The Chemical Brothers: Still Working It Out

Tom Rowlands, a Chemical Brother wearing pale yellow glasses, lollops into the room. This is what he does… he lollops. We’re in New York City, the offices of Astralwerks Records to be precise, and the windows are rattling belligerently in their frames. Outside the wind is howling, and tensions on the street are running high; but then tensions are always running high here. It’s New York City, man.

More locally, the stakes have been raised. Push the Button, the Chemical Brothers’ fifth studio album, arrives on the back of a Singles collection (with all the peril that implies), and at a time when electronic music sales are hazardous at best. Tom Rowland seems pleasantly oblivious to all of this. Along with partner Ed Simons, he’s here to talk about the fifth studio album from the Chemical Brothers, and in the process, dispel any notion of impending doom, both for his own band and perhaps for dance music itself.

To begin: the new Chemical Brothers album is very much like other Chemical Brothers albums. This is a good thing, and requires some clarification. Few artists of the Brothers ilk can claim such broad consistency over a span of albums or years (actually, few “dance” artists have produced as many as five albums, period. Who else has done so?), and within a relatively small range, they have managed to conjure a distinctive sound, yet one which varies subtly from album to album. Indeed, tracing the evolution of their sound can be a frustrating business. Each individual album has its own distinct flavor, yet you find yourself hard pressed to imagine quite what differentiates one from another. Most of the basic elements are the same, yet each one traces its own path. It’s slightly eerie.

“We still have a real desire to make albums,” Rowlands says. “Y’know, it’s becoming more of an outdated idea, people on their I-tunes, ‘shuffle play’ and all that. For us, all our albums, I hope, are fully realized things. I don’t know whether it comes from DJ-ing, that conception of a whole hour, lifting people and making something that works as a whole, but we’re still really excited by that. When we made our first record in 1994, there was still a question about electronic bands, about that sort of 12-inch culture — could you even make an LP that people would want to listen to? There were lots of brilliant tracks, but really it was still up in the air whether you could make a full album or not… and we thought, well obviously you could.”

The Chemical Brothers incorporate a diverse range of influences in their music, and while many dance acts have stood in direct opposition to rock, the Chemicals have at times embraced that particular form as much as they have, say, hip-hop, melding these influences together in idealized sonic excursions. Nowhere does this reveal itself so clearly as in a cursory list of collaborators: Beth Orton, Tim Burgess, Richard Ashcroft, Hope Sandoval, Noel Gallagher, and more recently, Q-Tip — to name just a few. The whole Chemical oeuvre might have sounded different had either Brother possessed a singing voice…

“Actually,” Rowlands says, acknowledging the jibe but wisely choosing to ignore it, “my voice is on all the albums, but it’s quite subtle. If you take those tracks with Beth Orton, they usually started out with me singing them, but then we’d get her to sing them because there’s this moment of clarity, of y’know, ‘You’re really not a singer!’ And then the other thing is, we like the extremities … we like to celebrate the differences in what we do. Beth Orton and Q-Tip are good examples of that.”

Q-Tip provides the voice on “Galvanize”, the first single on Push the Button . It’s also the first track on the album, followed by successive contributions from Tim Burgess (the Charlatans singer’s second appearance with the Chemical Brothers; previously he appeared on “Life Is Sweet” from Exit Planet Dust), and then from virtual unknown Kele Okereke (vocalist for recent English art rockers Bloc Party).

“Q-Tip is someone, we’ve always been fans of what he does. I’m really into the Amplified album, where the beats are stark and quite heavy, but he sounds so sly and liquid and in between the grooves. There’s this idea we had when we started making music, of putting acid house and hip-hop music together, but always acid house was in the ascendancy. This felt like a hip-hop record, but it was totally made from an acid house perspective… it was like this idea that we had from 10 years ago, and now it was being fully realized. We sent him the track, he was quite excited about it, and so we came to New York to record it — which isn’t usually the way we work. Usually people come to our studio…”

Tim Burgess is barely recognizable here as the vocalist on “The Boxer”. As anyone who’s familiar with the Charlatan’s more recent work knows, he’s been toying with the pitch of his voice, tinkering with his delivery.

“He sounds desperate on this doesn’t he?” Rowlands laughs. “I quite like it. It’s nice to work with someone we worked with before, ten years ago, and record something that sounds completely different, something that still feels fresh.”

In fact, the nature of collaborations is trickier than one might suspect. In some respects it’s like going on a date — no matter how you might admire someone from afar, there’s no way of telling how the two of you might react stuck in a room together for a whole bunch of hours.

