Skip to main content

Home Music Music Features

The Chemical Brothers: 30 years of alchemy

As The Chemical Brothers celebrate 30 years together, Tom Rowlands tells us about the journey so far.

By Alma Rota

The Chemical Brothers (Picture: Press)

Four years after The Chemical Brothers scored Grammy-glory with the pulsating sounds of ninth album No Geography, the electronic music pioneers have returned with their 10th album For That Beautiful Feeling, a psychedelic, intense and hypnotic journey of a record that is created in the image of their spectacular videos and live shows.

“Rather than reinventing themselves, tenth studio album For That Beautiful Feeling simply keeps the wheels rolling,” came our verdict earlier this month.

“As colourful as its artwork and true to its title, the album is as hedonistic and propulsive as the duo’s best work, all put through a psychedelic lens.”

Here, Tom Rowlands talks to Rolling Stone about the genesis of this new opus, the duo’s 30-year career and his friendship with long-time accomplice Ed Simons.

What has happened in the Chemical Brothers’s galaxy since No Geography in 2019?

Apart from the lockdown?! Our process of making music did not stop. When we’re not touring, we’re in the studio. This is still the place I like to be and I find it still fulfilling to be making and writing music.

Do you consider this album as a continuation or a break with the previous one?

I didn’t realise it at the time but I think maybe they fit together. You could even say that our albums work in pairs really. The end of a tour usually means the end of a cycle. We put the previous album aside and what we produce is most of the time a break with the previous work. But this time round, we’ve never really had access to that feeling. That’s why we feel that this new album is a more of a continuation of what was left undone.

Did the pandemic and Brexit have an impact on this album?

I’m hoping that Brexit did not have any impact on it ! There was a bit more anger on No Geography. We found this poem by Michael Browstein, it was about the relationship between two people and how there is some kind of distance between them. For us, today, now, even if it was written in the 70’s, it says how ridiculous that distance is. For us it’s an emotional idea that this country is cutting itself from the rest of the world ! And the people in charge, the MPs who did it have dual nationality, or an Irish passport! One of my daughters who was studying in Berlin couldn’t stay there for more than ninety days! The same goes for some of the crew we work with us on the tour! Everything got really complicated and really shitty…

What mindset were you in for this new musical journey?

We looked out for what united all the ideas we’d had. The idea of ‘beauty’ isn’t just to be taken in a strict sense like: “Oh, how beautiful it is!” For us, it also means “Ah, that’s good!!”, in a sense of excitement. Something can be beautiful even when it’s raw or broken. We are always chasing for beauty not just in a lovely melody. Sometimes we just find it in a wallop of bass. All the tracks on the album connect with our search for that very special feeling of intensity, of imagining playing them to people and seeing them get a boost of energy. We see our albums as opportunities to experience different emotions. It moves around and up and down but at the same time there’s a general cohesion that’s holding it all together.

You said you had enough material to make a triple or quadruple album. How did you combine the materials to put together the final version?

I wish I had never said that ! We make hundreds of tracks in the studio every day that don’t make it to release. We’re only interested in the ones that we love. We’re still obsessed with creating an album that flows and takes people on a journey. That’s the ultimate goal of our work. We don’t make compromises. We choose the songs that we both agree on, because we have to play them together on stage. There are so many bands out there where one member has done a song that the others don’t like, and they walk off stage and let the guy play it on his own with an acoustic guitar!

How did you and Ed work together for this new album?

Despite the pandemic, we continued to work together, with our usual process. Ed still comes to visit me at my studio. I’m often the one who comes up with ideas for a track and then we work on it together. I’m the one who gets all excited about everything, saying: “This is the greatest thing we’ve ever heard !” And he is often the one who says “No it’s not !” It sounds depressing, I know… but generally where we agree on something, both feel an excitement about an idea, when our tastes overlap, then we know we have something special. We’ve obviously had a balanced partnership for the last 30 years and we still feel that we have more things to do !

Is your friendship the secret of the group’s longevity?

Yes, it’s obviously the key! We started out as friends before we decided to make music together. We didn’t find each other thanks to an advert in Melody Maker. We’ve first enjoyed each other’s company, going out and having fun together then music came along. We’ve lived two streets away from each other for a very long time. We even went on holiday together after touring and studio sessions, we even lived together! We’re not at that level any more. I’ve moved to the countryside, but we still get together with our mates and our friendship has remained intact. Of course, we sometimes drive each other crazy, we shout and we disagree! But that’s what all friends do!

Your autobiography comes out in a month’s time. What can we expect from this book?

We’ve resisted this temptation for years because we didn’t want to reveal all our secrets. I prefer bands to keep a certain amount of mystery, but one of our long-time friends, Robin Turner, persuaded us to do it. It’s amazing to realize, as we’ve been doing many interviews and conversations for the book, that people we’ve been working with since 1994, like Adam Smith (who does all our visuals and builds now all these crazy robots ) have been with us for thirty years!

How do you work with Adam Smith on the visual side of your work?

When we’re in the studio, he comes in at the very beginning of the creative process to get inspiration. He also comes on tour with us and has a huge archive of all the ideas he captures everywhere. Sometimes they take very funny forms, sometimes he comes up with something very simple that we love, sometimes he spends ages going through characters. We’re always waiting to see what our music inspires him, but we don’t hesitate to tell him when what he comes up with isn’t 100% in line with what we were expecting on a track.

