealand they toured the U.K. In 1986 they announced their international potential with a small hit with the single “I Love My Leather Jacket”. A tour of Europe followed in 1987 and was the beginning of non-stop releasing of music and then touring.

By the beginning of the 90s the band was getting some play on American college radio. Many of the larger record labels began pursuing the band wanting to sign them. Ultimately The Chills signed with Slash Records, a subsidiary of Warner. In 1990 The Chills won plenty of awards at the New Zealand Music Awards.

Next up was a move to Los Angeles to begin recording a new album. Many of the members were unhappy. Martin began to drink heavily and taking drugs. During this period there was now plenty of uncertainty in the band and several members left. They were replaced by three Americans. By the end of an American tour the band broke up.

Martin continued to write music. In 1996, the record label Flying Nun offered Martin the chance to record an album. The Chills began another tour of New Zealand. It was largely in front of small crowds. The band still owed Warner $425,000, he was in debt and still an addict. Drug use was out of hand.

Phillipps has had hepatitus C for about 20 years. He contracted it by accidentally pricking himself with a dirty needle. Liver issues have cropped up. He is in stage four of the disease which is basically cirrhosis of the liver. As such he has had to give up drinking any alcohol. The treatment for the hep C was not successful. He had returned to Dunedin a lost man.

Now he is a man in search of a meaning in life. Besides music Martin Phillipps has begun to produce art. It is as left of center as his music. As hard to classify as his music. Heavenly sounding coupled with poetic lyrics. They started off as punk then moved into alternative rock and then finally played around with melodic pop music.

Even in the darkest moments of his life Martin Phillipps was able to maintain his dry sense of humour. This is probably what saved him and what saves this film from falling into the trap of being overly melodramatic. Even his collection mania is a dark thing. His house is filled with what most would see as junk. Bordering on hoarding. He collects toys, DVDs, comic books, and loads of other things. With the dire diagnosis, it forced him to take inventory not only of all this stuff but his life. Realized he needed to strip it down to what is important…music.

A portrait of a music career which does not live up to its potential and then a life comprimised by addiction and depression. Now Phillipps is in a state of clean up. Trying to clean up his life and salvage his music career. Music has been the constant in his life. It is still what gives him a reason to forge forward. He is rediscovering his own catalogue and even unfinished songs which he is attempting to finish. Saying that even if he doesn’t get to record them they will be available for someone else.

 

 

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