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."

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Jenny Shank
Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol