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The Chemical Brothers

The Chemical Brothers

Electronica group

Though electronic music has long been a staple commodity to overseas fans, its beat-heavy cadences and sometimes sans-guitar sound had yet to make inroads on U.S. charts until 1996, with the arrival of the Chemical Brothers. The northern England duo, onetime club DJs and old pals of Oasis, sliced through the modern rock genre with "Setting Sun," a heady track full of noise and thunder (and wicked guitar) released late in the year. Its surprising success made the Chemical Brothers partly responsible for an alternative press frenzy predicting electronica as the next grunge. There is little argument that no one group helped pave the way for electronica's popular acceptance than the Chemical Brothers. The British duo made their brand of music from a collage of sounds and parlayed it into international success with more than a decade of consistent recording and touring.

The Chemical Brothers describe themselves as "nice middle-class kids," as Rowlands confessed in Spin. He grew up in Henley-on-Thames, just outside London, and, at the age of 17, formed a band called Ariel, which had one 1990 release. Simons grew up in London; the two met in 1989 at Manchester University where both were history majors. In fact, both selected the school because of its location and musical connection. Rowlands reportedly because of the proximity to the now-legendary Hacienda nightclub; Simons based on the area's reputation as the birthplace to the groups The Smiths and New Order.

"Ed had a very nonmusical background, in the strict sense" Rowlands told Spin's Weisbard, "but he had been to a lot of the clubs and raves that I had been to. We knew the same records." Typical of Britons of their generation, they had been devotees of groups like The Smiths and The Specials in their formative years, but such musical tastes evolved to appreciate harder-edged sounds from the likes of Renegade Soundwave. The pair began to DJ together at clubs in Manchester, an industrial city in northern England and home to a thriving dance music scene. They had a steady weekly deejaying gig at the club Naked Under Leather beginning in 1991.

The Influence of Public Enemy

It was their discovery of the Public Enemy record It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back that propelled Rowlands and Simons into a different aural direction. Their DJ work evolved into remixing samples and found noise, while adding synthesizers and drum machines. "Electronic music was a new thing in the mid-'90s," Simons told Teen People. "We'd play our hearts out and people would say, "I liked the records you were playing.'"

They officially formed as The Dust Brothers in 1994. Rowlands and Simons were fans of The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and took their name from the U.S.-based production team for that project.

The Dust Brothers released the single "Songs to the Siren," recorded in 1992 at Rowlands's home, and two subsequent EPs before signing with Virgin Records U.K. They were also remixing a variety of artists, including Primal Scream and Prodigy. When Virgin subsidiary Astralwerks records pointed out in 1995 that there was already a Dust Brothers in the States, who were less than thrilled by two guys from England borrowing the name in tribute, the duo renamed themselves the Chemical Brothers. This rechristening seemed to matter little to fans. The group was spinning each week at the Heavenly Sunday Social and their growing popularity made the club one of the London in spots. This period is captured on Live at the Social, Vol. 1.

"You know sometimes you listen to a riff on a record and it gives you an image of some sleazy guy playing guitar?," Simons posited to Rolling Stone's Lorraine Ali. "Well, that's just how I want our music to work." That sound came out with their 1995 American debut on Astralwerks/Caroline, Exit Planet Dust, a record laden with samples, electronic noise, synthesizer cuts, backward-spun tape loops, and guitars all fused together with manic drum-machine beats. With virtually no promotion nor radio presence, the record sold more than 100,000 copies in the States—a respectable showing and about half its sales in England. Village Voice reviewer James Hannaham compared their musical genius to Beethoven, and praised the infusion of elements. "The Brothers ... don't seem to know how not to manipulate a sound that gets vacuumed into their sampler," Hannaham wrote. The critic singled out the track "Life Is Sweet," through which The Brothers, he noted, "demonstrate their mastery by taking a busy signal, making it sound like it came from a 50-foot telephone, and building an excellent pop song."

For the Record …

Members include Tom Rowlands (born in Oxford, England; son of a film director); Ed Simons (born in London, England). Both Simons and Rowlands were history majors at Manchester University in the early 1990s.

Group formed in Manchester, England, as The Dust Brothers, 1994; previously, Rowlands played keyboard for a dance band, while Simons worked as a DJ; released the single "Songs to the Siren" and two EPs in England; signed with Virgin Records and released Exit Planet Dust, 1995; changed name to The Chemical Brothers, 1995; single "Setting Sun" hit charts and MTV, 1996; Dig Your Own Hole, released in Top 20 on the strength of "Block Rockin' Beats," 1997; released Brothers Gonna Work It Out, 1998; Surrender released, 1999; Come With Us released, 2002; celebrated decade of recording with greatest hits compilation, 2003; continued to tour, 2004.

Awards: Grammy Award, Best Rock Instrumental Performance for "Block Rockin' Beats," 1997.

