Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Special Ed

Rapping with a Chemical Brother

By Matt Ashare

SEPTEMBER 7, 1999:  With only four months to go before we give the number nine a much deserved break and start using lots of zeros, it'd take something on the level of a Milli Vanilli-style scandal to prevent the Chemical Brothers from going down in history as one of the 10 most important artists of the decade. Plenty of people have moved more units, scored more hits, and filled more stadiums in the '90s than the digital duo from Manchester. And as recently as four years ago, Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands had yet to do anything significant enough to merit an entry in the Spin Alternative Record Guide. But since then -- in fact, beginning that very same year with the release of 1995's Exit Planet Dust (Astralwerks) -- the Chems have joined the ranks of artists like Beck, Pavement, Dr. Dre, Trent Reznor, and Wu-Tang's RZA as innovators who played a crucial role in changing not just the way pop music has sounded in the '90s but the way it's made.

The rave craze that took over England in the late '80s introduced Simons and Rowlands to the raw materials of their craft -- the old-school hip-hop, '60s-style psychedelic rock, and Detroit techno and house that they'd eventually fuse into block-rockin' beats. And for the first half of the decade they made a nice living as DJ/producer types, fashioning fashionable dance remixes for Brit bands like Primal Scream and Manic Street Preachers. But the Chemical Brothers distinguished themselves from most of the talented techno technicians who'd come before by stepping out from behind the mixing board and repositioning the producer as the artist, rather than as just a creative force behind an artist. And then, instead of hiring a band to re-create their songs live, they simply went ahead and brought the mixing board on stage.

Simons and Rowlands weren't necessarily the first to try that route, and they definitely weren't the only rave-schooled technophiles who took their beats public in the '90s, but they were the ones who bridged the gap between club culture and mainstream pop, inspiring the "electronica" hype of '95. And even if the next-big-thing thing didn't quite pan out, the cumulative effect of Exit Planet Dust, 1997's Dig Your Own Hole, and the new Surrender (not to mention dozens of other singles and remixes) has been much greater than the sum of the SoundScan numbers. The Chemical Brothers have been instrumental in bringing back the notion of hip-hop as dance music, promoting dance music as pop, and redefining pop as the sonic equivalent cut-and-paste collage art.

I had a chance to speak with Simons while he and Rowlands were gearing to return to these shores on a tour that lands at Avalon on September 14. Here's some of what he had to say about Woodstock, Surrender, and the challenges the of bringing electronic music to the stage.

Q: Your most recent tour of the States ended at Woodstock, and one sense I got from Woodstock was that, even though the audiences for rock and dance music have become more and more integrated over the past decade, there remains a big gap between the two in terms of tone. I don't want to oversimplify, but your music and Moby's music has this psychedelic love-vibe thing going on, and the highest-profile rock music at Woodstock was really kind of angry and violent.

A: I'm glad you said that. I think you totally hit the nail on the head, really. I mean, before we actually did Woodstock, it all seemed like a bit of a joke. But afterwards, I thought it was one of the most important gigs we've done, because when we were playing, there were about 30,000 people there and it was beautiful, really -- it was just people getting into music, which is how music should be appreciated... just people really enjoying themselves. We had a whole row of security guards in front of us who were dancing around and spraying water into the crowd. These big security guards -- who were probably having the most excruciating afternoon of their lives looking after all those big, pumped-up frat boys on the other stage -- were, it seemed to us, really enjoying themselves.

Now, it's not my place really to worry about American music, I'm just a musician. And when you're there at such a big event with so many different bands playing, the easiest thing to do is just say that it's all just harmless fun. Of course it fucking isn't. It's just horrible, aggressive people everywhere you look, listening to music that's aggressive in its nature and lyrical content. But then, when we played, I had a sense that there was really something pretty nice going on. It was like a rave vibe: there were old people, young people, and a lot of women and girls. And, afterwards, when we heard all the reports of the violence, I began to think that it was really important that we played Woodstock. I mean, I'm not like, "Oh, we've got to re-create the vibe of the original Woodstock era," but it does seem to me that it was a lot more healthy back then in terms of the way people treated each other. When I go to concerts, I don't expect there to be any sort of threat of violence. That was the first time on the American tour I'd really felt that threat. And it made me think that we were really doing something important by countering that. I don't know if that sounds too lofty...

Q: No, no... that's why I asked the question. I just wanted to know whether you actually had a sense of the mood or atmosphere among the crowd yourself.

