Words: Andy Pemberton
Originally published in Mixmag December 1995
Chicago. At least that was the view you glimpsed from the hotel window earlier this afternoon. Middle of a five-week tour and now you’re in post gig limbo. It’s something unspeakable in the AM, and you’re too wired from the gig to go to bed, but you’re shagged from days spent on the road. Your body clock is fucked – wound forward and then back again by transatlantic flights and cross continent jetting. Time has never felt so relative. Feeling this weird has begun to be a way of life. Better start drinking beer, and maybe enjoying the other recreational substances always made available to a visiting popular music band. Maybe that way you can inject some colour into the grey grind of touring.
A guy walks into the dressing room. Freaky looking geezer smoking Salem brand cigarettes. He starts talking to you in a deeply southern, flatbed truck drawl. The words creep out of his disgusting fucking mouth so slow, he’s obviously not used to being interrupted. He says he’s a Southern rock fan, whatever the hell that is, but he reeks of bad vibes – American, but evil fuckers smell the same anywhere. Has to be a drug dealer. This sonovabitch is mumbling away and fumbling in his pocket and, hey big surprise, he pulls out the biggest stash of cocaine. He cuts himself a line longer and wider than the Hudson river. And schniffs the whole lot in one go. Jesus H Christ.
It’s like a bad dream, but it isn’t happening to you. It’s happening to the Chemical Brothers. Someone asks him his name. And this creepy bastard drawls in slo mo, just for extra effect, “Folks mostly call me Satan.” “At that moment we looked at each other and thought, ‘Oh boy, locked in a dressing room with a man called Satan. Really scary,’” says Tom later. They quit the dressing room double quick. Ed took pictures of the guy and he’s wondering whether they’ll come out. It’s been one hell of a year for The Chemical Brothers.
“This year has been a real blur,” mumbles Ed, the shorter Chemical Brother with the hair that will never be fashionable, inbetween drags on a white-tipped Malboro Light. “I can’t really string it together, I can’t really remember what happened at all…” and he tails off, looking blearily around the crumbling grandeur of the Gramercy Park Hotel, New York. It’s 2pm and last night’s gig, the partying, the lack of sleep, has taken its toll.
“Mumble…” he continues, incoherently, “… Keith Richards…” His mouth rallies round and he manages to form some words. “There was a Leftfield Party [at the old GLC building in London] at the beginning of the year, that’s one of the markers when this year began.”
Let me refresh his memory. ‘Exit Planet Dust’, The Chemical Brothers debut LP, released June this year went in the album charts at Number Nine and to date has sold 60,000 copies in the UK (25,000) in the US, where full on dance albums are rarely even released). The single ‘Leave Home’, released May his year, went to Number 17. Their ten date UK tour this Autumn, visiting 1,000 capacity venues, sold out in advance. Last year they were the coolest non-DJ DJ act around, their club, the Heavenly Sunday Social, was London’s most talked about, and they were and still are rock music’s favourite remixers. (Oasis’s Noel Gallagher walked into Heavenly office with a demo of ‘Wonderwall’ requesting a remix.) Not only that, but they’ve helped create and have ridden a wave of musical broadmindedness long overdue in dance music. In the two years since ‘Song To The Siren’, their first release, they’ve been successful like most house acts dream of. Right now they’re the hottest things in Doc Martens, the coolest ex-students on the planet. So, like the tubby Irish bloke on the telly says, how did they do that?
Let’s slip back to 1989. Manchester University. History Department. It’s an early Monday morning tutorial. Two seats are empty. In one should sit gangly long haired, Henley-On-Thames Tom and in the other should be Oxford Ed. But they’re not there because at the weekend they went to the Hacienda, queued for three hours, hear Park and Pickering and got completely trousered. Or maybe they got the coach to Venus with Justin Robertson’s Most Excellent posse or maybe they heard him DJ at Spice. Acid house 1 Tutorials 0.
