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Better Living Through Chemistry

The Chemical Brothers try to move beyond the hype.

Exit Planet Dust, a 1995 disc released on Virgin Records in the U.K. and on Astralwerks in the States, was an auspicious debut--a rare dance album that was as well-suited to a home stereo in Cleveland as it was to the subterranean recesses of a London night spot. Highlights include the souped-up drums, bass and come-to-the-party cowbell of "Chemical Beats," a bubbling stew of quirky hip-hop dubbed "In Dust We Trust," and the delicate "Alive Alone," in which guest warbler Beth Orton comes across like an ethereal folkie caught in a techno jungle.

Clearly, this was dance music that had nothing to do with John Travolta during his polyester leisure-suit days, but neither did it mimic Kraftwerk and other electro-pioneers whose work seemed bloodless and robotic to the average American. By translating the genre into more familiar tongues, Rowlands and Simons were able to build a U.S. following outside of the club kid subculture: Exit Planet Dust sold 300,000 copies in America and well over twice that beyond these shores.

What followed was an attempt by U.S. record companies to stage an electronica coup d'etat aimed at an alternative rock scene that had become as predictable as the brawls on The Jerry Springer Show. But while the Chemical Brothers became a pawn in this game, Simons makes it clear that their motivation wasn't world domination. "People who make genuine music aren't thinking about becoming the next big thing," he says. "We're just making music. Electronica isn't about where it fits into the marketplace. It just comes out of the blue."

Perhaps, but there's no denying that the Brothers' timing was perfect. After flexing their muscles on remixes for Method Man, Dave Clarke and Manic Street Preachers, they issued Dig Your Own Hole, which upped the ante on Exit Planet Dust by way of the twosome's most explosive collection of songs yet. Typical was "Electrobank," in which a cryptic phrase by rapper Keith Murray--"Who is this doin' this synthetic type o' alpha-beta psychedelic funkin'?"--is repeated like a Zen koan over fat, driving beats until it almost begins to make sense. The formula works even better on "Block Rockin' Beats," featuring Philly hip-hop legend Schooly D proclaiming that the Chemicals are "back with another one of those block rockin' beats." This was no empty boast: "Block Rockin' Beats" won a Grammy as the year's best rock instrumental, powering Dig Your Own Hole to gold status in America and sales of over two million copies worldwide.

Surrender may face a tougher road on a couple of fronts. Because the domestic music industry has largely turned its back on electronica, the album is unlikely to benefit from the massive publicity push that helped Dig Your Own Hole reach such a sizable audience--a prospect that Simons shrugs off. "Music to dance to doesn't need to be known to millions of people to be a success," he says. "It's successful in the moment when people hear it and it moves them to dance." More worrisome to him is the prospect that supercilious DJs, wary of including anything by overly popular groups, may shun the new material for fear of damaging their underground-club credentials. To combat this possibility, the Brothers have issued a twelve-inch single version of the Surrender effort "Under the Influence" using the pseudonym Electronic Battle Weapon. Simons hopes that this minor subterfuge, which was previously used with "It Doesn't Matter" from Dig Your Own Hole, will help jocks approach the number with open ears.

"Being a DJ myself, I know that I would tend to judge music more harshly if it was by a big name act," he explains. "We also wanted to get the song out very quickly while we were still finishing the album, so we went straight to the DJs."

In the end, Simons believes that the Brothers' latest salvos will resonate with club-goers on both sides of the pond: "We don't see the chasm between British and American music, because the people who enjoy our music are all part of the same club culture," he says. But he's somewhat less confident about thriving in rarefied Colorado air. According to him, "High altitude gives me terrible headaches. I also suffer from gory dreams when I go to Denver--psychotic, gory dreams featuring dismemberment and that sort of thing. But I think that's more a sign of my problems with high altitude than an indication of my mental health." He asks, "Does anyone have any tips on how I can avoid the Denver headache?"

Check with Bono--and if you're nice, maybe he'll let you borrow his white flag.

Fatboy Slim, with the Chemical Brothers. 9 p.m. Saturday, July 17, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, $25, 303-825-4849.

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