Those UK dance music renegades The Chemical Brothers have made a credible comeback with their ninth album, No Geography. In 2019 they are far from being a legacy act, instead commanding a cross-generational fanbase that apparently includes the stars of Game Of Thrones.
Legend is that the London-bred Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands bonded as history students three decades ago at the University Of Manchester – and were soon raving together. Though Rowlands enjoyed modest success in the band Ariel, he and Simons formed an underground DJ/production unit, cheekily borrowing the name ‘The Dust Brothers’ from the Beastie Boys’ Californian producers. Wisely rebranding themselves as The Chemical Brothers due to legalities, the duo then ushered in big beat – not so much a ‘genre’ as an ethos with its subversive integration of dance, hip-hop and indie.
In 1995, The Chemical Brothers debuted with Exit Planet Dust, infiltrating the mainstream. Alongside The Prodigy, they’d lead a British electronica ‘invasion’ of the US. The Chemicals scooped their first Grammy with ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ – curiously in the Best Rock Instrumental Performance category. By their third album, Surrender (which turns 20 in June), The Chemical Brothers had developed today’s sound – mythic electronic psychedelia.
The Chemical Brothers’ clout was such that they collaborated with prestigious indie and hip-hop vocalists – among them the feted New York MC Q-Tip. Memorably, Oasis’ Noel Gallagher sang on 1996’s breaks thrasher ‘Setting Sun’ – a UK chart-topper. In the 2010s, The Chemicals ventured into the world of soundtracks, scoring pal Joe Wright’s suspense Hanna. However, they maintained their hipster cool, contributing the EDM-leaning ‘This Is Not A Game’ (featuring Miguel) to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, curated by Lorde.
The Chemical Brothers last issued 2015’s pop-blasted Born In The Echoes, with guests like their old ally Q-Tip, St Vincent and Beck. In contrast, No Geography is unselfconsciously clubby. The Chemicals reconditioned the retro studio gear they uncovered in Rowlands’ attic and created music as they did in the early ’90s with samples, beats and breakdowns. Initially, the two cut tracks such as 2018’s warehouse techno anthem ‘Free Yourself’ to drop in DJ sets. More atypically, they tested material live. And so No Geography defies rave nostalgia with a contemporary sleekness. Still, the most notable aspect is the exclusion of cameos. This album, The Chemical Brothers recorded three songs with the Norwegian electro-folkster AURORA (accompanied by Japanese rapper Nene on the opener ‘Eve Of Destruction’). Elsewhere, they use sampled vocals, especially spoken word from the ’60s’ Dial-A-Poem scheme. The UK music media has hailed No Geography as The Chemical Brothers’ “Brexit album” – and, undoubtedly, the hooky ‘MAH’ (‘Mad As Hell’) is less PLUR than anarchic, down to its concert video, shot in London in October.
The Chemical Brothers, famed for their rapturous live extravaganzas, will be touring solidly through the remainder of 2019 – with an anticipated return to Glastonbury. In October, they’ll hit Australia after a six-year absence. In late 2014 Simons declared that he was no longer gigging with The Chemical Brothers, cryptically citing “academic pursuits”. The pair’s seasoned visual designer (and sometime Doctor Who director) Adam Smith joined Rowlands on stage. But, happily, Simons missed the buzz – and now he’s back on deck.
Music Feeds: It’s very exciting that you’re coming back to Australia with a Chemical Brothers show. Is it really the first time since 2013?
Ed Simons: Yeah, I think it’s 2011 – 2011 we did Future Music [Festival]. We came in 2013, we DJed, and it didn’t go so well for us. I think it was the time of EDM. We were kind of hitting the wrong note. But 2011 was a great tour with Future. We’ve loved coming there since we first came for Big Day Out in 2000. So we’re really, really happy to be asked back. It’s a fun place for us to go. I have a lot of memories: Big Day Out was pretty incredible, touring with lots of different bands and making friends with various people – you know, the Beastie Boys were on the tour one year, The Prodigy, it was great days for us.
MF: The response to No Geography online has been incredible. You just referred to the EDM phase. But there seems to be a renewed interest in classic electronic dance music; more complex and cerebral sounds. Is that your impression?
ES: It definitely feels like the album has connected. I think that we made something which, perhaps not really that consciously, was a bit of a throwback to how we made the first three albums – which really made such a big impact back in the ’90s. We got down this tunnel of [using] lots of guest vocalists and moved away from the sample-heavy sound and being able to tell our own story. Yeah, I think everything about the record – from the artwork to the premise and the title and tracks like ‘MAH’ – really seemed to capture something that’s in the air.
