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Familiarity breeds contempt goes the old saying –Martin Phillipps even wrote a song of the same name, which appears on The Chills’ seminal sophomore set Submarine Bells.
However, it’s a phrase that doesn’t apply to the iconic NZ band’s latest studio album Snow Bound; familiar, yes, but in the best possible way. The sparkling modern production aside, it’s an album that would fit seamless into their classic canon of works from the 80s and 90s, a gorgeous collection of jangling guitars lines, bittersweet melodies and heartfelt lyrics.
When people tell Phillipps that his new material sounds just like old works, he admits he sometime wonders whether that is necessarily a good thing. However, on balance he is happy to take it as a compliment.
“People have been telling us that even if they don’t know who it is, they can spot the Chills sound, which is a really good thing to achieve actually,” he muses over the phone from Dunedin. “We’ve joined the ranks of those bands that have an identifiable sound and I think that’s something we can be proud of.”
It also chimes neatly with Snow Bound’s lyrical themes, which finds Phillipps grappling with what it’s like to be a 50-plus man in this modern age. There are songs of regret and mortality but he is also keen to stress that his generation still has a lot to offer.
“The post-punk generation are going through the same sort of problems that the 1960s protest movement – and even the beatniks 10 years before that – went through, realizing that all the work they put into societal change is in danger of slipping backwards,” he says. “The theme of the album is how do we at this age actually still contribute and make people aware that have we this lifetime of experience and have not become redundant.”
While the lyrical content is melancholic – ‘The Greatest Guide’ is a tribute to music pioneers like David Bowie, ‘Easy Peasy’ examines what he calls “New Zealand’s suicide epidemic” – the music is anything. As well as being stacked with memorable hooks and inventive arrangements, Snow Bound also possesses a crisp sonic punch, which Phillipps credits in part to producer Greg Haver.
“It was great working with Greg,” he says. “With Brendan Davies on Silver Bullets, he was a top notch engineer, but I was determined not to have a producer as such, just so I could establish myself where The Chills needed to be. But this time, it made sense to someone new in and show us some fresh ideas.”
He also thinks it’s a more cohesive album than the 2015 comeback Silver Bullets, which was the band’s first studio album in almost 20 years. Whereas that record drew on pieces of music and lyrics dating back decades, he says most of the songs on Snow Bound are brand new.
“I think there is one little riff in the middle of ‘Complex’ – the bit in the middle that is actually quite complex – comes from an old 1980s riff ‘Glass-Clock Doubletime’ – but everything else is fresh.”
The album also benefits from the fact that the current line-up is the longest-serving incarnation of The Chills. Todd Knudson (drums) and James Dickson (bass) have been with Phillipps 1999, while Erica Scally (keys/violin), has been with band around 15 years; even relative newcomer Oli Wilson has racked up eight years or so service with The Chills.
As well as the confidence of having played together so long, Phillipps reckons he is also getting a bit better in communicating with what he is looking for; in the past, he’s occasionally been guilty of saying thing like “this needs to sound like waves on a beach kind of stuff”, he laughs.
The band is also fired up for their national tour, which kicked off last week. “We are really looking forward to the tour because we are getting out beyond the main centres. It’s invigorating because you are dealing with people who aren’t overwhelmed with entertainment coming through every week and they really appreciate it. But it’s a balancing act, because in some of the smaller places, they expect you to be a nostalgia package and deliver the greatest hits. But they quickly realise that with us that while you are going to get some of those, you are also going to get the new stuff.
“We had a really good rehearsal a couple of weeks back and there was a bit of magic around. We went right through the entire new album – even though we won’t playing the entire thing – and by adding those 1o songs we can make an entire set of A grade material that we all want to play. It’s a really good position to be in.”
• Snowbound by The Chills is out now