The Chemical Brothers: More Than A Feeling

After 30 years exploring the outer reaches of what electronic music can be, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons – The Chemical Brothers – have returned to Planet Dust once more. Their new album – their tenth – the aptly-titled ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’, fizzes with the excitement a band half their age would do well to produce. “Enjoy yourself,” Tom’n’Ed tell Craig McLean. “Enjoy it while it’s there…”

Fairy lights and soapy bubbles. Breakbeat stetsons and acid shell suits. Bunny ears and deely boppers. Neon bananas and dayglo brollies. Big beat balloons and neon handclaps. Alien nation and alienation. Crazy lasers and death ray robots. Fractal funk and psychedelic bleep. Disco dads and ravin’ mums. Bottomless bass and wilderness womp. The light fantastic and the running man. Chemical children and festival brothers.

Sometime after sunset on Cornbury Park estate in Oxfordshire, Friday night fever is in full flow. The headline act are in their element, using all the elements. The duo are in the slot they’ve been occupying, refining and making their own, pretty much annually, since a near-mythical Glastonbury appearance in 2000 (aka The Year The Fence Came Down). The music is loud, the lights are louder, the screens are loudest of all. Although the fancy dress of the glad-ragged festival-goers – the themes seem to be “Playboy bunny” and “bring your kids” – is hardly quiet either. Everyone is up for it, and then up for it a bit more.

As early as the sixth song, it already feels like Encore O’Clock. A single from the last century wallops out of the PA, its haiku-pogo refrain – ‘Hey girl, hey boy, superstar DJs, here we go!’ – sounding 24 years young. We are barely 20 minutes in and the glitter-faced, spangle-brained, retina-frazzled party crowd have lost what little abandon they still have left. And that is just the tots in ear-defenders.

Capping off the opening night of Wilderness 2023, The Chemical Brothers are doing their thing, bigger and better than anyone else, and they are taking neither chances nor prisoners. Standing onstage in their traditional position – side-by-side, in blinding silhouette, behind banks of stuff, no microphones required – Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons start, instructionally, with ‘Go’. They end, 23 songs later, with the nominative determinism of ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, their in-at-Number-One 1997 Grammy winner (Best, ahem, Rock Instrumental). Even in 5,000 beautiful bucolic Cotswolds acres, no block remains unrocked. 

“I sometimes think about why we’re still doing it, summer after summer…” Simons, aka the silhouette stage-right, will later muse of their all-out approach to performance. It’s in pursuit of something “elusive… the air of surrender, of transcendence…”  

Rowlands, silhouette stage-left, echoes that. “It’s in us, the desire for something to overtake you, and to remove you out of the moment, into an instinctual thing. That’s how we got into music. That’s not a new phenomenon. People always want a release.”

No lie. At this most boujie of festivals, Generation Chems have come out to play, and they aren’t going home until the last throb has abated, the last screen winked out. Or, at least, until they can see and hear again, and find their way to the glampsite.

Forty-five minutes in, just before the set’s halfway mark, our techno-wizards play ‘Live Again’, a track from their – then – as-yet-unreleased new album, ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’. It was released as a single only five weeks previously, but it’s greeted like an old faithful on a par with hardy perennials ‘Chemical Beats’ and ‘Do It Again’. The wildness at Wilderness goes off, the audience’s enthusiastic response undoubtedly abetted by what is written next to the song on the band and crew’s set-list – the instruction, or reminder, or warning: ‘Lasers’. 

Five minutes after that, at the front-of-house tower halfway up the field, roadies – many of whom have been with The Chemical Brothers for most of their quarter-century touring existence – are unfurling decorators’ plastic dust sheets over the mixing desk and Jodrell Bank-scale panels controlling the lighting and video rigs. They also gently corral the many Chemical children, the offspring of band and associates, who are gathered on the viewing platform. 

Game over, already? Or rain, as per? 

No. The pair of humanoid shapes onstage kick into the pneumatic gospel-funk of 2019’s ‘Got To Keep On’, and, again, the set-list notes do not lie: ‘Confetti cannon’. A boom from front-of-house and a mass ooooooh from the crowd as twin volleys of twisting chaff arc into the air, then drift down, prettily, over audience and now-covered gear. Rain wouldn’t stop play, but a rogue bit of paper in a mixing desk slider might.   

‘Got To Keep On’ kept on, thunderously. The other set-list cue written next to this most-streamed track from 2019’s ‘No Geography’ also turned out to be accurate. ‘Shatter balls’ it says and, yes, it does.

