The Curse of The Chills?
The Curse of The Chills
Expanded re-release of
At the end of the 80s, two bands looked poised for world domination. One was REM, and the other was The Chills. REM of course went on to realise that potential, but what of The Chills?
The fact that there have been several previous attempts to portray the story of The Chills on celluloid, attempts that have ground to a halt in failure, is perhaps symptomatic of the trials that have afflicted the band, and lead to the fabled curse referred to in this film's title. Deaths, addictions, mental and physical illnesses, 20 line up changes, lost recordings, even a whale colliding with a boat on the way to an award ceremony, the band has been beset by bad luck, bad breaks and bad blows. These have conspired to starve The Chills of the success their songs deserve, and to rob much of the world of the magical pop thrill of their songs.
This film is an attempt to put this injustice right.
The movie uses a recent solo set at The Moth Club by Martin Phillipps, songwriter and only constant member of the band, to hang the story around. As he plays them, the songs are used to explain various pieces of The Chills jigsaw, fusing into flashbacks, interviews and reminiscences. These take a variety of forms, my favourite being the wonderful archive gig footage; shaky, noisy and distorted, these chaotic clips show the excitement, energy and creativity let loose in the confines of New Zealand by the phenomena that was 'the Dunedin sound'. These snippets remind me of scenes I've been part of, when all of a sudden, your own small sleepy backwater, that place where you swore nothing would ever happen, suddenly (and perhaps briefly) becomes a cultural melting pot of ideas, inspiration and fun. I'd love to have seen more of this footage in the movie as it helps underline the vibrant youth movement The Chills were part of, making a thought provoking contrast with Martin's more sedate acoustic set.
Cut in with the live performance are revealing interviews with Martin Phillips' family members. These help make clear how much fun the early days were, and how distressing the plunge into addiction and illness was. They make explicit the very real difficulties of trying to function as a band, and simultaneously as a human being, while trying to keep a home away from what is seen as the cultural mainstream. On a more positive note, they show the love and support Martin got from his family and friends, and recall the camaraderie of the local scene. They also throw up some unexpected information, such as the fact that while signed to a major label, Phillipps was living in a shed at the back of his parents' house!
The incredible poetic beauty of The Chills songs are given geographical context through stunning photography of some incredible New Zealand scenery. The band used a shot of Lindis Pass by Karen Doidge, similar to the one above, as the centrefold of their recent live album, making the point that knowledge of the terrain it emerged from helps an appreciation of the band and their music. The inclusion of equally breathtaking scenes in the documentary is invaluable in explaining The Chills.
At the Q and A, the film's director Rob Curry explained the financial constraints the films was made under, and how it was hard to afford these scenic shots. It is a testament to his dedication, and the unblinking honesty and integrity of Martin Phillipps, that finally a Chills film is near to completion, a film which tells a tale which is ultimately one of redemption and vindication of living a life that stays true to your beliefs whatever the cost. All I'd add is that I hope funds can be found to incorporate more archive live footage, along with some of the current band (together, more-or-less, since 1995), as I feel that that would just make the whole experience more rock'n'roll and true to the band's roots. And then I hope that the film can go on to get the exposure it deserves, bringing the ethereal beauty of The Chills' music to more of the world, and in the process doing something to thwart The Curse of The Chills.
An indication that the curse's power may indeed be waning is the recent increase in worldwide interest in the band. Along with the success of 'Silver Bullets', the band's first new album in 20 years (and some say, their best), Fire Records has also released 'Somewhere Beautiful' (a double live album) and the Peel sessions. And this month Flying Nun, the band's first label and the people who powered 'the Dunedin Sound', are set to re-release 'Kaleidoscope World' on vinyl for the first time since 1986. This iconic album is a collection of early songs, capturing the best of the magical early period recordings, simply oozing excitement and possibility. The re-release will be on a deluxe 2xLP and CD set, featuring six bonus, b-sides, demos and live tracks plus an expanded gatefold cover with photos, posters and liner notes from journalist Martin Aston.
Along with 'Silver Bullets', 'Kaleidoscope World' is my favourite Chills record, an album which has long had a hold over me. It exemplifies the band's heavenly pop thrill: an otherwordly magic mix, post-punk defracted through the isolated lens of New Zealand life. 'Kaleidoscope World' has a sparkle to it, a soft centre masking powerful lyrics entwined in ethereal, slightly unsettling, left field melodies, qualities that would come to define The Chills. From the other side of the world, these songs call like rare, exotic wines, intoxicating and addictive and beautifully melancholic, while simultaneously inspiringly uplifting. This re-issue only adds to the magic, mystique and majesty of the album.