It's A Chemical (Brothers) Reaction
In 1997, Tom and Ed gave the following interview to the now defunked Addicted To Noise internet magazine:
By Lori Miller New York
Here they come to save the day.
When Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands, the DJ duo known as the Chemical Brothers, walk into their publicist's New York apartment, where we've agreed to meet, they immediately apologize because they're both a little hung over. But these are not bad hangovers--they're the kind of hangovers that make everything seem a little funny. As we sit and sip water, they each keep one eye on the television across the room. And something cracks them up every five minutes.
Simons is almost collegiate looking, in jeans and a sweater, while Rowlands has more of the rock-star look, with long blond hair and yellow-tinted eyeglasses. But neither have the swagger or attitude that would make them stand out in a crowd. The two met in 1991, in a medieval history class at Manchester University. They started DJ'ing together under the name Dust Brothers, but were asked to drop the name in 1994 by the original Dust Brothers, the production team behind Tone Loc and some of the Beastie Boys' recordings. They changed part of their name, without dropping the family tie, and continued to tinker with their computers and record collection.
Dig Your Own Hole: The album, perhaps, for the severely dehydrated.
Now the hopes of many men in suits hang on these two unlikely heroes. As music-industry pundits claim that alternative rock is dead, and record-label executives pray electronica will revive sagging sales, the Chemical Brothers have found themselves in a strange spotlight. Their blend of electronic music, with hip hop-style beats and snatches of sampled guitar is expected to build a bridge between two generations of music fans. MTV has already had "Setting Sun," a collaboration between the Chemical Brothers and Noel Gallagher from Oasis, in heavy rotation. And the Brothers are set to release a new album, Dig Your Own Hole, shortly. As a result, they've found themselves forced to play the ambassadors of electronica to the music-listening public, asked to define and describe their music over and over again.
But rather than explain the true meaning of trip hop, or predict the fate of alternative rock, Rowlands and Simons really just want to make people dance. They're actually not motivated enough to change the world. In fact, Simons says that if it weren't for "Scooby Doo" cutting into his piano lessons when he was younger he might be a different kind of musician today.
Addicted To Noise: Are the Chemical Brothers the real '90s British invasion?
Ed Simons: Along with Bush. Nigel from Bush.
Tom Rowlands: Nigel and Gavin. [Laughs]
Simons: It's an odd position to be in, being British people bringing dance music to America is very strange. Being touted as the saviors of dance music in America when we've taken most of our cues from America and American records, whether it be some punk records or '80s hip hop or West Coast psychedelia. So it's been a strange thing. It seems odd to us. The bands like Prodigy and Orbital have done something which has more appeal than just DJ cuts.
ATN: Because they have guitars.
Rowlands: They play live.
Simons: I think it might be playing live and it might be making some sort of stab at making pop records, not nine minute DJ cuts. I don't know. I mean "Firestarter" is a pop record, isn't it? And "Setting Sun" has Noel Gallagher singing on it.
Rowlands: Has a certain appeal. [laughs]
ATN: Do you think that America's ripe for a music revolution?
Simons: Well, as long as people see that the enemy is Celine Dion rather than other alternative music. These things can coexist. Offspring and whatever, everyone can be happy. Even if it doesn't manage to change the world. If our records get played more on the radio, that's not a bad thing.
Rowlands: I think it's cool if you've got musical breadth.
ATN: What term do you use to describe your music?
Simons: Well, I think both of us would say that trip hop kind of covers it. But trip hop now is applied to bands like Portishead. It's diverse. You can't have two bands that sound less alike as us and Portishead. I thought trip hop was a really good phrase and it kind of covered what we do. Hip hop as a kind of backbeat of what we do and then this kind of head spin of weird sounds, psychedelia hip hop. Portishead, their record is more like a soul record. Modern soul. Blues.
Rowlands: Modern blues. Urban blues. I don't know.
Simons: Bristol sound. We liked trip hop. It's a shame that it's not ours anymore.
ATN: What about electronic music?
Simons: Electronica seems to come out more like experimental.
Rowlands: [looking at an ad on MTV] Fashionably loud.
ATN: Do you guys aspire to be fashionably loud? Do you agree that you're part of a movement...?
Simons: Well, it's funny because all these bands they've all been around a long time and everyone knows that what they do is sort of different. But here its all like lumped together as one big thing. And there's quite a lot of differences between our music and say Orbital's and Underworld's. Very different.
ATN: Do you think it's all part of the same movement?
Rowlands: We can all play on the same bill. Yeah, we fit together. Definitely. We happen to be lumped together but it is different.
