The Big Read – The Chemical Brothers: “Dance music has always been the sound of Glastonbury”

Next weekend, The Chemical Brothers will headline Glastonbury’s Other Stage for a record-setting fifth time with what may be their best album since the ‘90s. As they prepare to bring ‘No Geography’ and their 20-year old record, ‘Surrender’ to Worthy Farm, Thomas Smith finds a band striving to stay vital to a new generation of ravers.

Who is The Ultimate Glastonbury Artist? Radiohead have had three truly iconic Pyramid Stage headline sets since 1997, exceeded only by Coldplay (four times since 2002, though decidedly less iconic). Or perhaps it’s someone like Billy Bragg, the socialist firebrand and singer-songwriter who contributes to the festival’s rebellious nature. Maybe it’s even Fleetwood Mac, a band that has never played, but is often the talk of the site anyway.

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone with a stronger case than The Chemical Brothers, though. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons are the forward thinking and nostalgia-free duo who helped bring dance music to the Glasto masses, having performed ten times across the site since 1995. It’s little surprise, then, that they’re coming back for 2019’s festival. And they’ll be headlining The Other Stage – Glasto’s just-as-iconic second stage ­– next Saturday night (June 29) for a record-setting fifth time. “When things go right, The Other Stage can be the perfect place to play on the planet,” Tom Rowlands says.

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Tom and Ed have paid their dues. They spent the ‘90s DJing their mind-boggling music in the smaller dance areas, and in 2000, they headlined the Pyramid Stage following their gargantuan third album, ‘Surrender’, which featured ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’, ‘Let Forever Be’ and ‘Under The Influence’. Festival boss Michael Eavis has been known to frequent the duo’s shows every few years, according to Tom. It doesn’t get more Glastonbury than having a denim-clad farmer raving away side of stage.

The Other Stage is perfect for them, too. Their career has seen them stay true to their underground roots and bring it to the mainstream consciousness. No wonder six of their nine studio albums have landed at Number One in the UK Album Charts, the most for any dance act in Britain, ever. Their triumphant new album, ‘No Geography’, is stuffed with festival bangers and showed them to still be light-years ahead of their peers. The Ultimate Glastonbury Artist’s case to come back and smash it is stronger than ever.

“It’s a privilege to be able to play there, especially for the music that we make,” Tom says down the phone just over a week before the big night. The Other Stage has left such an impact on the duo, that their studio sessions have been directly impacted. “When we were making ’Escape Velocity’ [from 2010 album ‘Further’], we were thinking ‘What will it feel like when we play it on The Other Stage?’”

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As Tom points out, dance music and Glastonbury go way back, even if it initially operated on the fringes. He references the nomadic sound systems that would pop up throughout the site back in the ‘90s for proof, such as the Joe Bananas poncho stand in The Marketplace, which had been known to draw thousands of revellers. Now, the sound of the post-headliner hours isn’t a kitschy campsite singalong (though it can be, if you want), it’s a thumping onslaught of diverse dance music from the South East Corner. Whether it’s the techno-laden Block 9 or blissed-out disco in The Glade, there’s a beat to latch onto. “For us,” says Tom, “dance music has always been the sound of Glastonbury. It’s easy to lose yourself to.”

Being Glastonbury vets, they’re familiar to the hedonistic world they set into, where the real world is left at the entry gate. People sometimes show that in funny ways. One year after they had played, Tom stumbled into some people taking it to the extreme. “They were living the whole weekend like Beaker People [a community from roughly 2500BCs that had just invented vessels to hold liquids], and behaving like they were back in that time,” he says. “This place can be so psychedelic and strange and brilliant all at once.”

Unlike the Beaker People, The Chemical Brothers are not prone to looking back. You can follow their journey from 1995’s psych-leaning debut ‘Exit Planet Dust’ through to this year’s triumphant ‘No Geography’, and see that they’ve never taken the same route twice. Every album and live show has been decidedly different to the last, making for a rewarding and rewatchable experience.

