Aye, the Chemical Brothers. Having survived the slings ‘n’ arrows of club culture’s and dance music’s fortune outrageously well over the past fifteen years, the dynamic duo of Tom and Ed have amassed a heavily stocked arsenal of back catalogue tunes and masses of diverse experience since their early days on the Manchester Balearic scene. Nowadays they’ve advanced to the level of global recognition by virtue of their hard work, stunning live shows, intriguing collaborations and dancefloor rocking disques. Oh, and by not allowing themselves to become jaded with the lifestyle or the scene either.
“We do really like doing what we do,” Tom says. “It’s not like some terrible burden on our backs; making music and doing gigs.”
Extracting the boys from a mini press scrum, a couple of hours prior to their Saturday headline Rockness gig, they’re in cheery and engaging form as they sit down, it also being Ed’s birthday that day. Something of a double act and mates for years, they’ve managed to become something of a dance culture institution over the years with the dark-sided, dark knights’ return of ‘We Are The Night’ marking their sixth studio album. Complementing each other well, filling in the gaps in a kind of fraternal, brotherly way, amidst the peace and tranquillity of the glorious Loch Ness setting, the lads pretty much appear as personable, down to earth and affable as they were when they were starting out.
Yep, culled from their respective roles in the wild west that was Manchester’s dance scene in the late Eighties and early Nineties whilst at college there and well known as counter-culture surfers in legendary, cool as fuck Mancunian vinyl emporium Eastern Bloc (who heavily pushed their early releases) alongside regular attendance at seminal Manc clubs and Blackburn raves, it comes as little surprise that they ascribe their inspirations in music to their experience and memories of these high times and halcyon days.
“We used to go the Hacienda every Friday and then go to Eastern Bloc Saturday to try and buy the records we’d heard the night before,” Tom remembers. “Eastern Bloc was a massive eye opener for us. We bought amazing records from there from Moonboots and everyone. Then we became friends with a lot of people like Justin (Robertson) and John Berry and then when Most Excellent came along we felt very much a part of that and we were hearing good music all the time.”
He continues: “Manchester is the sort of place where you can feel like you’re part of something. After we finished Uni, we made ‘Song To The Siren’, and I suppose Manchester imbued us with the spirit that we could get up and do stuff.”
“In London it was always like the music industry was this thing where you needed a special pass to make a record,” says Ed. “You didn’t know anyone who made records but I remember going to Tariff Street studios and 808 State’s studios when we got to know the people in Eastern Bloc. Or we’d go down in the basement and you’d meet people and make records together. The whole process suddenly became demystified, that you could do it as well, do it yourself. The Manchester scene back then was very special because they made us so welcome and we were just a couple of students.”
Originally hailing from near Reading and South London, the boys hooked up in Manchester and have been ever present in each other’s lives since. Indeed the tightness and strength of their friendship, collaboration and mutual understanding is probably somewhere near the centre of the reasons which explain the Chems’ musical longevity. They openly admit to sharing a similarly minded hard taskmaster work ethic but counter-balance their apparent obsessive tendencies with their passion and continuing dedication for what they do. Ever conscious that their lives are somewhat uniquely advantaged and far away from the daily grind Ed feels that “luckily enough we’ve found ourselves at a place where we’re still enjoying making music and people are still into the music we’re making.”
As for the personal dynamics between the two, Tom concedes that nothing stays the same over the years and acknowledges that as one now lives near Brighton and the other in London, they’re not living in and out of each other’s pockets nowadays. Yet when your humble narrator jovially points out that most marriages don’t last as long as these two, Ed comes to his and his mate’s defence.
“We are great friends and there must be some kind of chemistry between us,” he explains. “It’s not unusual to remain strong friends with people and I’ve known Tom longer than pretty much anyone apart from my immediate family.”
He goes on: “We have changed a bit cos we used to live very close to each other and go on holiday together for years and years and we don’t do that as much as we used to. We have kind of gone in our different directions personally but we are always very tight when we hook up so that hasn’t really changed.”
So onto the album, the latest fruits of their association and ‘We Are The Night’, which seems a deep, discursive work, occasionally reminiscent of Drexciya’s and UR’s output on its harder edged gear whilst retaining a deft lightness of touch on the more emotive, sauntering, laid-back tracks. To Tom, “I like the balance of it, it’s got a real cohesion. Someone in Japan said it was like our “zen” album, when you get to the end of it, there’s nothing that jars. Everything seems to be there for a reason.”
“It’s a real mixture but all of it is quite in your face. I think all of the albums have been complete but at times this album is pulling in a lot of different directions and we’re really proud of the fact that it does feel like a really constant work.”
And Ed chips in: “Are we pleased with it? Yes absolutely. You wouldn’t have heard it if we weren’t. We’d still be in the studio working on it!”
With a considerable range exhibited, ‘We Are The Night’ takes in all strands of the Chems’ output across purist bugged out style electro techno flipped with more melancholic gear. From the driving, syncopated piano and Jack Kerouac samples of the title track, the harsh metallic edged Klaxons collaboration ‘All Rights Reserved’, the ‘Space Shanty’/‘Your Silent Face’ styled emotive acid house of ‘Das Spiegel’ to the rousing nu beat of ‘Burst Generator’, the Chemicals’ techno side is well represented, taking on the influences of their renowned ‘Electronic Battle Weapon’ series.
