Chemical Brothers: ‘We always want that freak-out moment’

It seems an unlikely combination – a “superstar DJ” duo responsible for such dancefloor classics as Block Rockin’ Beats and Hey Boy Hey Girl and a North Yorkshire country estate famed as the setting for the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited.

Chemical Brothers. Picture: Hamish Brown/additional illustration: Ruffmercy
Chemical Brothers. Picture: Hamish Brown/additional illustration: Ruffmercy

But times are changing at Castle Howard and this summer the 300-year-old estate near York is set to welcome thousands of dance music fans to watch a show by the Chemical Brothers, the multiple Grammy Award-winning act who have sold more than 13 million records worldwide.

“The unique aspect of a concert like that, we love it, and it’s also somewhere different to play,” says Tom Rowlands, who formed the duo with friend Ed Simons while they were studying at the University of Manchester in the late 1980s.

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“When the idea came to us it was like, that sounds like something we haven’t done before and something totally different in such a beautiful place. In your mind’s eye the vision of it is: that would be a fun night out.”

Having seen the Chemical Brothers’ gigging opportunities limited to just three shows in the past two years, Rowlands is raring to go. “We’re excited to play this year,” he says. “We’ve been writing lots of new music to play which for us is always an important thing when we out on tour.

“It just keeps it interesting. I love it when we have something that we made 20 years ago up against something that we were working on in the studio the week before. For me the exciting thing is how all these ideas that we’ve had over the years fit together. Playing live is a real chance to mess around with old things and put ideas in.

“The way our live show is put together is it’s flexible and we can try different things out. If we’ve got a new groove or a new pattern or a new sound that we’re working on, we can see how it feels when we play live. This point this summer there will definitely be a lot of that because we’ve been working on so much new music but our album isn’t really finished, it’s still in flux. It’s a good point to try things out and see how they end up.”

Rowlands and Simons have been working with their regular collaborators Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall on a spectacular light show with projections. “Adam is someone we’ve worked with right since the start of the band,” Rowlands says. “From the first gig we played he was projecting and making his own 8mm films.

Chemical Brothers. Picture: Alex Nightingale

“It’s a constant process. While we’re in the studio making music his mind will be on how is this going to translate live. For a good four or five months we’ve been working on what we’re going to do this year. It’s nice for him to have somewhere different for the staging, to see what we can do in a specific location.”

The Chemical Brothers’s spectacular use of visual effects was inspired in the first place by bands such as Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground. “I love it when you saw mad pictures of the UFO Club (where Pink Floyd played in the 60s),” Rowlands explains. “We used to do a lot of that in the early days, when the films and visuals were being projected onto us. We used to hire old cinema projectors and take them round with us. We liked the idea that you are in the visual, which is what you get from those old images of the Velvet Underground or Pink Floyd who were using the same basic technology that we were using.

“They were definitely an inspiration, but then also it was teamed up with our experience of rave culture and what people were doing in clubs at that time. That’s where we met Adam. He’d been influenced by all those things and also bands like the Butthole Surfers, just pretty full-on visual things. We love that idea when things are just too much, that intensity and strangeness. We’re always wanting that sort of freak-out moment.

“The way playing live has developed for us over the years, we’re still fuelled by that feeling of the moment of being overwhelmed. Sometimes it’s hard to conjure on a rainy Tuesday night in Belgium but it’s what we’re always aiming for.”

Castle Howard. Picture: Nick Howard

Last year the duo worked with Smith and Lyall on an exhibition at The Design Museum in London. Rowlands was it was “interesting” to see how elements from their live show translated into the gallery space. “We consider what we do as like an artistic endeavour but often it’s put into its own little thing,” he says. “A concert is a different environment to an installation, but it was amazing in that time to do that and have this little bit of museum that had that feeling of a sensory kind of tack, being in a small room with one or two people and them having a little glimpse of what it was like to be in a nightclub. It was quite at nice feeling at that time (when clubs were closed during the pandemic) without all the people, which is the most important bit.”

Although previously averse to nostalgia, the Chemical Brothers have recently come around to marking significant anniversaries of some of their releases. In 2019 they celebrated the 20th anniversary of their album Surrender with a box set; this year they ware planning something similar to mark the 25th anniversary of Dig Your Own Hole.

“Our thing is always to move on to the next thing, you can get too caught up in anniversaries,” says Rowlands, “but we’ve been going through our total mess of an archive and finding all these weird things.

“We’ve found so many strange versions of the songs that we made and just recorded onto tape and forgot about as we moved onto the next thing. We were going through all these filing cabinets that we’ve amassed over the years of bits of music and finding that’s so exciting.

“With Dig Your Own Hole it was so chaotic the way we used to do things, it was too much living in the moment and not worrying about (posterity). The way we make records it’s a lot to do with improvisation, recording long jams of the songs, that’s how we feel out different sections, there’s tapes and tapes of different interesting versions. So we thought (an expanded reissue) is worth doing because we’ve got something fresh to bring to these songs that people haven’t heard before.”

Rowlands remembers the Manchester dance music scene being a “huge” influence on him and Simons in the band’s early days. “We loved our course and we loved the university but the music and the lure of the city had been big for both of us,” he says. “Being in a city with probably one of the best record shops in the world for that new music that was coming then, Eastern Bloc Records, it was insane to go in there and be at the counter. You’d have all these amazing DJs in there as well and people making lists and the people behind the counter as well, and just the community thing of a record shop and access to this amazing music.

