Turn on, tune in, transcend

The Chemical Brothers failed to win the Mercury Prize. But so did Blur and Radiohead, and it didn't do them any harm. Besides, the Chemicals have a Turin Shroud Theory of Implied Music. And who else can say that?
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The Independent Culture

In the well-lit far corner of a Notting Hill pub, Chemical Brothers Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are making genial conversation. This is the point at which things usually go off the rails. At least for those people who find the unearthly clanking majesty of The Chemical Brothers' music to be compromised rather than intensified by the everyday humanity of its makers.

In the well-lit far corner of a Notting Hill pub, Chemical Brothers Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are making genial conversation. This is the point at which things usually go off the rails. At least for those people who find the unearthly clanking majesty of The Chemical Brothers' music to be compromised rather than intensified by the everyday humanity of its makers.

If you need a visual image to complement this music's sudden twists and turns, its vertiginous leaps of faith and gut-wrenching physical switchbacks, better stick with the pictures they've already given you - like the mild mannered duo whipping a crowd of sharp-eared Argentines into a righteous delirium via satellite on Top of the Pops, or the video for "Let Forever Be", a second collaboration with Noel Gallagher, wherein 15 different versions of the same young woman morph and twist through the day in a Busby Berkeley psychedelic kaleidoscope.

The Chemical Brothers' videos are weird - strange tableaux of exuberant physicality and mental disorientation that all seem to be part of the same audacious artistic plan, but actually aren't. One of the things that makes them work so well is that the brothers don't tend to be in them. They get out of a car in the one for "Hey Boy Hey Girl" and an x-ray pulse shows us their skeletons; otherwise it's all girls with two different personalities making their way through nightclubs, or gymnasts diligently completing their floor routines. Strange as it may seem to say it, there is something about the quality of Tom and Ed's absence that is entirely captivating.

"I like the ones that have a big moment in them," says Ed, the shorter- haired one without the lemon- tinted spectacles. "Our records often have a big moment, a sort of turning point, and it's nice when the videos reflect that ... like in 'Setting Sun', where the girl looks in the mirror and sees her dark side, and the music you hear when she does that is quite a scary, dirty sound."

In the video for "Let Forever Be", there are, by Tom's reckoning, about 100 of these big moments. Ed describes them as "times when you see that through sensation and imag-ination you can transcend your normal everyday existence". This is as near to a perfect summation of the effect The Chemical Brothers' music aims at, as we are likely to get.

But what is the nature of that transformative kick? You might think something to do with drugs. The Chemical Brothers' name (arrived at in some haste when they were given three hours to come up with a name in place of their tribute to the Los Angeles-based production team, The Dust Brothers) might seem to back this contention. But that would be putting the horse after the cart. If you know anyone who has listened to this group while under the influence of narcotics, they will tell you that it's actually the drugs which struggle to echo the impact of the sound, not vice versa.

As the opening words of the first track on their superb third album Surrender put it, this is "music that triggers some kind of response". One possible response to the undoubted genius of Surrender - which simultaneously manages to be the perfect embodiment of everything The Chemical Brothers ever set out to do, and takes them to another level - would have been to recognise the fact that it stands head and shoulders above any other British pop record released this year, and giveit the Mercury prize. But that would be too simple.

Heaven forbid that such a complex and multi-faceted beast as an awards jury should fall into so obvious a trap. Better leave Surrender to languish in obscurity with also-rans like Parklife and OK Computer, rather than elevate it to the pantheon of the immortals, like M People's Elegant Slumming, and the debut album by Gomez.

The Chemical Brothers are commendably phlegmatic about their Mercury snubbing. A couple of days before the ceremony they are still cheerfully (if misguidedly) telling anyone who will listen to "put a tenner on Faithless". Posterity's healing embrace will be their con- solation. The enduring thrill of Surrender has been sustained and even enhanced by its authors' decision not to asset-strip it to the advertising industry, in the disappointing way that Massive Attack did with their 1998 landmark Mezzanine. "If you have a whole album licensed to sell different things," Ed explains, "the imaginative process of listening to it as a whole is ruined. You're just thinking 'This is the car advert and that's the film trailer'." The fact that "Out of Control", the third single to be taken from Surrender, still feels freshly minted, testifies to the wisdom of this policy. "Out of Control" is a thrilling recontextualisation of Giorgio Moroder's primal disco pulse as the perfect framework for the off-kilter lyricism ("Could it be that I'm just losing my touch?/ Or maybe you think my moustache is too much?") and deceptively pristine guitar playing of New Order's Bernard Sumner. The headlong energy rush here is as exhilarating as anything either party has ever done, and the fact that Bobby Gillespie's backing vocals are barely audible is just the icing on the cake.

With the exception of their more organic involvements with Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donahue, The Chemical Brothers' way of working with other people is not really a collaboration in the traditional sense. "The seed of the idea will be ours," Tom explains. "We generally don't send people anything until six or seven months down the line when the mood of the thing is already in place ... then they send us something back, we do what we want with it and hope they like it."

His rather apologetic expression at this point suggests that, in Sumner's case at least, such autocratic methods have caused a certain amount of creative tension.

"I always thought of New Order as making quite sparse electronic music," says Ed, "but it did become apparent while we were working with Bernard that he thought of music in a way which was quite different from ours - for him the song was everything, and for us I suppose the way the thing sounds is the song."

How did this intriguing generation gap manifest itself in practice? "We sent him something very simple," Tom says, "then he came back with these really complicated chord changes. He'd spent ages recording hundreds of different guitar parts and we sort of got rid of them. But even though we got rid of them, they had still affected the writing of the track up to that point, so their spirit was still there."

"I love the idea of the imprint of music that's not there anymore," adds Ed. The Chemical Brothers have, indeed, codified this idea into something they call the "Turin Shroud Theory of Implied Music".

"The way our songs are put together, the positioning of sounds, the way things happen, is built on a certain structure, and then that structure is removed, so the reason these sounds happen at the points they do seems sort of random," Tom explains. "There is a reason why they happen in the way that they do, but it's gone. The reason has gone, but the effect ..." He is beaming now. "The effect still remains."