The summer of 1995 was a thrilling time in the lives of The Chemical Brothers. Funnelling the energy of rave culture and the urgency of hip-hop into a run of classic singles, the UK duo of Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands were coming into their own as among the hottest partnerships in dance music. Artists as far-flung at Metallica and Duran Duran would soon be seeking out the pair’s golden touch as remixers (they politely turned down the majority of requests, working only with musicians with whom they felt a connection).
But when he thinks back to that period, one of Simons’ most vivid memories is of standing in a slightly faded GAA stadium in Cork, his jaw agape.
“It’s gone down as a huge Stone Roses gig,” he says, referring to the classic early 1990s English indie band and their iconic show in Cork in August 1995.
“We loved the Stone Roses so much. We hung out with [Roses bassist] Mani a bit. I remember watching them with various members of [Britpop showponies] Menswear and having a great time. If you look at that festival, it was like Select Magazine coming to life.”
Simons is talking about Féile 95, which took place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh and featured a who’s-who of Britpop-era bands, including The Stone Roses, Blur, Prodigy, Elastica, and Massive Attack. And down at the bottom of the bill were Simons and Rowlands, who, 27 years later, are looking forward to returning to Cork — they start their new tour at Musgrave Park in June — and to the scene of so many vivid memories.
“It was really great. There was just one hotel, near the venue. So all the bands were together. [DJ] Carl Cox was there. I had a drink with him. I don’t think we saw Kylie [Minogue, who brought on Nick Cave as surprise guest]. But it was quite incredible to look at. All the great and good of the 1990s. Whoever put that bill together — they should be the booking agent for the world. It was quite something. It’s one of those things in hindsight where the line-up is incredible.”
A great deal has changed in the past three decades — dance music included. But while other titans of the era have fallen away, the Chemical Brothers continue to make engaging and innovative records.
And speak to the topical issues of the day. Their most recent album, 2019’s No Geography, featured cover art of a tank rumbling down the motorway — an image that has acquired a chilling resonance in light of Russia invading Ukraine.
The LP itself was a collection of Wagnerian stompers inspired by their anger, fear, and frustration over Brexit. “Without getting too bogged down in it all, we both found Brexit dispiriting,” explains Simons, 51. “We’re people who travelled around Europe and made the most out of EU membership. And it always felt like an openness and a sense of collaboration. It was difficult seeing that taken away in a heist — put it that way.
“We weren’t waking up every day thinking: ‘how can be make an album about Brexit?’ It was the beginning of a sense of ‘wow, this really blindsided a lot of people who live [in Britain]’. It was a very intense period of toing and froing, about what sort of Brexit it was. Ironically we’re about to find out.
“As far as touring bands, it’s all upon us now. We had a delay with the pandemic. We’re going to see what it’s like: three articulated lorries full of gear going through the various borders.”
Simons and Rowland met at university in Manchester, at a lecture in medieval history. They’d each been drawn to the city because of their love of local heroes New Order (one of the first groups to fuse rock and electronica). In 1993, they released their debut single , which utilised a sample of This Mortal Coil’s Song to the Siren (a track that in turn featured members of Scottish indie group The Cocteau Twins).
Moving to London, Simons and Rowland were soon fixtures on the indie scene, thanks to a regular DJing slot at the Heavenly Social – a club night at the Albany pub in the shadow of the BT Tower.
The Heavenly Social drew a who’s who of scenesters: Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, and James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers were among the regulars. That phase of their career, – when they traded as the Dust Brothers, has since been mythologised. Simons, though, is wary of nostalgia. Spend too long in the past and you lose sight of the present.
“The 1990s was a good time. We put out three records which hopefully captures a certain feeling in the air. We never wanted to be a heritage act. We’ve kept releasing new music. Kept engaging in new projects. Kept DJ-ing and playing other people’s music. We’ve hopefully kept making music which is contemporary and feelings good.”
Few artists can claim to have created their own genre from scratch. But that can be said of the Chemical Brothers who, around the time they played Féile 1995, had catalysed a new marriage of old hip hop samples and such unlikely juxtapositions as Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and Kraftwerk (on their early hit Leave Home, a sample of Kraftwerk’s ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ segues into Detroit producer Blake Baxter’s refrain of Brothers Gonna Work It Out).
The sound was soon given a name: big beat. But much like David Bowie and glam, so the Chemical Brothers became distant accessories to a milieu with which they didn’t always have a lot in common. Because if big beat gave the world the Chemical Brothers it also gave it annoying groups such as Bentley Rhythm Ace and Propellorheads. Looking back, the sense from Simon isn’t that he doesn’t quite know how he feels about big beat and the Chemical Brothers’ part it its rise.
“Definitely some of our records were part of that scene – if it was a scene. We didn’t really mind too much. I don’t know if you see us described as the ‘big beat duo’. That seems a bit reductive. At the end of the day, we really loved big beats. It was a big part of our music. It wasn’t an insult. It did become sneered upon, seen as dance music that really wasn’t dance music. The early thing was bringing a hip hop sensibility, using break-beats in a kind of acid house concept. It wasn’t the worst musical concept there had ever been. It was a fun time. We always had different strands to what we were doing. That was one part of it. It was OK.”
In their 50s now, with partners and children, life on the road is different. The 90s were “quite hedonistic” Simons says. He and Rowlands would stay up all night drinking. At Cork, the gig will probably be preceded by a sensible cup of tea.
“We always used to do a lot of traveling after the shows. It wasn’t really particularly hedonistic. People come [backstage] and expect something different from us, eating like a slice of pizza or maybe a cup of herbal tea. We weren’t the most natural performers. And before we went on we used to have a few glasses of wine – which would turn into more than a few glasses.
“Today, it’s more like a double espresso to get ready. As we all know, it gets to a certain age when a hangover and a two-hour gig is not compatible at all. Let alone, in an airport. So yeah things have calmed down. But the spirit is still there.The spirit is in the music.”
The Chemical Brothers play Musgrave Park Cork, June 23