Muzik | Feature | June 1995 | Photos: Vincent McDonald
THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS
The one with the long blond hair and the tinted glasses, the one who looks like a bleached Nana Mouskouri, is called Tom. He's not far short of seven feet tall and he has this curious habit of dum-de-dumming strange little tunes under his breath every few minutes. He's the quiet one. Mind you, alongside the other one, the one called Ed, Caesar the Geezer would probably be considered quiet.
Until a few months ago, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons were known as The Dust Brothers. Now, after the threat of court proceedings from the New York production team of the same name, they're The Chemical Brothers. Not that this fundamental change in their masterplan has dampened their spirits. Not in the least.
"Nobody from the dance world has come up with an album to reflect these times," says Ed, embarking on his first rant of the day. "Why is that? Why is it left to a group like Oasis to express the way that young people want to go out and get battered every weekend? That's what The Chemical Brothers are about. Tom and I are out all the time, off to clubs and gigs, living fast, living it up. That's what I hope we're putting across on our records.
"The trouble is that too many people involved in dance music want to keep the scene down to their little clique," he continues. "They don't want to try to create characters, they don't want artists with something to say. They're just interested in
faceless boffins sitting in their bedrooms, putting out their tunes on white labels. That's part of the reason dance music hasn't progressed over the last three or four years.
"Look at the way some people ignore Orbital, just because they're on a major label. Never mind that they're still making great records. And why don't people recognise the huge sales Leftfield clocked up with their album? Why aren't they held in higher esteem? That's why I like Richie Hawtin. I'm not into his music, but I admire him for not being afraid to court fame. Aphex Twin is brilliant for that too. But who else is there?
"I'm amazed at the low expectations that have always been centred on dance music. I'm amazed at the lack of ambition. What dance music needs at the moment is a big album. An album the scene truly deserves. An album so many artists out there who have promised so much haven't quite managed to deliver."
An album like The Chemical Brothers' "Exit Planet Dust"? Hmm...
Tom and Ed were introduced to each other by Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval writer. They were studying history at Manchester University at the time. Within a few weeks of first
meeting, they were DJing together under the name The Dust Brothers, playing any and every hop they could in Manchester. They specialised in tunes with big beats and bigger noises, but soon became frustrated at what they saw as a shortage of tracks like that. So they decided to make one themselves.
The result was "Song To The Siren", which appeared as a white label in the summer of 1992. The record was pressed up with the help of a £300 loan from a friend, Ed promising away 10 per cent of all his future earnings if he hadn't paid back the money within six months. Unfortunately for the friend, Ed managed to find the dosh in time. "Song To The Siren" was subsequently picked up by Junior Boy's Own, who reissued it in early 1993.
Tom and Ed have since released two EPs – "14th Century Sky", the title a nod of respect to Chaucer, and "My Mercury Mouth", which unleashed the storming "Chemical Beats". The pair have also undertaken countless remixes, their credits including The Prodigy, Bomb The Bass and Primal Scream, and held the residency at the popular Heavenly Sunday Social club in London throughout the second half of 1994. So popular, in fact, they sometimes had to turn away 500 people a night.
The problem over their original choice of name has been a bummer and they still occasionally slip back into the habit of referring to themselves as The Dust Brothers. But aside from this, their star keeps on rising.
"Exit Planet Dust", The Chemical Brothers' debut album, will be in the racks in another month or so. It's their last release with Junior Boy's Own because they've just signed to Virgin. Meanwhile, the number of artists wishing to benefit from the group's knob-twiddling skills continues to grow. David Bowie is the latest to join the queue.
"Exit Planet Dust" kicks off with the caustic groove of "Leave Home", which is about to be released as a single, complete with some ace Sabres Of Paradise and Underworld remixes. The press release
describes the original version as "The Prodigy meets Motorhead" and it would take a bold man to attempt to think up something more accurate. The guitar samples will cause great distress to the purists, but The Chemical Brothers simply smile at this suggestion.
As anyone who has ever made it to a Heavenly Sunday Social night will already know, Tom and Ed don't like the idea of confining themselves to one narrow band of music – and "Exit Planet Dust" is sure to stand as the most eclectic dance album you will uncover this year. From hip hop to acid to funk to techno, goodness knows where their heads were at when they were in the studio. Especially since the album was recorded in a mere three weeks.
