It shouldn’t really be like this. Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands are talking with an animated glee about music, about being the Chems and about their brilliant new album, Push The Button. They’re full of life, they say, on top form, really fired up by people’s enthusiasm for the new material and their band. Frankly, if you plugged them into the national grid, they could power a small city for the next decade. Actually, make that a big city.
Yet by rights, 15 years in clubland should have taken its toll. They should be a couple of jaded old crusties, happy to knock out ever-inferior knockoffs of their earlier material, content to cash in on the Chemical Brothers “brand”. Remember – despite their youthful appearances, they met in 1989 and have been making records for more than 12 years. That’s a long time in showbusiness but a stonecold eternity in the faddy, ephemeral world of dance music, a scene dominated by “big choons”, shady DJs and seat-of-the-pants chancers looking to make a quick buck or three.
It’s been more than a decade since the duo dropped their first, coruscating single, “Song To The Siren”, a fantasmalogical mash-up of acid house, hip-hop and punk-funk attitude. To put it all in context, when they met as students in Manchester, Bush Snr was president, Thatcher was prime minister and the Happy Mondays were holding court at the city’s legendary Hacienda club. And since then, the Chems have lived, worked and partied through electronic music’s explosion into the mainstream (in Europe at least), the rise of the cult of the DJ and sales of more than eight million albums.
Yet here they are, sat on the sofas of their record company in west London, visibly excited about their fifth album and the prospect of taking it out on the road. Five minutes into our conversation and their secret becomes clear – they still share the same boyish enthusiasm for new music and new sounds after all those years. There’s an almost insatiable hunger to both consume and make more music, one that’s firing them with an almost evangelical-like passion.
“It’s happening and I can quite believe it,” says Ed, matter-of-factly about the new album. “It’s not like we’re stretching the bounds of credibility 12 years after we started. It feels quite natural. In the few weeks since we finished it we’ve got a sense that people are glad there’s another Chemical Brothers record. We don’t feel like we’re foisting ourselves on people. The important thing is that we had fun making this record.”
“There is a point in making music if you enjoy making music,” interjects Tom. “After doing the greatest hits compilation [released in 2003] there was a feeling that we wanted to try something different, change our way of working. We wanted it to feel fresh and invigorated. We just don’t want to let our band fizzle out.”
He says a lot of people would – quite naturally – assume that was going to happen when you put out a singles collection. But while there were putting Singles 93-03 together, they were already sourcing ideas for Push The Button. The main thing, Tom says, was to make something people couldn’t ignore, something that felt “full of life”.
Push The Button is the Chemical Brothers, only more so, and with a host of collaborators in tow. Opener (and lead single) “Galvanize” is their call to arms, their impact track thanks to an insidious Moroccan riff, a twisting nu-beat and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on vocals. On “The Boxer” they go head-to-head with indie rocker Tim Burgess (his first collaboration with the duo since 1995’s “Life Is Sweet”). Near-unknowns The Magic Numbers surface on their obligatory psychedelic number, “Close Your Eyes”, while vocalist Anwar Superstar pares the hip-hop down to the bone on anti-war polemic “Left Right”.
There are also a brace of razor-sharp clubland tracks – featuring the sort of acidic riffing that first got them noticed – and the album closes with “Surface To Air”, their big-room trance track, spacey and ethereal but shot through with a trademark fat kick drum. Central to the new album – and the continued existence of the band – was a change in working practices.
“We’d been going to the same studio for eight years and sitting in the same room. It’s gonna grind you down to some extent,” Tom laughs, pointing at Ed. “We wanted to be less insular about it, to reach out more. For “Galvanize” we went over to New York to record it with Q-Tip. We would never have done that five years ago; we always expected people to come to us, to see us in our environment.”
Although Q-Tip and Tim Burgess are established names, all the other collaborators are relative unknowns. “We’re happy to risk things not working out,” asserts Ed. “It’s about being much more open-minded. I saw the Magic Numbers at a gig and was really bowled over. Someone gave us an Anwar Superstar album. And we heard about [singer Anna Lynne from] Trespassers Williams because they’re on the Cocteau Twins label.”
They freely admit that they have disagreements in the studio, or “creative arguments” as they like to put it. “You’ve got to disagree about things,” says Tom. “If we both totally agreed about things it would be a pretty dull record.” Ed concurs. “If you lose the willingness to express your opinion then that’s really the end, if the band was just one person’s opinion. It takes energy to creatively argue with someone that you have a long-standing friendship with. We’re entwined in each other’s lives in so many other ways.”
“We have proper stand-up arguments about the kick drum or the snare,” reveals Tom. “But that shows that these things are important, that you want to get it right. It shows you both care. If he just went “Yeah, that’s alright” then the record would suffer. At least it’s not like a big band where people gang up on each other.”
“Well, not until we get the road crew involved,” deadpans Ed.
Writer’s block is not something that affects the Chems, but given that they’re a couple of perfectionists they do veer to “finisher’s block” on occasion. “It’s about deciding whether a track is satisfying enough,” says Tom. “We generally know when it’s finished – it’s just getting to that point that’s the hard part, the point where there are no more additions. It’s a bit of a relief.”
During the summer of 2004 they took to the road in Europe and Japan and admit to being surprised by the fact that there was a huge groundswell of support for the band. “We’ve been around quite a long time and there was a sense a few years ago of people having lost interest,” Ed notes. “But we were headlining these festivals in Belgium and Japan and got a real sense that people loved our band. They loved the old songs but still there was an expectation and excitement about the new stuff.” Frankly, he says, it was one of the best periods being in the Chemical Brothers.
“It was an injection of energy,” confirms Tom. “It broke the cycle of being in studio for two years and then touring. This was a conscious decision to go on tour and hit the festivals while we were making the album. We were playing new songs no one else had heard. It reminded us that people were bothered about us.
The duo are aware of the malaise that’s affected dance music in the past couple of years, especially in the UK. The era of “God is a DJ” and the big electronic bands seems to be over. But it phases them not one jot.
“It’s just that certain journalists don’t want to bother going to clubs and then dismiss vast swathes of music,” scoffs Ed. “Maybe the big electronic bands culture has slowed down a bit but historically dance music has mainly been a minority interest. Sure, for a few years it was part of the mainstream, in the UK at least. But that was the odd time when it was all-pervasive, huge culture and magazines. Now it’s just like the ’70s or ’80s with people pottering around their own scenes making great music that excites a certain breadth of people.”
As Tom points out, the Chems have never really responded to trends in dance music or operated on what’s hot in any given year. “When we released Dig You Own Hole [in 1995], people were surprised there wasn’t a drum’n’bass track on there. But that’s not how we go about making records. We have our ears open and ideas seep through but we never try to ape what’s out there. Push The Button has some of that tough electronic sound going on but we’re certainly not saying ‘Here’s our electroclash record’ or whatever.
“When we first started out we had simple ideas – hip hop and acid house coming together. And this record is probably the real epitome of that, even though “Galvanize” is a slow, nu-beat type of thing. Playing it out in clubs it sounds immense.”
And that’s the key, really. The experience of going to clubs and listening to music is the filter for how almost all their music is made. Tom describes the feeling of “intensity” listening to music on a huge sound system: “Even “Close Your Eyes” [with The Magic Numbers] has got that rush in it that you feel in a club, even though it’s totally removed from what you’d hear in a nightclub.”
“I went out to a club in King’s Cross [north London] just to hear “Song For The Siren” for the first time,” recalls Ed. “But I missed it.” He jokes that whenever he now hears one of their tracks in a club he gets up into the DJ booth and turns all the spotlights on him as he stands there looking smug.
For the past few years they’ve had a close connection with Turnmills, a club in Farringdon, central London, that was home for 18 months to their weekly Heavenly Social residency and where they’ve played New Year’s Eve for the past four years. [Interestingly, by the time you’ve read this they will have DJed again at the Turnmills NYE party, this time alongside Hacienda stalwart Sean Ryder of the Happy Mondays.] Ed reveals that when it comes down to it, the duo are men of habit.
“If we like doing something we kind of stick with it for a long time. There are certain festivals we’ve done almost every year too. It’s a bit of a character trait. We’re men of tradition.”
And they’re still blown away by other turntablists, like the time Tom was driving to the studio and caught a Laurent Garnier/Jeff Mills tag team mix on the radio. “It was amazing, phenomenal. Old acid house tracks and funk tracks all mixed together. Inspiring. When I got to the studio I had to stay in the car listening to the mix. It made me think ‘dance music’s wicked’.”
They have special tools for their own DJ slots – or Electronic Battlefield Weapons to be precise. These white label, limited-edition, DJ-only, heavyweight vinyl promos are aimed squarely at the dancefloor.
“It slightly divorces those tunes from the ‘Chemical Brothers’ brand,” says Ed. “The Electronic Battlefield Weapons feel underground, like you’re well armed, with a sense of purpose. I still get immensely excited when I hear a DJ play our music.”
And here we come full circle, back to that passion for music and nightlife, for going out and hitting the dancefloor and hearing life-changing sounds. And then being so inspired that you crawl back the studio at five in the morning to lay down a track that will slay the dancefloors of tomorrow.
“Really,” says Tom, “that was the impetus for our first record – to put it out and hear it out in a club. It’s still the case today. If that feeling goes, you’re in big trouble.”
FIVE ESSENTIAL CHEMICALS
Song To The Siren
One of the first tracks they recorded together – as the Dust Brothers – in their makeshift studio and a hint of the greatness yet to come. Hip-hop plus acid house times clattering beats equals A VERY GOOD THING.
The Private Psychedelic Reel
The track that truly opened up guitar audiences to the Chems, this nine-minute slab of brain-blitzing mutant rock showers an orchestra of guitars with hard funking acid beats. The stand-out cut from their breakthrough album, Dig Your Own Hole.
Block Rockin’ Beats
The song that epitomises the Chemicals at their dancefloor-destroying best. Twisted, raw drum loops fuel this breathtaking, earth-shaking number, topped off by one of the simplest yet cleverest vocal samples in history.
Hey Boy Hey Girl
Years of going clubbing, together with a passion for getting messy down at The Gallery, a hard dance night at Turnmills, informed this breezeblock of a tune. House music made in a way only Ed and Tom can.
Their latest call to arms. Feel the Marakkech vibes as that string sample worms its way into your subconscious. Lyrical wordsmith Q-Tip is on fire as spartan acid shots build into a barrage of funk.
THE CHEMS ON AMERICA
Ed: “America’s probably the last place you guess how an album will be received. We always have pockets of people who like it. We enjoy going there. But every state, every city, every audience is different.”
Tom: “We’ll DJ at Centro Fly in New York or Spundae in San Francisco and always have a brilliant time. We go to places where people want us to play. But we have no desire to get on a bus and tour America for six weeks as we’ve done in the past.”
Ed: “I love the surprise factor. For us Brits, these places are always a name on map and the people there are amazing. Austin, St Louis, Dallas. We’d never been to these places and all of a sudden we’re on stage and thousands of people are going crazy. The name on map becomes a reality.”
© Kieran Wyatt