“Right. And on this particular album, only he (Burgess) and Q-Tip have any legacy of making music before. The others had just recorded a single or maybe an EP, something like that .. which we found can be nice too, ‘cos it frees you of expectations. When someone like Bernard Sumner or Noel Gallagher walks in, you have these pre-conceptions of what it’s going to be like, and sometimes you’re more rigid and start to think, ‘Oh no, it’s not happening…’ This time we made a conscious decision to be more experimental, more open to things going wrong…”

Rowlands is tall, lanky. Gone is the neo-hippy long hair from days of yore, replaced by loosely cut tufts of dark blonde. He’s wearing a light blue t-shirt with the word “Detroit” printed across the chest — a sly reference to the city’s music history, as opposed to an affiliation with any particular sports team, or with the automotive industry. He has large hands, and long sinewy fingers, the type that once might have been described as “pianists hands”. Whether this also relates to turntable skills remains scientifically unproven.

Last year saw the release of The Chemical Brothers: Singles ’94-’03. Such collections are ordinarily the result of a business opportunity rather than artistic statement; either a band leaves a label and finds its back-catalogue plundered, or else the present label looks to cash in at that moment they imagine to be the highpoint of commercial viability. In the wake of which, many artists are perceived like prize-fighters trying to regain a crown: there may be flashes of the old glory, but mostly the magic is gone. The best is over.

This idea, along with the fact that dance music has suffered a loss in visibility and influence over the past couple of years, has caused some critics to be dismissive of the Chemical Brothers, and of electronic music as an entity.

“I think one of the reasons people have become a little disaffected with dance is because there’s this morass of generic, insipid music out there. The DIY aspect is both a blessing and a curse, and sometimes the music suffers because the technology pushes you in a certain way. People mess around in their bedrooms and make a record that sounds like Judge Jules plays on the radio and they think, ‘Yeah, I can do this, I can make records.’ I mean, it’s brilliant that they want to do that. Even a little bit of creativity is good, and I don’t want to have a sniffy attitude about that — it’s how you get started making music, that bit of excitement. But then… but then you’ve got to do something else with it. There’s got to be that spark — especially now.

“And it’s weird with dance music. I mean, what is it you’re really talking about? Do you mean what we do? Is it some terrible Dutch Trance record that samples Rod Stewart… or does it mean some obscure Berlin Techno release on Kompakt? I mean it’s so fragmented. ‘The Decline of Dance Music?’ I mean, it’s obviously not this big mainstream thing it was in 2000. But the other thing is that all the labeling can get a bit silly. People don’t buy just one kind of music, and it’s something music writers are sometimes guilty of. Because someone’s into Franz Ferdinand this year, doesn’t mean they’re not gonna be into other stuff as well.”

The Chemical Brothers first played in the States back in 1994. I recall one of their earliest gigs, at a small West Hollywood club in the middle of “Boy’s Town”, trying to figure out where this music was in relation to house music.

“Yeah, I remember it, a mad gig in this weird loft, and there was this bloke in a kilt, playing the bagpipes. He kept trying to play over us and we were like, ‘Fa-ck off!’ It was chaos, totally shambolic. When we first played America there was this wildness, we seemed to get locked in with all these freaks — as you do when you first get here. We did our first gigs in Orlando, some people had picked up this track we’d done, ‘Chemical Beats’. We’d played in England once, and we got this phone call (to go to Florida), and we literally just turned up with our keyboards on our laps and got thrown into this mad world of Orlando raving … it was brilliant though, all good fun really.”

Has the way you approach making records changed significantly since then?

“One thing that hasn’t changed is that we still want that excitement, that initial rush … a sort of ‘wonder’ at music. I want to keep the fun element, the fact that it is still an exciting thing to do. You can lose sight of that, locked away in a studio, and then technical proficiency becomes the enemy of spontaneity and you lose that freshness. We want our music to be thrilling, a rush of emotion… of something.

“With this record, we started doing what we used to do, playing it live while we were still working on it. We did loads of festivals this summer and we played lots of these songs when we still hadn’t fully worked out what the arrangements were, what sounds or what drums we were gonna use, and that really affected the music. We did that on the first two albums, we were constantly touring and writing at the same time. Sometimes it’s brilliant to be reminded that music, especially our music, is something that has to connect with people, make them feel something, to relate.”

So do you still feel a part of a greater “dance music” culture? More than a decade along, can you still relate to the heady days back in Manchester, nights at The Hacienda?

“Yeah, definitely. We just DJ’d up in Manchester a couple of weeks ago actually, at Sankey’s [Sankey’s Soap — a club housed in an old warehouse formerly dedicated to the production of, yes, soap. Sankey’s is situated in Ancoats, a barren industrial wasteland, resistant to all attempts at gentrification]. It was mad, the atmosphere in there was unbelievable. Afterwards, one of my mates had his car nicked. We found it later, someone had driven it into the canal!”

And with this, our time is up… Ed Simons appears in the doorway, as if coming to collect his charge from school. There’s this brief, oddly fraternal moment that passes between the two of them. Neither says a word, yet there’s this instant where it’s as if they’re catching up on events since parting, whilst simultaneously agreeing on what to do next. A publicity agent enters the room and motions that it’s time for them to go. Rowlands shakes hands and says goodbye, and then he and Simons slip down the hallway, walking in unison to the elevator, and then into the pulsing city.