"We were really hammering it out," says Ed. "We've written loads of new material since then and we were toying with the idea of replacing a couple of tracks with fresh stuff, but then we thought, 'Fuck it, it all sounds great, even if it is now nine months old'."
"We were very conscious of making the album work together as a whole," adds Tom. "The first half an hour consists of solid beats, but it also has other stuff on there because people will hear it at home, not in a club."
Two of the tracks, the ghostly "Alive Alone" and the prickly "Life Is Sweet", feature vocals. Beth Orton, who has previously worked with William Orbit and Red Snapper, and Tim Burgess of The Charlatans take the respective credits.
"We had a good session with Tim," says Ed. "He basically sank four cans of lager, scribbled a few lyrics, and went for it. We first met him when we did a Charlatans remix, after which he regularly came down the Sunday Social and danced around with his Adidas top zipped right up to his nose. We had a wild time messing about with the vocals. But then music should be an adventure, shouldn't it? Not just going over the same thing again and again."
"You need different sounds to fit different moods," says Tom. "We're both into lots of types of music and I don't see why we should have to deny that. I can't believe that even the most dedicated techno buff would want to stick on a Basic Channel tune when they woke up on a summery Sunday morning. I bet they all have a secret stash of Simon And Garfunkel under their beds."
Imagine the Basic Channel crew flicking through the Sunday Sport with "Bridge Over Troubled Water" playing in the background. What a genius thought.
There are many levels to "Exit Planet Dust", but it's the fat beats that hit the listener first – and hardest.
Ed: "I think the album suggests two people with a lot of energy about them, a lot of vitality. It's a very youthful record. If I was 16 and I went out and bought it, I'd be chuffed to bits."
Tom: "We're not into avant-garde excursions, the sort of abstract ideas you'll hear on a Mo' Wax record. We're more like party steamrollers."
The dynamic quaility of The Chemical Brothers' music is not in doubt. But there doesn't seem to be a lot of elbow room for any soul.
Ed: "I don't think that's true at all. What do you want us to do, get Luther Vandross to sing with us? A lot of our music is pretty brutal, but I'd say it has far more soul and fire and passion than most so-called soul records. It's like the Tricky album. That's a heavy bit of gear, but it's also very soulful. Not everyone wants to be like Portishead, making music for people to put on when they have little dinner parties."
Tom: "Which is not to say we don't put a lot of time and effort into our tracks. We reworked 'Chemical Beats' around 50 times until we were finally happy with it. It's often a very painstaking process."
A substantial part of which revolves around the fine art of sampling, of course.
Tom: "I love the concept of manipulating lots of different artists and having them play together on your record. It's a shame the days of blatant sampling are gone. Unless you pay shit loads of money. I was told recently about someone who wanted to sample a conga loop and the record company were asking for 20 grand. For a conga loop! It's fucking ridiculous."
Ed: "We're not at liberty to say exactly what samples are on the album, but there are some crazy combinations. Not that even the people concerned would be able to recognise themselves.
Except Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, who recently complained that the Chemicals had half-inched all of his beats.
"I don't know why he's creating such a fuss. Apart from the fact we've only ever used one of his beats, he makes music in precisely the same way as us. He loops bits of other people's tracks! That's why we didn't mind when we were sampled by The Boo Radleys. We thought it was great."
Ed: "But we didn't think much of that other band sampling us, did we?"
Tom: "Someone in Germany sent us this dreadful soul record which started with a snatch of 'Chemical Beats'. We refused to let them use it."
Ed: "We did it more for them than us, though. We didn't want them to embarrass themselves. They'll thank us in the long run."
Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez isn't the only one who has taken a pop at The Chemical Brothers in recent months. Even Kris Needs, one of the mildest mannered guys in clubland, has had a go. And around the time that Tom and Ed were forced to change their name from The Dust Brothers, there was the fanzine that said they should follow Prince's example and just use a symbol. They suggested a pile of steaming shit.
So what is it about this pair that seems to wind people up?
"It's probably me," says Ed, a massive grin creasing his face. "I've been known to get a bit leary sometimes. But it's not like I'm waltzing into clubs with two beautiful women and I've never gone out of my way to deliberately wind someone up. Not as far as I can remember."