ATN: What you do is evolved from rap and DJ'ing and the underground club scene. What did the Chemical Brothers want to accomplish when you guys first stepped out?
Simons: Have a good time.
Rowlands: Just to hear it. For us the main thing was we liked to hear our records played in the clubs we were going to and for people to remember those records. It's still our guiding principle. We had no mission. We didn't say, "Let's form a band and..."
Simons: "...make it in America."
Rowlands: We just wanted to make some records that we could DJ with and other DJs would play in nightclubs and we'd all have a good time.
Simons: We wanted to DJ more. We started DJ'ing and we had really good fun doing that. And a way of getting DJ work is you make a track and you put your phone number on it to get people to hire you to DJ. And from that urge the next things happened. But it was always to get DJ work.
ATN: So did you go around soliciting clubs in London?
Simons: Yeah, we played at a place called the Job Club which was quite funny. We used to play this funny mix of the Cure. And this weird sort of gothic barman would go mad when we played the Cure.
Rowlands: And no one else in the club would. [laughs] We'd see him dance around with his brews.
Simons: We used to get quite excited. DJ'ing for 10 people. But that was what we wanted to do. Tom was already in a band and had gone through the whole rigamarole of being promoted and playing TV shows. So he didn't want to do that. We were more coming at it from wanting to DJ.
ATN: What did you do in the band?
Rowlands: Did a lot of programming and drum machines and stuff.
ATN: Was it a techno band?
Rowlands: It had definite techno... There was this guitarist and singer and there was two guys, me and my friend doing all the beats and sounds and stuff.
Simons: They were called Ariel. After the character in The Tempest.
ATN: Now that people like David Bowie and U2 are incorporating trip hop sounds in their music, do you feel that you were there first?
Simons: Well, I think we can definitely say that we were doing that before David Bowie. Although David Bowie in the '70s used to make funk records.
A little Kraftwerk never hert anyone.
ATN: Plus wasn't David Bowie at one time into Kraftwerk?
Simons: Yeah, I suppose he was, yeah.
Rowlands: He went to Berlin because he wanted to recreate the cabaret scene and all that.
ATN: But you guys feel like you were there first?
Rowlands: They were all there before us because they're all older than us.
Simons: We don't really have a problem with them incorporating sounds.
Rowlands: It's not ours. It doesn't belong to us.
Rowlands: [Bowie] just made the weirdest record I've heard in a long time. [Begins to sing "Little Wonder."]
ATN: Have you heard some of the new stuff?
Simons: Absolutely insane. I don't know what I think about it. They're just two records, separate records playing on the same record which I think is quite a good idea. [laughs] When you hear it, you go... pretty odd, Dave.
Rowlands: Dave! Pretty odd.
ATN: What have you guys learned from rap artists?
Rowlands: You've got to have your drums working. Anything else?
Simons: That's a good thing to know.
Rowlands: That was the first thing, when we were listening to Public Enemy. We had that drum machine and we used to try and copy their beats and stuff at home. So it got us thinking more about rhythm, I suppose, which is quite central to what we do.
ATN: Can you pinpoint what got each of you interested in making records?
Simons: Well, for me it was because I was his friend. He had all the gear and I just used to sit and watch him DJ. And DJ'ing made me want to, by hearing how other records were put together.
Rowlands: I had piano lessons when I was a little boy and then had guitar lessons when I was a little boy. And then the lessons used to clash with "Scooby Doo." That's when I gave them up. If I had kept to piano playing we'd sound a bit different now.
ATN: Was it the lessons or the practice that clashed with "Scooby Doo"?
Rowlands: The lessons used to clash with "Scooby Doo." I used to have to be dragged, kicking and screaming to my piano lessons. Then I had a really good guitar teacher when I was in primary school when I was about 10 years old. I learned the James Bond theme. When I went into secondary school I had good fun, playing in front of people and in bands and stuff.
ATN: So you always wanted to be in the music business?
Rowlands: Well, I didn't want to be in the music business. It was just something I enjoyed doing and it was exciting. It was for pleasure. It was something you did for fun. Still is. It wasn't my childhood ambition.
ATN: What made you move away from the guitar?
Rowlands: Well, at the same time when I was playing the guitar, I had a drum machine and stuff like that. And then I got a sampler. It seemed like a more exciting way of making records. And also we had a guitar player and he was a better guitar player than me.
ATN: When do you think the DJ movement became really big?
Simons: Probably in the mid '80s. DJs used to put on parties themselves, warehouse parties. Kind of funk music and hip hop.
ATN: Did you go to any of those parties?
Simons: I went to a few. I was quite young. Sixteen or 17.