Tom and Ed talked about starting their own club. (They’d DJed at a wedding, drunk, using someone else’s records, coming on after Greg Fenton.) They never got it together, until 1990 when some younger students, Phil Self and Alex Cola, sorted it out. The club was called Naked under Leather. The flyers featured a badly drawn picture of someone’s crotch in leather trousers. They’d DJ hip hop before warming up to house and techno. But they ran out of instrumental hip hop and hard breakbeat records to play so they thought they’d make their own. Born in Tom’s bedroom on a Hitachi hi fi, a computer, a S1000 sampler and one keyboard with no effects, they made ‘Song To The Siren’, put out on vinyl with a hardcore act contributing the other side.
A pre-Sabres Of Paradise Andy Weatherall heard it, liked and signed it to Junior Boys Own in February 1993. He even remixed it. The Dust Brothers, as they were then known, were on their way. 22 years old, they were signed to the nation’s coolest house label. They must have felt like the bee’s bollocks.
“Well,” says Ed, in laconic fashion, “not really.”
If the Brothers bagging a record deal sounds relatively easy, it was. Their Manchester clubbing days hooked them up with the early Balearic network – they hung out, they knew people. Tom was already signed to Deconstruction when he was just 19 as a member of Ariel, a Balearic band.
And the whole indie dance thing the Balearic scene embraced was an important part of the Brothers development. As well as a grounding in mid-80s hip op, the work of producer Marly Marl and acts like Schooly D and Public Enemy, ‘Song To The Siren’, a hip hop stompathon with sirens and spooky ambience to go, was a terrifying noisefest that sampled the This Mortal Coil track of the same name. The indie element crops up again with guitar samples all over their album. Tracks like ‘Her Jazz’ and ‘Leave Home’ owe their titles to a Huggy Bear track and a Ramones LP respectively.
I like all types of music, that’s what it’s about,” says Tom. “There’s no division. I used to like Jesus and Mary Chain and Public Enemy at the same time. They’re not mutually exclusive. I don’t think they are for most people.”
The success of ‘Song To The Siren’ Led to an invitation to do the business for Lionrock’s Packet Of Peace’, the Manchester connection working for them again. They did the job: hip hop beats that would scare your mother and weird shit on top. The offers came flooding in – remixes for The Sandals, Republica, Justin Warfield, and Leftield/Lydon’s ‘Open Up’. Ariel, meanwhile, went for a burton. Musical differences, you know the deal.
“Ariel symbolically ended when Deconstruction asked us for a Dust Brothers remix of an Ariel track. That was the final nail in the coffin,” says Ed, laughing.
The Brothers resurfaced with the ‘14th Century Sky’ EP in February 1994 and it proved to be the real turning point. An EP of diverse feel and flavour, it kept the sound of acid house but ripped out the four four. But this wasn’t the head noddin’, chin stroking, cooler than thou hip hop favoured by London trendies. It was a full on, rapacious attack on the dancefloor. While other house producers would wibble on about how their new track was different – “it’s more disco-ey,” they’d bleat – The Brothers actually did something different. ‘Chemical Beats’ was a mad acidic, tightly wound ball of aggression, ‘Dope Coil’ a lolloping, rolling jam, ‘One Too Many Mornings’ bleary eyed, dub-mungous baby wrapped in the arms of a beautiful female vocal, and finally the superb ‘Her Jazz’ a beat concert of ethereal vocals and phasing melody. Techno hip hop. Chemical beats. It tore clubland to pieces like a hurricane.
The key to understanding these and many other Dust/Chemical Brothers tracks is to see them in the context of house music. Imagine hearing four to the floor all night and then the DJ drops ‘Chemical Beats’. Breakbeats and acid: dancefloor frenzy guaranteed.
“English dance music has always been fed on odd records that come inbetween house records,” says Ed. But now you go to a club and it’s the whole night of those odd records. That’s not what we intended. Music is not supposed to be played like that, it doesn’t sound good.”
