The Chemical Brothers emerged in what now seems like dance music’s Stone Age. In 1995, when Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands released their full-length debut, Exit Planet Dust, they were two London DJ-producers pushing England’s fading acid-house scene into a future filled with hip-hop, Britpop and big-room house — and toward America’s initial dalliance with something then called electronica. Two decades later, with eighth Chemical Brothers LP Born in the Echoes just released, Simons and Rowlands are global dance-music superstars, comfortable block-rocking EDM festivals, or dropping techno and house bangers in intimate DJ sets. As for Echoes, the album explodes with possibility and personality, encompassing pop-friendly collaborations with Q-Tip, St. Vincent and Beck (on “Wide Open,” which sounds like a great lost Postal Service tune), captivating modern beats and profoundly experimental oddities. We caught up with Rowlands to discuss the advantages of being a legacy act and the lure of the long-player in an era where bite-size reigns.
Where did you start with Born in the Echoes? How did you decide that, “Hey, we want to put together a new set of songs and make another Chemical Brothers full-length?”
There was a definite sense of “Shall we do this again?” I’m always making music. I’ll get up in the morning and go to the studio; that’s how I like to spend my day. But that’s different than thinking, “Right, let’s make a record.” Ed and I talked about it and decided that this is only worth doing when you’ve really got something that you want to do. We wanted to make a record that would fit alongside the other records we’ve made, and we both felt that there was another good Chemical Brothers album in us.
One thing that does spur us on is that we still DJ every so often — not week in and week out, but every couple of months or something. And we’re making music that we’re excited to play. When we played new tracks [in our sets], even when they were kind of half-formed ideas, they felt exciting and fresh to us, something that we could follow when making this album. That helped us decide that we were going to make a record, and what the kind of general feel it was going to have.
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What were some of the stylistic guides for Echoes? There are elements on the record that reflect your earlier career, but it also sounds quite modern. For instance, “Reflexion” sounds like Chemical Brothers doing a Kompakt track.
DJ-ing is my great spur to make music. It’s an impulse that we’ve had since we started — we couldn’t find records that we wanted to play in the clubs, so we started making them. “Reflexion” was actually one of the first things that was made for the new album, and we were playing it out. When we DJ, we like to play small club things. That record, we were DJ-ing in Italy, playing it very late/early in the morning, and it just had this magical thing. It felt like a Chemical Brothers record but in a different kind of way. It still had that noise. Do you know [experimental saxophonist] Colin Stetson? We did a session with him in New York; he plays on that record. So it had that feeling of psychedelic wooziness in a kind of modern techno way. And we were excited about that.One of the modern things that we’re playing are tracks by Paranoid London that make us excited about the simplicity of acid-house music. Also, we’re playing lots of [Chicago House pioneer] Ron Hardy’s edits. We like the sort of primal strangeness of these weird cut-together records that sound a bit wrong. We were playing that Ron Hardy record “Sensation” when we DJ’d and it just stood out. It’s like that magical bit where it seems the person doesn’t know what they’re doing. Obviously, they do, but it sounds naïve.
It’s like a brilliant mistake.
Exactly. We’ve always got a taste for making that kind of accidental record. Usually, a person makes one of them and then they never find that magical bit again. We always try and search for that magic bit. Ed and I don’t really know what we did or why we did it. You go aiming for one thing and something else comes out which is a lot more intriguing than when you went in. Those are the kinds of records that survive. They still have that intoxicating thing; when you play them, people connect. They’re out of time, but in time.
Can you talk about the continuing presence of psychedelia in your music? On Born in the Echoes, there’s a little bit more of that “Tomorrow Never Knows” vibe on “I’ll See You There,” as well as that Perrey and Kingsley synthesizer feel in “Taste of Honey.”
It’s one of those things that comes from when we got really obsessed with collecting obscure psychedelic records. There used to be this amazing record shop on Blehneim Crescent in West London near where we both live. And there was this amazing, wizard-like figure that used to work in there [Bill Forsyth at Minus Zero]. He always had records with strange electronic noises from back when early electronics were coming into rock music. He’d send us away with Bill Holt’s Dreamies, the Calico Wall and all kinds of strange records. That’s always fed into my music. Because I’d always been interested in strange noises. They didn’t used to be that common in records really. I used to love it when you’d get, like, a garage-rock record that went all wrong, and had the whole multitrack with a Moog synthesizer, and it all spilled out into chaos. That feeling and that combination of things is something that still really excites us when we hear it.
“Tomorrow Never Knows” has been a touchstone for us for years. It’s kind of like a reset in life. That record is one of the most out-there records you’ll ever hear but also one of the great pop records. It’s kind of easy to make freak-out extravagance, or unfocused jams, which is what a lot of psychedelic music is. But [“Tomorrow”] is the most other thing you’ll hear and also the most catchy. That’s genius to me. It would be a losing game to try and just copy it because it’s a unique piece of music. But it’s an inspirational kick you have every so often, of what music could be. You hear it and you think to keep pushing on, keep trying something new.
The albums we like have that feeling too. When we began, we all thought these things were closely linked, giving us the same feeling — acid-house music was to us a psychedelic music, the transformative music that made you feel outside yourself. That’s what you get from good psychedelic rock records as well. It didn’t seem like an odd thing to put these together; it seemed very natural.
One of the things I loved about coming to play in America, especially the early stages was that we’d get b-boys, we’d get ravers and we’d get Deadheads all dancing at Chemical Brothers gigs. I loved all these people finding something different in the records that we’re making, like Latin freestyle records and straight-up 13th Floor Elevators — all those things together. That’s an exciting place to be.
From the beginning, the Chemical Brothers made albums, not just collections of tracks. Where did that mindset come from?
I remember after we made a couple of EPs, the label we were on at the time, Junior Boy’s Own, were like, “Now we’re going to give you some money and you can go into a studio and make an album.” And to us, it was important. It was a chance to make our kind of record, an album that’s going to live a long time. I respect those people that have a utilitarian approach to dance music, and they’ll make 10 club 12-inches a year. But we had the chance to make an album that did all these different things that excited us: one song that you wanted to play in a club loud, another that was a nine-minute oddity–sound exploration and another track that was something completely different. We made mixtapes for each other and for friends, or we DJ’d, with music that always moves around.
I think this stems from our early clubbing days when we used to go to [legendary Manchester club] the Hacienda and they would play early house music, but then they would play hip-hop, and they would play acid, and they would play all these different kind of things together. And it was always the moment when things changed and the DJ was jacking up one field with another that made us excited.
So in making our albums, we still love that idea. It’s kind of an outmoded idea that people will give you an hour of their life to listen to their record. But that’s how we envision it — that we’re making a record. You’ll come to the end of the song and it’s important how you’re left at the end of that song, and how the next song starts, a feeling of bringing different emotions and different moods and atmospheres to the record. From the very start, we were obsessed with that and we still are now. We’re still dreaming of making that perfect album.