ATN: Did it make you want to DJ?
Simons: Yeah. I suppose everyone wants to be a DJ.
Rowlands: Everyone. Well not exactly. My mum...
Simons: My mum wants to be a DJ.
ATN: My mom does too.
Rowlands: My mum wants to be an MC. Maybe they should get together. The Chemical Mothers. [laughs]
Simons: It was a pretty exciting time then. I suppose more... acid house days. The way of drawing people in was advertising the DJ rather than the venue.
ATN: What about in the U.S.?
Simons: In New York, from the outside, from the UK, New York seemed like the home of DJ culture.
ATN: I thought Detroit was?
Simons: Yeah. And Chicago. But in the '70s the Paradise Garage...
Simons: So I'd say it was always a big thing but maybe a pretty underground thing. Not mainstream at all.
ATN: What was the place in New York?
Simons: There was a place called Paradise Garage. It was the sort of thing... That's why it's hard for us being seen as a spearhead because those clubs have got a fantastic legend around them. Bands like the Clash and New Order, when they'd tour America would end up in those clubs. And people like Boy George. They have got really legendary reputation, those clubs.
Rowlands: Zanzibar, with the Hump. But having said that...
Simons: It was a bit before our time.
Rowlands: We're doing something a bit different.
ATN: How is it different?
Simons: We're not doing disco.
Rowlands: On the new album we have one disco track. We just met this guy from Musician magazine who used to be a disco drummer. He said when he heard our disco track, he had to throw the stereo across the room. Stop his nightmare. Reliving his disco nightmare.
ATN: What are the first records that you each heard that really moved you?
Simons: I was pretty moved by Psychocandy by the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Rowlands: You must have been moved by records before that, right? The Lion and the Cobra?
Simons: Oh yeah. The Beatles. "Norwegian Wood." I suppose as a small boy, it was the Beatles.
Rowlands: Are we talking preteen?
Rowlands: One record I used to listen to a lot was the soundtrack of Oh, What A Lovely War.
Simons: I loved the soundtrack of Guys and Dolls when I was young. [starts to sing] "Sit down, sit down you're rockin' the boat..."
Rowlands: Yeah, I loved that record.
[Both sing again.]
Rowlands: Me and my friends used to like electronic music like Kraftwerk and Cabaret Voltaire and things like that. And then hip hop. I used to like The Woodentops.
ATN: I remember them.
Rowlands: Yeah? They were good. That guy was making house records recently.
Simons: It's nice. A bit dull. [starts rubbing his eye and it makes a loud clicking noise.]
Rowlands: What's that noise, Ed?
Simons: It's the eye.
ATN: Do you have a glass eye?
Simons: [laughs] Yeah. But it's getting a bit dull.
ATN: Can you talk about how you make records?
Simons: Pretty boring. We start with a rhythm track.
Rowlands: Not always. We just go to a room.
[Both start watching a Spice Girls video on MTV]
ATN: Are you guys Spice Girls fans?
Rowlands: [laughs] They're sharp dressers.
Simons: They're alright.
ATN: They were platinum in the UK?
Rowlands: They have a million platinum.
Simons: Eight times platinum.
ATN: So when you make a record you start with a drum track?
Simons, Rowlands: Not always.
Rowlands: Some of the things start with strumming on a guitar and other things you hear sound coming out a synthesizer. There's no hard and fast rule there. We just go into a studio and sit there for weeks on end and fool around. Fool around. Listen to a lot of records.
Simons: Hang out.
Rowlands: It's not a mysterious process. It's not like we hire a cabin in Scotland.
Simons: We get something down. Then we go record it somewhere else. Then we edit somewhat and we play it live. Look at the reactions we get on the dance floors. That gives us an idea of how the sounds are working together and how the arrangements are. Then we go in there again and again.
Rowlands: Then we go, "All right, that's enough of that."
Simons: A lot of the writing process comes from getting something fairly strong together and then playing it to people on the dance floors.
ATN: Did the process change as you became successful?
Simons: Not really. I mean they're still made the same way. But I suppose we've got our own studio, we've got a bit more time to do things.
Rowlands: Then again. It's not dramatically changed. It's still the same.
ATN: What was it like working with Noel Gallagher?
Simons: Very entertaining. He was very funny.
ATN: How much time did you get to spend with him?
Rowlands: We know him quite well. We support Oasis and he used to come to our club.
Simons: Very generous, very giving, kind.
Rowlands: [laughs] He's cool, man.
Simons: He's very charming. He just makes everyone laugh. He put as much in. I mean he wrote part of the song.
ATN: What part?
Rowlands: The words and the melody.
