Better Living Through The Chemical Brothers, Pulse Magazine Interview, January 2002
The Chemical Brothers gave the following interview in January 2002 to Pulse Magazine, the free Tower Records publication, to promote the release of "Come With Us".
Jacques Cousteau is dead. Very dead, in fact. The renowned French environmentalist and scuba pioneer left this mortal coil in 1997, at the age of 87. But Ed Simons refuses to hear such talk. Just the other day, the brunet half of U.K. dance music dynamo the Chemical Brothers--who were preoccupied with promoting their Top 20 Dig Your Own Hole that year--watched a TV documentary on the man that demystified the world's oceans for millions of people, and found it profoundly affecting. "That is a person who, when he was young, had expertise in something, and he carried it on into later life," muses Simons. "That made me think, 'What am I gonna do in later life, when I'm as old as him?'"
At 31, Simons is a bit young to be facing a midlife crisis. Fortunately, his blond counterpart, Tom Rowlands, who also turned 31 this January, seems to have the answer already--and it doesn't involve submarine expeditions. "Making music is the thing we enjoy doing the most. We're quite dedicated to doing it." Or, to put it another way, "We haven't really got anything else to do."
Indeed, Tom and Ed have done precious little besides spin and produce great music since they met at Manchester University back in 1989. There have been detours--Rowlands became a father last fall, and the duo took a few months off in 2000 while their studio was being remodeled--but basically, being the Chemical Brothers is a full-time gig. So what do they have to show for it? Two stellar mix-CDs (1996's Live at the Social Vol. 1 and '98's Brothers Gonna Work It Out) that help connect the dots between their myriad influences (including, but not limited to, old school hip-hop, punk rock, and acid house), well-worn passports, "and a lot of late nights." And, most importantly, four albums in six years, of which their latest, Come With Us (Astralwerks), is the reason for our little chat. "Four in six ... that's got quite a nice ring to it," says Simons. "But not quite true," counters Rowlands. To be fair, cuts from as far back as '93 ("Song to the Siren") found their way onto their '95 debut Exit Planet Dust. And Come With Us, while finished last year, didn't hit stores till 2002. Regardless, their productivity is impressive, especially when contrasted with pokey peers like Underworld, the Prodigy and Goldie. In fact, Simons realizes, the pace at which their discs come off the assembly line is closer to the Beatles than that of most contemporary bands, a notion that momentarily ruffles Rowlands. "Suddenly it's making me a bit tired, the idea that we've done four in six," he says, smiling.
To look at Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons offstage, you wouldn't guess they were pop musicians. They accessorize with neither shiny pants nor actress/model girlfriends, and Fred Durst's digits are nowhere to be found in their cell phone directories. Given their down-to-earth demeanor, it almost seems absurd that we've been sequestered away in the private dining room of a four-star hotel's restaurant. Were it not for our prime seating, undoubtedly none of the staff would even imagine that last night these two men held sway over a sold-out crowd at Centrofly, New York City's prime DJ venue. Tonight, the closest they get to rock-star antics is ordering an $85 bottle of wine ... only to have Rowlands accidentally backhand his glass moments later. "There goes 50 quid's worth," he grins, and refills it.
Throughout the meal, pop music comes up time and again. Can Kylie Minogue's latest stab at U.S. stardom succeed where Robbie Williams' failed? Doesn't Britney seem too good for Justin? Tom does an adorable Michael Jackson imitation that borders on a Disney caricature, and later praises Elton John ("I do like the way he's such a magpie"), albeit with reservations. First and foremost, the Chemical Brothers remain music fans. And although they don't have stars in their eyes, they seem acutely aware of every constellation of the universe in which they orbit.
"That's one of the things that makes it difficult to make music: There's so much of it," Rowlands confesses. "Just to listen to music is so overwhelming sometimes. But that's also part of this drive to make records. Because you hear so much without that spark of ingenuity or originality." Nothing like the latest train wreck from a former Spice Girl or teeth-gnashing nu-metal '80s cover to get the creative juices pumping.
Simons admits the Brothers were initially uncertain about precisely what shape Come With Us would take. Still, they had one rock-solid conviction when work commenced way back in March 2000. "We didn't want to drift into the studio, and just make a record for the sake of making a record." Appropriately enough for an act that has built its reputation on bridging the chasm between club beats and rock music, they took some inspiration from a gaggle of geezers who have often walked the same road in the opposite direction: U2.
