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The Chemical Brothers: "Young people are having opportunities taken away. We wanted to channel that"

The Chemical Brothers are back to dominate festival season with a politically-charged sound

  • Words: Sean Griffiths | Photo: Hamish Brown
  • 29 April 2019

“Look at sweet little baby-faced Snoop Dogg,” quips Tom Rowlands. “He looks so young there!” adds Ed Simons.

The Chemical Brothers are leafing through the April 1997 issue of Mixmag and between commenting on the lengthy word counts of the articles and some of the upcoming new artists featured in the magazine the duo are reflecting on what the then 26-year-old versions of themselves – that month’s cover stars – would make of The Chemical Brothers still going strong, 22 years and eight albums later. “We didn’t have a plan to still be here,” admits Tom. “I think we thought we’d always be making music, but whether we’d still be interested in doing it as The Chemical Brothers, or whether other people would be interested in us being around, I don’t know.”

But it’s clear from chatting to the pair for 10 minutes, and the gigs they’ve got lined up for the next few months, that both artist and audience are decidedly interested in The Chemical Brothers still being around. Their brand new album ‘No Geography’ has just dropped, and they’ve lined up gigs at festivals all around the world, including personal favourites like Fuji Rock in Japan (“It’s brilliant: you end up doing stuff like playing roulette and watching a motorcycle show at 4am while some incredible Japanese disco DJ plays,” says Ed), plus European staples Creamfields and Nos Alive and a massive homecoming show at All Points East in East London.

In fact, while you get the sense that all Chemical Brothers music is made with at least one foot in a festival field or an oversized warehouse venue, this time round the live arena arguably had even more impact on the finished product than usual.

’Free Yourself’, ‘Got To Keep On’ and ‘MAH’ were tracks just made to DJ with originally,” says Tom, between mouthfuls of scrambled egg in an upmarket West London caff. “Then after we’d done some DJ gigs we ended up doing a bunch of live gigs last year which is unusual for us in between albums.” Those gigs included a two-night stint at Alexandra Palace last autumn, as well as a DJ set at Printworks. “I remember really feeling nervous at Ally Pally,” admits Ed. “I looked over at Tom ten minutes in and was like, ‘Are you a bit nervous? I am!’ but then it just disappears.”

“It’s always harder when you’re playing at home and you know all your friends are there,” chips in Tom.

Honed in the live arena, much of ‘No Geography’ finds The Chems in relatively restrained mood (the breakbeat and acid bassline combo of ‘We’ve Got to Try’ and ‘MAH’s thundering vocal refrain notable exceptions) with tracks like ‘Got To Keep On’ and ‘Gravity Drops’ consisting of a few taut elements that briefly descend into chaotic breakdowns.

“Sometimes when you make a record you want it to be everything you love about music distilled into one record,” begins Tom. “But with this one it’s more focused on one particular feeling, which is quite different to a lot of our albums.”

While not an intrinsically political act, Ed Simons has been notably outspoken about Brexit on Twitter over the past few years (and about the previous evening’s Question Time, at the outset of our interview) and ‘MAH’, the first track released from the album, features a recreation of the most famous line from the 1970s satire Network (‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more’). Are we seeing a new, politically-charged version of The Chemical Brothers?

“We played that track a lot last summer and it really did seem to capture something,” says Ed. “Anger and frustration aren’t necessarily emotions you associate with dance music, but young people seem to be having opportunities taken away from them at the moment, and there’s an atmosphere being created because of that and it’s very powerful. We wanted to channel that into something.”

As well as empathising with the experiences of their audience outside of the festival arena, Ed Simons can now empathise with their experience in it too, after sitting out dates in 2016 while studying for a Master’s degree.

“I didn’t go to Glastonbury, but I watched [our set] on TV and found it very weird and it made me a bit sad,” he says. “And I went to a show in Paris and it was a strange, out-of-body experience. You always imagine the crowd’s paying full attention to every little detail, but in reality they’re in their own world asking for fags and getting drinks!”

“Whenever we have meetings about the show now he does chip in and say ‘Well I have seen it,” laughs Tom.

As well as shows around Europe, Asia and America this summer, the duo will be returning to Glastonbury where they made history back in the year 2000, becoming the first electronic act to headline The Pyramid Stage and – as legend has it – performing to the biggest crowd the festival has ever seen.

“I remember being in the dressing room just before we went on and our manager, who should have been reassuring us, was just pacing up and down with this panic-stricken look on his face,” laughs Tom. “People told me to try and remember the view from that stage, but I can’t actually remember that much now! Some friends told us it was so frenetic they had to leave and watch something else after a while. We did used to hammer the strobe back then.”

‘No Geography’ by The Chemical Brothers is out now on Virgin EMI

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