Chemical Brothers lie. It can’t be denied.
Four years ago, on the eve of of the duo’s eighth album, Born In Echoes, Tom Rowland – the Brother who isn’t Ed Simons – told me that retirement talk had been premature as “there’s another good Chemical Brothers record in us”.
This was clearly false. It turns out there was at least two.
No Geography, the ninth Chemical Brothers album in 24 years (beginning with Exit Planet Dust in 1995) is a powerhouse of dance, electronica, funk and more that doesn’t sound anything like old stagers resting on their glowsticks. Read my review here.
In particular there’s an opening - which sees the House-ish track Eve Of Destruction engulfed by the percussion-and-funk bass Bango, before it in turn bleeds into the title track - that leaves you breathless. The Chemical Brothers probably didn’t need to, and maybe hadn’t even thought of it, but it’s one big flashing “we still got it, you bastards” sign.
That’s not the only message from the Londoners who had their first peak in 1997, when their second album, Dig Your Own Hole, confirmed electronica as the other (the real?) sound of ‘90s Britain.
“You’ve got to start strong don’t you: you just get one chance,” Ed Simons says today. “But yeah, Eve Of Destruction has got some slight philosophy to it. We were like, things are bad but we can still have a good time: there is still the weekend. That’s the spirit that we wanted to convey. I like the Todd Terry reference, the ultimate hedonism music.”
But hedonism is not its own reward here. Or at least not the only reward. The message of “good times” still to be had is set against a period – in their country and elsewhere – that is weighed down by any number of venal, viral or vicious acts and malignant state actors/governments. The song Mad As Hell, which lifts from the 1976 Sidney Lumet film, Network (where Australian Peter Finch descends into perfectly rational madness as he watches the world go to hell around him), and adds more than a touch of Public Enemy at a Prodigy gig, sums that up.
“With Mad As Hell, when we were making that, we were conscious that both of us are feeling pretty mad at the moment. Living in this country at the moment, with Brexit, is fairly mad-making. We didn’t want to make a political record - our spirit has always been about escapism, transcendence, hedonism - but with the samples we were able to create that atmosphere of reflective partying,” says Simons.
“A track like No Geography has got a message to it: forgetting a geographical sense of separation that’s been foisted on us, and appreciate that spiritually, we are connected. It’s a very sad feeling being connected to that culture where there was a sense of togetherness and fun and now we are being asked to be inward looking and separate.”
When I last spoke with Simons, as Further was coming out in 2010 – the year David Cameron’s Conservative government arrived, with Brexit not even the first destructive policy at hand - he wondered about the gloom in British society and how the communal feeling that Chemical Brothers had always celebrated and revelled in was under pressure.
The world is in many ways a bleaker place now. What’s The Chemical Brothers job then? Is there a role for them to make this connection and communal feeling real? And not just at home either.
“We’ve just done a summer of touring, particularly around Europe, and we played Mad As Hell and you could feel it in the air. It’s an old vocal from Network that’s being used on other records, but contextualised on that track it sounds pretty chaotic and pretty mad,” Simons says. “So what’s our job? The job is validation isn’t it? That you’re in a crowd of people - there is a lot of preaching of individualism and separation [so that] even coming out of the house now is quite unusual - to come together.
“And I see in Australia there is a lot of stress on festivals, and that’s been a massive part of Australian culture, the summer festival. There’s so many challenges to that fundamental right to be young and to be entertained, and to have a memory. In fact, young people being out and partying is a pretty important thing to hold onto. I think hopefully our job is to help people not feel so alone.”
The night I spoke with Simons, the similarly ageing Orbital were playing in Sydney and we knew already that there would be more new music from Underworld, as well as their shows at the Sydney Opera House.
While he would only say he was waiting on the right offer, Simons wasn’t hiding too much the fact that an Australian tour for The Chemical Brothers is very likely this year. So really, it’s like the mid-‘90s reanimated.
Among Simons and Rowland’s contemporaries, while someone like Fatboy Slim has stepped away from making new music, many seem as eager to engage with the new as ever, making energised new albums or singles. Is it not wanting to play the same things on stage? Or does it feel exciting and potentially revelatory to step into the studio regularly? Both?
“The original, the core, of this record was made because we booked some DJing gigs because we love going away and having these adventures in nightclubs and festivals. That was the spur to make tracks like [Got To] Keep On and Mad As Hell and Free Yourself: they started as DJ tracks,” says Simons.
“The fundamental things we really enjoy each other’s company in the studio and we’ve kept that creative part of ourselves nourished by making these. I was glad that we stepped away a little bit from the reliance on big named guests and made it a little closer to how we were in the original bunker mentality of two of us in a dimly lit studio. Those days were some of the happiest times of my life, making Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole: it was so busy all the time, playing live, DJing, coming back into the studio.
“It had a real intensity and you can hear that in the music. I think this [record] was something of recapturing that sense of youthful abandon and being alive.”
This may indeed be the truth.
No Geography is out now. As for a Chemical Brothers tour? Watch this space I guess.