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Members include Tom Rowlands (born in Oxford, England; son of a film director); Ed Simons (born in London, England). Both Simons and Rowlands were history majors at Manchester University in the early 1990s. Addresses: Record company---Astralwerks/Caroline Records, 114 26th St., New York, NY 10001, website: http://www.astralwerks.com. Website--The Chemical Brothers Official Website: http://www.thechemicalbrothers.com/.

Though electronic music has long been a staple commodity to overseas fans, its beat-heavy cadences and sometimes sans-guitar sound had yet to make inroads on U.S. charts until 1996, with the arrival of the Chemical Brothers. The northern England duo, onetime club DJs and old pals of Oasis, sliced through the modern rock genre with "Setting Sun," a heady track full of noise and thunder (and wicked guitar) released late in the year. Its surprising success made the Chemical Brothers partly responsible for an alternative press frenzy predicting electronica as the next grunge. There is little argument that no one group helped pave the way for electronica's popular acceptance than the Chemical Brothers. The British duo made their brand of music from a collage of sounds and parlayed it into international success with more than a decade of consistent recording and touring.

The Chemical Brothers describe themselves as "nice middle-class kids," as Rowlands confessed in Spin. He grew up in Henley-on-Thames, just outside London, and, at the age of 17, formed a band called Ariel, which had one 1990 release. Simons grew up in London; the two met in 1989 at Manchester University where both were history majors. In fact, both selected the school because of its location and musical connection. Rowlands reportedly because of the proximity to the now-legendary Hacienda nightclub; Simons based on the area's reputation as the birthplace to the groups The Smiths and New Order.

"Ed had a very nonmusical background, in the strict sense" Rowlands told Spin's Weisbard, "but he had been to a lot of the clubs and raves that I had been to. We knew the same records." Typical of Britons of their generation, they had been devotees of groups like The Smiths and The Specials in their formative years, but such musical tastes evolved to appreciate harder-edged sounds from the likes of Renegade Soundwave. The pair began to DJ together at clubs in Manchester, an industrial city in northern England and home to a thriving dance music scene. They had a steady weekly deejaying gig at the club Naked Under Leather beginning in 1991.

The Influence of Public Enemy

It was their discovery of the Public Enemy record It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back that propelled Rowlands and Simons into a different aural direction. Their DJ work evolved into remixing samples and found noise, while adding synthesizers and drum machines. "Electronic music was a new thing in the mid-'90s," Simons told Teen People. "We'd play our hearts out and people would say, "I liked the records you were playing.'"

They officially formed as The Dust Brothers in 1994. Rowlands and Simons were fans of The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and took their name from the U.S.-based production team for that project.

The Dust Brothers released the single "Songs to the Siren," recorded in 1992 at Rowlands's home, and two subsequent EPs before signing with Virgin Records U.K. They were also remixing a variety of artists, including Primal Scream and Prodigy. When Virgin subsidiary Astralwerks records pointed out in 1995 that there was already a Dust Brothers in the States, who were less than thrilled by two guys from England borrowing the name in tribute, the duo renamed themselves the Chemical Brothers. This rechristening seemed to matter little to fans. The group was spinning each week at the Heavenly Sunday Social and their growing popularity made the club one of the London in spots. This period is captured on Live at the Social, Vol. 1.

"You know sometimes you listen to a riff on a record and it gives you an image of some sleazy guy playing guitar?," Simons posited to Rolling Stone's Lorraine Ali. "Well, that's just how I want our music to work." That sound came out with their 1995 American debut on Astralwerks/Caroline, Exit Planet Dust, a record laden with samples, electronic noise, synthesizer cuts, backward-spun tape loops, and guitars all fused together with manic drum-machine beats. With virtually no promotion nor radio presence, the record sold more than 100,000 copies in the States--a respectable showing and about half its sales in England. Village Voice reviewer James Hannaham compared their musical genius to Beethoven, and praised the infusion of elements. "The Brothers ... don't seem to know how not to manipulate a sound that gets vacuumed into their sampler," Hannaham wrote. The critic singled out the track "Life Is Sweet," through which The Brothers, he noted, "demonstrate their mastery by taking a busy signal, making it sound like it came from a 50-foot telephone, and building an excellent pop song."

The Disorienting Sound of "Setting Sun"

During 1996, the duo worked on a new release and made an appearance at the Organic '96 fest in California with Orb, Orbital, and Underworld; they also completed remixes for Oasis and Manic Street Preachers. Late in the year they released the single "Setting Sun," which charted immediately and was a heavily-promoted MTV Buzz Clip. The song's dizzying beats were pulled back and forth over the "creepy, disembodied vocals"--as Rolling Stone's Al Weisel put it--of Oasis's Noel Gallagher. "We wanted to get the strange, disorienting effect of psychedelia and fuse that with a heavy club sound," Rowlands explained to Weisel.

Though the "Setting Sun" single sold 30,000 copies in the United States in just a few weeks, the reception was cooler in the United Kingdom, where it was deemed a bit too abrasive for radio; one well-known DJ reportedly removed it mid-spin. As Simons told Billboard writer Julie Taraska, they discern specific differences between English and American fans. "People hold us in a certain amount of affection in England," he reflected, "while people who actually write about us treat us like a heavy metal band. Critics in the U.K. can't be bothered, because our music cuts across boundaries. In America, critics seem more interested in the music, and we get some sort of critical appraisal. So it's good that we have these two different things."