Ed: “One of the tracks ‘Saturate’ is actually one of the ‘Electronic Battle Weapons’. Those records usually turn up on the albums in one form or another. They’ve become a fundamental part of our band really.”
Yet the Chemicals’ softer, way cuddlier side is also on show in the laid back Balearica of ‘A Modern Midnight Conversation’ and the jazzy vocal collaboration with Willy Mason, ‘Battle Scars’. The closer with Midlake’s Tim Smith, ‘The Pills Won’t Help You Now’ could prove the boys’ ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ as it’s a stand out, elegant soulful techno ballad with shades of Eno. Tom agrees. “It’s a beautiful record. I love it.”
The Manchester scene back then was very special because they made us so welcome and we were just a couple of students.
With the vocal led elemental electro of ‘Do It Again’ making an obvious first single choice, one wonders whether the duo ever feel any pressure to turn out more single orientated tunes but it’s something that Ed is quick to dismiss. “Some people approach making their records by, y’know, get the singles and we’ll fill up the rest but we’ve never approached it like that. Certainly when we finish a record we then try and work out what could make a single so we never really bother about it.”
Yet looking back at the brothers’ succession of hits (far too many to mention here), there is a sense that the Chemical Brothers are predominantly known for their killer singles as opposed to their deeper side, something Tom slightly acknowledges about the recent ten year anniversary compilation.
“I think the singles collection showed a very different strand of our music. The big catchy singles all lined up next to each other and it’s strange to listen to them all in a row because they are all big Chemical Brothers tracks but it’s not how I think about the Chemical Brothers. They’re kind of accidental pop records. We made them as club records like ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’, ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ and now ‘Do It Again’. I was excited that Andy Weatherall and Ivan Smagghe (Black Strobe) were playing ‘Do It Again’, rather than it getting on the radio.”
Arguably the Chems’ recruitment of high profile vocalists assisted their advancement as it allowed them to cast aside the disadvantages of being a techno duo and allowed them to bring compadres like Noel Gallagher, Bernard Sumner, Tim Burgess, The Flaming Lips and more into the studio. (Although to be fair they do point out that they worked with Beth Orton on the first two albums when she was starting out). Yet now with the guests on ‘We Are The Night’ - the Klaxons, Willy Mason, Midlake and The Pharcyde’s Fatlip - the pair are in a position where they appear the bigger draw and are able to give the lesser known a bit of a leg up. Once again, they refute the theory.
Tom: “For us to keep developing we’ve always wanted to keep working with new people. With collaborations the people we work with come out of the search for making a good track at that moment and we’re very choosy about who we get to do it but we’re not concerned about what their success or position is.”
Ed: “We’ll work with someone who hasn’t put a record out and we’ll work with someone like Bernard Sumner who’s responsible for some of the best records of the 20th century.”
A crucial part of the Chemicals’ make up has always been their live reputation and as a Rockness live review accompanies this piece, there’s no point reiterating it here but Tom was quick to talk about his impressions of the do. “It’s beautiful, a really great setting and we’re really happy to be here. It’s our first festival of the year, first time up here, it really seems nice and the people have been very hospitable.” (As your scribe can attest, the crowd were particularly welcoming, especially Peter from Glasgow who put up my tent when I arrived in a foul mood Friday, but I digress).
Following on from the Rockness gig, the boys were set to embark on a cross European jaunt of festivals and capital cities on the concert bandwagon with an itinerary that looks like that of a pair of jet set playboys, which one could suppose they are nowadays. Belgrade, Italy, Glastonbury, Amsterdam, Munich, Vienna, Montreux, Paris, Summercase (Madrid & Barcelona), then the Fuji Rock Festival…blah, blah, blah... before returning to the UK and Ireland in late Aug/early Sept for Creamfields, Electric Picnic, Bestival, and Trafalgar Square. And guess what? The jammy sods still really enjoy it as well.
Says Tom: “The travelling can be a drag but when you’re out there playing you forget about that. If we didn’t do it and we don’t actually have to do it, we would miss being out there playing our music. We do it cos we enjoy it.”
So some fifteen years on after the release of the 500 copies of ‘Song To The Siren’, with its chunky green label with the same mix on each side and endearingly Tom’s mum’s phone number to boot (Ed: “She called us and said [adopts accent] “I’ve just had a man called Mr Andrew Weatherall on the phone and he really likes it.”), it seems the Chems are still going great guns and have come one hell of a long way. Ironically, their original choice of name as The Dust Brothers always implied they never thought they’d get that far but by now have surely surpassed pretty much everything they could have dreamt of back in the day. Fair play lads.
Closing off, and noting their homely nature and the cooking recipes on their website, it is playfully suggested that they could seek to seek to spin off their “Tom ‘n’ Ed” partnership Ben ‘n’ Jerry style into a whole new arena of celebrity endorsement. Yet once again, the boys seem one step ahead.
“Funnily enough in Japan we’ve been offered a deal to have our own brand of noodles,” Ed laughs, “because at lunchtime over there, it’s big business to make noodles that people can eat at work and we are famed in Japan for enjoying the raman, the working class cuisine, so maybe that’ll come off and we’ll become the new Ben ‘n’ Jerrys of Japanese noodles.”
“I like that idea,” Tom chuckles. “It’s definitely something we should look at.”
Paul Newman’s Pasta Sauces. Francis Ford Coppola’s Wines. Tom ‘n’ Ed’s Japanese Noodles. You heard it here first.