The Chemical Brothers

With a new album and a headlining Electric Zoo gig, Ed and Tom are still rocking blocks.

When the Chemical Brothers made their first mark on the American mainstream consciousness in the mid-’90s—largely through the ubiquity of their party-starting MTV fave, “Block Rockin’ Beats”—it was supposed to signal a new era, one in which electronic dance music ruled the airwaves and rock was relegated to the dollar bins. Of course, that never happened, but don’t weep for the Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, who already were—and still are—superstars in the rest of the world. The pair recently released their most vibrant album in years, the refreshingly big-time-guest-vocalist-free Further, a set of swirling, pulsating tracks that mark a return the team’s dance-music roots. The album features a bonus DVD of corresponding visuals, courtesy of longtime collaborators Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall, that play a large role in the live show—something that New Yorkers will be able to experience on Saturday 4, when Rowlands and Simons perform on the main stage of the sprawling Electric Zoo festival. We recently caught up with Simons, taking a break from the Chemical Brothers’ ongoing album tour, over the phone from his native London.

Why do you think that what we used to call “electronica” never really broke here in the States as much as elsewhere?
Every day, I’m bitterly disappointed about that! [Laughs] The idea that electronic music was going to be some really mainstream thing, and you would never hear anything else, was kind of a ridiculous idea in the first place. What was really odd for us back then, when we were doing interviews for Time and Newsweek, was having to explain that the music that ignited the spark for us in the U.K. came from America in the first place. We’d have to explain to the U.S. press who Derrick May and Larry Heard are. Actually, though, we feel really appreciated in America. And here we are again.

Had you known of Electric Zoo before you were booked to play it?
I hadn’t really heard before we signed on, but once we learned about it, we were pretty excited. We’ve kind of gravitated over the years toward playing festivals as opposed to club situations. Which means, of course, that opportunities to play in America are limited—you don’t have so many festivals over there. Can you do something about that?

Sure—but let’s talk for a bit first. I read something that called you and Tom “beloved British rave stalwarts.” I’m guessing that when you started in the late ’80s, the idea of a “rave stalwart” would have seemed absurd.
Actually, I thought the “beloved” part was the funny bit! But yeah, I guess we are stalwarts. But we’re definitely not a heritage act; we love playing our new music as much as our classics.

Do you still enjoy the process of making new music?
Oh yeah, it’s still fun. We usually don’t have a concrete direction when we start to make an album, but for this one we did. One of our ideas, for instance, was to take away the guest vocalists. And to make music that would work on the dance floor and be slightly psychedelic. And make it sound like nobody else’s record.

And do you think you succeeded?
I think so. When we were still going to clubs, we used to get the most excited about the songs that were really odd and didn’t sound like anything else, and those tracks were our blueprint on Further. As far as vocals go, we’re really happy that we’ve worked with Noel Gallagher and Q-Tip and everyone—and we’re really proud of those songs—but it just felt we had a lot of vocals on the last two albums. We have some voices on the new album, but it’s all Tom and our friend Stephanie Dosen. Not relying on vocalists forced us to think of a new set of ideas on how to make the songs work. There’s a lot less structure to the new songs and a lot more space.

Speaking of space, the tracks on Further have a huge sound to them. Do you make music with festivals in mind?
Well, they were made to be played live, and they were definitely made for people who are really going for it, so to speak. It’s big music, and it’s absorbing music. We just played a massive festival in Serbia, and when we performed [the new album’s] “Horse Power,” that definitely led to a heavy amount of big rave energy. Listen to me—I should really be a salesman, shouldn’t I?

The Chemical Brothers headline Electric Zoo Sat 4.

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