During Summer 1994 came the Sunday Social. Run out of the basement of a London pub, in conjunction with Heavenly Records. The Social had an anything goes music policy, and the most up for it crowd in London. You could go down the Soc on a quiet Sunday night and you wouldn’t get in. 200 people would be spilling outside the Albany pub by 7.30 PM. Bobbie Gillespie, Paul Weller and Tricky could be seen hanging out. Everyone was taking a lot of drugs. It was hot, crowded and sweaty. And it scream House MUSIC IS NOT THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN.
“It was really exciting when it first started,” says Ed now. “We were playing the style we’ve always played, playing every week so we were able to make funny records really big records. Basic hip hop records became huge anthems.”
They’d spin Carlos Bario’s ‘Doing It After Dark’ – a drum loop, a bassline and someone saying “doing it after dark” relentlessly – and people would go mad for it. Then they’d play Oasis. And while the mixing was pretty duff, The Brothers seemed to understand their records better than anyone else. They knew that you could play mad acid techno by Emmanuel Top and mix it with The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ because they were part of the same psychedelic family tree.
The Sunday Social was a revolutionary club in the most powerful way possible – it was fun. Not a poncey, intellectual refutation of four four mundanity, it was just a bloody good time, with records you don’t usually hear in clubs. Suddenly London realised that you can mix musical styles, in small venues and it can be very cool indeed. Once again, success came immediately, the club was a hit from day one. The Brothers were working it out.
With an LP completed in August 1994 and ready to go, widespread crossover success was on the cards. There was a triumphant gig supporting The Prodigy at the Brixton Academy in Spring 1995. But in late 1994, early 1995, only two things stood in the way. The first was the original Dust Brothers – creators of The Beastie Boys’ ‘Paul’s Boutique’ – asking for their name back. No problemo. Chemical Brothers it is. The other thing was Junior Boys Own.
“We made the album for ten grand in three weeks which is quite cheap, “recalls Tom, “and I remember talking to Steve Hal (Boys Own supremo) and he said we could do 15,000 of this record. It was only after we finished the record that Steve Hall thought we could do better.”
Tom and Ed obviously knew they could sell a lot more than that. So in February 1995 Junior Boys Own licensed the album to Virgin who put the album out under the Chemical Brothers label name Freestyle Dust.
“Junior Boys Own haven’t got enough money to put out a lot of record,” says Tom. “I wanted to move out of home. We did that Primal Scream ‘Jailbird’ remix and we got £1,500. We’d hired in so many old valve thing to get a good sound the studio bill was £1,250. Once we’d paid the engineer we made about £50 out of it.”
“We weren’t making any money at all,” adds Ed, who had been signing on for the best part of his musical career so far.
Released in Jun ‘Exit Planet Dust’ is without doubt one of the best techno albums of the year. One half is aimed resolutely at the dancefloor with old tracks like ‘Song To The Siren’ (live at Sabresonic Nightclub) ‘Chemical Beats’, and ‘Leave Home’ which pound and mash and then mash some more. Beats jump across the speakers like a DJ cutting up live with a cross fader, snares roll and roll with it before exploding into another boombastic cacophony. It’s teenage adrenaline music that, like Oasis, seems to say: “Let’s fucking have it and all the rest is so much ponce.
“People assume druggy means repetition but ours is druggy in a more psychotic, cut up, jittery way,” opines Tom. “Things cut quickly, which doesn’t often happen in house music. The most psychedelic music is when things come in from different angles.”
The other half of the album is what the Brothers describe, helpfully, as ‘other stuff”. There’s the single ‘Life Is Sweet’, originally released in May 1995, which features the vocal talents of Charlatans lead singer Tim Burgess. They met up last year after The Brothers remixed The Charlatans’ ‘Patrol’, and Burgess turned up to the Social. Down in the studio and four cans of Guinness later and the track had raspberry blowing bass and radio controlled vocals, two up on a breakbeat heading for Amyl Nitrate City. The track has also been remixed to devastating effect by Daft Punk. Then there’s the aforementioned ‘One Too Many Mornings’ and the ethereal ‘Alive Alone’, proving The Chemical Brothers can handle a female vocal with sense and sensitivity. Yet some have criticized The Brothers for being two dimensional, that all their records sound the same.
