Secret Box: The Chills' Rarities, 1980-2000
By Douglas Wolk
Chills fans have had to put up with almost 20 years of excuses. If only Martin Phillipps had been able to keep a band together, instead of going through 14 configurations in the group's first 12 years. If only drummer Martyn Bull hadn't died of leukemia in 1983, just as things were starting to take off. If only the mix of their first album, 1988's delicate Brave Words, hadn't sounded so odd. If only their major-label records had been better promoted. If only visa troubles hadn't forced Phillipps to make the Chills' 1996 attempted comeback album, Sunburnt, with a pickup band. If only two of his tape recorders hadn't malfunctioned at the same time a few years later, plunging him into deep depression and addiction to "opiates" (his word). If only he hadn't got hepatitis C from the aforementioned addiction. If only, if only, if only.
But the real problem is that Phillipps, a remarkably talented songwriter, has gradually come to believe that he's an important songwriter. When he formed the Chills in 1980, his native Dunedin, New Zealand, was in the middle of an unlikely music boom, and he became one of its brightest lights. His songs were grounded in the sweet, chiming concision of 60s pop. He was a melodist and a romantic, unmacho and self-aware, sometimes almost prayerful: "I'd like to say how I love you / But it's all been said in other songs / And if I try to say it new, then I'll say it wrong," he sang in "Night of Chill Blue." Between 1982 and 1989, the Chills released a handful of singles, two EPs, and Brave Words through the New Zealand label Flying Nun--not much to show for nine years. But in the liner notes to the band's new three-disc retrospective, Secret Box: The Chills' Rarities, 1980-2000, Phillipps notes that "there would have been two (maybe three) albums prior to Brave Words if things had worked out better." Then he suggests their track listings.
The Chills played many more songs live than they ever got around to recording, and Phillipps claims to have written hundreds more. But he wanted Chills records to be important records, projects with a streamlined purpose, and a lot of the songs didn't fit any particular bill. The sound of Submarine Bells, the band's 1990 major-label debut and first seriously funded recording, was the sound of Phillipps realizing his old ambitions: a moonlit midwinter dip in the Beach Boys' ocean. The subsequent Soft Bomb was the sound of him tripping over his new ones: the line in the sand was the painful "Song for Randy Newman Etc," in which he laments the difficulty of being a serious songwriter and compares himself to "men like Wilson, Barrett, Walker, Drake." That soggy, pretentious ballad couldn't withstand the comparisons, and neither would anything he'd release after it.
The Chills followed Soft Bomb with an American tour, and when stardom didn't beckon, they broke up. True to form, they debuted a new instrumental at their final show--half a world away from home, in New York City. Three years later, Phillipps assembled a new version of the band, rechristening it Martin Phillipps & the Chills--a bad sign. Sunburnt was recorded in England shortly thereafter, and lineups 15-18 struggled along through the mid-90s. There was talk of reconvening the early Chills to record some of the unreleased songs from the old days, but it was just talk. Then, in 1999, Phillipps released Sketch Book: Volume One, a collection of his home demos. "Many of these tunes, and the hundreds more filed away, will definitely see official release as soon as my next home studio is fully operational," he promised in the liner notes. He now insists that he has more than 800 ideas and riffs and such, and that he's just trying to organize them on his computer. But as Phillipps has noted elsewhere, "Pink Frost," one of his best and best-known songs, was written in a single evening. There's a lesson there.
Phillipps released Secret Box himself; it's available on his Web site, www.softbomb.com. It's three and a half hours of unreleased or scarce Chills recordings, and on some level it's an admission of failure--he seems to have realized at last that his grand plans for these compositions are never going to come through. But he can't quite let go: "This could have been beautiful if developed (and it still could be)," he notes of a 19-year-old instrumental. "Party in My Heart," from 1987, is "to be re-attempted some day." "Drug Magicians," from '91, "is on the short list of songs I really feel deserve a new recording....I think of this as a demo version." And so on.
Fortunately Phillipps was proud enough of what he and the Chills did accomplish that he was willing to suppress his perfectionist tendencies and release Secret Box. The BBC radio sessions that occupy half of the second disc are decent but most are "unreleased" only in the sense that they're slightly different arrangements of familiar material; the B sides and wanna-B sides of the third disc document the band's late-80s peak and subsequent slow decline. But the first disc and the first third of the second disc are the real deal, featuring 30 lost songs drawn from raw, roaring live tapes and sequenced for aesthetics rather than chronology. The earliest is a cover of Jody Reynolds's rockabilly hit "Endless Sleep," recorded the day before their first gig; the latest are four from an October 1985 show.
Though the recordings are messy, they're more lively than the sculptured fastidiousness of studio versions. "Jellyhead" and "Smile From a Dead Dead Face" work up so much momentum the band seems downright disappointed when they stop; "And When You're There" features one of the Chills' most resonant melodies; on the theological complaint "Frozen Fountain" Phillipps screams so hard his voice gives out halfway through. There are some throwaways (like "Steinlager," a rocking request for somebody to hand a bottle up to the stage) but they're wonderful throwaways: in fact, the less Phillipps tries to do something significant, the more his natural inventiveness and passion come through. With their garbage-can beats and blazing organ, the live Chills sound like a garage band, not a sensitive songwriter project.
It's too bad that releasing Secret Box hasn't allowed Phillipps to move on or inspired him to return to the values of his early songwriting. Every album he's made from Submarine Bells onward has had the initials S.B., including the yet-to-be-realized but thoroughly preannounced Silver Bullets and Shadow Ballads; now he's making noises about remixing Brave Words and calling it Spoken Bravely. But at least now the sad task of fantasizing about the Chills records that might've been has been passed on to the listeners.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bleddyn Butcher.