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.

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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