Remix Magazine Interview with The Chemical Brothers, January 2002
In January 2002, American music magazine Remix published the following interview with The Chemical Brothers, in advance of the release of their fourth studio album, "Come With Us". Below is the complete text of the article, written by Ken Micallef. The Chemical Brothers also appeared on the cover of the print edition of the magazine.
Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are sitting in the downstairs lounge of Merchants, a trendy Manhattan bar in which weary office workers meet both to eye the flesh and to squeeze it. “They're enjoying themselves,” says Rowlands, spotting a couple in the throes of a slobbering lip lock, arms and legs hungrily playing catch-up. “Looks like pre-foreplay,” someone says. “Pre-nothing,” adds Rowlands. “That is full-on foreplay.”
Although such Chemical Brothers epics as Dig Your Own Hole (Astralwerks, 1997) and Surrender (Astralwerks, 1999) could never be called make-out music, they have provided the juice for thousands of big-beat block parties and chill-out sunrise sessions. Now all grown up and releasing their fourth album, the Chemical Brothers have surpassed the hype they helped ignite, all the while staying true to their artistic goals and ideals. With millions in record sales and a Grammy to their credit, they've stayed one step ahead of the dance clones and TV ad-jingle writers who have copied their every sample.
Largely abandoning the Electronic Music Studios (EMS) Synthi AKS analog synth and Doepfer MAQ 16/3 MIDI analog sequencer that were practically their trademarks, Come With Us (Astralwerks, 2002) finds Rowlands and Simons exploring new gear such as the Parker MIDI Fly guitar, a move that led to a total reevaluation of their composing techniques. Whereas the duo used to build songs from shards of samples, now the two also make tunes by jamming on guitars like an ordinary rock band does.
Yes, the Chemical Brothers have reinvented themselves yet again for Come with Us. Even their looks have changed, with Rowlands cutting his trademark blonde tresses stockbroker short and Simons sporting a frat-boy-style close-shaven visage. Spinning a mad dichotomy between avant — sound sculpture and thumping house floor-fillers, the album begins with a tornado of raging string arpeggios, ripping drumrolls, and an ominous voice commanding you to “Come with us and leave your earth behind.” Midway through the intro, keyboards and strings crescendo and plummet, the beat drops out, and a flurry of notes soar into the cosmos like a screeching rocket. The song is a stunning example of the Chemicals' technical prowess and their ability to endlessly surprise.
The dazzle continues with “It Began in Afrika,” in which a live percussionist flails on timbales and congas over a mercenary house beat. Other highlights include the dreamily cocoonlike “Star Guitar,” the psychedelically experimental “Hoops,” and the twilight sunburn buzz of “My Elastic Eye.” Frequent Chems collaborator Beth Orton appears on the “The State We're In,” and the Verve's Richard Ashcroft lends his pipes to the album's closer, “The Test.”
Come with Us has more in common with the Chemical Brothers' first two offerings than it does their most recent record, Surrender. Exit Planet Dust (Astralwerks, 1995) and Dig Your Own Hole also proclaimed the victory of psychedelic big beats and skyscraping sonics in full E-tripping, acid-burned glory. Although Surrender retained the Chemical Brothers' signature sound, conspicuously absent were the titanic big beats, kamikaze screams, and apocalyptic sirens that made them the electro rage of the '90s. Surrender recalled the robo-dance of Kraftwerk, the synth-pop grandeur of New Order, and the old-school hip-hop of the Brothers' college days.
Yet the Chemical Brothers are not about to step back into an easy, retro-rock past — not with uncharted sonic paths still to conquer. So Rowlands and Simons dug in their sneakers, cut their hair, and got down to serious business. Their tenacity is impressive, their skill unparalleled. Come with Us is the Chemical Brothers' latest treatise about electronic music's present and future. Simon and Rowlands take a people-watching break at Merchants to tell Remix how it went down.
Come with Us is not as immediately identifiable as your previous albums. You still hear the Chemical Brothers touch, but as with Surrender, the trademark big beats are mostly gone.
Rowlands: For the other records, especially Surrender, we were just mucking around with synths, making sounds, and the songs came from the sounds. We'd make all the production decisions as the track came into existence. Making tracks and writing sounds happened all at once. It was not a separate process where we wrote songs, then produced them. It's not an amorphous thing, but the way we built our music was different this time. For this one, the notes came first.
Simons: We listen to our own music more than anything else. Hours and hours in the studio, listening to the same thing!
Rowlands: It is an influence in what you want to do and what you don't want to do: you don't want to repeat yourself. We made Dig Your Own Hole, and we love that. With Surrender, we wanted to keep the general vibe but do something different. Because it is us two making the record, that will always be the center of it.
