Today’s dance club urchins love to take illicit drugs like Ecstacy to increase their free-love good vibes, but when innovative mix masters the Chemical Brothers are spinning, it’s still the music that matters most.
While Chemical Brothers’ epics such as Dig Your Own Hole and Surrender could never be called make-out music, they have provided the atmosphere for thousands of big beat block parties and sunrise chill sessions. Now proper adults, with Tom Rowlands’ blonde locks cut Wall Street short and DJ partner Ed Simons donning a close-shaved GQ look, the Chemical Brothers find themselves standing on enviable, but alarming footing. One of the few successful electronica acts now on their fourth album, with millions in record sales and a Grammy in their empire, the Chemical Brothers have survived the hype and ballyhoo they helped ignite, while staying true to their artistic goals. They’ve remained one step ahead of TV jingles and dance mix CDs that have copied their every sample. But with Surrender, the Chemicals’ music more closely adhered to the past than the present. Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole gleefully assaulted the senses with massive big beats and psychedelic sonics. But Surrender was exactly that, a move backwards with electro funk tributes and house music inanities.
Acknowledging a change in direction and the need for justification from current hotshots like superstar DJ Sasha, the Chemical Brothers reinvent themselves one more time with Come To Us, perhaps their most over the top, excessive, grand album yet. Constructing a freak dichotomy between old school sound sculpture and house-thumping floor fillers, the album begins with the title track, a tempest of berserk string arpeggios, pummeling drum fills and a Darth Vader-like voice commanding you to “Come with us and leave your earth behind.” It is followed by “It Began In Africa,” one of the most overblown, boisterous musical events the pair have ever conceived. “It Began In Afrika” ups the ante with a gleeful house beat, lunatic bongos, deranged congas and the Bros’ trademark sky-is-falling, fazers-on-kill audio antics. After that the beats keep coming onto the warm-blooded “Star Guitar,” a hypnotic track that morphs from techno chill to sunny ambient thrill. Also interesting is “Pioneer Skies,” a trippy sonic experiment in keeping with a long line of English gear geeks.
Though dance music is often a combination of nostalgic samples and modern technical wizardry, the Chemical Brothers continue to move ahead, searching for their identity record by record. Facing a predicament of style, with an unsure direction ahead, Rowlands and Simons dug in their heels, imbibed their favorite candy bars for sustenance, and got down to making serious digital music. Come With Us marks the Chemical Brothers’ next step, their evolving exposition on the state of electronic music.
Enjoy The Music.com™: Come With Us is not as immediate as your prior albums. You still hear the Chemical Brothers style, but the trademark big beats are mostly gone.
Tom Rowlands: Our production and songwriting are the same. It is not a separate process where we write songs then we produce them. Writing sounds and making tracks happen all at once. It is not an amorphous thing, but the way we built our music was different this time. For the other records, we were just making sounds and the songs came from the sounds. We were just mucking around with synths. But for this one, the notes came first.
ETM: Did the vocal sample in “It Began In Africa” inspire the rest of the song?
TR: The vocal made helped make sense of the song, with all the twists and turns of the drums it is like a full-on drum solo for nine minutes. That is a spoken word thing by this political activist, Jim Ingrams, from his recor, Drumbeat. We had never used samples from other peoples record before, but it fit so well. The idea was for future primitive. You get loads of percussive house records that are just okay. We wanted one that was mad, using percussion in a really intense way rather than in a vibey way.
Ed Simons: Those records never have that winding acid sound; that head element that we like. “Africa” started with getting a groove that [percussionist] Shovel could play to. The track took ages, but the elements came together pretty quickly. The real killer was to get the right bass drum sound, one that was powerful and thick enough to cut through all the percussion and give it a four to the floor feel, but without swamping the whole track. There are millions of elements, but it is basically a driving acid track with demented percussion and a powerful four to the floor bass drum.
TR: We sent acetates to Sasha and people were clamoring to know what the record was. We needed some positive feedback at that time, and we gave Sasha the record and he thought it was amazing. And we had people playing “Star Guitar.” Those big DJs know what they are doing; they know how to fit it in.
ETM: Why did you need vindication from the DJs?
TR: They are a good sounding board. If it works in a set of music, it is good. You need that immediate response.
ES: There are about 40 DJs in the world who are getting sent everything and they are playing all time. They can hear a few bars and they know straightaway. Before this we had always been happy straight off, but we lost our way a bit. We had less gestation time with this one, and it took us longer to do. We didn’t have this period of having things we were pleased with.
ETM: Do you wake up in the morning with melodic ideas like Paul McCartney with scrambled eggs?
TR: What helped a lot was this new piece of equipment, the Parker MIDI Fly Guitar. It is a MIDI guitar that actually works. We are not very good keyboard players. Our hands fall a lot easier on a fretboard than a keyboard. Playing an old synth like an Arp 2600 with your guitar was great, we got totally weird shit that we didn’t mean to do. And as you are doing that you record the MIDI notes as well. So you have the guitar sound and the synth and the MIDI part in the computer. On “My Elastic Eye,” the bass line was just from playing the synth with the guitar.
ES: “Star Guitar” and “Pioneer Skies” happened when we got bored with the machines. That whole morphing sound on “Star Guitar” came from a thing Tom was playing on the guitar then processed through an effect to the computer. So you have a sound that is sometimes a guitar, sometimes a big synthy swoosh sound. It morphs between the two. It turned into a house record cause we had these tumbling beats that we sampled up and wrote patterns for. That song is very blissful, but still spangly.
ETM: What do you think of the current state of dance music?
ES: If we say it was more exciting in the mid 90s it is only a reflection on us. That particular time is when we started DJing in big places with good sound systems and when we had our own club with a residence. . Back then, you had those break records were first happening, and English trip hop. It did move away from the solid house as more weirdness was creeping into it. There are great dance records now, but I was more excited in the 90s when it was all fresh. What was thrilling was all these people playing strange records, mixing it up with rock and house. Andy Weatherall and James Lavelle were playing bizarre records in back rooms. I liked trip hop and all the weird noises.
ETM: Why the change in direction from the block-rocking beats that established your sound to the more a Detroit-electro and Kraftwerk-influenced style?
TR: Since we’ve began it has been about doing something different, about pushing it on. So when we put out our first ones seven years ago it didn’t fit in other people’s view of what club music or dance music was at the time. But we carved ourselves out a niche, a place for this music to exist. We feel the same about this album now, that we’ve managed to keep the energy and power of our earlier records, but hopefully with a different sound palette.
ETM: Why did the electronica revolution fizzle?
TR: Was it gonna change music so much that there wouldn’t be any other kind of music?
ES: If the electronic hype meant that people gave our sort of bands a hearing, then it was a good thing even if it found a level much below the one that record companies or MTV wanted. It still got to a level where Underworld records get a huge review and people are aware of what they are trying to do, and the same for Orbital and us. It was never gonna be the staple music, but I wouldn’t like a world where every radio station is blaring out breaks and acid. When we are in America we only listen to the golden oldies stations. I don’t what they says about us...
ETM: Have you thought about mixing a record in 5.1?
TR: It is hard enough mixing for two-channel.
ES: I still like the idea of our records sounding good on a little tape player. We do surround when we play live, I love being in the center of all that movement.
TR: Live, we send different sounds to the engineer, left and right and there is 8 groups on the desk, so the guy at the front of the house has the eight different sounds and he can program in figures of eights and snakes and stuff. It all sounds separate to him at the desk, so he can mess around with it. It is good when it works like that in the physical environment.
ES: But now you have such good systems in clubs, people get a really good experience listening to music loud. 5.1 seems like part of the hi-fi experience, it just seems funny the idea of just sitting down and listening to a record. Hi-fi is cool, but 5.1 seems unnatural if you have to sit in the middle of the system to hear it, that is odd.
ETM: What do you hope listeners take away from Come With Us?
TR: We’re really excited about making sounds and spending a lot of time
on every sound. Surrender has been nurtured with great love. We write
experimental music but we also write music you can understand. Come
With Us is over the top, but we still want people to sit down and listen
to that hour of music and come away vaguely understanding what was going on.