Saturday, May 15, 2010

Warming up to The Chills

When The Chills last toured Australia I missed them - twice. So the prospect of seeing the Dunedin band live - a mere 18 years later was not to be sniffed at. Since the early 1990s, The Chills fortunes have declined while their reputation has grown. But in their day, the Flying Nun label was as much a rallying flag as the Postcard label was for Glasgow or Factory Records for Manchester.

The Chills play a sort of surf music, if you were to surf the cold, dark green and turbid waters that surround New Zealand's south island. But it is music of surprising depth and beauty, too.

Four songs into the set last night Martin Phillips, the mainstay of the band, had the misfortune to have his amplifier blow up. And so they set about repairing it. Several minutes later Phillips told the audience, " I don't whether it's more professional that we were able to fix it, or more amateur that we didn't have a bunch of roadies up here to do the job for us". The 400 bodies crammed into the East didn't seem to mind.

The set was entirely old stuff. But jesus, what a catalogue. Highlights were Pink Frost, a thunderous Love My Leather Jacket, Rolling Moon, Part Past Part Fiction and Wet Blanket. A two-song encore ended with Phillips pleading the need to save his voice for the gig in Sydney tonight.

Along with the guitars - sometimes driving, sometimes chiming - The Chills run on a precise metronomic rhythm and Phillips' words. He is a master of the simple declarative statement that, delivered in his awkward tenor voice, hits straight at the heart.

You could see these guys were doing it tough. They were pioneers in the days before this internet thing, heading off from the south of New Zealand to conquer England. Were they successful? Taking the two albums Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb as evidence, the answer is an emphatic yes. Neither of these mighty documents are in print today, though there is talk of re-issues and re-masters.

When we were in Christchurch earlier this year a guy in the big secondhand record shop made a good case for the Chills and other Flying Nun bands as a vital but neglected part of the cultural heritage. "The number of times I have been asked for their stuff - it kills me that we have nothing", he said.

A year ago today the Guardian newspaper ran this long feature on Flying Nun and the bands it championed.

I can only imagine that Phillips left the stage last night with a mixture of humility, pride and a burning desire to be back. And not to leave it another 18 years.