Backstage afterwards, in the shadow of Portakabin dressing-rooms, there is gentle toasting to a job well done. They began the evening with their pre-show ritual, a private dance around to The Specials’ skanking ode to joy, ‘Enjoy Yourself’. Now, here they are, cooling off.

“It was good... wasn’t it?” Rowlands says in his customary, not-quite-rhetorical manner. For a man in masterful charge of the giddy array of recording tech – guitars, keys, synths; vintage, brand-new, jerry-built – that he keeps in the countryside Chemical HQ known as Rowlands Audio Research near his home in Lewes, East Sussex, he often seems unsure of what he’s saying. Or, at least, loath to sound self-satisfied. “The crowd was quite different. There was a nice warmth in that people seemed to be wanting to have a good time. Which is always a good position to start from.”

That, Simons adds, equally mildly, is never a given. “Even though we’ve played for so many years in a row, this was a new festival for us to play, so we had no idea what to expect. You only really get a sense of it once you walk on stage. Lots of kids there, that seemed to be quite a big part of it. Which is always nice. You’ve got a new generation getting into it. Yeah,” a man even less effusive than his partner would eventually decide, “it seemed good.”

Nice, good, nice, good… There was, as ever, no crowd engagement. Rowlands: “What’s worse than someone telling you to have a good time? It’s so easy to shout: ‘Put your hands in the air!’ It doesn’t feel like it’s in us to do that. But we’ll do everything we can to create the environment to make that happen.”

But there had been, nonetheless, a deep concern, a rigorous care, for the job at hand: giving the people the night of their lives – and reminding said people that they had a part to play, too. Simons: “There are times in a gig where you would like to turn the music down, when [the vibe’s] really not happening, which does happen. And you’d say: ‘Look, come on, we could end now. Or we could just keep going. But we’re going to need a bit of something.’ So, we just have to do that musically, or through the power of mime, and [our own] hands in the air.”

No fears of that tonight. Job emphatically done, Rowlands, 52, and Simons, 53, nursing sensible drinks, mingle with time-served members of a tight-knit circle bonded by a professional lifetime spent girdling the globe. Nick Dewey, one of The Chemical Brothers’ two managers and also a booker for Glastonbury, is here with his wife, Emily Eavis. Their courtship in part catalysed by Tom’n’Ed’s status as Worthy Farm’s favourite eat-sleep-rave-repeat return guests (pace Fatboy Slim, they’ve headlined in 2000, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019), the couple are happy to be enjoying music, for once, in a field not of their own.

Also present in the midnight, arc-lit shadows: Robin Turner, longstanding Heavenly mainstay. He cut his PR teeth working in the London label/management firm’s press office, and first met the duo of Medieval History graduates then known as The Dust Brothers in January 1994. This was eight months after Junior Boys Own had re-issued the Manchester University graduates’ self-released, one-sided, green label 12-inch first single, ‘Song to the Siren’, and Heavenly had just started managing them. Coming up, fast: Rowlands and Simons’ needle-shifting London pub DJ residency, The Heavenly Social – nuff said – and earthquaking, million-plus-selling 1995 debut album ‘Exit Planet Dust’.

They’d already had their first magazine feature, in March 1993, in the second issue of a magazine started by a pair of peers on the Manchester underground club scene. In October/November 1994, that magazine would give them their first front cover (‘Dust Brothers Just Say Yo!’). Sadly, the lifespan of Jockey Slut would pale into insignificance next to that of The Chemical Brothers who, in 2023, are three decades, 10 studio albums, and assorted compilations, soundtracks and remix collections into their existence. That said: there’s nothing, really, in top-tier electronic music to rival that longevity, nor that can match their consistent, dip-free, top-of-the bill status. Even their portmanteau “Tom’n’Ed” does heavy lifting on their behalf: shorthand for psychonautical sampledelic entertainment excellence. Something like that. Still, wonder what happened to those Jockey Slut guys?

Having also seen their first ever live gig – 18 March 1994: Andrew Weatherall’s club night Sabresonic, held at Happy Jaxx on Crucifix Lane, London SE1 – Turner was the best person to write the definitive, coffee table-esque tome on The Chemical Brothers. Enter planet dust: ‘Paused In Cosmic Reflection’, to be published seven weeks after the release of ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’, is a block rockin’ book featuring myriad memorabilia and memories, with contributions from admirers, collaborators and fellow travellers galore.

“The Chemical Brothers have got great taste. It’s that simple. Whether it’s the sounds they use, or the arrangements, or the people they’ve worked with over the years, it’s just cool as fuck and it’s remained that way” 

Noel Gallagher, singer/co-writer, #1 smash ‘Setting Sun’, 1996

“I had the sense that Tom was asking me to sing the words because he knew the chaos of my life back then, how acutely those words spoke to my experience. I wasn’t sure if we were friends exactly – I always felt shy around him cos he’s so intelligent and I felt like trash at the time – but I felt that in these songs he was reaching out to me to speak for him as much as for myself” 

Beth Orton, singer, ‘Alive Alone’, 1995  

“Tom and Ed are definitely kindred spirits… For years and years, Joy Division and New Order were very closed shops. We were self-taught musicians who stopped using producers for a while, so we only had each other to bounce off… Working with them, it felt like they were… on the same wavelength. And that makes for a great creative environment”

Bernard Sumner, singer/co-writer,
‘Out Of Control’, 1999

“The Chemical Brothers have a great predilection for exploration. Their records always seem to take you to different places. They kind of sit in an unusual place between different eras of electronic music and DJ culture. It’s like they have one foot in multiple decades at the same time in a way that is utterly unique among their peers. They are rare in that they are always making stuff year in year out and amassing such a rich and impressive body of work” 

Beck, singer/co-writer ‘Wide Open’, 2015 and ‘Skipping Like a Stone’, 2023

All of which is to say: The Chemical Brothers’ shows, and The Chemical Brothers’ pals, speak more loudly, brightly and eloquently about The Chemical Brothers than the band themselves. Brothers gonna work it out? Only if you hold a gun to their heads. Or, four days after Wilderness, pin them in a snug in a Notting Hill private members’ club on a sodden day in west London. Even then, analysis comes slowly, reluctantly. Which is especially funny given that Ed Simons is now a qualified, working psychotherapist who’ll be shooting off in an hour or so because he has patients.

“Tom and I haven’t really had any conversations about what we’re doing, ever,” says a south Londoner who, at the time of our interview, is one week shy of becoming a dad for the first time. “Or about finishing or keeping going. We’ve probably done more looking back with the book than we’ve ever done. I guess it does strike you, looking back, that with the first three albums, it was one every two years. And they were pretty much perfect expressions of where we were in that time, the evolution from ‘Exit Planet Dust’ to ‘Dig Your Own Hole’ to’ Surrender.’”

They were capped by that epochal Glastonbury 2000 Pyramid Stage headline slot, “and we supposedly had the biggest crowd they’d ever had [at that point],” continues Simons. “I don’t remember much about it, but I remember it was pretty apocalyptic and huge. We were both 30 and you could say that would have been a good place to stop. I’m glad we didn’t. But I guess that first five years, between ‘95 and 2000, were a pretty perfect upwards [trajectory]. Then we never did say [stop]. We’ve kept making records and found different places to be within that.” 

Ask Henley-on-Thames native Rowlands – who met and clicked with the like-minded Simons in Manchester within weeks, if not days, of starting on the same university course – what those hip hop- and acid house-loving students would have made of a career now cresting into its fourth decade, and his ready, rat-a-tat laugh bursts out.

“I don’t think we’d have been so... what’s the word... not presumptuous...” This father of three kids aged 16 to 22 (his wife Vanessa also a veteran of those early Manc days) stops, then starts again. “Some bands have a plan: ‘In five years, we gotta be doing this and be on ‘The Late, Late Show…’’ [Or] be like: ‘If we’re not on ‘Top of the Pops’ in a year’s time, fuck it, this isn’t worth doing.’

“Our goals were never those things. It was try and make the record you want to make. Try and play the concert. Then just move on to the next thing, then the next thing. Which meant, I suppose, that we were never not hitting any target-based [goals], whatever that is!” Rowlands exclaims, rat-a-tatting. “I suppose it’s quite a luxury, really, to be able to have done it like that.”

Well, it’s a luxury born of the freedom bought by pretty much out-of-the-box and definitely consistent success – which, in turn, came from an innate, impassioned, genre-blind, fans’-eye understanding of the magic of the dancefloor.

“Tom and Ed got what The Haçienda was all about and managed to transpose that feeling into a DJ set in a pub on Great Portland Street,” says Tim Burgess, fellow graduate of Manc-land and ground-zero Chems collaborator (on ‘Exit Planet Dust’ track ‘Life Is Sweet’). The man from The Charlatans (the band also the recipients of key, early Chemicals remixes) is speaking about The Albany, the first London home of The Heavenly Social. “They were playing Bomb The Bass, Meat Beat Manifesto, Beastie Boys and Barry White – just great things that might not have worked in other DJs’ hands. But Tom and Ed brought together indie and big beat and classic soul and hip hop and messed with it.”

And now? Now, ‘Live Again’, Chemicals Brothers’ most recent single, was banged out over the half-time Tannoy at Wembley during the Arsenal-Manchester City Community Shield match 48 hours before our interview. It’s that same Heavenly Social vibe, metabolised and supersized into tunes embedded in the nation’s sporting and cultural firmament.

“It’s always exciting to hear your music in a totally different context like that,” acknowledges Rowlands, long limbs sliding diagonally off the sofa.

“The thing with the [2012] Olympics, when Team GB team came out to ‘Galvanize’…” begins Simons, perched, legs-crossed, of their 2004 track featuring Q-Tip; six-time Grammy-winners, the Chems are, still, massive in the US, so we’ll forgive them the track’s American spelling. “We had been told that was going to happen. But we didn’t know how amazing that whole [Opening Ceremony] night would be. There have been quite a lot of those moments.”

“In that same Olympics,” continues Rowlands, “I’m a cycling fan, and I was hearing about Chris Hoy using our music. You could see him in the middle of the Velodrome with his big cans on. Then you hear he’s listening to ‘Elektrobank’ or ‘Escape Velocity.’” The former: video by Spike Jonze, gymnastic on-screen performance by Sofia Coppola. The latter: one of eight tracks on 2010’s ‘Further’, each accompanied by a short film, those led by actor Romola Garai. “You’re like, yeah!” he beams. “It’s such a world away from where the music is made.”

“Q-Tip’s very happy that both the songs we did with him are being heard in those worlds,” notes Simons. He’s also referring to ‘Go’, the 2015 track that, like many a Chems banger, can also be heard in multiple films (‘Baywatch’), ads (Vodafone) and video games (‘Need For Speed’). “He’s a big sports fan. That’s what he likes about the tracks.” And/or Q-Tip likes the MCPS and PRS payments. The Chemical Brothers couldn’t possibly comment.

But really, as evidenced by those earlier testimonials from Turner’s book, the guest vocalists come to the Chems for the experience, not the royalties. ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’ features the returning Beck, on the aforesaid ‘Skipping Like a Stone’, and rising Heavenly star Halo Maud. She bookends the album, on ‘Live Again’ and the climactic (in every sense) title track. What quality were they looking for the young French psych-pop singer to bring?

“On this record, a lot of the songs started with me singing,” replies Rowlands, tentatively, seemingly as reluctant to talk about his singing as he is to actually do the singing. “Then it didn’t feel right that it would be me singing it. So, we wanted to find someone who... because the words and the melodies and everything were all there... but we wanted to hear someone else sing it. And we just heard her record, heard her voice, then got talking to her on email.

“Sometimes people are protective about what they do. But she was very open to suggestion, because I was quite clear how we wanted it to be. And she took the words and the melodies and then just sung them in such a brilliant way. Making more of it than [I could have].”

There’s also an uncredited vocal from Wolf Alice singer Ellie Rowsell on ‘Feels Like I’m Dreaming’. It’s another limb-rattling newie that, when played at Wilderness, had the trees fearing autumn had come early. Its genesis tells us something about The Chemical Brothers’ working methods: an endless loop of creativity, both methodical and spur-of-the-moment.

Around the time of ‘No Geography’, working in east London’s The Strongroom, a satellite studio long favoured by the duo, “we did a lot of sessions with Ellie,” says Rowlands. “I always hate saying this because people go: ‘Oh, God, why didn’t you use it?’ But there was a more fully-formed song kind of thing. There was a lot of back and forth, trying to get it right. But she’s brilliant, and she was really open to trying lots of different things.” The album would win the Grammy for Best Electronic/Dance Album, but without any contribution from Rowsell.

Then, playing out one night, Rowlands and Simons were searching for le momente juste to mix into their DJ set. They remembered those sessions, and how “there were so many cool bits in that vocal, and songs that hadn’t really ever got finished. And [we thought]: let’s just loop up that bit of ‘feel like I’m dreaming’. And it was like that’s wicked. It was a part of the more song-y song that was written previously, but we never finished it. Then, DJing and wanting something fresh to play and remembering that wicked bit in the song, we basically sampled it for the set.”

