It’s been a huge year for The Chemical Brothers: a new album, headlining Glastonbury and a major UK tour. Elisa Bray meets them on the road
The highlight of The Chemical Brothers’ career isn’t headlining Glastonbury in 2000, when they drew the biggest crowd in the festival’s history. It isn’t any of their six No 1 albums, the Brit Award or the four Grammys they’ve collected along the way. “The truthful answer is that we are still friends,” says one half of the duo, Tom Rowlands. “We still enjoy doing this.”
At the core of these dance titans – who have just released the 20th anniversary reissue of their No 1 album Surrender and are currently on their biggest ever UK tour – is the long-term friendship between Ed Simons and Rowlands.
The pair met in 1989 as history students at the University of Manchester, where they were studious by day and devoured the city’s music scene by night. Bonded by a love of raves and clubs – formed while growing up in Henley-on-Thames (Rowlands) and south London (Simons) – the duo frequented the famous Hacienda.
“You’d see only four or five other people from our year in The Hacienda. We’d get there at six o’clock on a Friday to queue up to get in, and the whole world opened up to you,” says Rowlands. There and at the local record shops (such as the still-running Eastern Bloc Records) they immersed themselves in music. “If you showed an interest, and you came back again and again, the warmth in people, and that community based around this music, was amazing.”
Back at a home studio
It was Manchester that inspired them to make music. “In London, it felt like to be in the record industry you needed some kind of special pass, you can only get into that if you are driving a Porsche down the King’s Road or something, whereas in Manchester you’d meet people who were making their own records and putting on club [nights]. There was this exciting feeling that you could just do things, there wasn’t any barrier. And that was a real inspiration for us.”
And so as students they deejayed Manchester club nights under the pseudonym 237 Turbo Nutters, and soon they were making their own records as the Dust Brothers. They became resident DJs at the influential Heavenly Sunday Social, held in the basement of central London’s Albany pub, in 1994, defying the dance genre with their unlikely juxtaposition of records as they rubbed shoulders with the likes of Paul Weller, Tim Burgess and Noel Gallagher. They started to become in-demand collaborators. – Gallagher instigated a collaboration there. All the while they were writing the debut album which they released the following year as The Chemical Brothers.
Rowlands and Simons flat-shared for three years, before moving around the corner from each other in London. They were inseparable. “We used to live together, go on holiday together and then go on tour together. It seems nuts now.” Rowlands adds: “Obviously, along the way there’s been ups and downs like in any relationship. But my highlight is, it still feels like a good thing. I’m really proud of the music we’ve made and I’m excited to do it.”
While Simons is still based in London, Rowlands lives with his family near Lewes, East Sussex, where he is taking a few days’ break mid-tour. It’s home to his studio, where he heads after our chat (“Making music is my favourite thing to do.”)
Now is essential
A break is deserved, after The Chemical Brothers’ tremendous year. Their ninth album, the thrilling No Geography (which was released in April and adds three Grammy nominations to their collection) and their Other Stage headline slot at Glastonbury in the summer catapulted them back into the forefront of dance music. And they are now taking their spectacularly immersive visuals and mega beats around UK arenas as they celebrate Surrender.
“When you put it all like that…” says Rowlands, somewhat reluctant to lap up praise, and quick to point out that the band were in a similar position with their 2015 Grammy-nominated record Born in the Echoes. “It’s good. Even though we’re talking about Surrender, something that happened 20 years ago, it doesn’t feel distant. But this year does feel good – because it’s happening now.”
The “now” is the essential part of what makes The Chemical Brothers tick. It’s certainly not the fame. For all the mentions of parties, there’s no name dropping, despite the fact that they have worked with everyone from Bernard Sumner to Midlake.
Their aversion to retrospection means that, until now, they have avoided anniversary releases. Having turned down their record label’s pleas to reissue Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole, they finally relented with Surrender.“We’ve always been a bit resistant,” says Rowlands. “I suppose this year we’d just made our album and we felt like we’d really made the music we wanted to make now.”
What’s more, they had a whole archive of unreleased music from studio sessions to give something new to fans. While No Geography mined their early sounds, using equipment that had been hidden in Rowlands’ attic since their first two albums were made, it was just as rooted in the present. Their trademark squelchy synths melded blissfully with computer-game sounds, meteoric effects and aggressive beats.
A sense of connection
Fans expecting a run of old hits would probably be disappointed if they went to a Chemical Brothers show; the focus is instead on their newer songs, with the likes of “Galvanize” and “Block Rockin’ Beats” interspersed.
Rowlands says: “We only want to go on tour when we have new music to play. And we love the idea of playing something like “Chemical Beats”, which we made in 1994, right up against something we’ve just made. One of the real excitements for us is to blend together ideas that we had a long time ago with things we’re trying to do right now, and I love the way that all the music we make feels somehow connected.”
A sense of connection with the audience is most important. “That’s the point of music for me. You can have fun on your own making music, but really it comes alive when you share it with someone else. It’s that moment of being overwhelmed by a sound or an emotion, with other people, that’s special.”
Whatever the size of their shows, they remain committed to creating something “as intense as when we were playing in tiny clubs with a strobe and mad visuals”. On No Geography they repeated an old technique of performing unfinished songs to then tweak them in response to audience reaction. “Getting that real physical response inspires you be a bit more unhinged, which is always good,” Rowlands grins. The psychedelic “Mad as Hell” took on a “wild life of its own” when played live.
At their Manchester Arena show last Friday, they were thrown back to memories of supporting Oasis in 1995. It was an experience in polar opposite to the tiny club shows they were playing at the time. “We arrived in our little van with keyboards wrapped in blankets and just three of us, and then we turn back up with this big sort of rolling show that we put together in the intervening 20-odd years. It was a surreal moment to go back and remember that. It was just a whole new world… we hadn’t encountered things like dressing rooms or catering.”
Did they think they could get used to the dressing rooms, and tell each other they would be back in the future? “No! We never had those conversations, we never really had a plan. The goal was always just trying to make the next thing that we do something that we love, which sounds kind of cheesy. There wasn’t a sense of ‘one day this could be us’.” So it doesn’t sound as though any of it went to their heads. “It didn’t really change our lifestyles or how we thought about ourselves, I don’t think. You have to ask other people.”
Speaking to him, it feels as though little has changed in the duo’s music-making goals over the years. “It still feels vital and fresh, and it’s still enjoyable. The most important thing of all is that we still feel connected to it. For me today, it still feels amazing that we’re still friends. We still both have something creatively to say.” Long may they write such thrilling music that unites music fans across the genres.
The Chemical Brothers play Arena Birmingham on Friday and London’s O2 on Saturday. The reissue ofSurrender is available now