Ask The Chemical Brothers' Tom Rowlands which band has had the biggest impact on him and his music, and his answer begins before the question ends -- New Order, he declares, no hesitation or hedging necessary. Actually, what he says is Norder, his response so quick that it catches his own tongue by surprise. For him, it's an easy question with an obvious answer: Rowlands, the Brother with the ever-present yellow-tinted specs, remains a loyal, almost protective, fan. It's no surprise when he reveals that nothing pained him more than hearing Orgy's mascara-and-metal massacre of "Blue Monday" for the first time. "That's one song that didn't need covering, and it certainly didn't need covering by them," he sniffs, dismissing it.
He can't help being a bit defensive when it comes to New Order and its music. After all, indirectly or not, almost everything that's important to Rowlands has something to do with the band. In fact, The Chemical Brothers probably wouldn't exist were it not for New Order. It started early: Albums such as Movement and Substance (which he insists is "one of the most futuristic albums ever recorded") provided the soundtrack for his teenage kicks; he knows those songs as well as his own, maybe even better.
But the band's real influence on Rowlands came later. Rowlands and his Chemical sibling, Ed Simons, spent their college years at Manchester University hanging out at the Hacienda, the dance club just off campus that was owned by members of New Order. That was what attracted the duo to the Hacienda at first, but that wasn't what kept them coming back. It was there that they soaked up the booming acid-house music they would breakbeat to pieces a few years later, during their residency at London's Heavenly Social Club. New Order's music inspired Rowlands to make his own, and those nights at the Hacienda proved to him that he could.
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You would assume, then, that it was a bit overwhelming when Rowlands found himself collaborating with New Order frontman Bernard Sumner on Surrender, the third and latest album from The Chemical Brothers. And you would be right: Almost a year later, he still can't believe that it really happened, that Sumner wanted to work with them. More than anything else, he doesn't know how he got through it. Imagine working with one of your idols and trying to be objective about it, ordering him back into the isolation booth to recut his vocals because they weren't quite there on the last take. Rowlands admits that the first few days he and Simons were in the studio with Sumner "were nerve-racking," that they could do little more than pinch themselves while they stared at him like star-struck schoolboys. And it wasn't much better when they figured out how to speak.
"We wanted to hear all the old New Order stories, especially all the boring technical stuff, like how they got that bass drum sound on 'Blue Monday,'" Rowlands says, laughing. "It was quite scary, really, because most of the people we've worked with before, we already knew, on this album particularly. Not only did we not know Bernard going in, we were pretty much in awe of him. Ed and I just tried to stay out of his way and not say anything stupid."
Rowlands and Simons eventually managed to sit in the same room with Sumner long enough to produce "Out of Control," one of the best tracks on Surrender and a glimpse of what New Order might have sounded like in 1999. With a little help from Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie, "Out of Control" sums up the past decade of electronic music while paying tribute to the Manchester scene that saw the rise of the Chems from two DJs who couldn't mix records together if you did everything for them but drop the needle to unlikely rock stars. It's altogether fitting that two of the musicians who helped usher electronic music into the '90s are riding shotgun with the two musicians who will take it into the next millennium.
And that's just what Rowlands and Simons have done on Surrender. More than any other record this year, with the possible exception of Moby's Play, Surrender defines what electronic music should sound like in 1999 and beyond; it's an album with all the intensity of the genre and none of its familiar conventions. Even the guests on the disc, save for a return appearance by Oasis' Noel Gallagher, defy the standard celebrity role-playing games that so many of the Chems' peers indulge in. Mercury Rev's Jonathan Donohue and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval may be recognizable names, but they certainly don't overshadow Rowlands and Simons. Of course, they were less concerned about losing the spotlight than with working with people they like.
"We wanted to bring Noel back 'cause he's good at what he does," Rowlands says. "He makes us laugh a lot in the studio, but we also feel that it was good to work with him, 'cause it was a sense of continuity between the two records, because we knew it was going to be different. It was a lot more open kind of thing this time around. I think we got maybe a bit more confident. Before, we were very shut off, and we'd just be like, 'Go away, we'll mess with what you've done.' This time, it was much more open." He laughs. "Of course, we were still shut off."
Being shut off from the world during the year they spent in the studio recording Surrender allowed Rowlands and Simons the time and space to create something new, rather than yet another Dig Your Own Hole, the duo's 1997 breakthrough. They more than succeeded: With this album, the Chems are the first group to transcend the form, delivering real songs instead of pieced-together fragments that throw listeners for a loop. Remedy, the debut album from Basement Jaxx, another pair of British DJs, is currently being hailed as a breakthrough by critics and fans on both sides of the Atlantic. But compared with Surrender, it's little more than a boring set of house music. (It might be that anyway.)
"On our other records, everything was stacked," Rowlands says. "On the top there would be a hip-hop sample, in the middle there'd be a funk groove, and at the bottom a techno bass line. Surrender is put together really tightly, and that was intentional. You can't see where one sample is and one isn't."
Yet even though Surrender is a career-defining disc, it might have come a year too late. Almost four months after its release, the beats on Surrender are rocking far fewer blocks than its predecessor, Dig Your Own Hole. The Chems' sophomore disc was held up as electronic music's Nevermind, the album that would change the way people listened to everything that came after it. It promised a rave new world, but as it turned out, no one wanted to move there.
Not that everyone resisted the change. At the time, the world seemed to rush headlong into the future, abandoning the tried and true for the shiny and new. Almost everyone was guilty -- MTV, radio programming directors, music critics, and more than a few bands. Two years on, they've all come back to the present. By now, every modern-rock radio station in the country was supposed to sound like Edgeclub, DJ Merritt's Saturday-night mix show on KDGE-FM (94.5). One station, Los Angeles' Groove Radio, even tried to introduce an all-electronic music format. But none of it worked: Modern-rock radio remains in the same post-Nirvana holding pattern, and Groove Radio was dead on arrival.
It all seemed so possible in 1997. The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy were supposed to be the Trojan horses that would usher in a new sound to the radio, opening doors for all the other DJs and electronic acts that never fit in before. But aside from Fatboy Slim, The Crystal Method, Moby, and Lo-Fidelity Allstars, electronic music has been a bust at radio. The reality is, only two songs by electronic acts received substantial airplay in the last two years, and much of that was on television commercials: Fatboy Slim's "The Rockafeller Skank" in 1998, and Moby's "Bodyrock" this year. Two songs do not a revolution make.
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The problem was that The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy didn't kill rock and roll as critics assumed they would; they embraced it. They became rock stars, stepping out from behind their turntables and sequencers to put faces with the names. But the roll call ended before it really began, because every electronic act seemed to comprise the same two white British guys. Even their mothers could barely tell the difference between Alex Gifford and Will White (Propellerheads) and Felix Burton and Simon Ratcliffe (Basement Jaxx). Electronic music is as faceless as it ever was. Without a face, no one really cares about the name.
Rowlands is still mystified about why anyone ever cared about his name or his face. He just wanted to hear his records in a club, watch them make people dance. After the attention the Chems received on Dig Your Own Hole, Rowlands and Simons made a conscious effort not to change to fit the format, not knowing there wouldn't really be a format left when they returned. Which is fine with them. They were happy enough with a steady stream of DJ gigs, the chance to turn people on the way they were turned on a decade ago at the Hacienda. As Rowlands says, the nights he spent at Hacienda have more or less directed the last 10 years of his life. And they will probably guide the next 10 as well.
"It was about empowerment, you know, where you were listening to music that you could make yourself," he says. "Suddenly, you'd go out and hear the same noises that you were making in your bedroom. You knew it was made on similar equipment. And you could press up that record and get it played by all those people. It would be on equal terms with all the other records the DJ played. Doing it that way, people sort of come around to us, as opposed to, you know, us having to change what we did to make it fit in with other people's view of what our music should be.
"I think that's the exciting thing. The music hasn't changed. It hasn't had to become something else to get accepted. It just interlocks different things and makes people get with it." He stops and catches his breath. "It's exciting."