In the moment, a new track was born, one they later felt would fit on ‘For That Beautiful Feeling’. “I think Ellie was still a bit unsure,” acknowledges Rowlands. “[But] I sent her a video of us playing it in a club somewhere and it being absolutely wild. And she was like: ‘Oh, yeah, that’s cool, just treat it like a sample kind of thing…’” 

For her part, Rowsell, no fan of interviews even about her own band, says of the collaboration: “The Chemical Brothers are often referenced by us when we’re in the studio. All of Wolf Alice are fans of their work. We all saw them play on my birthday one year which was an 11/10 night. I feel lucky to have spent some time in the studio with Tom, we messed around with a bunch of ideas that I’d like to return to one day but for now I’m just excited to play a small part in ‘Feels Like I’m Dreaming’. I love what they have done!”

Brothers, as ever, gonna work it out. Still, though, what keeps them going, at this level, qualitatively and quantitatively? ‘For The Beautiful Feeling’ is another blast of soulful futurism, deeply felt and deeply impactful, as great on headphones as in a field. They’ve been headlining international festivals, on and off, all summer, and have a UK arena tour this autumn.

Partly, they say, it’s because it’s what they’re used to. Simons remembers the heady days of ’96, when it feels like they DJ’d “pretty much every Saturday” at Turnmills, The Heavenly Social’s scaled-up east London berth. “But we also would constantly be on tour in America, and we made ‘Dig Your Own Hole’. It felt like we went from studying Chaucer to suddenly playing these gigs all round the world.”

And it’s partly because they were already firmly simpatico, their friendship forged in lecture halls, student flats and Manc pubs, not the tour bus. Simons again: “We really enjoyed doing our history degrees together. I almost think of that as being the more bonding thing. We didn’t actually learn the language, but we did [understand] the secret language of literary criticism and historical context of Chaucer way before we sat down and tried to make music together.”

Rowlands’ eyebrows rise at this outing of their academic credentials, but Simons is standing firm. “That might sound a little bit [odd], but it’s definitely true. We had a total experience way outside the world of electronic dance music.”

The only apparent blips? Around 2009/10, during the making of seventh album ‘Further’, Ed Simons suffered a major depressive episode. Then, in 2015, he stepped away from touring their eighth, ‘Born In The Echoes’. The two, though, Simons clarifies today, were not related. 

“That was my personal life,” he says of his illness. “Bad, difficult relationships after each other, and I just crashed. Tom looked after me really well. But the 2015 thing: I studied to be a psychotherapist, coming out of that period of depression. I was just in a very intense period of wanting to finish it…. So, I said to Tom: ‘I just cannot tour right now.’”

It was, he admits, “difficult”, with Rowlands keen to crack on, enlisting long-time visuals collaborator Adam Smith to be Silhouette Stage Right. But that, too, proved to be a blessing. “You did get into a routine – album, tour – and to step out a bit and know that it could happen without me,” says Simons, “[then] to come back, that feels like a real choice.”

More broadly, as well, “we’re more likely to have fallouts about what order of records we play when we DJ rather than anything big. We always talk through things. But in that period when I was depressed, it was just like a normal midlife crisis, lonely... But,” he concludes, brightening just slightly, “all good now.”

How concerning was that time for Rowlands, first of all for his friend, but also for this project that they’d worked so hard to create and maintain – then having to carry the ship on his own for a while?

“It was hard. To have your best friend going through something like that. It was daunting as well, from a personal thing of: right, how is this gonna happen? But it was generous of him to say: ‘Yeah, you can do it, you can go out there.’ Then as Ed said, to make the choice to come back and see that it’s a good thing to do...

“It’s so exciting, when you get to play music, this thing you’ve created over all this time,” Tom Rowlands adds, now looking – as ever – upwards and forwards. “Like on Friday night at Wilderness. To be playing songs that we made together 30 years ago, something like ‘Chemical Beats’. That’s a long time. And to see the madness and joy and intensity of it!”

That rat-a-tat laugh again, that hard-wired, indefatigable joy and excitement. Then, a nod to that pre-show ritual. “As Terry Hall says: it won’t be there forever. So, enjoy yourself. And enjoy it while it’s there.”

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