“‘Alive Alone’ and ‘Chemical Beats’ are not the same record, are they?” states Tom. “We’ve got a style, our own kind of thing, I like it that people can tell it’s your record when it comes on. I like having a sound and it’s good to play around with that sound.”
Live The Chemical Brothers sound slots into place. At the gig on Monday night at New York’s Irving Plaza the sound is crystal clear. About 800 Beastie Boy lookalikes are jigging about, some breakdancing, some pogo-ing and some weird jumpy, spazzy dancing. Ed and Tom stand in front of a huge screen with graphics flashing and morphing behind them courtesy of the excellent Vegetable Vision boys. The album tracks are warped into something bold, brash and new, with sequencer patterns altered live by Tom and samples triggered by Ed.
Intense isn’t the word. With a lungful of weed, the visuals going insane and Ed fucking with the EQ as a drum roll drills into your skull for what seems a lifetime, it feels like you’re going to die. Once the tension is released and the beat drops everyone goes apeshit. For the encore they lay The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, their favourite track ever, on top of ‘Chemical Beats’. As live techno goes, it’s some of the best you’ll ever see. New York agrees, and accordingly goes mental.
Back at the Gramercy Park Hotel things are grinding to a half. Exhaustion is kicking in. At the best of times, Ed and Tom generate a laidback confidence, a bit of a we-don’t-need-to-explain-ourselves vibe. But talking to them in the fog of the morning after and it feels like stumbling into a private conversation between two people irritated by the intrusion but too polite to tell you to piss off.
The rigours of touring are dwelt upon at length. “Someone said it’s like turning up to work in an office job with 72 cans of lager on your desk. I think that sums it up,” says Ed. “Our American agents said, ’97 is going to be massive for you’, and I thought, ‘God if I’m doing this in two years time…’”
“I have no wish to do that at all,” says Tom in all-the-medals slacker mode. “We were at Atlanta airports, hadn’t slept for two days, all these bright halogen lights, and this voice was saying, ‘Maintain control of your baggage.’ But all I could hear, lying flat out on the floor, was ‘Maintain control… Maintain control.’”
It all gets a bit surreal. One minute you’re scraping a living doing remixes and then one Leftfield party later you don’t know what Continent you’re in
“When we first started doing it, we never thought we’d be touring or putting ourselves on the line,” says Ed, grasping at the reason for being here in New York, in this hotel. “It just happened that people liked the record.”
I never thought I’d be playing in New York City,” dribbles Tom, shagged and mystified in equal measures.So how have The Chemical Brothers got so far so quickly? Is it perhaps that the Brothers have tapped unknowingly into a hunger for something different that has been growing around the edges of dance music for two years?
1994 was the year of trip hop, the year James Lavelle’s MoWax became one of the coolest labels around, the year jungle exploded. And it’s carried on through 1995. Trip hop records by Fatboy Slim, Pussyfoot, DJ Icee, and more have inspired bedroom beat heads desperate to break out of music’s rhythmic despotism. Jungle experimentalists like Photek, Peshay and Bukem have made house heads sit up and take notice. Then there are the broadminded DJs playing anything that’s new and exciting, people like Gilles Peterson and Ashley and Rocky and Diesel. The Chemical Brother sit into this open minded dynamic whether they know it or not, with brilliant clear-minded tunes that dare to be different. More than that, within the narrow confines of British clubbing they’ve helped a lot of people realize that there’s more to life than house. You don’t need a goatee to dig the new breed. And the rules are, there are no rules, just brilliant fucked up sounds.
“That’s how we see music,” reflects Ed, his eyes drooping unpleasantly. “As one big psychedelic bubble. Dance records that fuck with your head.”
It’s been a hell of a year for The Chemical Brothers.