Chemical Brothers: Mixed-Up Reality
Washington Post by Alona Wartofsky (1998-10-18)
Hip-hop acts boast about “keeping it real.” High-minded rock bands play up their “integrity.”
What they’re trying to do is establish authenticity, asserting that their music serves a personal vision and not the dictates of the marketplace. Authenticity has become a valuable commodity in pop music, and yet the more albums an artist sells, the less authenticity he is perceived to have.
The cachet of authenticity helps explain “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out,” the latest album by the Chemical Brothers, electronic alchemists Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons.
The duo, who started their career spinning records, crossed over from the electronic underground to the mainstream pop arena last year with “Dig Your Own Hole,” which became the first million-selling album by a British electronic dance music act. A collection of original (albeit sample-heavy) thumping tracks, “Dig Your Own Hole” debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard album chart, catapulted by MTV’s infatuation with the videos for the singles “Setting Sun” and “Block Rockin’ Beats.” The former track featured Oasis’s Noel Gallagher; the latter won a Grammy for best rock instrumental. The Chemical Brothers played two American tours last year, performing live behind banks of synthesizers.
So what did they decide to do next? They returned to deejaying.
“Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” is very different from “Dig Your Own Hole.” It’s a deejay mix album; in other words, instead of making music, the Brothers are mixing—and remixing—other artists’ music.
“What made us mainstream is when the last album came out and it had all the press and there was a big push,” Simons says.
“So when we deejay,” Rowlands notes, “that’s being a bit more underground.”
“Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” is pretty much what you’d hear if you caught a Chemical Brothers deejay set at a club or a rave: a nonstop mix of 23 cut-up, looped and chemicalized tracks, including remixes of old-school R&B and soul, hip-hop and various electronic styles.
Astralwerks, the duo’s American label, is running ads that announce “The Chemical Brothers return to their roots with a new DJ mix album,” but the Brothers insist that they never lost touch with their original audience.
“I suppose we did a deejay remix album because we can,” says Rowlands, who knows that the Chemical Brothers are still among the best music mixers working today. “That’s something that we do, and we can do quite well.” Mind Games
Last month, as part of a quick deejay-in-America tour promoting the new album, the Chemical Brothers took over Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom for two nights of spinning. Rowlands wore his “Socialism” T-shirt, a souvenir from the Heavenly Sunday Social, the celebrated London club where the pair served as resident deejays during most of ’96. The Ballroom crowd was arms-raised, fist-pumping happy.
Still, Simons doesn’t think the first night went so well. “Could have done with a few more glow sticks and pacifiers, then I’d have been happy,” he says, referring to the typical raver accouterments. “There was too many miserable old people . . . music industry blokes. They want to see us, look at us, but they’re not getting into the music.”
“We wanted people 10 years younger than us with energy,” says Rowlands, 27.
“We’re ravers,” explains Simons, 28.
“I want people to be there with their mates having a good time,” Rowlands says. “But when they’re all facing you, kind of waiting for you to do something . . . .
“They shouldn’t just be there receiving. It’s a two-way traffic. They should be doing something, mucking about.”
Rowlands (the tall, goofy one) and Simons (the round, toothy one) met eight years ago when both were students of medieval history at Manchester University. Their interest in the classical gave way to their obsession with the modern — acid house, hip-hop and various strains of rock and R&B — and it wasn’t long before they started spinning records at local parties. They called themselves the Dust Brothers, but eventually were forced to change their name; the record producer Dust Brothers got there first.
Does the “chemical” in Chemical Brothers refer to drugs?
“It’s all one big chemical,” deadpans Rowlands.
“Ecstasy and dance music is all quite connected, you know,” says Simons.
“I heard an interesting thing on the plane the other day about how you listen to music and have chemical reactions,” Rowlands says. “They had a scan of your head listening to rhythmic music, and certain electronic pulses or whatever in your mind were being set off. And then they did melodic music to see how the parts of your brain react. A part of your mind reacts differently to different kinds of music. I thought that was quite interesting.”
