The Chemical Brothers: The beat goes on...

It is 10 years since The Chemical Brothers exploded on to the dance scene. But their new greatest-hits album is not a parting-shot. As they tell Alexia Loundras, they haven't finished yet
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Clubbing is ingrained in our existence. It's what we do," says Ed Simons, the impish, gap-toothed half of the dance-music supremos The Chemical Brothers. Both Simons and his "brother", Tom Rowlands, have gained their status as club-land legends thanks to their dance-floor igniting tunes. Yet right now, Simons would be far more convincing confessing an addiction to crossword puzzles, dominoes or macramé. Half sprawled over the mahogany table in his record label's boardroom, it's a miracle he's even capable of rousing sufficient energy to drink from his bottle of water let alone summon the amounts required by a self-confessed hedonist. Rowlands - hidden behind his customary tinted specs - is equally indolent. Although he manages to keep himself upright, he speaks with about as much fervour as a jaded sixth-former.

The Chemical Brothers are releasing a career-spanning hits collection, Singles 93-03, and like kids with something - anything - better to do, they are finding the associated promotional duties every bit as punishing as Friday-afternoon detention. Rowlands and Simons are not the sparkiest of interviewees, and to judge by their meandering sentences and heavily pregnant pauses, they'd both give their crinkled vintage T-shirts not to be here. But the knob-twiddlers are not without enthusiasm. They just channel every ounce of it into what really drives them: making groundbreaking, fired-up anthems. It's a passion that the Southerners Simons and Rowlands have been obsessed with since their Manchester Poly days, when, as students, they were seduced by the acid-house glory days of Manchester's legendary Hacienda club.

The pair may have made little use of their 2:1 degrees in medieval history, but in the decade since they first began creating music together, The Chemical Brothers have been busy building a unique legacy on an ever-changing dance landscape. Acid house spawned progressive house, and raves were superseded by the glittering super-clubs, yet The Chemical Brothers have outlived every dance-music trend. The forerunners of Big Beat have sold millions of copies of their four critically acclaimed albums, conquered the charts, won awards and smashed sonic boundaries. "We just felt it was something to celebrate, really. We've got all these good songs, and it just seemed like a good thing," Rowlands says modestly, referring to their imminent singles collection ("calling it 'Greatest Hits' was all a bit decadent somehow"). "These songs demand attention, and we want people to hear them in a row," Simons adds.

The album maps out a history of The Chemical Brothers' career and makes for an essential retrospective. As Simons puts it, there's a fair breadth of music on there. Singles 93-03 starts with the band's first release, the dark adrenalin-fest "Song to the Siren", recorded in Rowlands' student bedroom, and ends with two new recordings - including the psychedelic single "The Golden Path", featuring The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne. In between, it takes in the No 1 hit "Setting Sun" (from Dig Your Own Hole, with Noel Gallagher on vocals) and the intense, pummelling "Hey Boy Hey Girl", from Surrender, as well as hits from last year's Come with Us.

Aimed entirely at electrifying the neural synapses and provoking an uncontrollable urge to, well, dance, this collection swings from acid-fuelled abandon to wired electro-rock. The album eschews categorisation. And that is something of which the Brothers are especially proud. "We don't feel hemmed in by belonging to any particular music scene. What we like about our songs is that they exist in a world of their own. 'Block Rockin' Beats' for us was a record to kick off a Saturday night with, but it went out into the world and won a Grammy for best rock instrumental. And although we might make a really beautiful record with, say, Beth Orton or Hope Sandoval on it, it will still have our sort of rush about it. We just bring together many different musical ideas and then filter them through our experience of clubbing," Rowlands says.

Like musical bumblebees gleefully cross-pollinating different genres, The Chemical Brothers are, and have always been, much more than a dance act. "Our music has always existed outside of dance music. Listening to our records or seeing us live is just the same as listening to The Darkness's CD or seeing them play live," explains Rowlands, before Simons interrupts, cackling like a smutty schoolboy - presumably imagining himself and Rowlands decked out in spandex catsuits, like the Spinal Tap-esque rockers. Rowlands checks himself: "Well, it may not be quite like that, but the way we express ourselves using the instruments we play - the computer, the synthesiser, the mixing desk, the sequencer - is just the same as other bands."

With such an attitude against pigeon-holing, it's no surprise that Rowlands and Simons are not in the least bit bothered about losing out on this year's best-dance-act Brit award to the girl band Sugababes. Why shouldn't a pop band be rewarded for shaking up dancefloors? "Their record ['Freak Like Me'] was a big club track. I don't think it did dance music a disservice," Simons says. "Nah, probably the last thing," Rowlands agrees.

While some ruefully interpreted the Sugababes' triumph as the final nail in the coffin of an ailing dance culture - irretrievably emasculated by the recent demise of the super-clubs - the Brothers feel vindicated. "Today, dance, pop, rock, hip hop, R&B - it's all the same! The crappy mega-clubs have gone, but I don't see that as a bad thing. The Marquee shut, and that didn't mean the end of rock music. The impulse of people to go and listen to music with their friends and have a good time is still there, and that's what's important," laughs Rowlands. Simons agrees: "I went to a party in Ladbroke Grove last month, and it was every bit as good as any acid-house rave I've ever been to. It didn't matter what music was playing - calypso, whatever - this was dance music and an enjoyment of it. The underground, slightly illicit spirit that existed in the late Eighties/early Nineties is still alive. There was that old feeling in the crowd - people were smiling and dancing, and it was great."

The Chemical Brothers are coming alive. Simons is sitting up, and Rowlands is leaning forward. The grey veil of disinterest has lifted. "I like it when our music sends me mental - that massive swelling feeling that explodes from our tunes. Sometimes it's just overwhelming," begins Rowlands, his words struggling to keep up with his own excitement. "When I'm in front of the decks, playing a sequence live, I can sense that the people I'm playing to are feeling that as well. And that's it - that's what I like: the take-off."

Seeing his partner struggling to articulate the depth of his emotion, Simons springs to the rescue. "Music is everything for the two of us. It's what our whole lives are based around. That feeling music gives you - whatever type of feeling - is on a higher level of experience than most of life," he says, trying to convey the immense passion that drives The Chemical Brothers. After a moment's pause, Simons looks almost defeated by the task. He shrugs apologetically: "It can do anything, music, you know - it can take you anywhere."

'Singles 93-03' is released on Virgin on 22 September