"They're pretty old guys now, and they've done a lot," Simons continues. "But they always talk about [how] they go into the studio wanting to make their best record, and to keep doing that. Both of us have that same spirit, just naturally. You get into the studio, and that creates a lot of pressure, and makes it difficult. We just wanted to keep the excitement we've always had when we made records, and of having things on there that we can really be pleased with."
"We've never started a record and said, 'This will be the finished [product],'" adds Rowlands. "Some people have that complete vision. The way we make music is that, by making music, it inspires more music. By the end of it, it's all changed into something you'd never recognize. The main, overriding thing now is we wanted to make a record that we could be as proud of as the three we've made already, the continuation of all we've done. And hopefully, part of that continuation is doing new things."
Come With Us succeeds on both counts. Even if all you know of the Chemicals is their '97 Beatles-fueled breakout "Setting Sun," there's no question as to the author of these tracks. On the other hand, the grooves never sound too reminiscent of former glories, either. The latter matter was of especially great concern to the boys.
"We really loved Surrender," says Rowlands. "For me, it was almost perfect." While that '99 masterpiece--which featured turns by Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, Oasis' Noel Gallagher, Bernard Sumner (who has been quite vocal about the role his stint with Rowlands and Simons played in influencing New Order's Get Ready), and Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream--broke down into neat, two and three-song cells, the Chemical Brothers' fourth full-length is more of a complete, start-to-finish listening experience. Yet from the percussive orgy of "It Began In Afrika" and the phalanx of toy pianos hammering away in "My Elastic Eye," to the low-rider disco swirl of "Denmark" and the Giorgio Moroder-esque vapor trails of "Star Guitar," each of the 10 individual tracks is also highly distinctive from the other nine. This, too, was by design.
"When we started making the new album, we'd go, 'That's a bit like Track 6 [from Surrender] ... but not as good,'" recalls Rowlands. "It took quite a long time to get over that hurdle, forgetting one piece of music, and trying to make a new one."
Old habits being what they are, certain traditions remain from prior Chemical Brothers albums. Beth Orton returns to the fold for a third time to warble "The State We're In," while Richard Ashcroft, former frontman for the Verve, joins the ranks of Gillespie, Gallagher and the Charlatans U.K.'s Tim Burgess as the token Skinny Britpop Singer on the climactic "The Test." "I really like that feeling of there being people that pop in and out," explains Simons. "We've made four records. Noel's been on a couple, [Jonathan Donahue] from Mercury Rev's been on a couple. It's cool that, without being a collective, those are the voices that are part of the Chemical Brothers."
"Beth's such a good person to work with," adds Rowlands. "If you've got someone you really get on with, and they're a brilliant musician, and you really enjoy your time in the studio, it would be a bit churlish not to do it just because you think other people are going to go, 'Oh, they're doing that again.'" (They will continue to do so in the future, too; Orton's forthcoming third album features a track produced by Rowlands and Simons.)
Given the epic scope of many Chemical compositions, it's a bit surprising to realize that the average running time of their albums is 56 minutes; the concise Come With Us actually clocks in 60 seconds shy of that. "Quite digestible, isn't it?" says Rowlands. "When you listen to the whole thing, it doesn't feel like you've listened to an hour of music. No extraneous [filler]." And yet, more so than ever before, he adds, there were lots of tracks abandoned in various stages of completion. "If the thing isn't totally right, so we're both really excited by it, then it won't get to the stage of being on a record."
And aside from road-testing the odd work-in-progress at their DJ gigs, Rowlands and Simons' are typically the only ears to hear a Chemical Brothers cut at any stage other than completion. Like the previous three albums, Come With Us was produced by them alone. Working with an outside producer simply wouldn't fly, they insist. "The production kind of is the music, so there either wouldn't be much for the producer--or Tom and I--to do," opines Simons. "The vision is ours," Rowlands chimes in, "and I can't imagine letting anyone else do that."
Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons may not live as long as the captain of the Calypso did, God rest his soul, but for the foreseeable future, their course is plotted. "People say, 'Oh, do you want to do other things? Do you want to produce bands? Do you want to do film work?'" concludes Simons. "The answer to all those questions is, 'No.' We really like being the Chemical Brothers. This is what we do, and it's good fun."