Which one would be your favourite character?

I really like the woman dancing on ‘Got to Keep On’.

What is your relationship with words in your work?

The vocals and lyrics always come after the music. We look for voices that will reflect the emotion the music gives us. For example, the poem on No Geography spoke to me instinctively. On the same album, if I’d heard the sample of ‘Mad as Hell’ twenty years ago, I’d probably have thought it was cool and moved on, but the moment I heard it, it resonated with me. I had a piece of music that made me feel an emotion and the voice was communicating the same emotion to me. On ‘No reason’, for example, the lyrics are very bleak and the music is positive. We like contrasts. The sample comes from a post-punk album (Courts or Wars by Second Layer). I’d never heard such a combination between our music and this kind of nihilism. It was fresh ! When you’ve been making music for so long, you need to find new combinations that surprise you. I’d even say that in the case of ‘No Reason’, the music is almost an answer to the phrase “There’s no reason to live”.

How do you approach the featurings on your albums, particularly those with Halo Maud and Beck on this one? Do you give your guests complete freedom?

We knew about Halo Maud’s records and her amazing voice through our friends at Heavenly Recordings, who publish her work in England. I’ve listened to her albums during the lockdown time and imagined her singing and her phrasing on the tracks. I had demos of myself singing on them. We sent them to her and it felt right immediately! We had been chasing the voice for Live Again for a long time ! Beck is an artist with whom we were already collaborating. He couldn’t come into the studio this time because of the pandemic. We also sent him a demo with my voice on it, ideas for lyrics and melody. We gave him directions on these tracks but he came up with additional ideas that we hadn’t thought of. Sometimes we know exactly what we want, sometimes we just let ourselves be surprised.

So, you sing then?

Oh no!… only on special requests!

You started out in a city (Manchester) that has a strong history with electronic music. How have you seen this music and the ‘rave spirit evolve?

It’s a long time ago since Ed went to raves back in 1988-1989 ! But it’s kind of like the same !

Today, it’s still just very powerful to get together with your friends or just other people, dance and have this same feeling, reaction to music at the same time and with the same intensity and emotion ! It was not the first wave of people going out and having fun to music. That’s thousands of years old ! That feeling is in us, it’s ancient desire for people to gather and music being the thing that draws them together.

The rave period was an amazing time. We met when we were students in Manchester. At that moment in time, it happened it was the place with the greatest clubs in the world ! There were these incredible DJs playing acid house round the corner of our houses! And we were there! I also think it’s different today because with the pandemic it’s been very complicated.

The way people experienced these two years is so widely different. For us and our crew, we were about to go on tour and it just stopped but it wasn’t a disaster. I was able to come back to the studio and my life carried on like that. It was nice to spend some time with my family. But other people were impacted by the death of loved ones and had to work through it whether they were nurses or bus drivers fulfilling all these needs and their experience of it all was not about just sitting in their garden having a barbecue, which is what some other people were doing.

Some people were stuck into a tower block with 5 or 6 members of their family… and the trauma people have is going to take a long time to wear off. Young people had their lives put on pause at a crucial moment in their lives, just when they felt their lives were beginning, when they were starting university or a first job, when they had plans to travel… and suddenly all these things that they were sort of promised to do stop and they are back at home with their mums asking them to help doing the washing up!

I think people will be dealing with for a long time. There has been a desire for people to enjoy themselves and get back out. But in our country, this has also coincided with a period where everything has become so expensive and people are really challenged by the way our country operates now. It’s a terrible combination of things. People were saying that everything was going to come back and it was going to be amazing but a for a lot of people it’s hard. When you have to pay two hundred pounds to go to a festival, how does that work?

You still play in clubs as well as doing gigantic shows and festivals…

That’s where we come from! It’s really nice to have that contrast between the shows and the clubs where people are really in front of you sweating! These places are made for the experience of music !

How do you manage to stay on the cutting edge of experimentation all these years?

There are people making music that’s much more avant-garde than we are! We’re chasing for new sounds and our studio is our playground. That’s why I’ve got so much gear here in the studio !  Sometimes experimentation means using old techniques and finding new ways of using them.

What do you think about artificial intelligence in the music industry?

I don’t know. It’s crazy to listen to all these copies of singers… Maybe it will be interesting at some point but I don’t have enough time to deal with my own intelligence alone… so not sure about an artificial one…

What have you been listening to lately?

As we’re always doing DJ sets, I’m always looking for music. I like to buy on Bandcamp. Lately I’ve really liked Atmos Blaq but the last record I bought and loved is surprisingly not dance music. It’s Boygenius’ album.

You’ve played with a wide range of musical styles. What would you say is your rock heritage?

The spirit of rock has been with us since we started out, even if we don’t use a Telecaster plugged into a Marshall amp! We didn’t want to make digital techno that was too clean, but something that screamed and sweat ! What we love about rock and psychedelic music is this kind of creative freedom. We wanted to keep that spirit through our machines. Sometimes it’s very explicit, sometimes it’s in the energy we put into it, sometimes to sound like a sweaty rock drummer that is falling apart, it takes us an incredible amount of time to programme and we can spend months on this pattern to find the same energy!

What’s your favourite rock band?

The Beatles!


You and I both know why! That is the answer ! People who say they don’t like The Beatles aren’t not good to me ! For me, the documentary Get Back was the best thing that happened during the lockdown. I saw it three times! I loved it and it kept me going!