A: No, I definitely felt that. I've got nothing against the band, they seem like good people, but I went to see Limp Bizkit because I had about an hour to kill before we were on. So I went to see them and I was terrified. It was really hot, and it was scary. Maybe I'm a wimp or something, but I don't really associate feeling like that with watching music. I guess that's not how I grew up listening to music.

Q: I suppose playing in the US has always been a bit different if not difficult for you, because there seems to be this established youth culture for electronic dance music and DJs in England. And if the same thing exists here, then it's much newer and much less unified.

A: Yeah, I mean we've gotten pretty good at playing in America. But it started off a bit hard. It's still probably the most challenging thing we do -- touring America. We're more established in Europe, because the battles over people watching electronic music on the stage have all been fought and won. People are used to the idea. People are more comfortable going to see electronic music and getting off on it, whereas in America it still, well, it takes you by surprise that people are still troubled by what we do on stage.

Q: How important is it to you for the audience at one of your shows to be dancing rather than just standing there and watching as if you were a rock band?

A: Well, we want them to be dancing. Dancing with their minds or dancing with their feet, some kind of dancing. When we play live, we try to create this environment that's real exciting and absorbing to listen to. It's not just putting on a CD at home. We have the big light show, and what we do on stage is, we're kind of playing with elements of our music and remixing, you know. We've practically got our whole studio up on stage, and we're taking bits of our record and twisting them up and finding new bits and nuances. It's not an academic thing. All our music's about creating a great big physical, psychedelic, or mental effect. We want to give it to people, give it to them hard.

Q: Do you ever considered touring with a live backing band, like what Moby does?

A: No. We really don't. This is how we make our music. We program drums, we sample drums, we use drum machines. So it would be unnatural for us to have people playing things that weren't played that way in the first place. Tom is, I think, currently one of the best drum programmers around. So the idea of trying to have a drummer do what he can do with a computer just doesn't make any sense to me. When we play, we do like to have some physical things going on so people can understand what we're doing. For example, we have the keyboards facing the audience so people can see that we're altering the sequences and playing with the keyboard filters and stuff. That's kind of our concession to making people understand what's going on on stage. But as far as hiring somebody to play a guitar part that we've already programmed just seems like an unnatural concession to the demands of live music, really.

Q: One thing that you haven't been afraid to do is collaborate with various singers on your albums, from Noel Gallagher to Beth Orton, and I think some people would argue that that's what made it possible for you to connect with a sizable American audience.

A: Whether we would be as big as we are now without Noel Gallagher singing "Setting Sun" is, you know, not something that really concerns me. In Europe and England, one of our biggest records is "Hey Boy Hey Girl," a track that doesn't have a guest vocalist. We like lyrics, we like poetry, so we don't shy away from putting them in our music. It's something that came very natural to us because very early in our career we got a lot of work remixing rock records, so we got used to working with traditional song structures right at the start.

Q: I read something very interesting that you said about the new album: "We've always been part of a scene, or reacting against a scene, but this is just our music." What changed?

A: When we made our early records, they were totally born out of being at clubs and not hearing the music we wanted to hear -- of having to go home and make that music for ourselves. We had a specific, set plan, and our sound was unique at the time. Even Dig Your Own Hole was an extension of that. But at some point that feeling just went away. A lot of people took that sound and ran with it. And once other people had made millions of records like that, the effect of our style was lost. It wasn't new, it wasn't exciting to us. The last thing we want to hear is loads of records that sound like the records we were making five years ago.

Q: And, yet, I get a strong sense of nostalgia from Surrender. Maybe not nostalgia for the Chemical Brothers of five years ago, but nostalgia for the heyday of Detroit techno in "Got Glint?"; for old-school hip-hop in "Hey Boy Hey Girl"; for the early days of New Order in "Out of Control"; for -- and maybe your comments on Woodstock are what bring this up -- the idealism of the '60s as it was reflected in the utopian innocence of the late-'80s rave explosion.

A: We definitely didn't try to make a revival record. But a lot of people have said that tracks like "Out of Control" are sort of homages to the music we listened to when we were 18 -- house music or like New Order. On the other hand, when we're doing interviews, a lot of people say we're pushing the boundaries in music or we're futuristic, but I think we've shied away from that. I mean, a lot of what we do is borrow from the past. For us, when we're trying to do new things, it's never about trying to prove that everything that came before is shit. It's just about trying to create that effect where you take people by surprise. We just put together arrangements of sounds until we come up with something we like.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Music: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . The Boston Phoenix . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch