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The Chemical Brothers: Sound + Vision

By Scott Macaulay | April 7, 2011
The Chemical Brothers and Hanna

For the soundtrack of Hanna, Joe Wright reached out to his old friends (and collaborators) Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons aka The Chemical Brothers. For over 15 years, the duo’s unique sound has propelled music lovers and inspired images. This slide show previews the duos remarkable sound evolution and connection to image makers. 

Exit Planet Dust, and the Chemical Brothers Appear
The Chemical Brothers Exit Planet Dust was both a beginning and an ending. The debut album from the British electronic dance duo was a rechristening for Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, who had been releasing remixes and original tracks under the moniker. The Dust Brothers. Previous to that, Rowlands and Simons performed awe-inspiring DJ sets in both large and small U.K clubs. With their mix of U.K. post-punk (New Order, Cabaret Voltaire), German electronic pop (Kraftwerk) and American hip-hop (Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim), they were stars of the Manchester acid house scene, particularly adept at giving a clubgoer’s evening out the soundtrack of an epic adventure. Of early shows, Rowlands says, “We used to play in small clubs where we’d play ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ a Beatles track, next to this amazing French acid house track called ‘Lobotomy.’ You could suddenly join the dots of psychedelic music from one era to something entirely else. And people would just sort of spontaneously combust, you know?” Remembers Hanna director Joe Wright, who went to their shows back in the day, “Ed and Tom would play for five hours or something. You’d start at one place, rise to this extraordinary height, and plummet down and then around—it was an emotional rhythmic journey.” Early singles included “Chemical Beats,” which defined the group’s so-called “big beat” sound, and “One Too Many Mornings.” Large scale touring in Europe and the U.S. followed, but when the American record producers calling themselves Dust Brothers challenged Rowlands and Simon over their name, The Chemical Brothers were born. The name change inspired the title for Exit Planet Dust, a CD that brought the duo’s penchant for sonic narrative from the club to the home. It featured guest vocals from Beth Orton and The Charlatan’s Tim Burgess, and it went gold.
The Sophomore Triumph of Dig Your Own Hole

Whooshing electronic sounds in swirling left/right pans, a sinuous guitar line, sirens, infectious break beats—“Block Rockin’ Beats,” the Grammy-winning lead track on the Chemical Brothers’ second album, Dig Your Own Hole, was like a shot of sonic adrenaline. Of this record, David Browne wrote in Entertainment Weekly, “The Brothers—Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands, both British and unrelated — do more than leave their 1995 debut Exit Planet Dustin the dust. They stay true to techno ideals (like relentless beats per minute) while pulling the music in elastic, crazily inspired directions.” And that lead track was everywhere. Wrote Ryan Schreiber in Pitchfork, “This summer, instead of Snoop Doggy Dogg or Soundgarden, you'll be hearing ‘Block Rockin' Beats’ blasting out of the rumbling and menacing speakers of the maroon 1978 Buick that's shaking next to you at the stoplight.” But that track was just the beginning. The album is a seamless flow of audio excellence, pumping you up and gently bringing you down.

Chemical Brothers Make Music Videos

In their early days, Ed Rowlands and Tom Simon toured with Vegetable Vision, lighting technicians who created psychedelic visual experiences to throb along to the music. So, as the Chemicals conquered the recording industry, it was only natural that they’d collaborate with the world’s top music video directors. For “Elektrobank,” from the Dig Your Own Hole album, they hired Spike Jonze, and he cast his wife at the time, director Sofia Coppola. Wrote Eric Henderson in Slant, “The Chemical Brothers's ‘Elektrobank’ is that rare Jonze clip that transcends both concept and irony, and it is arguably his greatest music video. The subtext-rich clip pits a shy gymnast played by Jonze's director-wife Sofia Coppola against a competitor whose confident yet antagonizing gaze screams Mother Russia. Though there's no apparent conflict between the gymnast and her very Bela Karolyi coach, Jonze heightens performance pressure via a series of calculated cutaways that just barely suggests the girl's sordid family life.” For the top-ten “Let Forever Be,” which appeared on the album Surrender, Michel Gondry stepped behind the camera, coming up with darkly surreal take on Busby Berkeley. (Ironically, “Let Forever Be” was another nod to “Tomorrow Never Knows” and also featured Noel Gallagher on vocals. It came after the Chemicals were unsuccessfully sued by Apple, the Beatles recording label, for sampling the Fab Four’s track — something they didn’t, in fact, do.) Gondry would team up with the Chemicals again on their 2001 album, Come with Us. He directed a groundbreaking clip for the single “Star Guitar,” in which landscape shot from the window of a moving train syncs perfectly to the beats of the song. Consisting of footage shot on vacation in France, the video was precisely, geometrically plotted — a process which Gondry himself explained in a charming behind-the-scenes video.

Let the Video Games Begin

Having soundtracked the nightlife of ‘90s ravers, it makes sense that the Chemical Brothers would have also provided music for the games they played during the day. Since the beginning, the propulsive electronic textures of the duo have appeared on numerous videogame soundtracks. Their early track “Chemical Beats” appeared on the Playstation videogame Wipeout. “Galaxy Bounce,” “Star Guitar” and “Come with Us” were also featured in Playstation racing games. “The Big Jump” from their 2005 album Push the Button appeared in both Burnout and Project Gotham Racing 3, and the band even played live for the release of the Wii game system. Comments Rowlands, “Our band has always been has a strong kind of a symmetry between images and sounds. In our live shows, it's not so much about watching what we're doing on stage, it's about this environment with a massive kind of audio and visual sensory overload. We've always been keenly aware of kind of what music and images can do together. But it was never with a narrative until being involved in Joe’s film.”

The Chemical Brothers Take the Stage

The Chemical Brothers had their roots in live DJ culture and, appropriately, they haven’t turned their back on crowds that still want to dance all night to their elaborately conceived, cinematic mixes. At some of the world’s top music festivals, they continue to merge visuals with beats, sometimes playing a pure DJ set and other times playing regular shows complete with guest vocalists. Of their 2010 Hollywood Bowl concert, August Brown wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “There were surely a few thousand people who went home with nightmares from that intermittent projection of a cackling demon clown. But the Brothers’ long, thrilling turn did one of the hardest things possible in the perpetual-motion-machine of dance music—it proved that you can define a decade sonically and still have a vision of a path to the future.” Of a March, 2011 show in Auckland, the New Zealand Herald wrote, simply, “After 20 years making dance music, the Chemical Brothers know how to bring the house down.” But what about the Chemical Brothers themselves? What are their favorite gigs? The duo answered the question on their blog. “Glastonbury in 2007 was incredible,” wrote Rowlands. “The people made it happen despite the appalling weather. It was beautiful. Off the top of my head I loved Melbourne ‘Big Day Out’ in 2000, ‘T in the Park’ in 2004 when I literally felt the vibes, and there was a show on a hot Sunday night in Paris in 1999, which was demonic in it’s intensity….”  Wrote Simon, “Probably the one that sticks in the mind the most was Glastonbury ’07. We were closing the ‘Other Stage’ on the Sunday night, the weather had been terrible all weekend and it seemed that the people who had braved it out and stayed just wanted to let go and have a good time. We had lots of new music from ‘We Are the Night’ to play and the crowd was amazingly receptive, it was a real sense of music providing the reason for a great communal outpour of abandon, intensity and fun….magical festival!” The Chemicals’ current show continues touring in 2011, traveling to Mexico, Germany, until it again plays the prestigious Glastonbury Festival on June 25. Complete details can be found at the band’s website.

The Chemical Brothers Go Further with Music and Film

The Chemical Brothers have always joined music and imagery in their work, but their 2010 album Further was something new. Each track was released with an accompanying short film, available on editions bundled with a DVD and on iTunes. The album was a departure musically too—in fact, The Chemical Brothers somewhat reinvented themselves. There are tracks without big beats, there are no pop music guest stars, and the synths are alternately frighteningly falling apart or soothing. Appearing on the band’s website: “It starts with what sounds like an alien morse code transmission; Earth bound signals bouncing off the side of orbiting space debris. Snatches of voices found out in the ether cut through the machine fog, drifting across burbling analogue equipment lovingly kept working long after supposed sell-by date. By the time the click and thump of snare and bass drum arrive, the sounds are all-encompassing, swirling around you with dizzying, disorientating effect. Noises come untethered by constraints of volume, seemingly leaping from the speakers with a life of their own. For a band used to dealing in psychedelics, this time round The Chemical Brothers have really pushed the proverbial envelope.” The critics agreed. Wrote Ian Wade at the BBC, “On Further, The Chemical Brothers show no signs of fatigue, and the absence of any star names matters not a jot. It’s better to continuously explode than fade away, or something. Really rather wonderful indeed.” And what about those visuals? Check them out yourself on the band’s interactive video teaser.

The Chemical Brothers Score Big with Hanna

Joe Wright has had fantastic orchestral scores in his films, working with composers like Dario Marianelli, who won an Oscar for his Atonement score. “But I always wanted to work with modern music,” he said in an interview, “and, you know, the Chemical Brothers wouldn’t have worked with Pride and Prejudice.” So when Wright embarked on the production of Hanna, one of the first things he did was ring up Rowlands and Simons, who he has known for almost 30 years.  Said Rowlands, “What I didn't want to do [with Hanna] was think, Oh god, we're doing a film now, we’ve got to write proper music with an 80-piece orchestra. I still wanted to use our sounds and our approach to making music. That's what would make it interesting. We wanted to try and bring our craft and emotion to the film, to keep the essence of what we do and the sounds we enjoy making music with but then somehow make them fit into this very different world. I really enjoyed that [the movie] moves from bombast and kind of a full-on-ness to beautiful, subtle, shifting and moving melodic things.” Indeed, the Hanna score is a showcase for all the Chemical Brothers’ strengths, mixing big beats with eerie synth landscapes, jaunty melodies with industrial noise that blends seamlessly with the action on screen. Casual fans, in fact, may be surprised by the diversity of what’s heard in the film. Said Rowlands, “People have a view of our music — the big kind of tracks — but [our music] moves around. That's part of what our band does. One moment it will be full-on acid attack, and then we’ll move around to more emotional or different kinds of feels and moods. The challenge here was to heighten it even more. You can have these pieces living right next to each other in the film and make total sense. You can have the most full-on, discordant, horrible acid music and then very beautiful subtle, melodic music.”

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