Better Living Through Chemistry

The Chemical Brothers try to move beyond the hype.

Techno never completely invaded America, in part because the electronica revolution could not be televised. Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands, better known as the Chemical Brothers, are a case in point. Their music has plenty of personality and bravado, but the pair are hardly seen in their own videos and certainly don't fit the rock-star mold. During gigs in support of their American breakthrough, 1997's Dig Your Own Hole, they seemed like timid club rats who hid from the spotlight behind a barricade of sound equipment.

Fortunately, change may be in the offing. The Chemicals have launched a new British invasion via a strong new album, Surrender, and an American tour with Fatboy Slim. Moreover, Simons reports that he and Rowlands have been working on special visual effects for their Red Rocks stop that nod to, of all acts, U2. "The music will be the same as in our other shows on this tour," he says. "We don't try to pander to the audience. But we're trying to match the theatrics of Bono on Under a Blood Red Sky"--an early-Eighties performance filmed at Red Rocks. "We're working on slides and a light show, trying to create a visual representation of what we're doing musically. We might use a big white flag like Bono; it could tie in with the title of our album."

That Simons is turning for inspiration to the king of live concert melodrama implies that the Chemicals have decided to embrace the mainstream--and in some ways, they have. But Surrender proves that the duo hasn't stopped taking chances. On the CD, Simons and Rowlands depart from their prominent use of rap samples in favor of songs with original vocals: Mazzy Star singer Hope Sandoval contributes to the airy "Asleep From Day," Noel Gallagher of Oasis croons throughout the catchy, jazz-tinged "Let Forever Be," and New Order's Bernard Sumner and Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie appear on "Out of Control," a panoply of eccentric/futuristic sounds. Elsewhere, "Music Response" explicitly addresses the Chemicals' oft-mentioned goal of producing music that works on its listeners like a drug, while comparatively gentle tracks such as "The Sunshine Underground" and "Dream On" lean toward trip-hop and trance rather than the big beat that characterized the Brothers' early smashes.

This last move might be the partners' riskiest yet. Thanks to its undeniable gusto and the incorporation of familiar elements from rock and hip-hop, big beat, which the Brothers are often credited with inventing, has become the most popular sub-genre of electronica in America, spawning such stars as Fatboy Slim, the Crystal Method, Prodigy and Daft Punk--and winning over advertisers who've used it to hawk everything from Volkswagens to Levi's. The style has also turned up on the soundtracks to innumerable movies and video games; for instance, the Chemicals contributed their "Loops of Fury" to "Wipeout XL," a Sony PlayStation game. But Simons resists being categorized as a big-beat guru ("We were never interested in making a certain type of music") and denies that Surrender is a response to the uses to which the sound has been put.

"We didn't make this new album the way we did because big beat is over-commercialized," he notes. "It wasn't ours to kill big beat. We see Surrender not as a departure from the kind of music we used to do, but as an extension of what we've been doing and a celebration of the variety of things we can do successfully."

Simons and Rowlands met at Manchester Polytechnic University in 1989, where they were both studying medieval history and reveling in a music scene that has spawned more first-rate British bands than you can shake a drumstick at--the Stone Roses, New Order and the Smiths, among others. They bonded shortly after discovering a mutual affinity for obscure record shops and Middle English Anglo-Saxon poetry. "While I was in Manchester I was in a production of Beowulf," Simons remembers. "I played the third soldier--I didn't have many lines, I just sort of had to stand back and admire Beowulf's exploits. We wore loincloths and sacks. That was the only theater I ever did. I was never one for appearing on stage, unless it was behind a turntable."

In 1992, Rowlands left Ariel, the floundering band in which he'd been playing, to record with Simons. The result was "Song to the Siren," which juxtaposed wailing-siren techno intensity with hip-hop undercurrents--an ideal marriage, in Simons's view ("There is a do-it-yourself culture of music shared by hip-hop and techno," he points out). Famed DJ Andy Weatherall agreed, spinning the cut in his club sets and signing Rowlands and Simons to the London-based Junior Boys Own label. At the time, they were known as the Dust Brothers, a handle they'd pinched from the American producers of the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, Beck's Odelay! and, more recently, Hanson's "MMMBop." But as the boys were preparing to make their first full-length recording, lawyers representing the original Dust Brothers informed them that their clients' moniker was unavailable for sampling. So they borrowed half the title from one of their most acclaimed tracks, "Chemical Beats," and become a different kind of brothers.

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