Tom doesn’t remember much about their 2000 Pyramid Stage headline set (“we had to leave straight to catch a ferry for a show”), but the summer prior was just as huge for the band. They released their third album ‘Surrender’ that year, which therefore turns 20 years old on June 21. If you’re new to the Chems, go listen to it immediately – none of your modern formulaic tropical-house DJs have managed to recreate anything quite like it. Dive into the Noel Gallagher-starring ‘Let Forever Be’, which is as close to a Beatles-sized wig-out as the duo ever managed. Or perhaps lose yourself in filthy big beat banger ‘Out Of Control’, featuring New Order’s Bernard Sumner. Then there’s the wobbly festival anthem ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’, which landed in the Top 5 here in the UK, Canada and Spain and spawned a downright-spooky music video.

These songs remain a core part of their pulsating live show, and general mindset. “In 1999 we were at this weird point in our music-making,” Tom says of the sessions. “We were more skillful than on our first two records ‘Exit Planet Dust’ and ‘Dig Your Own Hole’, but that skill can become the real death of instinct and excitement. We want to hold on to a level of chaos in our music.”

The British music scene in the ‘90s is remembered as being dominated by guitar acts – first American-led grunge with Nirvana, then Britpop’s unavoidable Oasis vs Blur battle – but it was also a time when dance music took over the mainstream. Bands like The Prodigy, Primal Scream and Chemical Brothers blended big beats with rock stylings, while Aphex Twin and Orbital were expanding the horizons of what electronic music was capable of achieving. Basement Jaxx, Fatboy Slim and Daft Punk were also making assaults on the charts. Ravers never had it so good.

Why do you think the ‘90s are remembered as a guitar-dominated decade?

“Well, Oasis vs Blur was on the front of the newspapers, so it was just on a different level. But while that was going on, you had these strange alternative records that were just becoming huge in the charts. Record companies were willing to take risks with alternative and niche music and support it like a pop record. Plus it wasn’t competitive like that. It was exciting to hear other people’s records and to be inspired. When I heard that someone had written a cool groove, it didn’t make me feel like ‘Ugh, one less cool groove for me to write’”.

25 years ago, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (c33) came into law. It tried to ban repetitive beats within gatherings of people. Did it feel like dance music was being demonised?

“That was nuts! Looking back at it time it was insane. You’re seeing it again now in London, where there’s policing laws based on a musical genre. Certain genres like drill are deemed ‘banned’ and it’s a really strange situation. But it’s hard to get surprised about the levels of ridiculousness that are coming at you every day.”

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You told NME in an interview in 1999 that “dance music in this country is just pop music”. Do you see that now?

“I don’t really understand what pop music is now, it can be anything, which is good in a way. Now dance music has just been completely assimilated into pop. But back then, the records we made were ending up in the charts accidentally. We made ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ to play in a club at 2am on a Saturday night, but we wanted someone to feel that same energy in their car on a Tuesday afternoon.”

Dance acts like Fatboy Slim and yourself were being dubbed as ‘rockstars’…

“Yeah, but as soon as anyone met us that’d have been quickly dispelled. Some people embraced that, but it wasn’t something we were into. The music we make has always been a lot bigger than who we are. I love the fact that people know our band or our music and they don’t know us at all. It gives you freedom in the records you make and experiment and live its own life and be separate from a character.”

One such larger-than-life character was Keith Flint, the lead singer of The Prodigy who took his own life in March this year. The Chemical Brothers had supported the band on several occasions and appeared on the same bills at festivals for years. The Chems are trailblazers in their own right, but it’s hard to manage such a powerful breakthrough if Keith Flint and The Prodigy hadn’t hammered away first.

“The Prodigy were always kind and supportive. They’d managed to make their band encapsulate that feeling that connected us to dance music; escape and abandonment,” Tom says. “Keith embodied this spirit. What he represented was so indestructible and he was just this complete life force, but on the inside he was really hurting. His death was really shocking and I felt for the rest of the band and his friends and family.”

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The Chemical Brothers’ latest album ‘No Geography’ is another reinvention from their previous releases. 2010’s ‘Further’ was a cinematic experience best viewed with the dazzling accompanying visuals. 2015’s ‘Born In The Echoes’, meanwhile, was an abrasive thing that relied on traditional song structures and featured guest vocalists such as Beck, St Vincent and Q-Tip (who previously appeared on 2005 single ‘Galvanise’).