“Also, that spirit is what I associate with Manchester at that time, the feeling of people doing things, which I suppose does connect to that Factory (Records) idea of you can just do it yourself. I grew up outside London and Ed lived in London but I always liked this idea that the music industry was this separate thing that you needed special access to, then you went to Manchester and you’d hear this amazing record at the Hacienda, then you’d be at Eastern Bloc Records the next day and standing next to you would be the person who made it, people like 808 State and Mike Pickering. The idea that it was easy just to make (music), that was the main inspiration that we drew from our time there.

“It definitely has influenced all we’ve done. You don’t need someone else to tell you what you should do, just get on and do it.”

Thirty years ago this year, Rowlands and Simons released their first white label 12in single, Song To The Siren, under their then band name the Dust Brothers. Initially specialist record stores in London rejected it, saying it was too slow, but the duo’s fortunes were transformed when taste-making DJ Andrew Weatherall began championing it – something to which Rowlands feels they will always remain indebted to him.

“He was so instrumental in the start of our band,” he says. “We’d made this record and for us it was the perfect record that we wanted to play when we DJ-ed at the funny little clubs nights (Naked Under Leather) that we did when we started and then Andy Weatherall who was a person who had impeccable musical knowledge, someone who was so respected, for him to play your record gave us that thing that other people would take with them. We used to follow him around hoping he would play so we’d get to hear our record; he must have gone, ‘Oh my God, it’s those two again, I have to play their record’ because we’d driven to Nottingham or somewhere to see him.

“Then he signed us to (his record label) Junior Boys Own. Him taking note of our early record was a big deal for us.”

Today the Chemical Brothers still thrive on the idea of making music that sounds slightly wrong. Rowlands recalls being in bands at school where “there always seemed to be people who were better musicians than me”. “There would be a band practice and there would be some 15-year-old playing guitar and I would be sitting there trying to work out how to play (like them) and I couldn’t really do it; I needed to find a different way of approaching music,” he says. “I always thought the good thing was in that twist.

“There are so many people who are amazingly competent, proficient musicians but it’s boring. My whole life has been spent trying to find those accidental good things, but generally for us it takes a good time of exploring hundreds of ways of doing something before finding something that just stops you, that has this little magical thing in it.”

In the 90s the Chemical Brothers captured the zeitgeist in an era when dance music was all-conquering, yet Rowlands doesn’t feel especially nostalgic for bygone days. “I don’t see the way we made records or how we felt about the band as being sizably different throughout the decades,” he says. “We’ve still got the same feeling that what we’re doing is a vital thing to us. Yes, things go up and go down but I try not to get too overexcited by them.”

As for whether he thinks dance music is likely to see a resurgence after the pandemic, he says: “I’m not someone who goes clubbing every weekend, but I think people will always want to get together and hear loud music with their friends. I think that’s just something that’s in us, and I really hope (that’s still the case) because it must have been so hard to be someone that runs a nightclub and for all the ancillary people who have been connected to that world it’s been a brutal couple of years, so I hope people are fired up (to go clubbing again).

“Going out and being with other people is a great thing. I think people honestly missed the shared moment, the collective emotional response to things, which is so powerful, whether you get it on a dance floor or whether you get it in muddy field or a concert hall or on the lovely manicured lawns of Castle Howard.”

The Chemical Brothers play at Castle Howard on Sunday June 26. www.ticketmaster.co.uk

The ‘Bridgerton Effect’

The Chemical Brothers’ show is one of two big concerts being staged at Castle Howard in June – the other being Duran Duran, on the 17th. Estate manager Nick Howard is particularly looking forward to seeing the Chemical Brothers. “They put on the most amazing light show,” he says.

Howard sees these shows as a chance to broaden the demographic of visitors and build on the ‘Bridgerton effect’ from the Netflix series which was filmed at Castle Howard. “This business of trying to broaden the demographic is something that we’re trying on all sorts of fronts at the moment,” he says. “It’s a huge pleasure when I see people who are maybe slightly out of the ordinary for visitors here walking round with big smiles on their faces.”

He says the period drama Bridgerton, now in its second series, was “something of a surprise to us”. “I really knew nothing about it when they were filming here and of course it was an enormous hit. It was quite hard to understand what was going on when they were filming here, but as soon as I saw it on screen it all made complete sense.”

Howard believes “the backdrop” is what makes Castle Howard special as a concert venue. “Wherever you are in and around Castle Howard you’re surrounded by spectacular scenery and then there’s the house itself in the background. It’s a fantastic place for it happen.”

Concert promoters Senbla are the team behind these two shows at Castle Howard. Promoter John Empson says: “We are simply trying to stage shows in the most amazing, incredible settings that we can think of and in the north of England Castle Howard was very much our first choice. We went to meet the Howards and they were keen to work with us, so we were over the moon about that.”

Empson believes the fact that the stately home has “straddled two amazing cinematic events over 40 years”, in Brideshead Revisited and Bridgerton, is “testament to the gravitas of the house”, adding: “I think it’s the premium site for an outdoor show in the UK.”

Senbla and the Howards are also looking at a long-term partnership to stage events on the estate in future years. “We definitely have a long-term view,” Empson says. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to work in these spectacular venues but there’s a reason for doing it. I think seeing the Chemical Brothers at Castle Howard is going to be one of those experiences that you never forget.”