Would you say this is your back-to-your-roots record?
Simons: The first three or four numbers do remind me of those days when we were so excited about putting together little grooves and beats — that whole cut-up era of hip-hop. We had Grand Wizard Theodore DJing at our gigs then. Like that scratch segment in “Afrika,” those tiny segments where it sounds like a DJ cutting in, those sorts of things used to really excite us. But some of the music is totally removed from that. “Hoops” is totally different than anything we — or anyone — have ever done.
What was the composition process for “Come with Us”?
Rowlands: Those amazing string arpeggios, the hard MIDI notes, came first. Then it was about finding the right sounds and building from that point.
Simons: It had a different beat at first; then, we found the vocal sample. We thought it was too much, but then we found a way of fitting it in. Then we doubled up the string sounds on the Jupiter 6, playing the same type of sound. We put that through the new Alesis synth, the A6 Andromeda. We put the Jupiter synth through the Andromeda's filters, which made it all sound more raging. Then we did the drums, and the rest is history.
We used to use the Doepfer 16/3 analog sequencer a lot, but not on this album. The EMS Synthi AKS is still there. It made all those mad electronic sounds. It's one of the best sound generators we have — it has amazing filters, the EQ is great, it has a spring reverb in it — but it was time to move away from the EMS. We were a bit more restrained about using it this time. It came to characterize our sound.
How did you create those incredible tom-tom fills?
Rowlands: We just programmed a snare sound, a kick sound, and a bit of high-end ssshhhhhh. We took the actual individual drum sounds, then wrote the chords. We always sample tiny fragments of sound as a starting point. But there were more definite tunes and ideas and melodies from the start of this album than before. We still sample a lot to build up the whole collage of what you hear.
What was the most significant technological change that you made for Come with Us?
Rowlands: We moved to [Emagic] Logic Audio. We had always been [Steinberg] Cubase and [Propellerhead] ReCycle users. Cubase does not support TDM plug-ins, and if you had loads of audio tracks and loads of MIDI, it would crash. Logic never crashes. It always works.
Did you explore any new production techniques?
Rowlands: We work in the computer and get a rigid arrangement that we work on forever. Then we go in the studio and record that version. We might loop up eight bars and jam on the desk with it. You get the idea that it is a performance, that people are involved in making the record. It gives you the feeling that someone is doing something physical to the music. Usually late at night, when we have the main mix done, we will get wild with it — just turn up everything and take loads of shit out. We might have this really complex drumbeat that consists of eight different layers; then, we turn it all up and take all the shit out to find out what we want to leave in.
Simons: It is hard to not have a concrete idea of what the track is. For each track there are usually a couple hours of recorded music. Then we have to edit that and feel it out.
Rowlands: When we made Exit Planet Dust, we stayed up for three weeks making it. But now we don't drive ourselves so mad working mad hours. We work 12:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. every day.
What are those ringing, zinging sounds panning left to right in “Pioneer Skies”?
Rowlands: That is a harpsichord with a Harmonizer on it, then split up. We put reverse reverb on it. One side is the reverse, going zinnng, but it is panned hard left so the reverse is coming over, and then the forward strike of the harpsichord is on the other side, with the Harmonizer set to produce a sound an octave above it, as well.
Did the vocal sample in “It Began in Afrika” inspire the rest of the song?
Rowlands: The vocal helped make sense of the song. With all the twists and turns of the drums, it is like a full-on drum solo for nine minutes. The idea was future primitive. You get loads of percussive house records that are just okay; we wanted one that was mad, using percussion in a really intense way rather than in a vibey way.
Simons: Those records never have that winding acid sound — that head element that we like. “Afrika” started with getting a groove that [percussionist] Shovel could play to. The 303 stuff, which was done using [Propellerhead] ReBirth, is pretty simplistic, and it works in that environment. The track took ages, but the elements came together pretty quickly. The real killer was to get the right bass drum sound — one that was powerful and thick enough to cut through all the percussion and give it a four-to-the-floor feel, but without swamping the whole track. There are millions of elements, but it is basically a driving acid track with demented percussion and a powerful four-to-the-floor bass drum.
Where did you find the vocal sample for “It Began in Afrika”?
Simons: That is a spoken-word thing by this political activist, Jim Ingram, from his record called Drumbeat. We knew it from Jungle Brothers records. We had never used samples from other people's records before, but it fit so well. Early on we cut acetates and gave them to Sasha. We needed some positive feedback at that time, so we gave Sasha the record, and he thought it was amazing. It is not often that we need to get vindication from anyone, but this time it was good. People were clamoring to know what the record was; we couldn't deny the power of that sample. And we had DJs playing acetates of “Star Guitar.” Those big DJs know what they are doing. They know how to fit it into a set.
