Interview: Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons' chemical attraction

As their latest album, We Are The Night, tops the charts the duo reveal the secret to their long-lasting music career and friendship.
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What with Klaxons winning the Mercury Prize last month, and young pretenders such as New Young Pony Club, Shitdisco and Hadouken! all storming the charts, it seems that dance music is not as dead as everyone had thought it was. The Chemical Brothers don't seem much bothered either way. Earlier this month they won the award for Best Electronic Artist or DJ at the BT Digital Music Awards and their latest album, We Are the Night, recently topped the chart – the fifth time in a row they have accomplished the feat.

And with a nice touch of scene-making serendipity, Jamie Reynolds and James Righton of Klaxons are among the many guest acts featured on the album, lending a touch of spiky nu-rave dynamics to the track "All Rights Reversed".

"Whether it is a time of boom or famine for dance music has never made any difference to us," says Tom Rowlands.

"We never saw ourselves responsible for a scene or anything. For us it was always all about making a record that would excite people and show them that we had something interesting to offer."

Thanks in part to this philosophy, the duo now find themselves cast in the not-altogether-welcome role of last men standing. None of their contemporaries from the 1990s is still in quite such rude health either creatively or commercially as the Chemical Brothers. But Ed Simons doesn't feel that longevity for the sake of it is a particularly worthy aim.

"Some people would see it more as a curse," he says. "We didn't set out to last a long time. It's more about making music that's exciting, particularly on stage, where we're playing these festivals all round the world and people seem to be excited when we come on. It's gratifying."

Rowlands and Simons are sitting in the bar of The Social, a club in the West End of London. This is not the same Social where the pair famously enjoyed a DJ residency in 1994 when they were still known as The Dust Brothers, an engagement that resulted in the album Live at the Social Volume 1 (eventually released in 1996).

"That was the Sunday Social in the Albany at the top of Great Portland Street," Simons says. "It only ran for about 14 weeks and then they had to find somewhere else."

Rowlands picks up a copy of the Live at the Social CD, which I have brought along to jog a few memories. "I haven't even got a copy of this myself," he says, looking at the picture of his younger self, long blond hair dangling all over the decks. "That's all gone," he says, ruefully. "It does feel a long time ago. But it's all part of the same thing, really."

Maybe so. But a Sunday-night residency mixing and matching a string of obscure tracks to a bunch of James Brown beats in front of 150 people seems a long way removed from the kind of shows that Rowlands and Simons have been playing this year. These have included festival headlining appearances at Creamfields, Glastonbury and the Electric Picnic in Ireland, and a special one-off spectacular in Trafalgar Square. They have more shows coming up all over Eastern and Western Europe, South America, Australasia and a tour of the UK, including a three-night stand at Brixton Academy, the venue where they hold the record for the most gigs played in a single year ("we've got a special plaque for it, somewhere").

It is, perhaps, ironic that a 1990s dance act should have become such a huge and respected live attraction in the 21st century. Neither of them sings or plays an instrument on stage (Rowlands can play keyboards and "bad guitar"; Simons doesn't play an instrument at all). So what exactly do they do when they "play live"?

"We always think we should maybe put on a little film before we start, to explain the process of what is happening," Rowlands says before embarking on a lengthy explanation of how it is all about manipulating an electronic brain to determine exactly which combination of musical information stored on synthesisers, sequencers and samplers is deployed at any given moment of the performance.

"A very early cliché established that electronic music was just two guys twiddling knobs on stage," Simons says.

"We never found that intrinsically boring, but when we play live, we've always carried around our huge speakers and the visuals. We want people to experience the music in a really exciting environment, and the visuals are part of that, to absorb people in it so that you get disorientated, you get completely intoxicated by the music. That's always been the point of making it an experience. That goes back to Pink Floyd, and the Velvet Underground...

"It might be unfashionable to say, but that's the kind of experience that we've been trying to create when we've played from pretty much day one."

So are they happy for people to remember their light-show, but not them? "Yes. That's fine," Rowlands insists. "Neither of us started making music out of a desire to have a foot up on the monitor at the front of the stage telling you, 'this is how it's gonna be'. I like to see people do that as well. But it's not what we want to do."

The man responsible for the stunning visuals at the Chemical Brothers shows is Adam Smith, who used to run a company called Vegetable Vision.

"Adam was doing the visuals at the very first gig we did, at Andy Weatherall's club," Rowlands says.

"And we're still together. When we're writing music we play it to him. As we're making the album, he's getting ideas and stuff. We may have a specific idea for a song, but generally we just let him run riot."

Is he the third Chemical Brother? "Definitely," Rowlands admits. "Especially when we play live."

"We have three or four very longstanding collaborators," Simons says. "Our engineer, Steve Dub, for example. If there is one secret to our success it could be that when we find someone we enjoy working with, we keep working with that person. That's my advice."

While keeping an unusually stable team of core personnel in the background, the Chemicals have maintained a contrastingly rapid, revolving-door policy when it comes to their featured collaborators. In the past these have included Noel Gallagher, Bernard Sumner, Bobby Gillespie, Richard Ashcroft and Beth Orton. The guest performers on We Are the Night are a typically motley crew, including the folk singer Willy Mason, the rapper Fat Lip, from the Pharcyde, and Tim Smith, the singer with the up and coming Texan indie-rock band Midlake.

So are the Chemical Brothers an A&R team as much as a pair of DJs and producers? "Hopefully not," says Rowlands, clearly not very impressed with this suggestion.

"Obviously we gravitate towards things that we like. We hear something in their voice that connects with something we're doing. But it always comes out of us writing music. That's the first thing that we do. Then we start imagining a voice. We've never tried to do it the other way round."

"Before we made music together, when we were students in Manchester, our friendship was based on playing each other music," Simons says. "We used to go to clubs together. We used to go record-shopping together. So finding people to work with is really an extension of that. We have endless discussions about who we might work with." Rowlands adds: "It's usually the most traumatic part of making records."

Meeting the Brothers for an hour or so, you get a sense of the tremendous rapport that has bound them together for so many years. But relationships change, and the two of them now lead widely divergent lives away from their work. Rowlands, 36, is married with three kids and lives in Lewes in the rural south of England, while Simons, 35, remains single, and lives in Notting Hill, West London.

"The 1990s was spent in each other's pockets and in the studio the whole time," Simons says. "We were either on tour or we used to go on holiday together and that resulted in certain records and a certain working relationship, but now we have a different arrangement. But I actually think the music we've made in the last five years is the best we've made."

"The key is that we're still friends," Rowlands adds. "Sometimes it's fraught, as it was when we were students in a house together, arguing about what to watch on telly."

At the end of the interview, Simons nips out for a cigarette, while Rowlands, a confirmed non-smoker, hangs around chatting in the bar. He looks wistfully once again at my copy of the Live at the Social CD.

"I'll have to go on eBay and get myself a copy of this album," he says. "It's always the ones that you play at a party that disappear. I've been through about five copies of this already."

The Chemical Brothers play Koko, London NW1 (www.koko.uk.com) on 25 October; their UK tour runs from 6 to 15 December (www.thechemicalbrothers.com)

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