By David Rolland
By David Von Bader
By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
Exit Planet Dust, a 1995 disc released on Virgin Records in the United Kingdom and on Astralwerks in the States, was an auspicious debut, a rare dance album that was as well-suited to a home stereo as it was to the subterranean recesses of a London night spot. Highlights include the souped-up, come-to-the-party cowbell of "Chemical Beats," a bubbling stew of quirky hip-hop breaks dubbed "In Dust We Trust," and the delicate "Alive Alone," on which guest warbler Beth Orton comes across like an ethereal folkie caught in a brightly lit high-tech jungle.
Clearly this was dance music that had nothing to do with John Travolta during his polyester-suit days, but neither did it mimic Kraftwerk and other electro-pioneers whose work seemed bloodless and robotic to the average American. By translating the genre into more familiar tongues, Rowlands and Simons were able to build a U.S. following outside of the club-kid subculture: Exit Planet Dust sold 300,000 copies in the United States and more than twice that beyond these shores.
What followed was an attempt by U.S. record companies to stage an electronica coup d'état aimed at an altrock scene that had become as predictable as the brawls on The Jerry Springer Show. Nervous at flagging sales for rock music, and encouraged by the growing numbers of teens willing to fork over their dollars for tickets to raves, the music industry attempted to cash in on the burgeoning subculture. But while the Chemical Brothers became a pawn in this marketing scheme, Simons makes it clear that their motivation wasn't world domination. "People who make genuine music aren't thinking about becoming the next big thing," he says. "We're just making music. Electronica isn't about where it fits into the marketplace. It just comes out of the blue."
Perhaps, but there's no denying that the Brothers' timing was perfect. After flexing their muscles on remixes for artists as disparate as Wu-Tang Clan rapper Method Man and Brit popsters Manic Street Preachers, in 1997 they issued Dig Your Own Hole, which upped the ante on Exit Planet Dust by way of the twosome's most explosive collection of songs yet. Typical was "Electrobank," in which a cryptic phrase by rapper Keith Murray ("Who is this doin' this synthetic type o' alpha-beta psychedelic funkin'?") is repeated like a Zen koan over fat, driving beats until it almost begins to make sense. The formula works even better on "Block Rockin' Beats," featuring the '80s Philly hip-hop legend Schooly D proclaiming that the Chemicals are "back with another one of those block rockin' beats." Simons dryly notes that a postconcert photo shoot in Philadelphia for Rolling Stone magazine that included Schooly D was the first time the rapper was featured in those august pages. "That really says a lot about Americans' appreciation of their own musical styles." Wherever credit may be due, "Block Rockin' Beats" won a 1998 Grammy Award for best rock instrumental, powering Dig Your Own Hole to gold status in the United States and sales of more than two million copies worldwide.
Surrendermay face a tougher road, now that the mainstream media has moved on to the next sonic flavor. But more worrisome to Simons is the prospect that supercilious DJs, wary of spinning anything by overly popular groups, may shun the new material for fear of damaging their hipster-credentials. To combat this possibility, the Brothers issued a twelve-inch single version of the Surrender effort "Under the Influence" using the alias Electronic Battle Weapon. Simons hopes this minor subterfuge, which was previously used with "It Doesn't Matter" from Dig Your Own Hole, will help jocks approach the number with open ears. "Being a DJ myself, I know that I would tend to judge music more harshly if it was by a big name act," he declares. "We also wanted to get the song out very quickly while we were still finishing the album, so we went straight to the DJs."
Just as important in Simons's mind is the enduring connection he feels with dance culture, regardless of any perceived star status the Chemical Brothers may have. "Dance music is a communal thing; it's not so much about the performer. No one's seeing us and going, 'Oh, Ed!' like they do with [Aerosmith's] Steven Tyler," he says, laughing. "It's just about the music we make. It's not a band-audience worship model. It's more mutual admiration. People dancing together in a confined space isn't a natural thing for humans to do. So music that makes people do that is psychedelic by nature. We just want to make music for people to lose it to."