ATN: Did you sample the Beatles or is "Setting Sun" just a nod to the Beatles?
Simons: No. I mean we used to play "Tomorrow Never Knows" in the midst of playing techno records and house records. We just wanted to get that same feeling across in that song. There was no point in sampling the Beatles. There are quite a few covers of it. It was an amazing futuristic record.
ATN: Were you surprised that MTV put "Setting Sun" on?
Rowlands: It's a fantastic song, fantastic record, fantastic video. Isn't it?
Simons: If you say so. The video's got it. Yeah, I can see why MTV would play the video because it's good fun.
Rowlands: [noticing a Tricky video on the TV] It's not as good fun as a Tricky video. But it's still good fun.
ATN: Do you believe all the articles, all the media hype that rock, grunge is dead?
Rowlands: No. Grunge never really meant a lot in England. It was more an American experience.
Simons: Nirvana were pretty big.
Rowlands: Well, yes, Nirvana. But grunge... it didn't really touch my life at all.
ATN: What about the claim that guitar-based rock is dead?
Simons: That's a bit much.
ATN: Didn't you say something about that on MTV?
Simons: They probably cut those words over everything else. [laughs. Mimics himself being dubbed.] Our music expresses good fun, something to jump around to. No introspection stuff. It's fine. It's just fine for people to listen to whatever they like. But we like what we like. What do you think Tom?
Rowlands: I think playing the guitar is fine. Just because this other music is being made doesn't mean to the exclusion of something else. American people seem to get caught up with this whole thing of, "This is replacing this so you won't be playing that any more."
ATN: You think that mostly just happens in America?
Simons: In the UK I think bands such as Underworld and Prodigy seem to go hand in hand with rock music. It's all part of the same thing.
Rowlands: Music is music. [sings] Rock and soul, jazz and blues...
Simons: And gospel.
Rowlands: It's all good stuff.
ATN: First rap and now techno have had to figure out how to translate what are recording studio-based works to the stage. Do you feel you're subverting people's preconceptions of what to expect from a live performance?
Simons: There's quite a lot of tradition. Some techno bands will get guitarists and drummers but that's not how our music's made. We're honest about how our music is made when we play live. And we do have guest musicians but we don't have them on the stage. So we're out there mixing sounds and playing loops. It is a departure from what people are used to. People are used to having a vague idea of how the music's produced. Seeing someone play guitar. When you see a rock band you probably wouldn't look at the keyboard very much. And you wouldn't expect a guitar sound to be coming from him.
ATN: Do you think your shows are more communal?
Rowlands: It's not focused around the lead singer telling you about his problems. When we play live we try and make it...it's a club kind of experience. So we spend a lot of money on the visual side of things and the way it's presented and the sound system.
Simons: When we turn up at places where they don't have good clubs we bring our own sound system and our own lights. We've set up so people can dance. That's one of the good things about playing live is giving some people a taste of that experience of being in a club environment when they might not necessarily have access to it.
Rowlands: It is breaking with the tradition of what rock music is, but then so is someone like Kraftwerk. When they came out and played with like pocket calculator like things. It was amazing.
ATN: What do you see yourselves doing in 10 years?
Simons: Working stacking shelves. I don't know. [To Rowlands] What do you see yourself doing?
Rowlands: I have no idea at all.
ATN: What do you think popular music will be like in 10 years?
Simons: Pretty much the same as it is now.
Rowlands: [laughs] Remotely controlled from a central brain. I don't know. Monkeys will make it. I have no idea what will happen. We don't think about trends and what's going to happen. We just kind of do what we do. That is more the job of people who run record companies.
ATN: Do you think you'll ever start a label?
Simons: We have got a label.
Rowlands: But we're the only ones on it.
Simons: Well, we've done all right on our label.
Rowlands: We have a very successful label.
Simons: We've had a big selling album on it and we maintain A&R integrity.
Rowlands: Freestyle Dust is our label.
Simons: We want to get some stuff. We want to put out records but we just...
Rowlands: ...can't find anything that's any good.
Simons: Well, no, it's not really like that. There's plenty of stuff that's good.
Rowlands: But it's already been put out.
Simons: We get it in the form of a record. That's it. We would like to start doing that. If there's any other area we would get into, that would be it. Running a small record label. But we're not out looking for artists every night. But running a label sounds quite interesting.
ATN: Would you produce some traditional guitar...?
Rowlands: Folk based? I doubt it. I don't know what we'd do.
Simons: Folk label? No.
Rowlands: I don't know what we'd do. Retire. We'd have a little antique shop. The world is full of opportunities and we are the men to dash them. Don't you think?