The Chemical Brothers: Packing serious beats

The new album contains their most political moment to date. Even dance music can't ignore the real world, they tell Fiona Sturges
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They may be the biggest thing in dance music since the mixer was invented, but you'd be hard pushed to spot The Chemical Brothers - aka Tom Rowlands, 33, and Ed Simons, 34 - in a crowd. It's probably a result of all that time spent indoors realigning his hard drive that Simons could easily pass for a computer salesman or a schoolteacher - almost anything, in fact, except one half of a world-famous dance duo. Rowlands, who has finally abandoned his long indie-kid tresses in favour of a more sensible crop, is at least vaguely recognisable in his trademark tinted specs, though he, too, retains the look of someone who could do with getting out more.

They may be the biggest thing in dance music since the mixer was invented, but you'd be hard pushed to spot The Chemical Brothers - aka Tom Rowlands, 33, and Ed Simons, 34 - in a crowd. It's probably a result of all that time spent indoors realigning his hard drive that Simons could easily pass for a computer salesman or a schoolteacher - almost anything, in fact, except one half of a world-famous dance duo. Rowlands, who has finally abandoned his long indie-kid tresses in favour of a more sensible crop, is at least vaguely recognisable in his trademark tinted specs, though he, too, retains the look of someone who could do with getting out more.

We meet at The Social, a central-London offshoot of the legendary Heavenly Social, the cramped basement club in central London where, 11 years ago, under the stolen alias The Dust Brothers, Simons and Rowlands famously demonstrated their disregard for musical boundaries as they mixed My Bloody Valentine into Grandmaster Flash into Love Unlimited. Their joyously eclectic approach to their art has stood them in good stead. Where other dance acts have foundered with each passing fad, the Chemicals have remained one of the few constants in an ever-changing scene, holding on to a fiercely loyal fan-base comprising ravers, rockers and everyone in between. Now Simons and Rowlands have sold almost seven million albums and had 13 chart hits in the UK, two of them No 1s. They also have the distinction of being the only British dance act ever to win a Grammy, with the 1998 single "Block Rockin' Beats". Their live performances, as popular in Melbourne as in Manchester, have gathered near-mythical status - their show at Glastonbury in 2000 amassed the biggest audience in the festival's history.

The pair met in 1989 at Manchester University while attending a lecture on medieval literature. Their field of study quickly became a source of mirth among critics in the early years, who struggled to take these mild-mannered, middle-class boys seriously. Even now, Rowlands and Simons admit they have something of an image problem. "The 'nerd' tag rather follows us around, though I quite like the fact that we don't fit into someone else's idea of what a dance musician should be," Rowlands remarks. "It was never about us, anyway; we never wanted to be rock stars. We're happy for the music to be bigger than us."

Still, it must be a relief, I suggest, that they have managed to remain anonymous. Not many multimillion-selling artists can still go to the supermarket in peace. Rowlands agrees, though Simons doesn't look so convinced. When I ask if he ever gets recognised, it's with an air of melancholy that he replies: "Only when we're together. And even then we have to be in a nightclub, preferably with a bag of records over our shoulders." The Chemicals are as surprised as anyone that they've lasted the course in such a fickle business. They're also the first to admit that, while they're not quite ready for the pipe and slippers, as they approach their mid-thirties, their desire to hang around in sweaty clubs has started to dwindle. "We DJ maybe six or seven times a year, but apart from that we tend not to bother," Simons says. "I wouldn't go to a club particularly out of pleasure now. We live more vicariously through DJ reports or friends texting us to say, 'They've just played your record, and the crowd loved it.'"

"Even in the early days, we didn't go to clubs purely as a social thing," Rowlands adds. "It was the music we were interested in. I think one of the reasons we became DJs was because we liked having something to do other than just stand around. We always liked the music but we were never very good at the small talk."

Rowlands and Simons use the word "we" rather a lot. Having worked together so closely for so long - for three years the pair were flatmates, though now they live two streets apart in west London - they've become like a married couple, tuned to one another's idiosyncrasies and with a spooky ability to read each other's thoughts. Also typical of a married couple are the times that they suddenly, and very vocally, disagree. When Simons remarks that he had imagined adapting their sound as they got older and crafting a less frenetic signature sound, Rowlands cries: "I never thought that! I'm still really excited by noisy records. Things don't suddenly switch off just because you've reached a certain age. There are mornings when I wake up and want to listen to a Ramones album. Other mornings, I might like to listen to Nick Drake. That's the same whether you are 17 or 37. For us to make an album that bears no relation to our past just because we're 10 years older would be totally wrong. "

Though Simons and Rowlands have "blistering" arguments in the studio, neither considers their close working relationship unusual. "It's probably significant that we were friends before we ever started to work together," Simons says. "And the fact that we do work together means we've got a lot to talk about, which helps."

The main topic of discussion right now is their fifth LP, Push the Button, which is released on Monday. In terms of beats, the album is business as usual, with Rowlands and Simons drawing on a range of genres, from rock and rap to Bollywood film soundtracks, to create a collage of propulsive anthems. The impassioned vocal contribution of the rising US rapper Anwar Superstar to "Left Right" brings one of its most powerful moments. Detailing a soldier's mounting disillusionment with his job, it's by far the most political statement the Chemicals have made. "In the Nineties, our records were very much about escapism and sensory deprivation," Simons reflects. "It used to be about turning away from the world, but now it feels like you can't keep doing that. People are much more politicised, and rightly so. We did think very hard about whether this was the right thing to do - saying something so explicit is a big change for us - but now we're very proud of it."

It's possibly a result of the changes in the dance scene as much as the political environment that the Chemicals have felt the need to adapt, though Simons isn't sure about the need to evolve. "I don't think music necessarily has a responsibility to reflect the times," he says. "Some of the best music has been totally out of its time. Dance music is always relevant because, whatever's going on in the world, people will always want to get together and dance. There was a period in the mid-Nineties when the dance scene turned into a massive industry, but that was really a blip. Now it's back to like it was in Seventies and Eighties, when lots of great house and hip-hop was being made simply for the love of it."

"It's not so much that dance music has collapsed," adds Rowlands; "it's more that it's become totally assimilated. It's not this separate entity any more. Take one of the big rock bands at the moment, like Franz Ferdinand - you can see they're completely influenced by dance, both in the sound they make and in the way they approach making music. It's not like in the Nineties, when a band would get a DJ to bolt on some shuffly beats. These are people that have grown up with electronic music, so it comes naturally to them."

Defending dance music is clearly something to which Simons and Rowlands have become accustomed. Their place in dance history may be assured, but, given the genre's plummeting popularity, their role in its future is a lot less certain. For now, though, they're content to continue making records, playing live and, on special occasions, making guest DJ appearances. As far as they're are concerned, they're in it for the long haul.

"To be honest, I've never imagined doing anything else," Rowlands says. "What will I be doing in 20 years' time? Well, I probably won't be dancing on a beach in Ibiza, but I can guarantee that I'll still be making music. I love that feeling when you create a sound that has the capacity to make a crowd go completely berserk. It's overwhelming. It's simply not a feeling that either of us is prepared to give up."

'Push the Button' is out on Monday on Freestyle Dust/Virgin. The Chemical Brothers play Manchester Apollo on 11 March and then tour to 29 May

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