Addresses: Record company—Astralwerks/Caroline Records, 114 26th St., New York, NY 10001, website: Website—The Chemical Brothers Official Website: http://www.thechemical

The Disorienting Sound of "Setting Sun"

During 1996, the duo worked on a new release and made an appearance at the Organic '96 fest in California with Orb, Orbital, and Underworld; they also completed remixes for Oasis and Manic Street Preachers. Late in the year they released the single "Setting Sun," which charted immediately and was a heavily-promoted MTV Buzz Clip. The song's dizzying beats were pulled back and forth over the "creepy, disembodied vocals"—as Rolling Stone's Al Weisel put it—of Oasis's Noel Gallagher. "We wanted to get the strange, disorienting effect of psychedelia and fuse that with a heavy club sound," Rowlands explained to Weisel.

Though the "Setting Sun" single sold 30,000 copies in the United States in just a few weeks, the reception was cooler in the United Kingdom, where it was deemed a bit too abrasive for radio; one well-known DJ reportedly removed it mid-spin. As Simons told Billboard writer Julie Taraska, they discern specific differences between English and American fans. "People hold us in a certain amount of affection in England," he reflected, "while people who actually write about us treat us like a heavy metal band. Critics in the U.K. can't be bothered, because our music cuts across boundaries. In America, critics seem more interested in the music, and we get some sort of critical appraisal. So it's good that we have these two different things."

That critical assessment turned to serious hype by early 1997. Music-industry watchers in the United States were predicting the imminent explosion of electronic music thanks to acts such as Prodigy and Underworld, as well as The Chemical Brothers. The influence of this genre was also being heard in new releases from U2 and The Smashing Pumpkins. "With record sales stagnant and the alternative-rock wave of the last half-dozen years perceived to be ebbing, the U.S. music industry is desperate for a new movement to boost business," wrote Steve Hochman in Rolling Stone. The Brothers' response? "It's annoying when people say, 'This is the future,'" Rowlands told Ali in Rolling Stone, and asserted that dance and rock genres can pleasantly co-exist. "People are just getting excited, obsessed with trying to see what's next. They don't want to be left behind."

"Setting Sun" was included on the full-length release Dig Your Own Hole, which was released in April of 1997 and charted in the Top 20 soon after. A Rolling Stone review warned readers the first track "will fry you alive," and stated that the entirety of the record "burns the whole rock vs. techno argument into a fine, white ash." That first track was "Block Rockin' Beats," which sampled rapper Schoolly D's rousing "Back with another one of those block-rockin' beats!" line from his 1989 song "Gucci Again." Vocalist Beth Orton, an earlier collaborator, contributed on "Where Do I Begin?" New York's Mercury Rev collaborated on "The Private Psychedelic Reel," a song reflecting The Chemical Brothers' fanaticism for the more experimental late sixties forays of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. "Reel" takes its name from a Japanese bootleg recording of unreleased Beatles music, "tracks that they recorded specifically for themselves to take acid to," they told Spin's Weisbard.

Aside from commercial success, The Brothers' second LP generated another wave of attention for the group, which included critical approval. "All but unique in electronica, nearly every track on Dig Your Own Hole achieves a separate identity," wrote Spin's Weisbard. "The album has an order and a flow." In the New York Times, Neil Strauss called The Brothers one of the most credible co-optings of black music by a white act: "Instead of trying to rap, The Chemical Brothers take hip-hop beats and sampling techniques and add the studio experimentation of '60s psychedelia and the sonic layering of England's pre-techno acid-house music," wrote Strauss. "It's not pretty music we make; it's quite rough and abrasive," Simons remarked in an attempt to explain their sound to Entertainment Weekly. "In that way, it is kind of dance music for rock fans. If you buy one of our records, it doesn't mean you have to go and burn all your Offspring CDS."

The group seemed to be constantly touring throughout 1997 with a host of summer festival dates booked in Europe, helped by skyrocketing record sales. The New York Times's Strauss, reviewing a live Chemical Brothers performance for the paper in the spring of 1997, wrote that on that night one certain bellwether of the impact electronic music had made into mainstream "alternative" culture was in evidence: the existence of a mosh pit at the show-a sure sign, Strauss pointed out, that "people who are unlikely either to understand or respect a band" were now paying fans.

Dig Your Own Hole was followed by the release of Brothers Gonna Work It Out, a mix album, in 1998 and 1999's Surrender, which met with less than stellar reviews. The duo had buried "their wonky heads in the sand," said Dan DeLuca, writing for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service

The duo continued working it out and released "It Began in Afrika" as a white-label-only single. It also would appear on Come With Us later that same year. In retrospect, Simons called the track "annoying." He told Entertainment Weekly that although it was 'a big record in clubs' every time I hear it I just shudder because there's only so many times you can hear that booming 'It began in Afrika-ka-ka!' Just hearing it immediately bugs me. It was a great record for the summer, and that's all it needed to be."

Found Their Niche

By 2002, The Chemical Brothers had "settled into the nicest of ruts, consistently releasing albums that mix the cool energy of a peak-hour rave with the psychedelic warmth of 1960s Beatles or Pink Floyd," observed Bill Werde writing in Teen People. The disc that year was Come with Us, on which, observed The Dallas Morning News's Teresa Gubbins, "The Chemical Brothers exhibit noticeable growth as musical storytellers." And found the album to have "an internal flow that's as neatly paced as a Hollywood film. It is also the Brothers' most consistent release, incorporating its trademark sounds and making the most of previous experiments, but with fewer ups and downs. If that means there are not quite as many flashes of brilliance, it also means that the disc is stronger overall."

After a decade of music-making, The Chemical Brothers released a greatest hits compilation, Singles 93-03 in 2003. They continued to tour, playing festivals in throughout the world, including festivals in Glastonbury and Manchester. But, as Richard Hector-Jones noted on Manchester Online in August 2004, "we're still waiting for a new record.

"I love the fact that when we play live it's a big moment at a festival, but it's just as exciting as hearing Justin Robertson, Sasha, or Richie Hawtin DJ," said Simons to Hector-Jones in the same article. "We are definitely playing new songs. ...We're currently working towards a new album for next year, we've written some really exciting new songs which we'll be playing at least four or five of them live."

"I'm not saying we're aspiring to make albums for the next 25 years, but there's this idea now that dance music is of its time, that it's had its place. But we're musicians and we want to continue making music into the future, because we get an immense amount of pleasure from making it as well as sharing it with people."

Selected discography

Exit Planet Dust, Astralwerks/Caroline, 1995.

Live at the Social, Vol. 1, Heavenly, 1996.

Loops of Fury (EP), Astralwerks/Caroline, 1996.

Chemical Reaction: The Best of British Electronica (compilation), One, 1997.

Dig Your Own Hole, Astralwerks/Caroline, 1997.

Brothers Gonna Work It Out, Astralwerks, 1998.

Surrender, Astralwerks, 1999.

Dusted Decks (compilation), Import, 2001.

Come with Us, Astralwerks, 2002.

Singles 93-03 (compilation), Astralwerks, 2003.

Dig Your Own Hole/Exit Planet Dust (compilation), EMI, 2004.



Billboard, February 15, 1997, May 4, 2002.

Dallas Morning News, February 5, 2002.

Entertainment Weekly, March 14, 1997, September 5, 2003.

Guitar Player, August 1997.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 31, 2002 February 5, 2002.

New York Times, May 21, 1997, p. B7.

Rolling Stone, August 20, 1996, p. 36; December 12, 1996, p. 25; March 20, 1997, p. 20; April 3, 1997, p. 63.

Spin, June 1997, p. 62.

Teen People, June 16, 2002.

Village Voice, October 21, 1995, p. 62.


"Chemicals' electrocution fear," BBC Online, (August 21, 2004).

"Creamfields: Chemical Brothers interview," Manchester Online, (August 21, 2004).

—Carol Brennan andLinda Dailey Paulson

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Chemical Brothers, The


Formed: 1990, London, England

Members: Tom Rowlands, programming, keyboards (born Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England, c. 1971); Edward Simons, programming, keyboards (born Dulwich, London, England, c. 1970).

Genre: Electronica, Dance

Best-selling album since 1990: Dig Your Own Hole (1997)

Hit songs since 1990: "Block Rockin' Beats," "Setting Sun"

For a time in the mid-1990s, the music industry launched a campaign to convince consumers that anonymous young men with keyboards and digital sampling devices were going to replace rock bands with guitars and charismatic front men. A pair of unassuming musicians from England called the Chemical Brothers came closest to that goal, creating a body of relentlessly catchy, uplifting futuristic dance anthems such as "Setting Sun" and "Block Rockin' Beats," which stood at the vanguard of a genre dubbed "electronica."

Middle-class kids Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons met while sharing a history course at Manchester Polytechnic Institute in the late 1980s, both drawn to the city by music, but of a different sort. Rowlands was interested in being
near the city's legendary hedonistic Hacienda dance nightclub, while Simons had an interest in studying in the home of two of his favorite English new wave rock groups of the 1980s, the Smiths and New Order.

When not performing with the dance group Ariel, Rowlands spent time with Simons working on music under the name the Dust Brothersan homage to the American producers responsible for the hip-hop group the Beastie Boys's landmark, sample-heavy album Paul's Boutique (1989). The duo performed at dance clubs such as Naked Under Leather, building a solid reputation for their original music and prowess as music mixing disc jockeys. The pair's popularity convinced them to record the track "Song to the Siren" (1993) in their bedroom studio, a tip of the hat to the Baleraic style of the time, which mixed funk, hip-hop, dance, and groove-oriented jazz with European disco and the repetitive house beats pioneered by Chicago musicians in the 1980s.

