Brothers From Another Planet

The Chemical Brothers are the most successful -- and vilified -- so-called "electronica" act. Think they care?

The guitar dudes and rocker chicks, the punks and the metalheads -- they hate the shit with a venom once saved for disco. And, actually, that's what a lot of them call it, nearly spitting the word: disco. Whether it's techno or house, trip hop or drum 'n' bass, the guitar freaks unite in universal disdain. So it must have been particularly galling for them when the Chemical Brothers won the Grammy for best rock instrumental last year for their cut "Block Rockin' Beats." That ain't rock. That's disco.

But even the most venomous Korn-head stooge couldn't help but get a tingle hearing Chemical Brother Ed Simons (the one who's not the one with long hair) describe the first time the duo heard one of their cuts in a club.

"When we made 'Song to the Siren,'" he says from his London flat, "which is the first record that we made, we heard reports that [famed British DJ] Andrew Weatherall was playing it. So we got into the car and went down to this place called Hastings, which is where the Normans invaded England in 1066. We went down to the club just to hear him play it, and we waited all night. He obviously didn't know us from Adam. And then he played it, and it was just the best feeling ever. The best feeling for me is watching a record go off in a club. It's just the greatest thing, really, to have a record you made be played to 1,000 people who like it."

Since their trip to Hastings in 1992, the Chemical Brothers have had their fair share of cuts work a crowd, both live and on the dance floor. They've moved from being Brit buzz band to being the stateside "face of electronica"; they've cut some of the hardest, catchiest electronic records of the '90s, even as they've suffered being lauded as the Next Big Thing in America.

When commercial music could have taken a left a few years back and fallen passionately in love with the Chemical Brothers, it instead took a right and embraced the bitch-slappin' misogyny of Limp Bizkit. Of course, the Chemical Brothers, along with the Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, did make it into the mainstream (two of the three bands played the dreaded Woodstock festivities) -- and Fatboy has somehow worked himself into the pop psyche, but in general, things have cooled down a few degrees for the Chemical Brothers. Obviously, though, says Simons, the crowds have changed from the ones they saw on their early visits to America. "I think the change was more evident when we were over in '97, when there was a big electronica hype, and people were coming to our concerts to check us out because they read about us in Rolling Stone or had seen a video on MTV. But I think since then -- our last tour in America it was back to the kind of kids who were just into us. They weren't seeing us because of hype, they were just Chemical Brothers fans. I saw a lot of our old T-shirts, T-shirts made in '95."

In 1995, the Chemical Brothers were 3 years old. Though their first full-length -- the phenomenal Exit Planet Dust -- sold relatively poorly, it hit a bunch of confused musicheads smack in the booty; it was dance-based but had enough texture and melody to suggest that something more than just Ecstasy-infused repetition-bliss was at work. As a result, it served as a rallying cry for not just the dance-floored, but the equally obsessed headphoned. Even though the Chemical Brothers expressed their ideas in the form of beats and samples, not smarty-pants verbiage and rhyme, one got the sense that these guys were at least a little smart, and if they weren't, they were at least quick to shut up and let the music suggest otherwise.

A gander at their CD booklets proves the point: eight- to 10-page photo spreads, no words; a threesome having some water-splashing fun; a blissed-out lady swinging her long hair; a skier slaloming down a mountain; hippies hitchhiking; a hand grenade. No words, just images strung together to suggest some elusive emotion. And what the Chemical Brothers do in their booklets, they also do in their music. 1997's Dig Your Own Hole was supposed to be huge. It was supposed to rid the world of Alice in Chains and that band's ilk and usher in a new era of music. It was supposed to go global, and though a few of the record's cuts were virtual explosions, especially the transcendent "Setting Sun" (which succeeded despite the insipid presence of Noel Gallagher of Oasis -- one good reason for the Chemical Brothers to shut the hell up), the record fizzled. The suburbanites didn't bite.

Granted, the CD did go gold, and "Block Rockin' Beats" was a minor hit, but the album failed to match expectations. "Whoever was behind the electronica hype thought that that would be the only kind of music you'd hear on the radio," says Simons. "And that obviously wouldn't happen. But I think there's more space being given to us and the Prodigy and Fatboy Slim."

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