From innovation to exploration, the Chemical Brothers have proven themselves to be one of the most enduring musical acts on the planet. Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons never fail to produce a brain-shattering, sound-warping, production-mad epic, and their latest, Push the Button (Astralwerks, 2005), is yet another anxiously awaited installment from the block-rockin', beat-pounding duo. Six albums on, with the electronic-music landscape collectively altered from its early days as the next big thing, the Chemical Brothers remain addicted to sound, whether au naturel or effected to heights of madness.
But even for England's best and brightest, Rowlands and Simons were concerned about repeating past successes by using the same sources, recording approach and signature sounds. “We tried to make the album have a freer sound than Come With Us,” explains Rowlands, relaxing his 6-foot, 3-inch frame into an oversized chair at a Soho hotel. “Perhaps Come With Us sounded too constricted. Even though there were good sections, we would chop them out if we thought they went on too long. There were always songs with different versions that had wilder bits. It always seemed like we were denying ourselves. The structures are still tight on Push the Button, but there is more space to let the music go off into orbit.”
Relocating their Dustbowl Studio to Rowlands' new house an hour-and-a-half outside of London, the duo crammed in more gear, bringing their trademark experimentation techniques to new levels of sonic delirium.
“It's really exciting to find new ways of doing things,” Rowlands continues. “We still use Logic as a front end for Pro Tools. Mainly, we use the TDM plug-ins and the TDM bridge so you can use all the software instruments at the same time. We find new sounds by just experimenting: ‘What happens if I plug this thing into that thing and then take all the top off it and send it through this thing?’ It is trying to come up with combinations that you didn't think of before.”
“It is quite easy to imagine a great sound,” Simons adds, “but then to actually make that sound real and make the person that hears the record understand it — that is difficult.”
EVERYTHING BUT CRUNK
While everyone else is shedding their gear carbs, dropping outboard samplers and synths for the joys of internal digital gratification, the Chemical Brothers continue to make music with hardware-dominated glee. From their constant use of the EMS Synthi to their hands-on mixing methods in the Neve Room at Miloco Studios in London, the pair marches to its own drummer.
“The idea of shoving everything into one box makes things easier, but it might not make things better,” Rowlands says. “It is so easy to get Logic to design a reverb where you just press a button and you've got reverse reverb. These effects are now literally a button-press away. You hear records that are so empty, they are basically just these effects. We are using new drum machines like the Elektron Machinedrum. It is like Reaktor but in a hardware box that you can mess around with. We also like using Native Instruments FM7, but it is great to sit in front of an ARP 2600 or a Minimoog or something real.”
“Our records have always been about trying to break the clichés and easy ways to achieve a sonic effect,” Simons adds. “In saying that, a lot of the soft-synth stuff on Push the Button is a new avenue for us. It does recall other [artists '] music.”
But other music is not necessarily referring to the hits of mainstream Top 40. Ask Rowlands and Simons about their current listening habits, but don't get stuck on U.S. radio. “Crunk”? asks Rowlands. “What's that?”
“I like it, anyway,” Simons replies. “Just the name.”
“Isn't that getting drunk?” Rowlands wonders. “Getting crunked up?”
Crunked-up or not, Push the Button is clearly a Chemical Brothers record. It's a sonic send-up of funk, dance, rock, ambient and musique concréte — an album that presents a clearly definable musical personality that could only be Rowlands and Simons. “Hopefully, it has always been natural and instinctive music,” Simons says. “You don't want to get caught up in others people's expectations of your music. With this record, we didn't pander to anyone. It just felt good to make a record that is totally our record.”
INVASION OF THE UNKNOWNS
In addition to relocating their studio for the album, Rowlands and Simons abandoned big-shot guest vocalists for indie unknowns. Excepting Q-Tip's performance on opening single “Galvanize,” Push the Button is an indie freakfest.
“The biggest experiment was working with musicians who don't have a lot of history and not worry about it,” Rowlands explains. “They weren't set in their ways. And we came to New York to record ‘Galvanize.’ We wouldn't have done that before, but we wanted to try things even if they didn't work. Nothing bad will happen; it just means it didn't work.”
