Under control

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.

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.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain