The Chemical Brothers: 'When It Sounds Good, People Will Respond In An Excited Manner'

16 February 2024 | 12:19 pm | Cyclone Wehner

This month, The Chemical Brothers are returning to Australia with their transportive audio-visual live show for the first time since 2019.

The Chemical Brothers

The Chemical Brothers (Source: Supplied)

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The Chemical Brothers remain one of dance music's most enduring – and vital – acts. Three decades in, they are determined not to coast off nostalgia. The Brits are as popular as ever, but they're also progressing. The Chemicals may yet match Beyoncé Knowles as multiple Grammy winners.

In 2023, Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands headlined Coachella the same day as Bad Bunny, released the blockbuster album For That Beautiful Feeling, and published a milestone book, Paused In Cosmic Reflection. "We went through this thing together – the lockdowns and the COVID [pandemic] – and came out with a bang," the typically unassuming Simons swaggers. "So we were certainly back out amongst it."

Simons is likewise an expert in time management. Astonishingly, he currently leads a double life as a Chemical Brother and psychotherapist.

It's Monday morning in London and Simons has switched his Zoom video off. Joking about the indecently early start, the tired musician is croaky but cheerful. The following day, The Chemicals will fly to Japan for consecutive concerts in Tokyo – their first since Mexico in November. How does Simons cope?

"Well, it's the usual balance that I do," he shares. "I work as a psychotherapist a couple of days a week. I take some time out every now and again to go away, but the gigs are usually at the weekends." Fate has lately introduced another complication. "I've just added a newborn baby to the mix," Simons continues. Bonkers. "It is quite a lot," he acknowledges. "But I like the balance of the life. It's all me at the heart of it. I work with Tom and I have that relationship, and then I do something which is relating to other people and outside it. But I have agency within all that."

Pressed, Simons admits that, as a sleep-deprived parent at the end of last year, he did question his many commitments. "You get used to it. I've been doing that kind of dual life for quite a long time now – about 12 years, I think. So it makes sense to me. Other people sometimes find it a bit hard to kind of fathom… I mean, [being awake] at four in the morning when the baby was first born and then having some clients later that day was quite a lot."

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This month, The Chemicals are returning to Australia with their transportive audio-visual live show for the first time since touring behind 2019's triumphant comeback, No Geography. They'll play three East Coast dates, culminating in the Victorian winery event A Day On The Green, supported by renowned UK club DJ James Holroyd.

In the early 2000s, the long haulers routinely joined Antipodean super-festivals like Big Day Out (in the Boiler Room) and Future Music – Simons conceding that it's proven "an adjustment" headlining their own venues here, bringing extra pressure. "We really hope to see everyone out there," he says. "Who knows? Let's have a good time while we still can."

The prep for the live spectacular is intensive – Simons refers to it as a "travelling circus." The Chemicals assemble "a vague setlist" before they "spend a lot of time doing some programming and experimenting," as their design cohorts Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall create the imagery – "a long process." Finally, the outfit have a production rehearsal and discuss the logistics with a road crew. "We go to a big warehouse in Birmingham for a couple of weeks and figure it all out."

Simons and Rowlands crossed paths in the late '80s as history students at The University Of Manchester, both outsiders revelling in the city's club culture. "If you look in [Paused In Cosmic Reflection], there were lots of photos of us – and we'll look at a photo when we're students together, just all in our mid-20s, and it's starting to look like those sepia-tinted pictures of the past," Simons observes.

Rowlands, then a member of the underground group Ariel, formed a new DJ partnership with Simons – the two unwisely borrowing the handle 'Dust Brothers' from the Californian beatmakers associated with the Beastie Boys until legalities prompted a rethink. In the meantime, the duo's plunderphonics track Song To The Siren (inspired by This Mortal Coil's dream-pop cover of Tim Buckley's folk number) impressed tastemaker DJ Andrew Weatherall.

Rebranding as The Chemical Brothers, the DJ/producers pioneered big beat – a hybrid of house, hip-hop and indie-rock – at London's fabled Heavenly Sunday Social Club. They'd go mainstream with 1995's irreverently titled debut Exit Planet DustThe Charlatans' frontman Tim Burgess and Beth Orton cameo-ing.

Signed to Virgin, The Chemicals spearheaded a British electronica invasion Stateside alongside The Prodigy and Fatboy Slim. They won their inaugural Grammy for the Schoolly D-sampling Block Rockin' Beats (for Best Rock Instrumental Performance) off Dig Your Own Hole.

The Chemicals ushered in ever more psychedelic – and exploratory – sonics, the pair liaising with lionised guest vocalists: Oasis' Noel Gallagher (a clubber at The Haçienda) on the UK chart-topping classic Setting Sun, Mazzy Star's elusive Hope Sandoval and A Tribe Called Quest's MC Q-Tip. The 2007 novelty The Salmon Dance, with The Pharcyde's Fatlip, is an Aussie fave.

Alas, The Chemicals initially found the US EDM boom alienating with its braggadocio. The combo's activity slowed after they completed 2015's ambitious Born In The Echoes, home to their first collab with Beck when Simons announced that he was quitting the fold as a live performer due to mystery "academic pursuits" – subsequently revealed to be a Masters in Psychotherapy. Instead, Rowlands would be accompanied by Smith at Glastonbury. Happily, Simons and Rowlands reunited ahead of No Geography (a showcase for eccentric Norwegian AURORA), winning two more Grammys.

Ironically, The Chemicals unleashed a collection of modish dance bangers, For That Beautiful Feeling, in tandem with a lavish retrospective tome – "a strange mix of the new and the old," Simons notes. But the roll-out was surprising for an unrelated reason.

On stage, The Chemicals strive to be inconspicuous – and they're reluctant celebrities. "We've kind of kept ourselves to ourselves," he says. Because of that, Paused In Cosmic Reflection, described as The Chemical Brothers' "definitive story", felt "exposing". The duo, conducting virtual interviews with author Robin Turner, "ended up probably speaking more about ourselves than we have done in 30-odd years," Simons offers. They then had to promote the enterprise. "It wasn't hard, but it was different for us."

The Chemicals prefer to face forward – or, at least, the present – than reminisce. Coincidentally, Exit Planet Dust will turn 30 in 2025, and Simons is unsure how the two will celebrate it. He paraphrases Liam Gallagher, who dismissed the trend for LP reissues in an interview with The Guardian: "We don't wanna be that band who keeps putting their records back in cellophane."

"I suppose we've done more looking back than we have done before," Simons ponders. "I guess we will probably mark it. It's a confused anniversary because we recorded Exit Planet Dust in one year, and then we had to wait a year to put it out because we had to change our name… The anniversary is always a bit blurry."

Unprepared to be dad ravers, The Chemicals cut a mega techno album in For That Beautiful Feeling, led by an alternative version of 2021's pandemic anthem The Darkness That You Fear. Any vocals are sparing, with Beck singing Skipping Like A Stone and French art-popster Halo Maud heard on three songs. 

"We're putting out new music, and we don't feel like we've become a heritage band," Simons reaffirms. "When we come and play live [this] month in Australia, we'll play a lot of the new material. And we feel it's every bit as exciting for people as hearing, I don't know if it's 'nostalgia', but having those memories of songs that meant a lot to you in the '90s or the early part of the 21st Century even."

Simons and Rowlands are tuned into contemporary dance. Indeed, they occasionally DJ – notably rocking Amnesia in Ibiza. The Chemicals will "scour" Bandcamp and Beatport for tunes. "We don't follow every twist and turn of every new genre. But we're still really excited about the power of a good bass drum in a club with people in an elevated state and ready to party."

Essentially, Simons is a bedroom DJ. "I've got a little DJ set-up in my house – and I still like to go down there and let off a bit of steam, get a mix on, get a friend round, and play some records. I think if I lost that, that would be a lot to lose."

The Chemicals have commissioned elite remixes of For That Beautiful Feeling's singles – Australia's HAAi transforming The Darkness That You Fear into steamy disco. Mind, the buzziest might be Chris Lake's prog house take on No Reason. "It's kind of everything like we do, but a bit more upfront – and [it] grabs those big dancefloors with the flashing lights and confetti-type dancefloors, which we need to reach."

The stalwarts are still receiving Grammy nominations – Fred again.. recently pipped them for Best Dance/Electronic Album – and being booked by major festival promoters. But, probed about immediate plans for album 11, Simons is doubtful.

"The answer to that is we don't know really yet," he says. "I mean, 10 seems like a nice round number, but then five probably seemed like a nice round number at the time. If there's something else to say and we feel creatively excited again [we'll do it]. I think right now probably a bit of a gap is required. Tom's working on something separately maybe. But we'll see... We've got these tours. But, yeah, I don't know. Never say never."

Back in 2010, The Chemicals presented a neglected visual album, Further. The next year, they delivered their sole soundtrack, scoring Joe Wright's thriller Hanna – the English director on the ascent with his silver screen adaptations of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.

In fact, The Chemicals' involvement with Hanna resulted from a previous connection. "Joe Wright actually used to be part of the team that did our visuals [Smith's Vegetable Vision]," Simons explains. "He's a really old friend and then went off and became this huge Hollywood director. [But] he was doing this kind of magic realist strange fairytale with lots of chase scenes and action. It was a perfect fit for us, really – and working with Joe sort of gave it a different energy."

Saoirse Ronan portrayed the titular child assassin, Hanna, opposite Australian stars Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett. Laughing, Simons mimics Blanchett's ruthless CIA operative: "Why now, Erik?" He can't recall attending a film premiere, though The Chemicals met Ronan. "We're not massively red carpet people. But, if asked, we'll put on a suit. We're not averse to traipsing the red carpet." Their score won a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award. On learning that Bana lives quietly in Melbourne, Simons enthuses, "Get him to come to the gig!"

The Chemicals were later attached as composers to a heist film – 2012's Now You See Me – but, Simons says, "We really haven't had something we'd wanna do since Hanna." With Simons preoccupied, Rowlands made This Is Not A Game (featuring Miguel and Lorde) for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. And they're open to future film proposals. "Soundtracks are really exciting to us," Simons stresses. "So if something like [Hanna] came along again, it would definitely be something we'd be interested in." The Chemicals talk to Wright. "I think Tom is actually working with Joe on a project at the moment."

More than big beat, techno is inherently futuristic. However, some pundits maintain that even that sub-genre is reproductive rather than innovative – the music critic Simon Reynolds famously decrying 'retromania'. But, while The Chemicals resist stasis, Simons ultimately holds that it isn't necessary to reinvent electronic dance music, as it transcends generations. He personally gets a kick out of spotting friends' teenage offspring sporting tie-dye Chemical Brothers T-shirts backstage at shows.

"New groups of young kids get excited by the thing that we all got excited about; that shared excitement. And that can just be a really amazing loop of really funky great drum sounds – you know, there's [hi-] hats that scream at you…

"Sometimes it doesn't need more. [I don't agree with] the idea that things have to always evolve or become different. It's just kind of like that really primal thing about a really good beat and a really exciting sound and a room full of people, or a field full of people, who are just tuned into that same moment is always gonna be exciting.

"It's just different people doing it as we go along. My Instagram feed is full of huge raves and whole swathes of people just immersed in the power of electronic music. It doesn't matter so much what the actual style is; it's just that kind of primal response. When it sounds good, people will respond in an excited manner – hopefully."

The Chemical Brothers return to Australia in late February for three special shows. They’ll be joined by special guests The Presets, Anna Lunoe and James Holroyd.




Tuesday 27 February – Meanjin/Brisbane, Riverstage*

Thursday 29 February – Eora/Sydney, Showgrounds

Saturday 2 March – Djilang/Geelong, Mt Duneed Estate

*The Presets not appearing