Why did you need vindication at that moment?
Rowlands: DJs are a good sounding board. If it works in a set of music, it's good. You need that immediate response.
Simons: The way DJs process records is really a skill. There are about 40 DJs in the world who are getting sent everything and are playing all the time. They can hear a few bars of a song, and they know straightaway if it's good or not. Before this we have always been happy straight off, but we lost our way a bit. We had less gestation time, and it took us longer to make the record. We didn't have this period of having things we were pleased with.
Do you still work in the Dustbowl studio?
Rowlands: Yes. That is still our main studio, which is where all our instruments and synths are. We record there. The complex we are in has another studio that has a big Neve VR60 desk, and we mix on that. I like to get stuff out of the computer and samplers. I want it to go through real valve gear and EQs. Our studio has always been upstairs from the main commercial studio. We stay in the Dustbowl all year; then, we come down to mix.
What parts of the recording process were tedious?
Simons: We had a couple of good ideas happening that we just couldn't finish. This track called “Here Come the Drums” had some really good stuff in it, but we couldn't make it into a cool thing. That gets very aggravating after a while. It's a good joke to say, “Let's have another go at it.” We couldn't get good drums to go with it.
Rowlands: When you have a track called “Here Come the Drums” it has to have the greatest drums you have ever heard. We knew in our hearts that they weren't. But we are coming back to that at some stage.
Do you wake up in the morning with melodic ideas?
Rowlands: What helped a lot was this new piece of equipment, the Parker MIDI Fly guitar — a MIDI guitar that actually works. We're not very good keyboard players. Playing an old synth like an ARP 2600 with your guitar is great. We got totally weird shit that we didn't mean to do. And as you are doing that, you record the MIDI notes, as well. So you have the guitar sound, the synth, and the MIDI part in the computer. On “My Elastic Eye” the bass line was created by playing the synth with the guitar. We had the MIDI and sound information and merged the two with other sounds.
Simons: The Parker generates MIDI notes, so when you write something on guitar, you can transfer the information to a computer.
Rowlands: And you get the sound of the guitar, as well. So some things are layered up — the sound of the guitar, the synth, and the MIDI information from the guitar; you get three things working as one sound. The chords for a lot of the tracks, like “Star Guitar,” were written like that. So the tunes did come before the sounds.
Simons: “Star Guitar” and “Pioneer Skies” happened when we got bored with the machines. That whole morphing sound on “Star Guitar” came from a nice little thing Tom was playing on the guitar that he processed through a [Clavia] Nord Modular hooked up to the computer. So you have a sound that is sometimes a guitar, sometimes a big synthy swoosh sound. It morphs between the two. It turned into a house record because we had these tumbling beats that we sampled and wrote patterns for. That song is very blissful but still spangly.
Those incredible low bass sounds have less emphasis on this album.
Rowlands: This is more the science of treble.
Simons: Not very appealing, is it? The science of treble! Well, play this on your big speakers for sure, and you will get the science of bass. Check it out on the big ones. “My Elastic Eye” sounds like “Thriller.”
What other samples did you use on the record?
Rowlands: On “Hoops” there is a sample of this '60s band, the Association. We picked up that record in Japan. The stereo split had the vocal on one side and the music on the other. We cut up the vocal in the sampler and got “Here I go round again, never coming down again.” It was quite mad. Those dogs barking are just us. The mic overloaded and made distorted voices.
Simons: One sample in “Pioneer Skies” is from a song called “Yellow Train” by Resonance. We sampled it from a seven-inch single. It was a loose, shifting drum sample with this mad whistle and train running through it. That record was played in New York clubs in the late '70s and early '80s. It's French, but was famous in New York — Larry Levan and Dave Mancuso used to play it. It's one of those weird atmospheric percussion records. We fiddled with the drums quite a lot. And there is a sample of a Polish jazz flute on “Test.” We still buy a lot of records here in New York.
Rowlands: We like the Sound Library.
Have you ever considered sampling musicians in real time?
Rowlands: I like the idea of a drum coming from a different age and a different place with a different spirit. When you bring these things together, you get this weird chemistry. Like the trail of sound after a snare drum — that is the ambiance of that room and what was going on in that room — all these weird, different feelings from different places. Miking up a drum kit never really worked for me. We did work with a live percussionist on “It Began in Afrika.” We processed Shovel's playing and cut it up until it made sense. It's cool to get a bit of sweat on the record.
Are the beats entirely sampled or machine made?
Rowlands: We very rarely take a break and leave it in its original order. We are always cutting up and arranging stuff. I like sampling the ambience of a different place and a different room. I like bringing in all these different environments into the record. I like the sound of live drums off a record cut up and mixed with electronic drums. There is four-to-the-floor along with layers of drums and little things pushing the beats along. We spend a long time programming to get that flow together.
