Few regions can boast an outsized influence on the greater musical culture more so than New Zealand, tucked away at the bottom of the earth thousands of miles from anywhere else. With Flying Nun (and lesser known labels such as Propeller, Ripper, South Indies and Xpressway), the country of three million became an insanely fertile incubator for all sorts of strains of rock music, and Martin Phillipps was arguably at the center of it all. The creative force behind countless expertly crafted pop songs (hello, Exhibit A!), Phillips had successfully reached pockets of the European and American markets before it unraveled in the mid-90s. But the muse never leaves gifted songwriters, and he’s sprung back in surprisingly strong form with two records since 2015 that can stand shoulder to shoulder with his past work, including last year’s Snow Bound. Phillipps hasn’t played Boston since the Sunburnt tour of 1996, but he’s back in town this week at the Middle East this Wednesday– do not sleep on this! I had a chance to send some questions to him, so let’s see what he’s been up to.
It’s been a long time since you’ve played Boston… what sort of reaction do you think you’ll get?
MP: The level of enthusiasm about our return to the States has been extraordinary and I’m sure the Boston audience will be as thrilled with our performance of old and new material as the other cities we have been playing to recently. We will be playing just a little more of the older material in the U.S. because some people there have been waiting for decades to hear it live but our older fans everywhere else assure us that the new songs sit beautifully alongside the classics and simply sound just like The Chills – in fine form!
During the period you struggled with health problems, did you continue to write and stockpile songs? Or is phase two, from 2013 onward, all material that’s been written as you went?
Even during my darkest years I never stopped coming up with ideas for songs but it was very disheartening to know there was no outlet for them at the time. I drew on a mixture of some of that material mixed with newer ideas for the ‘Silver Bullets’ album in 2015 and then last year’s ‘Snow Bound’ contained a much higher percentage of brand new songs – although there were still the odd riffs here and there which possibly originated as long ago as a quarter of a century.
What made you decide to re-record “Pink Frost” for the b side of the comeback 7”? And keeping with that song, it’s one of the all-time greats about someone dying, something that some of your Kiwi contemporaries have also managed. Thinking in particular about “Starless Road” by Alastair Galbraith, and “Randolph’s Going Home” by Shayne Carter and Peter Jefferies. What are some of your favorite songs based on this depressing subject?
Most of our older material continues to subtly change over the years and when we temporarily added a “Krautrock” intro to ‘Pink Frost’ it seemed a good time to capture a new version – not to replace the original 1982 one but simply to document the song’s growth. It was recorded in Thailand (at the same time as ‘Pyramid/When The Poor Can Reach The Moon’) and it made sense to release it as the B-Side to the original single version of ‘Molten Gold’ on vinyl only. It is also now, finally, being released digitally as a B-Side with our new single release, ‘Deep Belief’.
‘Randolph’s Going Home’ is a beautiful song and an amazingly heartfelt reaction to a personal tragedy. Another of my favourite songs dealing with death (or whatever) would be Big Star’s ‘Holocaust’.
As a musician who is inextricably linked to Flying Nun, does it seem strange not to have any of your later records released on the label? How’s your relationship with Fire? And what sort of input did you have on the Captured Tracks reissue of Kaleidoscope Days, in terms of selecting that particular record for reissue as well as the additional six songs not on the original CD? Will we ever seen the long-rumored re-recorded of Brave Words (aka Braver Words)?
Flying Nun still handle our releases in New Zealand so we are in constant contact with them but they are aware of their limitations in promoting us internationally so it has been wonderful getting involved with Fire Records. Discussions with Flying Nun are always taking place about the best use of our back-catalogue and the release of ‘Spoken Bravely: The Re-Mixed Album’ (or whatever it’s going to be called) is closer to reality now than ever before. I am always consulted as to what forms these releases will take.
The new record, Snow Bound, sounds much fuller, with keyboard textures and a really broad sound. Is that a function of your band, the recording engineer, a conscious choice on your part or a bit of all? What’s been inspiring you in terms of song-writing lately? Has that process changed much over the years for you? what’s the biggest difference for you now, in this stage as compared to your earlier days?
The band and I and the producer and their team all work together to try to capture the best performances need to create an album and this does not always mean trying to replicate the live experience which is a very different thing. My song-writing process has changed in that I am much more selective of which of my material should be recorded as I do not wish to add anything but quality songs with a worthwhile message to the enormous amount of music being produced these days. Although I am by no means as tuned in to what is going on musically as I was in my twenties the artists which inspire me today are those brave enough to explore new territories and create wonderful surprises.