Hot Sounds: Chemical Brothers

British electronica music makers dig their own niche in the U.S.A.

Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands of English electronic music duo The Chemical Brothers, London, UK in 1997. Credit: Photo by David Tonge/Getty

HUNCHED OVER a desk in the tiny editing room at Berwick Street Studios, in London, Tom Rowlands – the lanky, blond half of the Chemical Brothers – brushes a few errant strands of his shoulder-length hair from his field of vision and points at a wiggly mocha-brown line running across the bottom of a Hitachi computer screen. "I want to make it louder and thinner, " he says in a soft but emphatic voice.

The guy seated next to Rowlands – a programmer who goes by the name of Cheeky Paul – rattles his fingers across the computer keyboard and makes a couple of circular flourishes with the mouse. Then, boom! The air literally explodes with the digital information packed on the Hitachi's hard drive – a dense, visceral squall of martial hip-hop beats, roiling, funky bass and snappy, incantatory rapping: "You know it's on!/Once again with the Chemicals/You know it's on!" And sure enough, the track's keyboard loop does sound louder and thinner than it did a few minutes earlier. The riff, once modest and bubbly like the antique gurgle of a '60s Moog synthesizer, is now a cross between a spooked-pig squeal and a munchkin orgasm. Lounging on a small sofa, the other Chemical Brother, Ed Simons – an impish-looking guy with short sandy-brown curls and a toothy grin – nods his head in approval. The Chemicals, the hottest remixer-DJ tag team in British electronica, are wrapping up a not-yet-titled B side for "Elektrobank," the next single from the duo's current album, Dig Your Own Hole. "We come in here with all the bits we've put down in our own studio," Simons says, looking up from a fistful of Chemical-business faxes. "Then we pull them up and out, change them with special effects like echo or delay. It's really a kind of microsurgery."

Rowlands, too, is pleased with the track; his eyes are wide behind his lemon-tinted sunglasses. The song, made with the American rapper Justin Warfield, has been in the can for a year. In fact, it has lain around incomplete for so long that Rowlands and Simons have already cannibalized it the same way they sample other people's records. Fragments of the original appear in altered form on Dig Your Own Hole, in the intro to the live version of the duo's hit single "Block Rockin' Beats" and on the recent "Morning Lemon."

"That was quite difficult to do," Rowlands says of the Warfield track over lunch with Simons the next day in a West London pub. "Justin sang it at a different bpm [beats per minute], and we took it to another bpm, so it got pretty mathematical. We were doing calculations as to what the voice would sound like at different speeds."

Rowlands chuckles at the thought of all that dizzy arithmetic. But he does not apologize for it. "People worry more about the process than what they get at the end of it," he says flatly. "I'm not that interested in how this guy is going to make my sausage sandwich." He gestures toward the kitchen at the back of the pub. "I'm interested in how it's going to taste at the end."

He pauses, then glances over his shoulder at the kitchen again. "Well," Rowlands admits a little nervously, "I have a slight interest in how he's cooking it." This is what the Chemical Brothers look for when they go record shopping: "Usually it's records with pictures on the front of people drumming," Simons says brightly, without any apparent fear of blowing a big trade secret. "We also look for interesting instruments that are used – old ARP synthesizers, there-mins. Before we make an album, one of us will go to New York and just buy crates of records."

This is why you can almost never tell what Row-lands and Simons have sampled from those discs and transformed for their own hot platters: "We twist something, a tiny bit of sound, into something completely different," Simons explains. "Over the years, we've become so good at treating drums, twisting them up. On our first album, Exit Planet Dust, we had these bizarre supergroups playing together – like a sort of trad English indie band playing with an old '70s funk band – which, for legal reasons, we can't get into."

Rowlands and Simons, both 27, have hit pay dirt with their turntable alchemy. For the past four years, the Chemical Brothers have been the toast of Rave Nation U.K., thanks to the hard-swinging singles "Song to the Siren" and "Chemical Beats," 1995's acclaimed Exit Planet Dust and a stunning run of daredevil remixes for Primal Scream, St. Etienne, the Manic Street Preachers and Prodigy. The Chemicals are also the first of the British mid-'90s electro-dance acts to crack the U.S. mainstream; Dig Your Own Hole debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard album chart, and the video for "Block Rockin' Beats" is a current MTV staple.

But the Chemicals have discovered that success has its irritations. Techno purists complain that the duo's penchant for stacking fat, harsh, guitarlike hooks over '70s funk and '80s hip-hop rhythms is closer to rawk than dance music. Hardened rockers don't understand the methodology: Does the Chemicals' kind of sampledelia qualify as songwriting? Are Rowlands and Simons musicians, even in the loosest sense of the word, or turntable scavengers? Then again, if you can dance to the final results, who gives a damn? Actually, the three surviving Beatles did – or at least their lawyers did – after hearing the Chemicals' 1996 U.K. hit "Setting Sun," a loving, near-literal nod to the Fabs' 1966 wig-out "Tomorrow Never Knows" that was co-written and sung by Noel Gallagher of Oasis. "We got a letter from the Beatles, their people, thinking we had sampled 'Tomorrow Never Knows' – which we hadn't," Simons explains.

"But we would never do that," Rowlands insists. "The idea was, with our own sounds, to create something that had a similar effect" – similar, he contends, to the madhouse reaction the Chemicals would get when they segued the actual Beatles track into their live DJ sets. It took a musicologist, hired by the Chemicals' British record company, Virgin, to assure the Beatles' representatives that Rowlands and Simons had not touched a hair of the '66 original.

And if they had? The Chemicals say they are not thieves but admirers and borrowers who pay up when copyright is clear and respect is due. Rapper Schooly D, the '60s acid-pop group Lothar and the Hand People, and guitarist Jonathan Donahue of the American trip-rock band Mercury Rev all receive writing credit and a cut of the publishing money for their contributions, however recast or rewired, to Dig Your Own Hole. And Rowlands claims that after he purloined a sample of rapper Keith Murray from a bootleg mix tape and laid it over the manic gallop of "Elektrobank," he and Simons went to great pains to find out who held the rights to the Murray recording.

"I'm not on a crusade – I'm not trying to get people to say I'm a proper musician," declares Rowlands, who actually is a hotshot guitarist and is responsible for the great farting-fuzz-box solo at the end of "Elektrobank." "I have no desire to be a proper musician. For ages, when I first went into studios with my little machines, you'd have this hoary old rock guy behind the board, going, 'This isn't real music.'"

Whereas, Simons contends, "we would regard 'Elektrobank' as a song. It doesn't matter if it's a composite of a load of different sounds with a driving beat."

Basically, Rowlands and Simons are DJs with an itch for more than scratching; they are avid and extremely knowledgeable record collectors who see nothing illogical or illicit in playing their records, in mutant, ingeniously disguised form, for art and profit. And the Chemicals' distinctive tastes for quixotic juxtaposition and collision – Schooly D's voice embedded in a whirl of toasted-Hendrix distortion and brass-knuckled bass in "Block Rockin' Beats"; the uphill charge of the massed-samples orchestra in "The Private Psychedelic Reel" on Dig Your Own

Hole – are rooted in Rowlands and Simons' initial experiences as a turntable team. "One of us would play two records, then the other guy would play two records," Simons explains. "It's not that uncommon – DJ partnerships are quite the mode. But DJ'ing with two people does lend itself to a whole other set of dynamics. You want to show up the other guy, play a better record than he's put on. Over the years, both of us have DJ'd on our own, and it's hard. Our friendship is based on the fact that we were at college together, and we'd go record shopping together – religiously, every day. Our tastes have grown together. "That's the thing," Simons says with pride. "We were friends before we were in this band. This all happened without us really trying to make it happen."

ROWLANDS AND SIMONS ARE BOTH PRODUCTS of middle-class comfort. Rowlands grew up in the verdant calm of rural England, near the historic university city of Oxford. His father, a filmmaker who now makes commercials, was a director of photography for documentaries in the 1960s; he filmed the Animals on tour behind the Iron Curtain and covered the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. Rowlands' parents encouraged their son to play music and financed his early efforts. At 12, he was writing songs on a guitar and a drum machine.

But Rowlands credits his older brother with turning him on to hard-boiled black urban music. "He and his friends were really into hip-hop," Rowlands says. "They used to get all the import albums. I remember going out with them, sitting in the back of my brother's car, hearing all this music." By the time Rowlands was enrolled at Manchester University, studying history, he was in a techno-funk band, Ariel, and putting out records on the hip British dance label Deconstruction.

Simons was raised in a single-parent home in London's southern suburbs; his mother was a lawyer, and for a time after college, Simons worked in a law office specializing in child-abuse cases. "I was quite well off," he says of his childhood. But Simons was profoundly unhappy at school and, in his early teens, found refuge on weekends in London's dance clubs: "I was one of those annoying kids you see in clubs now, looking all wrong and dancing badly to rare-groove records."

Separately at first, then as schoolmates after meeting at Manchester University, in 1991 (Simons was also studying history), the future Chemical Brothers were deep into British rave culture – including, they freely admit, the use of the scene's sacramental hallucinogen, ecstasy. "When I was 19," Simons recalls, "I spent the whole summer dancing out in fields to house music with 20,000 other people. If I hadn't, I wouldn't be sitting here now. It changed my life completely.

"But ecstasy doesn't have to go hand in hand with an appreciation of dance music," Simons adds. And he notes bluntly that he and Rowlands have never worked – onstage or in the studio – on any drug: "A good dance album should be as intoxicating with or without E. You don't have to listen to Exile on Main Street smacked out of your mind to get it. You don't have to be in the same state Keith Richards was when he made it."

Rowlands and Simons were still at school when they made the leap from buying records to spinning them in tandem for an audience. They made their debut at a wedding, jumping up behind the turntables when the hired DJ took a break. Rowlands and Simons soon made a name for themselves as resident DJs at a Manchester club called Naked Under Leather – even though their name, the Dust Brothers, was already taken.

"We knew perfectly well who they were," Simons admits, referring to the original Dust Brothers, the well-known Los Angeles-based production team that has worked with the Beastie Boys. "It was just a name to put on a flier. You have to remember, at the time, the scale of what we were doing – playing at someone's party, in the kitchen of somebody's house. It only became a problem as we were putting out remixes." When the real Dust Brothers objected, Rowlands and Simons renamed themselves the Chemical Brothers, after their third single, "Chemical Beats."

From the beginning – at Naked Under Leather, on the early release "Song to the Siren," on the EP 14th Century Sky and during their celebrated DJ stint at the Heavenly Social club, in London – the Chemicals challenged the prevailing house-and-techno mood in Britain with a rougher, harder mix of hip-hop and breakbeat instrumentals, spiked with flashes of vintage psychedelia. Vocalist Tim Burgess of the Charlatans UK remembers the pleasant shock he got when he first heard Rowlands and Simons' remix of "Patrol," from the Charlatans UK's 1994 album, Up to Our Hips.

"I recognized the bass line," Burgess says, laughing, pointing out that Rowlands and Simons had pinched it from a mid-'60s single, "How Does It Feel to Feel," by the British acid-pop group Creation. "And it was good. They'd almost turned it into a hip-hop record.

"And it explained why they were playing so many good records at the Social," adds Burgess, who later contributed lyrics and vocals to "Life Is Sweet," on Exit Planet Dust. "They had a good knowledge of music."

"I get as much inspiration listening to Pebbles compilations [a series of'60s garage-punk anthologies] as I do listening to [the Detroit-based DJ] Carl Craig," says Rowlands, who as a teenager methodically listened to every disc in the record collection at his local library. "If I buy records, it serves two purposes: I can listen for enjoyment, and there might also be some creative spark there. To me, it's a beautiful combination. Now I just buy so many records where I think, 'Well, if I don't like it, maybe there's something I can borrow.'"

Aside from all the new records that Rowlands and Simons can now afford, success has not had a drastic impact on the Chemical Brothers' lifestyles. Rowlands and Simons are as close as they've ever been. They live in recently purchased apartments just blocks apart in West London, and they drive the same brand of car: Volkswagen. The Chemicals have also invested much of their earnings into their stage show, which includes quadrophonic sound mixed on a console once used by Pink Floyd. "We've had a good year," Simons crows. "We made Dig Your Own Hole, played with Oasis and Afrika Bambaataa, went to America. And I think we'll get another record made pretty soon."

But even though he and Rowlands have a bona-fide hit album in the U.S., Simons doesn't feel like he's getting rich off the so-called techno revolution – not yet, anyway: "I only feel like I'm making money when we DJ, to be honest. Because you just get your wad of money at the end of the night, split it and bang it in your pocket."