Boom time for the brothers

Emotional, raw music from machines? Not possible. Except for the Chemical Brothers. By Emma Forrest
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The Independent Online
"The thing about about New York," ponders Tom Rowlands, one half of dance crossover stars, the Chemical Brothers, "is that it is so New Yorky." He's not wrong. Joining Rowlands and his spiritual sibling Ed Simons for the Manhattan leg of their US tour, we find a city overflowing with bagels, coffee and angry cab drivers who dump you in downtown Brooklyn because they don't know the way to Times Square. We stay in a hotel called the Best Western President where there is no bath or hot water and doors have been kicked off their hinges. I'd hate to see the Worst Western President. The Chemicals resolved the multi-label bidding war for their services by signing to Virgin. But it's hard to see the point of signing to a major if you only get to stay in grotty dives. So we stamp our little feet and spend the next night at the ultra-trendy Paramount. At 7am the following day, outside the Paramount, Tom's real-life brother is robbed of $150 as a doorman helps a supermodel out of a cab. It's an urban jungle out there. And the perfect setting for the Chemical Brothers' "thunderous boom-time music" and apocalypse-sooner disco beats.

New Yorky New York has a lot of time for the Chemicals, surprising since the band is officially just another dance act. After all, NYC may be home to legendary punk venue CBGB's. And with natives such as the Beastie Boys and the Wu-Tang Clan, it is certainly the home of good rap. Swing-beat stars TLC have been top of the charts for the past 18 years. Why should a techno outfit like the Chemical Brothers be chased by rock bibles Spin and Rolling Stone hailing them as the stars of '96? You need only listen to their debut album, Exit Planet Dust, to work it out. It is a punk rock, rap, swingbeat dream, kept afloat with massive hip hop beats and dizzying keyboard loops. Although it would appeal to any techno fan, it has also captured the imagination of your standard rock fan. "We try to get raw emotions from machine-made music and keep a feeling of spontaneity," explains Rowlands. "And if you take a close look, the songs are very carefully structured - verse/ chorus/ verse - which most techno songs aren't."

Exit Planet Dust has shifted over 25,000 units in the US, far more than an established homegrown dance act like Moby. Rowlands has his own theory. "That's probably because Moby isn't very good and we are."

He may not be good, but he is there at the Manhattan gig, paying his respects along with most of New York's clubland. B-boys are really, truly spinning on their heads like extras from a 1983 breakdancing movie. Girls in teeny "Hello Kitty" T-shirts and oversized combat trousers hop from trainer to trainer. One skinny nymphet is sporting aqua lurex hipsters a la Olivia Newton-John and a T-shirt that says "Porn Star". The trippy hippies take great delight in shining red torch lights at the Brothers, who screw up their eyes in concentration.

Computer-generated bass and drums boom in your lungs, and single keyboard riffs build until you think your ears might explode. It sounds like a rocket is about to take off on stage as, grinning, Simons flicks another switch. It's difficult to work out what exactly Tom and Ed are doing when they push all those buttons and pull mad- professor faces. With all the patience of a man attempting to outline the rules of cricket, he tries to explain precisely what it is they do on stage.

"I have control of the sequencer and mixer. The sequencer orchestrates exactly where things are going, the structure of the song. I can take a loop in `Song to the Siren' and repeat it when I want. The mixer is physically balancing the levels of the hi-hat. We just muck about in between."

Strangely, considering all the hi-tech equipment that makes their music, they sound more emotional than, say, Elastica. However, there is one guitar band the Chemicals doggedly revere: they exit the stage to the strains of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows".

Rowlands' first taste of musical success was as a teenager. He and some classmates won the school music advanced pop competition. They won it by doing a cover of the Talking Heads song "Psycho-Killer" - without telling anyone it was a cover.

Rowlands met Simons at Manchester University. Sharing a passion for the Beatles and hip hop, they opted to become DJs as a way of delaying having to decide what to do with their lives. "We just did records in our bedrooms, which is what the first record is." Signed by the influential dance label Junior Boys Own, they released the hugely acclaimed "Song to the Siren". They chose to call themselves the Dust Brothers in tribute to their favourite producers, the US combo behind the Beastie Boys' return from exile. Soon the Dust Brothers UK were so hot that their US counterparts decided it was no longer a compliment and sued. The Dusts UK became the Chemicals. They were soon asked to add their trademark booming breakbeats to the rockiest of rock acts. Their various remixes include a humorous take on Primal Scream's "Jailbird" and a version of the Manic Street Preachers' "Faster" which sounds even more furious than the original. They were even hired to DJ at an Oasis after-show and went down a treat. Until Liam Gallagher threw them off the decks because his mate wanted to have a go. Then, this year, saw the release of their own album, which Rowlands describes as "hip hop and acid house and rock 'n' roll".

Rowlands beams as he reminisces about his recent New York success. "I discovered a shop called `Smile on Nylon' and my girlfriend managed to find a pair of trousers that fit me." Good. "Oh, and this guy came up after the show and said this really mad thing." Yes?

" `For a non-rock band, you guys rock.' "

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