"I sort of understand why some people don't really like us," says Tom. "There's a buzz about us at the moment and it might seem as though we've come out of nowhere..."
"But I honestly don't think we wind people up," interrupts Ed, his grin now replaced with an almost pained expression. The question has touched a raw nerve. Another rant is on the cards.
"Perhaps it's because we don't really have much to do with anyone else on the scene," he mulls. "There are probably one or two people we're supposed to shake hands with and ask what they're having to drink, but we're not into playing that game. There's far too much good blokery in dance music. Some people have built an entire career out of being good blokes. That's a load of bollocks. We're not into DJ get-togethers, you know, everyone going down to Strutt on a Sunday night. We'd rather run around with our friends.
"I don't have the obligatory respect for the past. We could never be like all those groups who are now deliberately trying to make their records sound like old Detroit tracks. It's not us. We're not constantly droning on about the techno originators and shit like that. We don't toe some imaginary line. The likes of us and Andrew Weatherall are just out there doing our things. I mean, look at the way Weatherall winds a lot of people up. It's simply because we've dared to tread our own path.
"In some ways, I don't particularly care if people want to take a pop at us. At least it shows we're having a bit of an impact, doesn't it? In the final analysis, our music speaks for itself. It's been bloody good right the way down the line. People can criticise what we do as much as they want, but they're not going to stop us totally believing in the noises coming out of the speakers."
The Chemical Brothers are one of the few dance groups to cut it on the live circuit. A couple of reviewers have suggested their set is all on DAT. As it goes, the duo actually use two huge samplers to build lengthy chains of beats and noise. Listen closely and you'll hear them balls it up from time to time.
"Playing live is an essential part of what we're about," beams Ed. "One gig that sticks in my mind was at this glitzy club in Los Angeles. There was a weird political meeting going on during the soundcheck, Young Republican of the Month or something, and we were wondering what the hell was going on there. But when the audience came in, the place went mad. We even had people stage diving."
The Chemicals' live set-up has been specially designed to enable Tom and Ed to stand shoulder to shoulder onstage. Hunched over the samplers, their heads are blurs of movement, but they still seem to be communicating with each other every couple of minutes.
Ed: "But I'm usually talking in Sanskrit."
Tom: "And I'm usually shouting, 'More strobe! More strobe!'"
However focussed the group's live show might be, their DJ sets are all over the shop. With sounds as varied as u-Ziq, Sly Stone, Patrick Pulsinger, Slam, Public Enemy, Desmond Dekker, Emmanuelle Top, Flowered Up, Schoolly D and even The Beatles on offer, it's hardly surprising they've come in for some stick about their mixing. Or, to be more accurate, the lack of it.
Tom: "Our DJing has always been about us just getting up and having a go. Neither of us has any decks at home, so we have to practice in public. We've definitely been getting a lot better lately, though."
Ed: "It's important to connect with the audience. You can hear a thousand records being mixed technically brilliantly, but if the DJ doesn't actually mean anything to you... The people who come to hear us DJ probably own some of our records and want to know what else we can give them. Whatever our mixing is like, we'll always give you a fucking rocking party."
It's easy to see why The Chemical Brothers have come in for a lot of flak – and why they'll continue to do so. They can't DJ, not in today's accepted sense, but they host one of the hippest London clubs of recent times. They've taken their have-a-go attitude into the studio and walked out with a string of successful records. They've been lucky. They're the first to admit it and their refreshing honesty, both in print and on vinyl, is something else one or two people can't seem to handle.
Whatever you think about them, The Chemical Brothers do make for "a fucking rocking party". The big crate of amyl they keep under the decks isn't just for emergencies. Then there's the raucous energy of the likes of "Leave Home" and "Chemical Beats". That's mainly down to Ed. But listen closely to the tracks and you will discover some mighty skillful musical twists in the arrangements, the timings and the tones. That's Tom.
Despite the Chemicals' laudable ambitions, "Exit Planet Dust" isn't the best dance album ever made. It is good, though. The larger-than-life, almost cartoon-like quality of the material is a neat reflection of the two spirited guys responsible, rather than a re-run of some tired old formula. Don't knock them for it. Not until you know exactly what it is they're carrying in those test tubes.