Two decades into their career, the Chemical Brothers are riding high on a resurgent wave of popularity. And while many Nineties pioneers are reaping similar benefits from timely nostalgia for the decade, the Mancunian dance duo’s evolving success story is a unique one. Last week, their exemplary work on the Hanna soundtrack won the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards’ Best Score honor – not bad for their first full feature venture. Meanwhile, their contribution to the Black Swan soundtrack, the epic sprawling banger “Don’t Think,” earned them a cult hit Stateside and served as the namesake for their own upcoming concert film, which makes its highly anticipated one-evening strike in theaters worldwide on February 1st. An exhilarating trip through the sublime and scary parameters of the duo’s psychedelic live show, Don’t Think is a triumph, celebrating 20 years of the act’s soul-quaking dance music as well as their biggest international tour to date.
After experiencing Don’t Think’s hairpin turns, Rolling Stone spoke exclusively to the Chemical Brothers’ Ed Simons, as well as their director and long-time collaborator Adam Smith, on the chemistry between them, Skrillex, their marathon year in film, and the secrets behind Don’t Think’s production.
After 20 years, why was now the best time to finally do a concert film?
Ed Simons: There aren’t many live films that really capture the energy of being at a concert. Off the top of my head, I can think of Stop Making Sense and maybe The Last Waltz, plus a few New Order clips on YouTube. Ultimately, you’d just rather be at a show. But at Glastonbury 2007, the BBC filmed us for a few songs, and the footage turned out really well. I began to change my mind. This was also probably our biggest tour to date, so everything just kind of fell into place, so we finally did it, trusting Adam to lead us in the right direction.
Adam Smith: The aim was to was capture the experience of the band’s live show in an unconventional manner, in a way that’s never been done, because it’s not a typical show. If you told someone, “We’re going to have some clowns, some exploding teapots, some architectural plans, and some dancers in bolt hats,” they might question your sanity. But those elements capture the Chemical Brothers experience on a subsconcious level. Music is the script and the script is a journey through live emotions. Don’t Think is what experiencing them feels like.
Why was Japan the perfect place to film?
Simons: We’ve always had a special relationship with our Japanese audience. We’ve headlined Fuji Rock Festival seven times, and there’s just something about the way the crowd reacts to us there. They’re so passionate, and it was the perfect place to capture our live show at its best.
Smith: There’s a childlike wonder to the audience, and it’s such a cynical time. I put four Canon cameras into the audience, instructing no one to look at them. I sent the operators loose, letting them find people that were absolutely in the moment. If anyone was showing off, I told them to move on to someone else. It was very organic and unscripted.
How did your drama background as a filmmaker influence your methods, Adam?
Smith: In the case of Maryo, the girl who pops up through the film and has a mini-narrative of her own, I created moments of real surprise for her. I told people to jump out and startle her; again, it was all about getting an organic reaction. There was no acting on her part, it was all happening in real-time. She even stumbled at one point, at the trippiest point in the film, which was rather endearing.
What led to the decision to release Don’t Think to theaters?
Simons: It actually relates back to the idea of why we were hesitant to this in the first place. The modern listening experience is one of solitude, where someone just listens to music on their laptop. We didn’t want this concert film to just reduced it to a DVD you watch at home on a little screen. We wanted to make it special; the scale and ambition of the project kept growing and we wanted to honor that. Putting it into theaters for one night only makes it as close to a concert experience as you can get it.
What fuels the “chemistry” behind the long-standing Chemical Brothers/Adam Smith creative partnership?
Simons: Basically, Adam’s a good bloke. He’s our great friend. He’s toured with us for years and set up all our projected visuals, especially in America. He’s our longest term collaborator to date, minus our engineer. If we like someone, Tom and I keep working with them. Adam’s the one who came up with our clown motifs and other recurring themes you see in our videos and live projections. Sometimes we have an idea of our own to contribute, but we fully trust his vision. He captures the unconscious mind overlapping into reality.
Smith: It’s a very special dynamic we’ve shared, and somehow along the way we’ve made things people really liked! You don’t get this kind of creative freedom in many places; Ed and Tom are not controlling musicians by any means. They really leave it to me, give me full license. But they inspire me in their work; they’re great muses.
What are your personal favorite moments from the film?
Simons: I love seeing the fans’ excited faces. I never get to see that. When you’re onstage, you can see the front row and get a general impression of what’s going on, but you’re in your own zone. But seeing these quasi-religious experiences play out up close is amazing. These beautiful, dignified faces losing themselves in the sound…it’s wonderful.
Smith: My favorite is the kid who is positively escastic when “Block Rockin’ Beats” comes on. It’s such an intimate moment.
Was shooting onstage difficult at all?
Simons: Tom and I aren’t really drama club types; we are not natural performers. But I think I took my direction well. (laughs)
Smith: Actually, I’ve never really seen them go off like that! They do get into it. Just ingesting and thriving on the music, having their little jokes between songs; I really tried to capture those moments of levity. Ed jokes that Tom was hamming up to the cameras a bit. (laughs)
There are visual moments – the scary clown “Come To Daddy”-esque moment, the bugs crawling on people – that spill offstage and into reality. Was that all post-production?
Smith: No, actually! We projected those bugs from a broken iPhone, believe it or not. Only a few things were added post-production, like the figures swimming over the crowd during “Swoon.”
Ed, the Chemical Brothers’ score for Hanna really stood out as a scenario where the score may have eclipsed the film. How did you approach that project?
Simons: It was our first real score, so a very new experience. Adam actually recommended us for it… We recorded some bits before filming, then we discovered the “whistling theme” which runs throughout the film, and built upon that. Then we had access the film’s rushes, and off we went. Lots of complicated chase scenes, lots of individual motifs for different characters; it was very intense. But we just won an award for it!
What’s the story behind “Don’t Think,” the film’s namesake track?
Simons: It was one of our favorite tracks from the Further sessions, but it didn’t fit into the scope of the album; it was too big and the album was pretty short. It developed as a live track and we released it as a b-side. It actually became one of our biggest live tracks; in dance, it’s almost more intoxicating to experience a new track live for the first time. It also had the great accompanying “Don’t Walk, Don’t Think” street sign visuals, which set an ideal for this whole concert film. The underlying message of the film is “don’t think, just feel.”
Could the Chemical Brothers pull off an event of this magnitude in America?
Simons: Maybe, since we did Coachella a few years ago, played to huge audiences. We’ve not really been part of the recent rave phenomenon, of course.
On that note, what do you think of Skrillex?
Simons: I met him at Coachella; he was a very charming guy. And his show was absolute mayhem. It may not be everything I love about music or the album I choose to listen to at dinner tonight, but obviously his music is speaking to and exciting a lot of people, so he must be doing something right.
Does the current American “rave revival” remind of you of the Big Beat craze of the 1990s?
Simons: I think it’s good; I like the energy surrounding it. I’ve always found it odd that our main influences were American – Derrick May, Frankie Knuckles, acid house, Detroit techno – but it took British artists to make a version of that popular in the USA. It’s different with this new wave of acts. Americans are good at making dance music, so it’s happening for them. I don’t love the whole money, money thing, but what can you do? Good luck to everyone!