Previous Chemical Brothers collaborator and ex — Charlatans UK singer Tim Burgess spins barmy vocals on “The Boxer”; Anwar Superstar (brother of Mos Def) contributes language skills to “Left Right”; Bloc Party's Kele Okereke yells out loud on “Believe”; and the harmony-dense vocals of the Magic Numbers enrich “Close Your Eyes.” Bringing up the rear, Sarah McLachlan soundalike Anna Lynne from Trespassers Williams creates one of the album's most dizzying vocal entreaties on “Hold Tight London.”
INSIDE THE SOUNDS
Push the Button will smack fans — old and new — upside the head. Although its seamlessly blended tracks recall familiar chill-out and beat-busting terrain, the Brothers also attack hip-hop head-on for the first time. “Galvanize” kicks off the record with a Bollywood string sample that sounds like it's straight out of Chennai, India.
“That is a sample from a Moroccan record,” Rowlands corrects. “Everyone thinks it is Indian, but it is from Morocco. Someone gave me this record from the Ellipsis Arts label; it is amazing — so much energy and so raw. We brightened up the sound a bit and made it more aggressive, but it had so much power to begin with. The idea was to put it with this high-tech sound and get the worlds to collide. That is pretty much the sound that was on the record, backed up with a bit more oomph via effects.”
“Come Inside” is nearly this album's “It Began in Afrika” (from Come With Us), with a groovealicious bass riff from Larry Graham (of Sly & the Family Stone) and a storming drum groove that is pure trouble funk. “That is an Akai S7000 sampler loop of a Fender Precision bass played with an [Empirical Labs EL8] Distressor compressor,” Rowlands says. “I had triggers, like, every eight or 16 bars, then just found a really weird place for the loop to sit. The popping snare drum is from a Swedish jazz record; it had a really good flam and sounded really open. We doubled the snare with the Elektron Machinedrum, just trying to get that propulsive, pushing-on feeling to the beat. A lot of the sounds on the track are processed EMS Synthi. And there is a tambourine loop, too.”
Candy-colored house thumper “Believe” begins with subsonic bass bumps and distorted screeches and ends with what sounds like The Clash's “Train in Vain (Stand by Me).” Between the notes, you hear squealing whoops, slide whistles, Steve Cropper — style guitars and a synth solo that is positively stomach churning.
“The bass sounds are a set of drums filtered way down with all the hi-hats taken out,” Rowlands says. “The drums sample was chopped up in ReCycle, then put in the same aggressive pattern as that intro lead sound. We removed the top end and got this strange rumble. It is going though a subharmonic processor to get the real low sound.
“A lot of those odd noises are synths,” he continues, “like the EMS soft synth in Logic going though choruses and other spatial effects to make it sound wider. That solo is another soft synth. The good thing about soft synths is that you can do a solo, then edit the bends and moves and shift through the harmonics of the sound. You can get so detailed in the automation. Sometimes when you are sitting in front of an old hard synth, there are only so many things you can move at once. With the automation in Logic, you can get a good soft synth like the Native Instruments FM7 and step through the harmonics and automate all these things with amazing, weird changes in sound.”
Although it's not one of the album's most blood-pounding tracks, “Hold Tight London” recalls the group's earliest chill-out tracks expressed through some of their most creative recording methods. As subtle rhythms cast a spell, odd sirens; ghostly spooks; and an array of splashes, crashes and bell tones pan across the mix. At 4:15, a gaggle of shimmering guitars showers the song with light, sounding like an outtake from a '70s-era Genesis album. The track was the result of endless experimentation.
“The rhythm part on that track is fairly muted,” Rowlands explains. “‘Come Inside’ is very layered, but the drums here are simple, with weird percussion. Those bongo sounds are some hits I found on an old record, sampled in Logic's ESX sampler and treated through Filterbank, a Logic plug-in. And I vocodered them through the Logic pitch-tracking oscillator thing. The kick drum is a mixture of a kick I had from an old Akai S1000 sampler put into Native Instruments soft sampler, Kontakt. The church organ is a Juno-106, one of my first purchases. For the vocals, we did a lot of phasing with a [Waves] plug-in called MetaFlanger and some phase-reverse reverb, as well.”
