The Chemical Brothers Find Freedom in Film

[caption id="attachment_2134" align="aligncenter" width="630" caption="Photo courtesy of Big Hassle Media. "][/caption]

Damn the British sense of civility and grace. Get Tom Rowlands, one-half of the Chemical Brothers, on the phone for a few minutes and you can expect no trash-talking or crazy drug stories from the heady rave days that first defined the DJ/producers. But while their Big Beat peers tread water or fade into obscurity, Rowlands and Ed Simons may be just as big now as the late ‘90s, when albums like Dig Your Own Hole and Surrender solidified them as the rulers of dance music.

2010’s Further was the group's most critically-acclaimed album in years, and picked up a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Album. But the group has become almost as renowned for their film work, having contributed music for Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan and recently scoring Joe Wright's action-thriller Hanna. We got Rowlands on the line just ahead of their Coachella date to discuss Hanna's collaborative process, only to be schooled about a product called Glo-Web. Don't ask.

You're staying at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, where Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby, Jim Morrison nearly killed himself and Hunter S. Thompson was a frequent guest. What drugs are you holding in your hand right now?

[Laughs] I must admit it's merely a sparkling water, and a delicious chicken and avocado sandwich.

You're destroying the image of a million '90s ravers.

Well, it's only Thursday afternoon. Tomorrow's Friday. Give me some time.

Fair enough. What was your first thought when Joe Wright asked you to compose the score for Hanna?

Well, we've known Joe for a long time. He used to help out these two guys Adam Smith and Noah Clark, who had a company called Vegetable Vision. They had lots of projectors and tape loops at these raves and would show weird, psychedelic things that would just freak everyone out. Joe would travel around and help them set it all up. He was the general good vibes master. Then we didn't see him for ages and he became this amazing, big-time film director. When he came to talk to us and described what he was trying to do with the film, it was really exciting. We've often talked about scoring a movie, but it always feels like such a big commitment. It had to be the right director and someone who wanted to make a different kind of soundtrack for their film. Joe was that man. As soon as we sat down and talked with him, and he described what he was trying to do, it was a feeling that this is the time to try this.

Had you and Ed specifically talked about doing a project like this?

We'd always get asked. Our music's been used in lots of films, but we've never written specifically for a film. It was always one of those things like, "That'd be a fun thing to try one day, but it would have to be the right thing." We want to keep everything how we imagine it and there's a certain quality to everything that we work hard to achieve. We didn't want to do a whole soundtrack – which to us is like making an album really – and end up being something that we had no connection with. We trusted that Joe would respect our take on things. Right from the start, he was very clear that he didn't want [the soundtrack] to sound like the majority of action-y thriller scores. He said, "I don't want to hear any tremulous strings to signify there's a tense moment coming up." He'd rather hear a broken synthesizer wailing in the background. What was liberating about this was being part of a bigger thing. Usually, in the studio, it's always down to us; we write it, we engineer it, we produce it and then we perform the music. It was quite nice to be part of a bigger process where it was someone else's vision. We have our ideas, but in the end, it's his film and we're just trying to drive forward the idea of what his film is.

Where did you find the balance between maintaining control of your music and voluntarily ceding it to Wright? What happened if there were competing visions?

It was a very free atmosphere. We could put things forward and if it didn't work, alright.  This is trying to get the director's idea across of what the scene is. Sometimes we put something forward and maybe he wouldn’t hear it the first couple of times and you'd go, "I really think this is going to work," and eventually he comes around to it. The point that we meet is what ends up in the film. But he decides what's in it, ultimately. All the music that's in the film all feels connected to the music we've made before and it all feels like we haven't made something completely foreign to us. It still feels like we've made music in the way that we normally make music.

Can you talk about the collaborative process between the film and you and Ed? Did you see scenes and then compose the tracks or were the scenes constructed around your music?

Very early on, when we expressed our desire to be on board, we got the script while they were still making lots of revisions to the thing. It was like, “We're going to start shooting in a month and I definitely need this piece of music for this scene.” As soon as Joe had stuff for us to see – the actual rushes and various scenes – he would send it to us, we'd write the music, and then they'd re-edit the scene and send it back to us. I've learned since then, that that process really isn't the general way of working and most people will work through a temp score and you'll be trying to recreate Hans Zimmer's finest work. We would write and Joe would edit, and we would come up with something new. Joe was actually editing some of the scenes to our music. It was a real two-way thing.

I recently argued that Wright has been one of your most successful collaborators because unlike some singers and producers you've worked with, he seemed to focus your output. Would you agree?

That's an interesting idea. It was very different from making an album. Usually, we sit in the studio and everything is possible. We'll sit there and just experiment and try to find a reason for the music to exist; try to find an idea that will drive on the making of the music. Whereas with the film, there were very precise ideas. It would be like, "10 seconds into this piece of the score, I need to feel a sense of foreboding and then 15 seconds later, I need to feel a sense of resolution." It was a very different way for us. Usually, it was about just satisfying our desire of what we want to hear. This is different. Almost through the kind of structure of it and the restrictive thing of it, it became quite liberating and you can just fulfill this very specific idea as opposed to making an album and trying to fulfill this big, amorphous idea that you're not even quite sure what it is until you finish.

There were certain points on some of the albums where it may have been more intricate than it had to be.

[Laughs] That's definitely possible.

Did you try to rein that in with Further?

That was one of the interesting things about doing that album: That was focused in that we were making this record to play live. It wouldn't be quite like one of our shows; it would be something that was very specific and start this way, then do this and do that. It was going to have the arc of a live gig. That was a concept that made the record very focused. Maybe that's what we needed.

Before Further, had you done that before?

Never, really. Sometimes we'll go into the studio and have an idea for a song or a sound that makes you feel a very specific way. But generally, Further was the first of our "concept albums." [Laughs] That sounds terrible. Up to then, our records would just be, "This is the music I want to hear … now." The big thing about Further was not really to collaborate with other writers or singers, and that was something that really guided how it worked. Generally, we do something where, in the end, we'll react against it, so maybe the next album will be intricate with guests aplenty. [Laughs]

Chemical Brothers seem to have been more visible in the past year than in the previous five. Do you feel like the band is experiencing a comeback of sorts?

I think it probably depends where you are. In England, I suppose we've been a constant thing. But I've definitely gotten that feeling in America. There seems to be a resurgence of interest in electronic music in general though, which can only be a good thing. I think you have to be on the outside; otherwise I could probably happily delude myself like, "Yeah, yeah, we'll still be rolling along at this level forever." [Laughs]

Having DJ'd for nearly 20 years, what club trend or accessory do you wish would die a painful death?

I'm not sure, but there's a new accessory I was excited to see when we played the Ultra Music Festival a while back. It was called Glo-Web. We're playing and you suddenly notice that 10,000 people are covered in this spider's web, but it was glowing. It was mad. It was like, "What is going on in this audience? It's like next level rave action." A friend of ours was in the crowd underneath the Glo-Web taking pictures from within the web. It was amazing. There were all these people trapped in this web.

Maybe this interview will get you hired for the next Spider-Man movie.

And there you go.