It’s been really exciting for us. We’re glad. I mean, it’s our ninth studio album. I don’t tend to read a lot of stuff about us ’cause I like to just know what I know about our band from experience, but someone said, “Who would have thought that the ninth album by The Chemical Brothers would be such an exciting release?” So, yeah, it feels good. In terms of more cerebral sounds, I don’t know. There’s still a lot of room for mindless booby. But, hopefully, there’s a reflective element in our music. We still like that kind of tribal ‘everyone getting down’ [feel] and that’s the sort of psychedelic experience that we wanna give to people.
MF: You’ve worked with AURORA on this album. She is in Australia at the moment and she’s an enchanting artist; very imaginative. But how did you come into each other’s orbit? She isn’t an obvious choice of vocalist.
ES: Well, when Glastonbury’s on, it’s on the TV the whole weekend – like every band that’s there. I think Tom was having his tea with his children and saw her broadcast and was really captured by her charisma and her voice and the lyrics. So it tunnelled from there, really – like approaching someone that we hadn’t met or worked with before. She spent some time in the studio, in the home studio, and she liked the area… So, yeah, I think it was a fortuitous watching of the TV when she was playing at Glastonbury maybe 2013 or ’14, ’15 maybe [it was actually 2016]. So that was the story, really.
MF: The Chemical Brothers and AURORA are from totally different generations of musicians. The interesting thing about electronic dance music generally is that there doesn’t seem to be the culture of ageism that you see in pop or even hip-hop. People are happy to go out and see a Carl Cox, who must have multiple generations of fans. Has that struck you as well, that there’s a certain fluidity in electronic music?
ES: Well, we’re glad. It’s really rewarding for us that suddenly you see a whole new generation of young people come to see our gigs. What you’re hearing and seeing, it hopefully sounds vital and fresh. If we did start to sound like old guys who’ve been doing this a long time, then that would be time to call it off.
I’ve now got lots of friends who’ve got young children and I keep getting sent clips of them dancing to ‘Got To Keep On’ or ‘Bango’, so I’m like, “OK, good – the next 20 years is assured.” I suppose [with us] the people who make the music are kinda hidden – you know, the music’s the star, the videos, the visuals, everything else. We don’t project our image. So perhaps we’re not so associated with that. It’s an empty vessel, The Chemical Brothers, possibly, for people to fill in the blanks themselves with their own experience of it.
We have this track on the album We Are The Night, ‘The Salmon Dance’ [featuring The Pharcyde’s Fatlip]; people around the world have mixed opinions on that, but in Australia, people love that song. When we play, they’re like, “Why didn’t you play ‘The Salmon Dance’?” So it’s just nice to have these different contexts in which people have heard our music and people pick up on different things all around the world. I’m not sure if that’s the answer to your question, but yeah. Music’s music; age is just a number.
MF: I was so intrigued when you stepped back in 2015 for a mysterious scholarly pursuit. I thought you might re-emerge like Professor Brian Cox as some glamorous rock star academic. What exactly were you doing?
ES: Ah, well, I trained to be a psychoanalyst and just a practising psychotherapist. I wanted to do something separate. So I was doing a Masters in Psychotherapy – and I still do [that].
MF: Of course, you do have that background in Medieval history. Are you into Game Of Thrones?
ES: Tom is… I just didn’t ever pick up on it when it was going – the first two series… I’m one of those people who’ve got huge FOMO. My girlfriend loves it and every Monday morning she’s up at seven o’clock to watch it – and then online everyone’s talking about it. I just missed out. But Tom is a big Throner. So it’s one of the few things that we have that we can’t share. But I love the idea of it. I love how much joy it gives to people. It’s too bad that I haven’t watched it, actually, ’cause it’s sort of in my field of interest.
They all came to a show in Spain, the whole cast, because we’re friends with Alfie Allen [who plays Theon Greyjoy]. So Daenerys [Targaryen, actor Emilia Clarke] and Jon Snow [Kit Harington] and all these people were in our dressing room. They came to the show and they were all in the front row… The crowd just went crazy when they came in.
Then they were all in the dressing room and they were just telling me stuff about what happened in the show. So I kind of know things about what’s gonna happen at the end… Well, I didn’t actually understand what they were telling me. I told Tom something and he was like, “Wow, that’s quite big…” They were really lovely people. It was good. It was a cool meeting of minds. We put up a picture of Tom and I with Jon Snow – Kit Harington, I believe he’s called…It was fun, yeah. Good times!
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MF: You’ve played some of the songs from No Geography in the live show over the past year or so. What can you tell us about the Australian production?