‘No Geography’ goes back to what they do best: utilising crafty samples to create uplifting anthems. Take the liberating ‘Free Yourself’, based around a vocal sample (“Free yourself, free me, dance”) from the dial-a-poem movement in ‘70s New York, where callers could hop into a phone booth, pick up a phone and have a poem read back to them.

‘MAH’, meanwhile, utilises disco group El Coco’s impassioned cry: “I’m mad as hell, I ain’t gonna take it no more”. It’s a Glasto anthem in the waiting. “When we play ‘MAH’ it feels so cathartic and gives people a reason to let go,” Tom says. That song in particular has resulted in this album being tagged as a political one. “It’s not an explicitly political record. It’s not saying, ‘if you feel this, then do this’,” says Tom. “But the record is definitely not made in a vacuum.”

He adds: “Electronic music has always seen as a genre that’s divorced from reality or acts as an ‘escape’, but every day you come into the studio you’re informed by how you feel and what you have read in the papers. These things seep into what you do. It’s why I love using samples and how you decide to use it to communicate, you can find a voice and lyrics that resonate no matter when they’re from.”

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‘No Geography’s creative momentum was also spurred on by Norweigan pop star Aurora, one of only two guests on the album (the other is Japanese rapper Nene on ‘Eve of Destruction’). Tom discovered her in 2016 when watching her set at Glastonbury – obviously – and was blown away by her energy. “I was amazed by the combination of power and her voice, but the strangeness and playfulness of her in general”.

Aurora appears on three tracks on the album – ‘Eve Of The Destruction’, ‘Bango’ and ‘The Universe Sent Me’ – and this is the first time a guest has performed multiple times on the same Chemical Brothers album. “We’d been working on the album for quite a while at that point and but it needed another element,” says Tom. “Her spirit moved things along. She was so full of wonder and enthusiasm at the process”.

When she wasn’t contributing, she was causing all kinds of mischief. While Tom and Ed were sifting through vocal takes one afternoon during recording, Aurora’s inquisitive nature took her wandering in the woods near Tom’s house in Sussex. Five hours later, she hadn’t returned and was missing without a torch or phone. Panic ensued. “I thought I’d been responsible for the loss of her! We were walking down to the river and thought she’d been lost to it, then she just bounced out of nowhere and was saying ‘the woods will look after me’,” says Tom. “I suppose I shouldn’t have worried, she is a woman of the forests”.

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For now, attention turns to their live show and the big Glastonbury set. If you’ve not seen them before, or even if you have, sack off your other plans – The Other Stage on Saturday night is the place to be. Their set at London’s All Points East Festival last month was a dazzling preview of what to expect; trippy visuals, renergised bangers and more lasers than your tenth birthday party at Quasar. The duo have spent years pushing themselves into new territory, and they still want to shove you back just as hard. “Since the start, we’ve always wanted our shows and visuals to have the unsettling moments as much as the euphoric ones,” Tom says.

It’ll be an extra special one for the band, too. Ed missed 2015’s Glastonbury set and that summer’s live shows to work on “unspecified academic work,” Ed said at the time. The band’s longtime visual collaborator Adam Smith stepped in to fill his place. For 2019, Ed is back performing with his old partner and raring to go. “He said he found a bit painful when he watched it on TV,” says Tom. “It was really weird to look over my right shoulder and see someone different. It was lucky to have Adam stand-in. He knew the show and we trusted him. It couldn’t have worked in any other way.”

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We round things off with, of course, more Glasto chat. Tom’s glad they’ve got some downtime to prepare for their biggest show since, well, the last time they played Glastonbury. It’s remarkable, I say, that only two dance acts have managed to headline the Pyramid Stage since they did in 2000 (Moby in 2003, Basement Jaxx in 2005). The pendulum was swinging towards a dance takeover – have the new crop of dance acts failed to live up to them? “You know what, I honestly don’t know,” he laughs. “But we’re always available if they want us to do the Pyramid again.”

Hands off, you blanket-laying camp-chair dwellers in the Pyramid field, The Chemical Brothers are Other Stage royalty now – and that’s just the way we all like it.

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