Better Living Through Chemistry
Electronic dance music never completely conquered the United States, in part because the electronica revolution could not be televised. Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands, better known as the Chemical Brothers, are a case in point. Their music has plenty of personality and bravado, but the pair are hardly seen in their own videos and certainly don't fit the rock-star mold. During gigs in support of their U.S. breakthrough, 1997's Dig Your Own Hole, they seemed like timid club rats who hid from the spotlight behind a barricade of sound equipment.
Appearances may be deceiving though. "We find the whole process of playing our music live very exciting," insists Ed Simons by phone from his London apartment. "We put a lot of energy into it. We have a big light show, screens behind us. We spin our sound around in an eight-way configuration. It's always been exciting to create an environment that becomes both aurally and visually intoxicating, so people can lose themselves physically and mentally. I'd never trade that for just playing records."
Surrender, the Chemical Brothers latest album, speaks to that desire to fully engage their audience. On the CD Simons and Rowlands depart from their prominent use of rap samples in favor of songs with original vocals: Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval contributes to the airy "Asleep from Day"; Noel Gallagher of Oasis croons throughout the catchy, jazz-tinged "Let Forever Be"; and New Order's Bernard Sumner and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie appear on "Out of Control," a panoply of futuristic sounds draped around a driving hook that manages to recall the flesh-computer fusion that characterized the best work of both those singers' bands. Elsewhere on the disc "Music Response" explicitly addresses the Brothers' oft-mentioned goal of producing music that works on its listeners like a drug, while comparatively gentle tracks such as "The Sunshine Underground" and "Dream On" take a more subtle approach to the hip-hop-flavor big beat grooves that characterized their early smashes.
This last move might be the partners' riskiest yet. Thanks to its undeniable gusto and the incorporation of familiar elements from rock and hip-hop, big beat, which the Brothers are often credited with inventing, has become the one true over-the-counter electronica sales success in this country, spawning stars such as Fatboy Slim, the Crystal Method, and Prodigy. It's also won over advertisers who've used it to hawk just about everything (at last count no less than four separate songs from Fatboy Slim had turned up in four separate major TV ad campaigns, all airing simultaneously). The accessible style has also been featured on innumerable movie soundtracks and video games; the Chemical Brothers contributed their "Loops of Fury" to Wipeout XL, a Sony PlayStation game. While Simons resists being categorized as a big-beat guru ("We were never interested in making a certain type of music"), he admits that Surrender is a response to the uses to which the sound has been put.
"We didn't make this new album the way we did because big beat is over-commercialized," he says. "But a lot of people have taken what we did on our earlier records and run with it. You go to a club now and you'll hear a whole night of nothing but that sound. That's become boring. You need to do different things, create different sounds. People are used to hearing dance music now. When you first heard a 909 and a 303 in 1988 it was completely alien; the idea of having a really loud amplified electronic bass drum was so bizarre, that's all you needed.... We see Surrender not as a departure from the kind of music we used to do, but as an extension of what we've been doing and a celebration of the variety of things we can do successfully."
Simons and Rowlands first met at Manchester Polytechnic University in 1989, where they were both studying medieval history. Academics, however, took a back seat to the explosion of British acid house, then in full flower and eclipsing in both excitement and cultural relevance the guitar-based outfits such as Joy Division, the Fall, and the Smiths that had helped put Manchester's music scene on the map.
"It was just an amazing time," Simons recalls. "I still remember going out to those first clubs, dropping some E.... It wasn't just the music; it was the life." With obvious enthusiasm rising in his voice, he continues, "It was an adventure, tooling around the English countryside trying to reach these raves. There was also a scale to it that I found fascinating: that many people all reacting to music. The parties in 1989 would have 20,000 people there, and watching the crowd just explode when Derrick May's 'Strings of Life' would come on. Nothing had prepared me for the intensity of that. Rock concerts in the back rooms of pubs were just such a different thing."
The Chemical Brothers first joined forces in 1992 (known then as the Dust Brothers -- a handle they'd pinched from the American producers of the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, Beck's Odelay! and, more recently, Hanson's "MMMBop"), when Rowlands left Ariel, the floundering band in which he'd been playing, to record with Simons. The result was "Song to the Siren," which juxtaposed wailing-siren techno intensity with hip-hop undercurrents -- an ideal marriage, in Simons's view. ("There is a do-it-yourself culture of music shared by hip-hop and techno," he points out.) Famed DJ Andy Weatherall agreed, spinning the cut in his club sets and signing Rowlands and Simons to the London-based Junior Boys Own label. But as the boys were preparing to make their first full-length recording, lawyers representing the original Dust Brothers informed them that their clients' moniker was unavailable for sampling. So they borrowed half the title from one of their most acclaimed tracks, "Chemical Beats," and became brothers by a different name.
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.
Surrender may 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."
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