The drum track is all over the place, from its hypnotic beat to the endless percussion perks that dart around the mix like neurotic fairies. “John Brooks [formerly of the Charlatans UK] played cymbals and bells and splashes over the rough groove,” Rowlands says. “We fed him chains of different effects with eight different sends on the desk. We had an EMS delay on one channel, a plate reverb on another, an Electro-Harmonix on another — all on top of each other. We played with them all individually as he would be playing his parts and putting that back through his headphones. He played to all the delays and reverbs and panning and phasing and weird dubbed-out sounds. We didn't play it all straight and effect it later; we let him play along to the effects so he could hear what he was doing and what we were doing to what he was playing. It was a weird chain of action and reaction. The wild panning and the weird delay are all analog, the AMS delay and the Eventide DSP4000, plate reverb and Neve EQ on the desk. We did it all live, dub-style.”
The guitars are all Rowlands playing a Fender Telecaster with effects. But the guitars at 4:15 are actually a Juno-106 fed through an Electro-Harmonix Graphic Fuzz. “That is a fuzz with a graphic EQ,” he says. “So you can really dial in what frequencies you want to accentuate. We always like to put synths through guitar effects boxes.”
So the Brothers have worked it out once again. But where will Push the Button lead them? Can they keep using the same Funkenstein approach year in, year out? To hear them tell it, their sources are eternal, not incidental. “We will be using the mind, the heart,” Rowlands says, lowering his voice, imitating Dracula. “Those are the only sources that count, really. When you make a record, hopefully, you want to transcend your influences. The most important thing is to have ideas and see how those ideas can do something for you. I hope we will have a different reason to make music. I hope there will be some cataclysmic shift. But it will be influenced by those rhythmic sounds that propel you along.”
MIXDOWN AT MILOCO
“The sound of Miloco Studio's Neve room is really important to the sound of our records,” Rowlands says. “That is where we have mixed all our albums and recorded a lot of the vocals. The Neve room has a Neve VR60 desk, Tube-Tech PE1C and GML 8200 EQs, Summit Audio TLA and UREI 1178 compressors. It has these big [Munro M4 custom four-way soft-dome] monitors that are brilliant for making club records. When we make a record, we want to make a good-sounding album, and we don't think mixing in a computer sounds right.”
“But we don't have any tried-and-tested method,” Simons adds. “There is endless mixing and endless experimentation. It sounds right, or it sounds rubbish.”
“It is always wrong until the moment when it is right,” Rowlands asserts. “Often, we will do a straight mix first, then take the whole thing apart and chuck on different effects or totally recompress the drums or find different combinations. If the drums aren't working, we will scrap them and write new drums. If the mix is working, then we write around the mix to make the music work. It is all the same process. We will write the idea for the song at home, but we are always writing in the studio. The song is not written until it has been mixed.”
THE DUSTBOWL RELOCATED
Computers, DAWs, recording hardware:
Apple Logic Pro 6 software, Mac LC475 computer, Mac G4/733MHz computer; Digidesign Pro Tools 6 software; Rorke Data hard drives
Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Digidesign 888|24 I/O interface; Mackie 32•8 console (2)
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Akai MPC3000, S3000 (2), S3000XL (2), S6000, S7000 samplers; Casio RZ-1 drum machine; E-mu E4 Ultra (4), E64, SP-1200 samplers; Elektron Machinedrum, Monomachine drum machines; LinnDrum drum machine; Sonor Mini-Movement drum system
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Alesis Andromeda A6 synth; ARP 1603 sequencer, 2600 synth; Clavia Nord Modular synth; Doepfer MAQ 16/3 MIDI analog se-quencers (2); Electro-Harmonix Mini-Synthesizer; Elka Synthex synth; EMS Synthi AKS, VCS3 synths; Fender Deluxe Reverb amp, Jazzmaster guitar, Precision bass, Telecaster guitar; Korg Mono/Poly, MS-10, MS-50, MS-2000 synths; Moog Memorymoog, Minimoog synths; Native Instruments FM7 soft synth, Kontakt soft sampler; Oberheim Xpander synths (2); Octave Cat, Kitten synths; Parker MIDI Fly guitar; Roland Juno-106, Jupiter-6, Jupiter-8, SH-101 synths; Vox Phantom XII 12-string guitar
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
EMS Synthi Hi-Fli analog effects unit; Electro-Harmonix Graphic Fuzz effects unit; Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor; Eventide DSP4000, H3000 Ultra-Harmonizers; Ibanez Analog Delay; TC Electronic FireworX, M5000 multi-effects processors
Dynaudio ABES subwoofer, M2 speakers; Genelec 1031As; Yamaha NS-10s
Miloco Studios, the Neve Room www.milomusic.co.uk