Both are fascinated by sounds and how people react to them. After watching his parents take in a Chemical Brothers set played on a bass-heavy sound system, Rowlands decided that women respond to bass differently than men do. “The physical movement of the sound really impressed her,” he says.
Dance music, he theorizes, is “utility music,” to be played in clubs. And the Brothers’ dance music has more to do with sounds than songs.
“We don’t approach writing a melody in a very traditional way,” Simons says. “The melody comes from the sounds we use. We play sounds, and then out of those sounds you start getting melodic kind of things. Which I find an interesting way of making music. That’s not a new thing. Brian Eno, his music is like that — the sounds kind of lead the way.”
The Chemical Brothers’ early work is considered the blueprint for the British dance music known as big beat (Fatboy Slim etc.), but Rowlands and Simons have tried to distance themselves from that genre.
At the same time, they reject the criticisms of techno purists who argue that the pair’s sonic inventions are too pop, too rock, too commercial.
Before “Dig Your Own Hole” was released, two tracks from that album, “It Doesn’t Matter” and “Don’t Stop the Rock,” were pressed on vinyl 12-inch records and released as “Electronic Battle Weapons” Parts 1 and 2. Simon pointedly notes that both were picked up by respected underground deejays, including Carl Craig and Derrick May.
Because the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy have been the only British electronica acts to make a strong impact on the American charts, the two have been lumped together here as comrades in the techno revolution.
The Chemical Brothers are not happy about that. “I don’t like their music,” says Simons. “If you’re going to base a revolution on slightly less-good electronic bands, you know, it might not happen.” Electronica’s Elementals
It’s still too early to know precisely what role electronic dance music will play in American pop culture. Electronica didn’t become the next big thing, but no one except drug users and record label geeks really thought it would. Still, that doesn’t take away from the validity of the thriving techno subculture. America’s belated rave congregations continue to dance all night. MTV is still airing its “Amp” techno show. And elements of electronica have been appropriated by pop megastars from U2 to Madonna.
Simons and Rowlands say they’ve been approached by Aerosmith, U2 and the Rolling Stones, all of whom wanted the Brothers to produce or remix various tracks.
The answer was unequivocal: Nah.
“It’s not a matter of turning them down,” says Simons. “These bands, they’re doing their thing. It’s their thing — I’m just not into them, you know what I mean? We’re not better than them, and we’re not saying they’re bad. It’s just that we didn’t like the song or we’re not into the band.”
“We had something else to do,” Rowlands says.
“We’ve made two records in three years, and we’re about to make three records in four years so we’ve been quite busy doing our own thing. It’s not a dis or anything. We’re just not interested.”
Nor are they particularly interested in wooing audiences who aren’t open to understanding the blips and bleeps of electronica.
“When we play with all the keyboards, do a live set, those people go, That’s a bit boring, it’s just two guys in front of their keyboards.’ And then when we deejay, they go, Yeah, I thought it was going to be you guys with all your sequences and synths — I thought you play live,’ “ Simons says.
“People who write mainly about rock bands, they don’t get what we’re doing. They have a lot of difficulty understanding what we’re doing onstage, whereas they do understand why people are playing guitars and bass,” he continues. “And if you don’t understand what people are doing when they’re deejaying, it’s a long road. It’s not very hard to understand.”
It’s easy to understand “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” with its endless block rockin’ beats and twisting grooves and one thudding climax after another. You just dance to it.
“What I don’t like now is people saying that electronica didn’t really happen. We put out a few records and we’re happy. You know, for an English band to sell any records here is always a good thing, so we’re happy, we’re fine,” says Simons. “Maybe record companies are laughing, going, Oh, rock-and-roll won out, and electronica never happened.’
“Well, next year there’ll be good records by Underworld and Orbital and us. So we’ll see what happens then, really.” CAPTION: The Chemical Brothers have an element of authenticity. ec CAPTION: The Chemical Brothers, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, filled “Brother’s Gonna Work It Out” with lots of soul, funk, disco and hip-hop. etx