The Chemical Brothers: ‘We’ve been together longer than a lot of marriages’

Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands on two decades of fame, the changing face of dance music – and why the time has come for them to pursue solo projects

During the 1990s, when the Chemical Brothers were the hot new thing, they used to receive some strange offers. Metallica and Simon Le Bon both requested remixes from them. David Lee Roth memorably proposed a collaboration by sending them a video in which he cavorted around his house to one of their records. Now, they say, unappetising requests are more likely to come from brands.

“Generally it’s going to a club with a phone, and doing a gig with your phone on, and being on a phone …” sighs Tom Rowlands.

“They wanted to use our music in an advert, but we would be driving a car or something,” says Ed Simons, with an expression that suggests he considered this idea to be utter madness for all concerned.

“The music’s the best bit of us,” says Rowlands. “Have the music! You don’t want us trying to sell you a phone.”

The Chemical Brothers never claimed to be celebrities. They are ordinary people who make extraordinary music: a distinctive modern version of psychedelia that is both intense and idealistic. Their album titles (Surrender, Don’t Think, Come With Us) suggest benign cult leaders, offering to take the listener somewhere new. Their music has more practical applications – Chris Hoy played their track Escape Velocity for inspiration before winning his fifth Olympic gold – but the goal is transcendence and their live shows are reliably mind-blowing spectacles. “We still want that feeling of transportation,” says Rowlands. “It’s a simple aim but it’s hard.”

Next month, the duo release their eighth studio album, Born in the Echoes, a little over 20 years since their first. True, 1995’s Exit Planet Dust still sounds great, a time capsule of that period in the mid-90s when it became the norm to love dance music, rock and hip-hop all at once, but there has been no anniversary reissue. The duo are wary of dance culture’s nostalgic tendencies.

“Continually harking back to some golden age is daft,” says Simons. “It’s like people in the 80s wanting to make records that sound like Tommy Steele. It’s a long time ago now, isn’t it?”

Rowlands, 44, and Simons, 45, met in 1989 when they were both studying history at the University of Manchester, and have been inseparable ever since. I meet them in the same west London pub where I interviewed them in 1999 and not much seems to have changed, except that Rowlands has considerably less hair. They have an entertaining rapport, going back and forth with a very wry, very English sense of humour. Rowlands, who has three children and lives in East Sussex, is amiable and somewhat dreamy while Simons, who remains in west London, is more guarded and caustic. They’ve never explained exactly how their creative partnership works but Rowlands is more naturally musical. He runs the studio, collects the vintage synthesisers, and sometimes sings and plays guitar on the albums. Revealingly, their main source of creative tension is the length of tracks: Simons favours brevity while Rowlands likes to jam. My hunch is that without Rowlands the music wouldn’t exist but without Simons they wouldn’t have sold millions of albums and had 16 top 40 hits.

the chemical brothers
Pump it up … ‘We try to hit something wrong that still sounds good’: the Chemical Brothers on stage together at Glastonbury, 2011. Photograph: Ben Hider/Getty Images

Now it seems they are separable after all. After their last tour ended in 2011, Simons returned to academic studies and a deadline means that he isn’t joining Rowlands on the Chemical Brothers’ current tour dates, which include a headlining slot on Glastonbury’s Other stage. What’s he studying?

“I don’t really want to say,” he says warily. “For various reasons. Just put unspecified academic pursuits.”

Rowlands grins. “He’s a spy, innee!”

Whatever they are, Simons talks about his studies as if they’re his solo album. Rowlands has made music without Simons, producing records for Klaxons and Tinie Tempah, and making a song for the third Hunger Games movie with Lorde. (“She wasn’t even born when Exit Planet Dust came out,” he notes.) This is Simons’s equivalent.

“To live your entire adult life in a kind of partnership, however much fun it’s been, there still is that thing: how do you exist separately from another person?” he says. “For 20 years we’d have to coordinate when we were going on holiday and things like that. There comes a time when you maybe want to …” He stops, reconsiders. “You know, it’s longer than quite a lot of marriages. It’s not a bad thing, it’s a great thing, but I wanted to do something which was just me.”

He’s not sure if this marks a permanent retirement but it’s disconcerting for both of them. “I’m friends with the Chemical Brothers on Facebook,” says Simons. “I’m in the Chemical Brothers! And I see the dates coming up and I’m like, Am I?” He does a double-take. “No. It’s heartbreaking, really.”

“It’s really strange,” says Rowlands. “Rehearsing it today, I was looking over and expecting Ed to be there.”

“I’m going to go to a few shows, like Nigel Tufnell in This Is Spinal Tap,” says Simons. “That’s quite a weird thought. We started all those years ago creating this thing, whatever it is, and it’s a bit lazy really, not seeing it through. This thing we made together is now going to be manifested live and I’m not there.”

It makes me wonder if the Chemical Brothers considered splitting up altogether. Their 2012 concert film and accompanying live album, Don’t Think, felt like a summation of their achievements to date: typically, the film was more interested in the revellers than in the two men on stage. Rowlands was doing more work on his own. Did they consider bowing out?

“That could have been a good point to exit, but it felt like, actually, no, there’s another good Chemical Brothers record in us, and to not try to find it would be sad,” says Rowlands.

The Chemical Brothers’ Block Rockin’ Beats.

“I’m glad that this record is so good, because yeah, maybe it would have had a neatness,” says Simons. “We did a long tour and we played to a lot of people, and there may have been a little bit of me that could have …” The sentence dies. He tries again. “It’s quite difficult to see how it can keep being rewarding and exciting.”

Born in the Echoes takes its title from a resonant lyric by Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon. Rowlands and Simons thought it reflected how they make records, subjecting neatly structured songs to long, wild studio jams, using feedback, echo and other effects to achieve the disorienting intensity they crave. Before the Chemical Brothers, Rowlands was in an unsuccessful indie-dance band called Ariel. One day Manchester DJ Justin Robertson told him: “You know those little noises you’ve got that you can’t really hear? They’re really good. You should do records that just have those.” The heart of the Chemical Brothers resides in those little noises.

“That’s what all the months in the studio are: trying to find those little bits when you’re overwhelmed by what’s coming out of the speakers,” says Rowlands. “It’s still chasing that feeling. It’s so easy to make a massive-sounding tune. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. We try to hit something that’s slightly wrong but still feels good: a strange but necessary record.”

Pick ‘n’ mix … Under Neon Lights, a track from the new Chemical Brothers album Born in the Echoes, featuring Annie Clark AKA St Vincent.

Simons mentions a small moment on the new album, during the seasick techno of Reflexion, and says he had exactly that feeling while they were making it. “You’ve drifted slightly out of the frame where you were before you heard that piece of music,” he says. “That, I think, is what we’re striving for.” It’s the sensation that he remembers most keenly from going raving with Rowlands in 1989 and he makes it sound almost mystical. “That moment when a beat or a particular sound takes over a room full of people, it’s magic to watch. Just seeing how music can take people somewhere else.”

After 2010’s mostly instrumental Further, Born in the Echoes is a return to the duo’s usual way of making records: writing the tracks, working out which ones cry out for vocals, and deciding who to call. This time they reached out to previous collaborators Q-Tip and Ali Love, and to new ones, including Beck and St Vincent. The calling-people-up bit sounds like great fun, but the politics of the actual collaboration sound a bit tricky.

“Further was so uncomplicated,” says Rowlands. “Just do it. When you collaborate with people it goes both ways. I love it when you have an idea and then someone has a better idea but it can be like, [awkwardly] ‘Oh yeah, that’s interesting.’”

“It’s good but can you make it better?” says Simons. “Finding different ways to say that is a fine art.”

The track with Beck, Wide Open, is particularly interesting because these three poster boys for 90s eclecticism could easily have worked together 20 years ago and they would probably have made a psychedelic hip-hop record rather than this beautiful, melancholic house track. “The two of us together have quite a nostalgic feeling,” says Simons. “Those Odelay [Beck’s 1996 album] tracks were really zeitgeisty. Everywhere you went you heard them, in a similar way to some of our records. It seems very fitting that he should appear so late in both our careers.”

The Chemical Brothers established their reputations in 1994 as resident DJs at the Heavenly Sunday Social, a raucous club-in-a-pub where they mixed Renegade Soundwave and the Beastie Boys with Oasis and Barry White. It seems obvious now but at the time it was a bracing antidote to purist DJs who prided themselves on never deviating from their chosen genre. This sociable open-mindedness informed the duo’s own music, too. They made records with Beth Orton and Bernard Sumner, pilfered song titles from Bob Dylan and the Ramones, and remixed Primal Scream and the Manic Street Preachers. One of their No 1 singles, Block Rockin’ Beats, won a Grammy for best rock instrumental performance. The other, Setting Sun, took Noel Gallagher, then at his cultural and commercial zenith, and plunged him into a perversely abrasive racket somewhere between the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, a violent exorcism and a car crash. I’m not sure there has ever been a noisier record at the top of the charts.

“I love that it was totally out there,” says Simons. “Other producers might have thought, ‘Oh, we’ve got the biggest songwriter in the world in the studio …’”

the chemical brothers
Back in the day … Tom and Ed DJing at Glastonbury, 1998. Photograph: Mick Hutson/Redferns

“The idea that you’d just be trusted was brilliant,” says Rowlands. “I’m sure today it would be a different scenario. Things seem much more micro-managed now. We used to sort it all out ourselves and say, ‘Here you are.’ There was no back-and-forth.”

They are not, therefore, a natural match for Hollywood. The director Joe Wright used to design visuals for the Chemical Brothers’ live show so he shielded them from studio interference when they composed the exhilarating score for his 2011 thriller Hanna, but it’s rarely that easy. Three years ago, they agreed to score a big movie (which goes unnamed) but didn’t like the first cut they saw. Their agent told them they were too picky and should do it anyway but Danny Boyle advised them: “You’ve got to do what you like.” They pulled out. “It seems simple but it’s hard to do the things that you’re into,” says Rowlands. “There’s always people with different agendas wanting you to do things that you’re not into.”

Rowlands says that the Chemical Brothers’ records “live in their own world”. The duo emerged during British club culture’s 90s boom, weathered its post-2000 bust, witnessed the rise and fall of countless new subgenres, and carried on regardless. In 1997, alongside Underworld and the Prodigy, they were the shock troops of the so-called “electronica” revolution that was supposed to convert Middle America to the joy of rave and transform rock’n’roll. Newsweek predicted “Electronic Eden” while New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani warned darkly of electronica’s “cold, distinctly anti-humanistic agenda”. For two young men steeped in British club culture, it was all a bit odd.

Now, at last, America has well and truly “got” dance music. Rebranded as EDM, it’s become a glossy multibillion-dollar industry. I jokingly suggest that the Chemical Brothers should bid for a DJ residency in Las Vegas and make a killing.

“Can you imagine?” says Rowlands. “Not your archetypal EDM DJ look.” He ponders it for a second. “If we really wanted to we probably still could but I think it would be soul-destroying. It’s a mad old world, that world. It does feel alien.”

The Chemical Brothers are ambivalent about EDM. On the one hand, they are firmly in favour of young people having fun on dancefloors. On the other, they don’t like the grim efficiency of what Rowlands calls “pie-chart music”.

“We played in America recently and every record sounded like [Italian DJ/producer] Benny Benassi,” says Simons. “I know that sounds like your dad wandering into Top of the Pops and saying it all sounds the same, but it did all sound the same. There’s just one feeling: very triumphant, very celebratory. We like the sense that you go through different experiences.”

“The one-dimensional sound is quite effective but it doesn’t seem to have that magical, transporting quality,” says Rowlands. He shrugs. “But if I was 18 in Orlando and I’d just finished my exams, maybe it would. I don’t know.”

“There’s only one way to find out,” says Simons. “Enrolling in Orlando Tech!”

Like the movie 22 Jump Street, I say. Blank looks. I explain that it’s about two cops who go undercover as college students and visit Florida for spring break. Everybody keeps pointing out that they are plainly too old but they deny it and carry on anyway and it works out fine.

Simons gives an exceedingly wry smile. “That’s a metaphor for life, isn’t it?”

What is Ed Simons listening to?

Francis Bebey: Psychedelic Sanza, 1982-1984
A suite of mesmeric music dominated by the sound of the thumb piano. Beautifully recorded, empty enough to let imagination take hold, peaceful and mysterious. This is music that really takes you somewhere else.

Boot and Tax: Balkan Youth
Slow, atmospheric electronic disco with old-school cut-and-paste vocal samples. Modern but also sounds like something you might hear on a cassette of an Andy Weatherall acid house set from the late 80s.

The Clash: Lost in the Supermarket
Just came up on the shuffle this morning. Really enjoy the youthful existential angst in the words: “I came in here for that special offer, a guaranteed personality.”

… And Tom Rowlands?

Demdike Stare: Patchwork
This is a wild mix of [experimental techno] sounds and cut-up style groove. Erol Alkan first played it to me and I am forever grateful.

Joe Crow: Compulsion
Great record from the early 80s. Raw, emotional electronic music.

New Order: Singularity
An ace track from their forthcoming album, Music Complete, out on 25 September.

  • The Chemical Brother will be appearing at the Other stage at Glastonbury tonight at 21:45. Born in the Echoes is released on Virgin EMI on 17 July


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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