Music

The Chemical Brothers: A formula for success and a love of Fuji Rock

by Shaun Curran

Contributing Writer

Earlier this year The Chemical Brothers were asked to pick out pivotal locations in the dance duo’s remarkable near 30-year career.

Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons chose the places with the most emotional resonance: the Manchester address where the pair lived together as they cut their teeth DJing under the moniker 237 Turbo Nutters; the central London pub where their rule-shattering early-1990s Heavenly Sunday Social residency became a magnet for British music’s in-crowd; Glastonbury festival, where they cemented dance music’s crossover status with some mind-bending, genre-defining spectaculars.

The penultimate stop down memory lane was Fuji Rock Festival. Chems historians wouldn’t have been surprised: They first played in 1999, and their live concert film “Don’t Think” (2012) was recorded during their 2011 performance. Their headline set this weekend will be their sixth appearance at the festival.

“It’s good someone is counting,” Rowlands jokes, sat at home in London. “If we feel some connection somewhere we’ll come back as long as they want us.”

For Rowlands, that connection started immediately.

“Playing Fuji Rock in 1999 was a big deal for us. We’d done a lot of concerts, but that one was special. It’s an amazing festival ran by people who are real music fans. You can tell it’s inspired by Glastonbury, they bring some of that feel to a mountainside in Niigata. We forged a strong connection with the crowd.”

The Chemical Brothers first visited Japan four years prior, just before juggernaut success took them to millions of albums sales, Grammy wins and a string of No. 1 albums.

“It was an amazing, eye-opening trip, a totally different culture. It was a time when Japan felt really culturally different, almost impenetrable,” he says. “Nowadays Tokyo has street signs in English and you can get around on the underground. In 1995, it felt like a really different world, a real adventure.”

Rowlands reserves special praise for Japan’s dance music scene.

“I love the attention to small things, the fervour and the passion,” he says. “We used to collect a lot of dub records, and you’d meet someone who’d say, ‘Oh I know a shop’ and all it’d sell is Jamaican dub 7-inch (records) from the early ’70s. The stuff we’d find blew our minds. We used to go around Tokyo and Osaka searching legendary bootleg shops for obscure Beatles outtakes. We loved playing tiny DJ gigs. We had a Liquidroom residency where we’d do seven-hour sets and that level of desire and passion from the crowd was really intoxicating for us. I’d say Club Mania was the most intense techno club I’ve ever been in. As an artist it is such a fulfilling place.”

New album “No Geography,” The Chemical Brothers’ ninth, represents the pair’s best in 20 years. A 45-minute voyage through their psychedelic playbook (heavy rush synths, acid house builds, clattering drum sounds, painstakingly sourced old-school samples), its sense of social panic places it very much in the 21st century. It looks back to go forward: Building a “studio within a studio,” the pair used vintage analog equipment they hadn’t touched since their first two albums, 1995’s year-zero debut “Exit Planet Dust” and 1997’s commercial breakthrough “Dig Your Own Hole.”

“The love of equipment has stayed a constant in our music making,” Rowlands says. “We built this time capsule studio of very early rudimental sampling gear we used to use a long time ago. It was really refreshing. Those restrictions felt liberating.”

He insists it wasn’t a middle-aged attempt to grab at former glories. “I’m a totally different person now, especially from the way I felt about making music. But one of our strengths is we can play songs from 1992 and from last week and they still feel like they make sense together. There’s a connection. I’m not sure why that is. But there is something that informs those early records that is still in us.”

Whereas 2015’s “Born in the Echoes” was, as Chemical Brothers albums often are, guest-heavy (Beck, St. Vincent, Q-Tip), “No Geography” is relatively self-contained. Japanese rapper Nene provides vocals on dystopian banger “Eve of Destruction,” while Norwegian pop star Aurora contributes to three tracks (making her the Chemical Brothers’ most collaborated-with artist in one swoop).

Unusually, tracks were road-tested during their 2018 tour. “Sometimes when we make a record we want it to be everything that we like about music at that time. This record felt more focused in a particular type of feeling,” Rowlands says. “We ended up taking back ideas we wouldn’t do in a more sterile studio environment. When we play live, things can get wild and out of control, and we felt like we wanted to bring that to the recording this time to help its feel.”

Make no mistake: “No Geography” is not good-time party music. It has been pegged in some quarters as their “Brexit album” (on Twitter, Simons is a consistently scornful critic of the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union) and there is barely concealed fury in the music itself: “MAH” uses an angry tirade from the 1976 film “Network”; New York poet Michael Brownstein is sampled on the title track talking about a borderless utopia; on “The Universe Sent Me,” Aurora breathlessly repeats “I cave in” in the manner of someone who’s spent too much time watching 24-hour news coverage.

But Rowlands says such assumptions are not quite accurate. “It’s not a Brexit album, but it’s not an album made in a vacuum either,” he says. “It’s hard for things that go on in the world to not seep into the music you make. Every decision and choice you make, either consciously or unconsciously, is affected by how you feel, what you’ve been listening to, how you come into the studio, what’s playing on your mind. Even if you’re making instrumental music you’re still making choices on sound about feeling and emotion. Obviously we are affected by what is going on in the world. But to say it’s about Brexit is not really what it is. What we have tried to do is make quite a positive album.”

Rowlands keeps returning to the themes of positivity and community. As a veteran of the U.K. acid-house scene, with its groundbreaking music and ecstasy-fueled anything-is-possible romanticism, he still feels invigorated by the simple notion of people gathering in a space with a shared purpose.

“I still think that whole world of festivals and clubs is still important in culture, giving people a space to be with other people and feeling something with other people at the same time. When you talk about it, it becomes a bit idealized, but there’s a power in people coming out of their houses and coming together to experience something at the same moment.”

Understanding this has played its part in the Chemical Brothers’ show, a multisensory blitzkrieg of noise and color, becoming dance music’s tour de force live pinnacle.

The Chemical Brothers headline the Green Stage at Fuji Rock Festival from 9 p.m. on July 26. Fuji Rock Festival takes place at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture from July 26 to 28. For more information, visit en.fujirockfestival.com or www.thechemicalbrothers.com.

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