ES: Well, we’ve just been in a rehearsal studio for the last 10 days. We do an audio rehearsal first, then we set up everything with the production and the big screens. Yeah, it’s just a more developed show from the start. We rely on the urge to make this kind of experience for people; the sharing of emotion. That’s what it’s all about for us: making people feel something.
Adam [Smith] and Marcus [Lyall], who we’ve worked with from the beginning of creating the whole new series of visuals for the new songs – I mean, it was a slightly different thing because we did play three or four of the tracks from the album the last year, so we got a head start. But there’s a couple more [tracks] from the new album.
But, if people come and see us, they still wanna hear ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ and ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, so we kinda re-contextualise the old songs and see how they work with the new things. I think every time we go out, we’re really keen to play new music. We don’t wanna rest on our laurels. But, at the same time, you give people what they want. It’s all in the experience, really. It’s one of those things that you have to do it. It’s soon upon us. We have our first show on Saturday in Mexico, Guadalajara – a good, earthy place to start!
MF: How do you work around the vocals these days – because, in a way, a lot of them sound like samples, even though they were sometimes recorded live. Are you tempted to start working more with vocalists live?
ES: We often use a performance of the vocal – well, AURORA’s featuring in the visuals this time ’round. But, generally, we feel that it’s the two of us. We have had [New Order frontman] Bernard Sumner perform ‘Out Of Control’ with us and I think Noel Gallagher has – yeah, years ago – and [The] Magic Numbers, Beth Orton, [The Charlatans’] Tim Burgess…
We always thought maybe – what’s that film called [that] The Band did at the end of their career? [1978’s Martin Scorsese-directed doco of The Band’s farewell, The Last Waltz.] Anyway, maybe that’s the finale; to have all the guest vocalists and all the live vocals. At the moment, for touring, it’s enough – the two of us and the beats, I think. Who knows what’ll happen in the future? But right now that’s the way we like to present ourselves.
MF: Will you release No Geography’s title-track as a single, because that’s a killer?
ES: Yeah, it sounds great mixed in [on the album]. We wanted that feel of a continuous flow. But it’s a shortened version. We made a lot of music making this record – it was very intense. Now we’re straight into putting the live show together. But I think next time we’re in the studio together we might do some extended versions of some of the tracks that are mixed together or a little bit shorter. But that’s for the future. So right now it’s like that. We do a really different version of it live, so we’ll see if that’s enough for people. It’s a very powerful vocal [from US beat poet Michael Brownstein]; people really like it, which is what we like.
MF: Obviously you came up with The Prodigy, even remixing their early ‘Voodoo People’. I know Keith Flint also performed with you at least once in the ’90s. It was so gutting for us here when he passed. How would you like to remember him?
ES: Yeah, I know, it’s terribly sad. It was such a shock, really. I’m sure people around him closer may have known that he was struggling. But, for us, Tom and I, he was just very kind. [The Prodigy had] been going four or five years, playing around the world, before we started. Then we found ourselves on the same bill as them a lot and Keith would just always look out for us. We were pretty much the same age, but they had this experience and they taught us the ropes. He’d always be on the side of the stage watching us play and then afterwards we’d have a drink. He was just really nice to be around and a very kind person. Ah, it’s just very sad to think of him feeling so low and in pain. Yeah, it was a real blow. I don’t really know what else to say. It’s just terribly shocking and sad. He was a good, kind man.
I’ve seen the amount of pleasure that he gave people – you know, the permission to really get in touch with your wild side. I’ve actually seen The Prodigy in Australia. I was there on holiday in Sydney and I went to see them at the Hordern Pavilion. It was just incredible: the atmosphere, the tribal [feeling], everyone in touch with their animal side… Keith was a cypher for all that, alongside the music. So it’s just such a shame. But God bless him.
MF: You have these amazing connections – you recorded with Noel Gallagher. I’ve heard that he is a Detroit techno head, which seems surprising because Oasis were always associated with rock purism. Is it likely you’d collaborate again?
ES: Ah, well, I don’t know what the future is. He’s sort of gone in a different direction from ‘Setting Sun’, for sure. When we were in Manchester, we would always see him in the clubs and in the Haçienda and the more Balearic clubs, so we knew him as that guy who was always in clubs. He already looked like he was in a band. So, when Oasis was suddenly huge and famous, it was kind of like, “Oh, yeah, that guy!” So he was quite approachable. He was really into both the tracks that we did [‘Setting Sun’ and ‘Let Forever Be’] and he was great to work with. Who knows what the future holds? That’s the great thing about the future.
The Chemical Brothers will kick off their Australian tour this October, supported by The Avalanches (DJ set). Dates and details here.