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.”

The Chemical Brothers' new record is called Surrender, the most compelling and varied disc of their career. It moves from the glorious old-school electro-bounce of the kickoff cut, “Music: Response” (the band's best cut ever, and one of the most exciting of the year), to clean techno to big-beat rumble to pure pop. While the rest of the electronic world is subdividing to conquer itsy-bitsy market niches, the Brothers seem to be thinking on a larger scale, erasing such distinctions.

Many reviews of Surrender have suggested it's some sort of concept record, a look at the Brothers' history in electronic music. Because the CD does cover so much ground by alluding to so many different musical styles, that might appear to be the case. At the same time, Surrender only really touches on various styles — your average suburbanite can't tell house from hard techno from hard trance, and, actually, your average clubhead can't, either. If there is a concept — and there's not, according to Simons — it's that such stupid hairsplitting is completely irrelevant, especially in predominantly instrumental music, and that the ultimate goal of dance music, be it big beat, gabber, goa, or garage, is to move 1,000 people in one direction simultaneously. “The way we make records,” says Simons, “practically every track on Surrender, all those tracks were made for us to DJ with, cool records we'd like to play when we're out, whatever time of day it is.” The Chemical Brothers pine for such release, and throughout the record they constantly angle to get the most booty for their buck.

“We didn't have any big conversation to start the record. We just kind of got on with it,” says Simons. “In the studio, we have a happy sort of silence. When it came to start putting the record together, when we were all done and we had 16 tracks finished, it was time to cut that down to 11 tracks in a particular order. That's when we start talking about how it all sounds, and the tones, and how we feel it all fits together.

“When we first started making music, everything just sounded fucking incredible to us, and this time it didn't sound so good for a while. I think that made for a better record when we got more anxious and more argumentative toward each other. We ended up doing a lot more soul-searching to make this record.”

The Chemical Brothers perform with Underworld and DJ Shadow Friday, Oct. 8, at 9 p.m. at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove (at Larkin), S.F. Tickets are $27.50; call 974-4060.

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