Is it harder to create energy with a house beat than with a big beat?
Rowlands: You can get a lot of movement in between the four. You can hear a funky 4/4 beat, and you can hear a tired old lame 4/4. There is a lot of room around the bass drum to work with. I like when you hear drummers go off it and come back to it. The bass drum is at the center of the music.
Simons: And it depends what kind of excitement you want.
Rowlands: I like it when the two come together — when it morphs like in “Star Guitar.”
What do you think of the current state of dance music?
Simons: If we say it was more exciting in the mid — '90s, that is only a reflection on us. That particular time is when we started DJing in really big places with good sound systems, and we had our own club where we kept a residency. We loved it. Back then, break records and English trip-hop were first happening. There are great dance records now, but I was more excited in the '90s when it was all fresh. What was thrilling then was the movement of people playing strange records, mixing them up with rock and house. Andy Weatherall and James Lavelle were playing strange records in back rooms. I liked that weird other world — trip-hop and all the weird noises. But there is always going to be house, and there is some tripped-out house now, too. I still get great records; I just don't remember who they are by anymore: “It's that one with the red label.” I'm lazy.
What records do you spin live these days?
Simons: Woody McBride [aka DJ ESP] makes quite tough acid house. He used to have the 303 Orchestra. We like some Dutch trance, the Tatabox Inhibitors, Jamez and Dobre, Jark Prongo. We are not fans of the clicks-and-cuts stuff. You try to like it…
Rowlands: Then you think, “What the fuck am I doing listening to this shit?” It's not doing anything to me.
Simons: I like deep rhythm-and-sound stuff — not much happening, just slight movements in the music, but quite exciting in the chasm of sound. And I like To Rococo Rot. The Amateur View is a beautiful record. They are the heirs to Kraftwerk. And I like Thomas Brinkman.
Rowlands: I like the idea of laptop music. It's a portable way of making music.
Simons: But I don't know about this idea of Intelligent Dance Music: dance music that you can't dance to?
Is it getting harder to make music you are happy with?
Simons: It is easy to get something up and running that is good, but it's getting harder to do something we're really pleased with.
Rowlands: That's what drives us: when we agree that something is good even if it doesn't fit into what anyone else is doing at the time. That's the position we started making records from. They didn't fit into people's ideas of what dance records were, but we made them and changed how people made music in clubs. We have that behind us, and we feel confident at this stage to do what we feel. But there aren't that many electronic-dance musicians like us who are in bands, who are on their fourth album. It is difficult in that we are not songwriters coming up with different issues to talk about. Just using sounds and creating moods is becoming more difficult. We don't want to make the same record again. We want a balance where you know it is us, but we want to try new things within what we do.
What is your trademark?
Simons: There's a rush of excitement in our music. We don't make music that you sit back and relax to.
Rowlands: But our music is not just for that moment on a Saturday night, either. It exists outside of there. If you are making an album, the music has to work all over.
Simons: It's great to get that excitement at home without being in a smoke-filled room.
Rowlands: So much music now is just functional, and so much of it is easy to make. There are all these boxes with preset rhythms, and you can make something that sounds decent. But a good record will have a spark of originality or an idea, something that is intriguing. It is easy to make records that sound like everything else. There are machines made specifically for doing that.
Simons: You get a feeling of excitement even in a track with Beth Orton, which on the outside is a meditative, slow track, but even there we have to build some real sense of excitement and a moment of transcendence, tension, and release. Whether it is fast or slow or house or hip-hop, there is always that rush. All the equipment and all the production techniques we use are aimed at that moment of exhilaration.
Rowlands: It's something to engage you and make you feel part of the music. This is not music that washes over you. We want people to be actively involved. Whether it makes you feel contemplative, ecstatic, overwhelmed, or frustrated, we want it to engage you and move you.
Apple Mac G3/266 and G4/333 running Logic
Audio Platinum software
Apple Mac LC475
Digidesign 888/24 I/O Interface
Digidesign Pro Tools
Rorke hard drives
Akai S3000 (2)
Akai S3000XL (2)
E-mu E4 Ultra (4)
Alesis A6 Andromeda
Doepfer MAQ 16/3 (2)
EMS Synthi AKS
Clavia Nord Modular
Oberheim Xpander (2)
Fender Deluxe Reverb amp
Fender Precision Bass
Parker MIDI Fly
Sonor Mini-Movement drum system
EMS Synthi Hi-Fli
Ibanez analog delay
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer
T.C. Electronic FireworX
T.C. Electronic M5000
Dynaudio ABES subwoofer
Dynaudio M2 speakers
Mackie 32×8 board (2)
Yamaha NS10 speakers