That critical assessment turned to serious hype by early 1997. Music-industry watchers in the United States were predicting the imminent explosion of electronic music thanks to acts such as Prodigy and Underworld, as well as The Chemical Brothers. The influence of this genre was also being heard in new releases from U2 and The Smashing Pumpkins. "With record sales stagnant and the alternative-rock wave of the last half-dozen years perceived to be ebbing, the U.S. music industry is desperate for a new movement to boost business," wrote Steve Hochman in Rolling Stone. The Brothers' response? "It's annoying when people say, `This is the future,'" Rowlands told Ali in Rolling Stone, and asserted that dance and rock genres can pleasantly co-exist. "People are just getting excited, obsessed with trying to see what's next. They don't want to be left behind."

"Setting Sun" was included on the full-length release Dig Your Own Hole, which was released in April of 1997 and charted in the Top 20 soon after. A Rolling Stone review warned readers the first track "will fry you alive," and stated that the entirety of the record "burns the whole rock vs. techno argument into a fine, white ash." That first track was "Block Rockin' Beats," which sampled rapper Schoolly D's rousing "Back with another one of those block-rockin' beats!" line from his 1989 song "Gucci Again." Vocalist Beth Orton, an earlier collaborator, contributed on "Where Do I Begin?" New York's Mercury Rev collaborated on "The Private Psychedelic Reel," a song reflecting The Chemical Brothers' fanaticism for the more experimental late sixties forays of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. "Reel" takes its name from a Japanese bootleg recording of unreleased Beatles music, "tracks that they recorded specifically for themselves to take acid to," they told Spin's Weisbard.

Aside from commercial success, The Brothers' second LP generated another wave of attention for the group, which included critical approval. "All but unique in electronica, nearly every track on Dig Your Own Hole achieves a separate identity," wrote Spin's Weisbard. "The album has an order and a flow." In the New York Times, Neil Strauss called The Brothers one of the most credible co-optings of black music by a white act: "Instead of trying to rap, The Chemical Brothers take hip-hop beats and sampling techniques and add the studio experimentation of '60s psychedelia and the sonic layering of England's pre-techno acid-house music," wrote Strauss. "It's not pretty music we make; it's quite rough and abrasive," Simons remarked in an attempt to explain their sound to Entertainment Weekly. "In that way, it is kind of dance music for rock fans. If you buy one of our records, it doesn't mean you have to go and burn all your Offspring CDS."

The group seemed to be constantly touring throughout 1997 with a host of summer festival dates booked in Europe, helped by skyrocketing record sales. The New York Times's Strauss, reviewing a live Chemical Brothers performance for the paper in the spring of 1997, wrote that on that night one certain bellwether of the impact electronic music had made into mainstream "alternative" culture was in evidence: the existence of a mosh pit at the show-a sure sign, Strauss pointed out, that "people who are unlikely either to understand or respect a band" were now paying fans.

Dig Your Own Hole was followed by the release of Brothers Gonna Work It Out, a mix album, in 1998 and 1999's Surrender, which met with less than stellar reviews. The duo had buried "their wonky heads in the sand," said Dan DeLuca, writing for Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service

The duo continued working it out and released "It Began in Afrika" as a white-label-only single. It also would appear on Come With Us later that same year. In retrospect, Simons called the track "annoying." He told Entertainment Weekly that although it was 'a big record in clubs' every time I hear it I just shudder because there's only so many times you can hear that booming 'It began in Afrika-ka-ka!' Just hearing it immediately bugs me. It was a great record for the summer, and that's all it needed to be."

Found Their Niche

By 2002, The Chemical Brothers had "settled into the nicest of ruts, consistently releasing albums that mix the cool energy of a peak-hour rave with the psychedelic warmth of 1960s Beatles or Pink Floyd," observed Bill Werde writing in Teen People. The disc that year was Come with Us, on which, observed The Dallas Morning News's Teresa Gubbins, "The Chemical Brothers exhibit noticeable growth as musical storytellers." And found the album to have "an internal flow that's as neatly paced as a Hollywood film. It is also the Brothers' most consistent release, incorporating its trademark sounds and making the most of previous experiments, but with fewer ups and downs. If that means there are not quite as many flashes of brilliance, it also means that the disc is stronger overall."

After a decade of music-making, The Chemical Brothers released a greatest hits compilation, Singles 93-03 in 2003. They continued to tour, playing festivals in throughout the world, including festivals in Glastonbury and Manchester. But, as Richard Hector-Jones noted on Manchester Online in August 2004, "we're still waiting for a new record.

"I love the fact that when we play live it's a big moment at a festival, but it's just as exciting as hearing Justin Robertson, Sasha, or Richie Hawtin DJ," said Simons to Hector-Jones in the same article. "We are definitely playing new songs. ...We're currently working towards a new album for next year, we've written some really exciting new songs which we'll be playing at least four or five of them live."

"I'm not saying we're aspiring to make albums for the next 25 years, but there's this idea now that dance music is of its time, that it's had its place. But we're musicians and we want to continue making music into the future, because we get an immense amount of pleasure from making it as well as sharing it with people."

by Carol Brennan and Linda Dailey Paulson

The Chemical Brothers's Career

Group formed in Manchester, England, as The Dust Brothers, 1994; previously, Rowlands played keyboard for a dance band, while Simons worked as a DJ; released the single "Songs to the Siren" and two EPs in England; signed with Virgin Records and released Exit Planet Dust, 1995; changed name to The Chemical Brothers, 1995; single "Setting Sun" hit charts and MTV, 1996; Dig Your Own Hole, released in Top 20 on the strength of "Block Rockin' Beats," 1997; released Brothers Gonna Work It Out, 1998; Surrender released, 1999; Come With Us released, 2002; celebrated decade of recording with greatest hits compilation, 2003; continued to tour, 2004.

The Chemical Brothers's Awards

Grammy Award, Best Rock Instrumental Performance for "Block Rockin' Beats," 1997.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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