A Fine and Proper Exit

Rowlands quit Ariel and the duo moved to London and got steady gigs performing at such popular clubs as Heavenly Sunday Social, as well as jobs remixing material for such notable bands as Primal Scream, Prodigy, and the Charlatans. After a threatened lawsuit from America's Dust Brothers in 1995, the pair changed their name to the Chemical Brothers and released their mind-bending, mostly instrumental debut, Exit Planet Dust (1995). With the aim of keeping England's ravenous, drug-fueled raversa large subset of dance fans who attended all night, hedonistic partiesmoving, as well as taking them to ever-higher peaks of ecstasy, the music employs electronic beats that build to frenzied crescendos before beginning the process anew, as well as wide swaths of futuristic synthesizer, backward tape loops, and repetitive drum machine beats.

Combining elements of psychedelic sound effects, deep, pounding beats, expertly placed samples of old songs, and catchy, repetitive keyboard phrases, songs such as "Leave Home" and "Chico's Groove" helped to usher in a new type of music, called variously "big beat" and "electronica." The album also features another signature of the duo's albums, guest vocals from some of England's most popular artists. Charlatans singer Tim Burgess lends his lyrics and vocals to the driving original electronic rock song "Life Is Sweet." Little-known folk chanteuse Beth Orton adds a ghostly vocal to the slinky, Middle Eastern-tinged "Alive Alone."

Though their live show consisted of the duo punching buttons and spinning records, they became a credible live draw at rock and dance festivals throughout Europe and America, putting a faceRowland's lanky frame, colored glasses, and long, blonde hair and Simons's short-haired, clean-cut visageon the generally anonymous genre.

Modern Dance-Floor Pop Meets the Beatles

Having gained a fan in Noel Gallagher, musical mastermind of English rock band Oasis, the Chemical Brothers tapped him to sing the vocals on their psychedelic dance anthem "Setting Sun," a tribute to the Beatles's "Tomorrow Never Knows" from their second album, Dig Your Own Hole (1997). The wildly popular album also launched "Block Rockin' Beats," one of the most popular big beat hit singles of all time. The track combines a bouncy bass line, live-sounding jazzy drums, and a sample of a vocal from a pioneering American rap artist, Schooly D, chanting "Back with another one of those block rockin' beats!"

The single, like the rest of the album, is heavily influenced by American rap music, mixing that genre's aggressive rhythms with big beat's ecstatic peaks and valleys and techno music's futuristic keyboard sounds and mind-numbing repetition. Dig Your Own Hole landed the duo near the top of the American album charts, spawned a number one British hit with "Setting Sun," which, despite the guest vocal, garnered a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental and found them featured on a multitude of big-beat compilation albums.

It also made the Chemical Brothers a popular headlining act around the world. As with previous and future albums, several mini albums with a number of remixes and new tracks were released before and after the appearance of Dig Your Own Hole. Along with English techno acts Prodigy and Underworld, the Chemical Brothers were tagged in the music press as the next big thing in popular music.

The pair released a mix album of their favorite tracks, Brothers Gonna Work It Out (1998), followed by their third full-length album, Surrender (1999). Again working with a number of guest vocalists, the album broke little creative ground, save for allowing the pair to work with their reclusive hero, New Order singer Bernard Sumner, on the electronic pop song "Out of Control." Gallagher again lends vocals to a slice of Beatlesque psychedelica, "Let Forever Be," while Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval sings on the delicate ballad "Asleep from Day."

Their fourth album, Come with Us (2002), scales back the guest vocalists and looks to obscure French pop and American soul for sample material. With warmer, more organic sounds mixed in with the usual relentless, programmed beats, tracks such as the tribal "It Began in Afrika" and "Galaxy Bounce" incorporate the energy of the duo's lauded debut with the revivalist French disco sound of such popular groups as Daft Punk. Orton is again featured on the folky "The State We're In," while ex-Verve singer Richard Ashcroft sings the vocals for the album-ending transcendental dance epic "The Test."

Though their popularity waned after the fall of the electronica genre in America in the late 1990s, with their pioneering sound and creative use of modern musical technology, the Chemical Brothers proved that superstar pop groups do not need a singer, a band, or even conventional instruments to reach the top.


Exit Planet Dust (Freestyle Dust/Astralwerks, 1995); Live at the Social, Vol. 1 (Heavenly, 1996); Dig Your Own Hole (Freestyle Dust/Astralwerks, 1997); Brothers Gonna Work It Out (Freestyle Dust/Astralwerks, 1998); Surrender (Freestyle Dust/Astralwerks, 1999); Come with Us (Freestyle Dust/Astralwerks, 2002).


gil kaufman

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